(Orange, Texas)

January 26, 2014

At long last, Orange County Convention and Expo Center officially open

Dawn Burleigh
The Orange Leader

ORANGE — The Orange County Center of Hospitality is now open.

The building has been known as many names since it’s conception such as the C.H.A.M.P.S building, the 1442 building, the shelter of last resort but is officially the Orange County Convention and Expo Center located centrally in the county at 11475 Farm to Market Road 1442 in Orange.

The $10.5 million building originally set to hold the Emergency Operations Center and Emergency Management, but expanded to function as a multi-purpose building housing five county departments as well as a ballroom and two conference rooms for rent.

“We are set up for trade shows,” Event Coordinator OC Convention and Expo Center Sabrina Gray said. “We have already held events which required people to stay over night. We offer private tours for associations and guilds that are interested.”

The Event Coordinator is a new department for the county with the funds for salary from the Hotel/Motel tax funds.

“I am the county presence available through-out the event,” Gray said. “If they need lighting, a set temperature, or if they need a safety pin. The building offers a quality of life for the county we did not have before. It is opening doors for the county because we never had the capacity for a large event before. ”

The center is also the new location for the Texas AgriLife Extension Office.

“Before, we worked and were grateful for what we had,” Dr. Roy Stanford of the Texas AgriLife Extension Office said. “We would have to reserve a meeting place. On the day of the event we would gather materials, set up and be ready thirty minutes before the class. Then after the class, reload everything in the car, return the tables and chairs, go back to the office and unload the car. It was fatigue, but part of the job.”

Now, the department has everything in one location giving the staff an opportunity to set up for a class or lecture the day before.

“This allows us to more for the community,” Stanford said. “The new facility allows for us to offer a higher value of education making it easier to learn.”

Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists, 4H, and the Diabetes/Nutrition are now holding their monthly meetings at the facility.

Emergency Management Director Jeff Kelley said the funding for the building came from insurance funds and Disaster Recovery Funding.

“During Round 1 Disaster Recovery Funding, shelters were available,” Kelley said. “We got one of the only shelters under the program before it was made unavailable.”

Homeland Security grant funding for 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 allowed for the purchase of some of the technology available in the building such as computers, monitors, chairs and furniture.

“We knew at the AT&T building that we could not hang anything on the walls,” Kelley said. “We did the best we could.”

The Emergency Operations Center received funding through the 2009 Port Security Grant cycle, paying for the rest of the technology and classrooms now available for first responders.

“Even with the grants, we had to find a match,” Kelley said. “Private donations were used for the match on the grants.”

The county owned a portion of the land while Community Hands Assemble a Multipurpose Structure (C.H.A.M.P.S) own the rest. C.H.A.M.P.S donated the land to the county according to Kelley.

Prior to locating in the new building, Orange County did not offer certification classes for first responders.

“If we did have a school here, we were given a hard time and they never came back,” Kelley said. “Now we can offers the courses here which are free to Orange County first responders. The classes held so far, which we have had over a dozen, most have been to capacity and each easily met the minimum requirement of attendance.”

Kelley said that not only has this solved a problem for area first responders but also has helped the hotel industry with people coming from as far as the Dallas area and staying over night to attend a class here.

“It is comforting to know that we are now able to be operating within 30 minutes to an hour when we receive notice of an impending disaster,” Kelley said. “We showed that with the recent tornado in Orangefield area and the Dupont incident. If it had gone south, we were already geared up and ready to handle that.”

In every single phase of the project from dirt work to finish, Maintenance Director Mark Wimberly was involved.

Wimberly was already working with Kelley on a facility for Emergency Management before Hurricane Ike. After the storm, the idea to include other county departments and the C.H.A.M.P.S portion was created.

“The building had to be built anyway,” County Judge Carl Thibodeaux said. “We were going to build a $8 million shelter of last resort anyway. But that building would only be used when a hurricane was in Gulf. We have had two in ten years. That would have been a waste of taxpayers dollars.”

By adding the county offices, the building is serving a duel purpose.

“Instead of being a ‘dead’ building, it is one that everyone can enjoy,” Thibodeaux said. “The building is also being used as a model for other counties across the state.”

The building also houses the Orange County Environmental Health and Code Compliance and Road & Bridge departments.