Al Henderson remembers a time when guests at the then-called Georgia Center for Continuing Education were assigned roommates, when the campus hotel was seen more as a glorified dormitory, “like going back to school,” he said.
“I can remember, as a conference coordinator, deciding which portion of the conference room would be for smoking and where we’d put the ashtrays,” added Henderson, who worked at the center from 1977 to 2005.
A lot has changed since the center hosted its first conference, “The Southern Forest Tree Improvement Program,” on Jan. 8, 1957. Fifty years later, after major renovations and a lengthier name (“Conference Center and Hotel” was added in 2005), the center still builds a tradition of continuing education.
“For many Georgians who need adult and continuing education, the Georgia Center has been an incredible resource over the years,” said Art Dunning, vice president for public service and outreach, the office which oversees the Georgia Center. “The Kellogg Foundation invested in the Georgia Center 50 years ago, and the foundation’s mission is to provide services to others. The Georgia Center has stayed true to that mission.”
Funded with a total of $3 million in grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the state legislature, the Georgia Center was called “reputedly the most complete structure ever constructed to house adult education courses” in a 1957 article of The School Executive. The original building plan had five “blocks”—sleeping (accommodating 296 people), three dining areas, 20 conference rooms and exhibit space, an auditorium (modeled after the General Assembly Room of the U.N. building, and with a capacity for 434 people), communications facilities and staff office space.
“When I first started at the center in 1979, it was rather unique,” said Mitch Skelton, former associate director and current part-time employee. “The ‘conference center’ concept—having a hotel, meeting rooms, food, support services, all under one roof—was rare. While we are still one of few university-based, all-inclusive centers, the private sector latched on to the concept and there are now conference centers all over the country.”
In 1984, the Kellogg Foundation awarded an $8.4 million grant to expand, and the state legislature contributed $5.4 million for an expansion of the facility as well as for programs in adult education. In 1989, a 112,000 square foot addition opened; the next year welcomed a new 600-seat auditorium. The center has continued to grow and attract more people: between July 2005 and June 2006, more than 93,000 participants attended 2,998 conferences, courses, workshops and other events.
Several events are coinciding with the center’s 50th anniversary, including the unveiling of Spanish artist Alvar Suñol’s Plenitud in the Pecan Tree Galleria at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 6.
A screening of the documentary film Alvar Suñol: His Vision and His Art precedes the unveiling at 3:30 p.m. in Masters Hall. Suñol will be on hand for both.
Also, the center will look to honor long-term conference groups and customers throughout the year.
Georgia Center director Bob Leiter thanks the vision of past leaders for the center’s success: “In those 50 years, the Georgia Center has had numerous outstanding leaders who set the platform for us to continually move forward,” he said.
While there are still echoes of the past—like scattered pieces of original Herman Miller and Charles and Ray Eames furniture—the center has yet more physical expansion planned, as well as continued improvements in customer service.
Through a new service excellence program, every employee has gone through a service excellence course.
“They have a revitalized dedication to the importance of customer service,” said Leiter. “We are extremely proud of the past and equally excited about the future.”
More information about the Georgia Center’s 50th anniversary—including archival photographs, video and sound clips— is online at www.georgiacenter.uga.edu/50th.