by Christopher Hosford | January 24, 2005
Not to be outdone by the myriad destinations that have erected new or expanded convention centers recently, Baton Rouge welcomed its own expanded and renamed facility in December.

Now called the Baton Rouge River Center (dispensing with the former Riverside Centroplex name), the complex now offers almost three times as much exhibit space as before, more than 70,000 rentable square feet of it. There also are 13 breakout rooms, theater-style seating for 8,000, 924-person capacity for classroom seating, and banquet seating for 5,600.

The center also boasts a 25,000-square-foot ballroom, and an arena with seating for 10,000.

"For a city of our size, the second largest in Louisiana and also the state capital, and with two major universities, Baton Rouge certainly was in line to have such a building, not only for conventions but also for public events," said Paul Arrigo, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area CVB.

The first major event for the River Center is the 102nd annual American Bowling Congress Championships tournament, beginning Feb. 12. Expected to attract 65,000 bowlers plus another 35,000 family members, the ABC event will transform the River Center into a 48-lane bowling emporium, with competition continuing until July 4.

The record attendance is "a testament to the tournament and to the draw of Baton Rouge," said Jack Mordini, assistant executive director of ABC, based in Greendale, Wis.

"Our bowlers have really taken a liking to the idea of traveling to Louisiana," Mordini added. "Baton Rouge has a flavor all its own, and we've really enjoyed working with the entire team there."

Baton Rouge has more to boast of than just a newly expanded convention center. The city is in the midst of a virtual downtown renaissance.

In May the new Louisiana State Museum will debut within walking distance of the River Center, focusing on state history and culture. This year also will see the opening of the Arts Block/Shaw Center for the Arts, with a new 52,000-square-foot museum of art, a performing arts center, and arts workshops.

The Arts Center is opposite the 1840s-era Old State Capitol, sitting on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, which itself is often used for special events.

Finally, Baton Rouge's legendary Heidelberg Hotel/Capitol House is undergoing a $40 million renovation and will reopen later this year with 315 guestrooms and 35,000 square feet of meeting space.

"Our research indicates that our meeting planner satisfaction is in the upper 90 percentage area," Arrigo said. "We are an affordable, new destination with a true Louisiana experience that is a blend of Creole, Cajun and the Old South."