Photos by L.G. Patterson
Ali Hamrah enters a room casually, wearing the polished and cordial demeanor of a host. It’s a look that he’s had more than 40 years to perfect. Greg DeLine hurries in, the model of a brisk, energetic CEO. Compatible yet different, they share an entrepreneurial spirit and will next year open a multi-million-dollar conference, event and wedding center, Port 131, named after the Interstate 70 exit where it is being built.
DeLine, who is president and CEO of DeLine Holdings, has started and owned more than a dozen companies during the past 30 years. Based in mid-Missouri, his businesses include real estate, trucking and mobile home sales, building and home loan companies. He employs people throughout the nation. Describing his decision to partner with Hamrah for the conference center, he says, “I tell people that I’m going to go to the all-star game, and I’m going to take a lot of all-stars with me. Ali has always been one of my heroes.”
If anyone knows how to run a successful catering business and meet the expectations of event center customers, Hamrah does. Currently working as a consultant to restaurants and bars, he helps other food service businesses turn a profit while keeping their staffs and customers happy. About 30 years ago, he started Peachtree Catering (now owned by his son, Benjamin), which he designed initially to handle weddings and private parties. Within a few years, he added 2,500 square feet to his location, giving him room to host small conferences during weekdays, when the venue would have been empty. The space was not ideal for conferences, but Hamrah made it work. “I learned that if I ever do that again, I’ll start by planning for conferences and meetings,” he says. Port 131 has given him the chance to do just that — design the facility and operations to meet the needs of conference planners, attendees and catering companies.
DeLine has his own reasons for adding this new business to his portfolio. “I do it because I’m comfortable doing it and because I can,” he says. Behind the self confidence is a faith-based inspiration. DeLine believes that people have a responsibility to be creative and to build what they can. “I’m at peace building businesses,” he says.
Although the idea of partnering for this project seemed like a can’t-miss opportunity, neither of the two rushed into the project. First, they sought out the input of potential customers and community leaders. “We invited some of Columbia’s business and academic leaders to a symposium,” Hamrah says. “We put their heads together, and they let us know what sort of conference center was needed. We wanted to do this right.”
That was nearly a year ago, and now the bulldozers are onsite and the dirt is being prepared for concrete footings that will support an immense slab foundation. When complete, Port 131 will have the capacity to seat a bit more than 400 people for a conference or meal. Inside the 13,000-square-foot facility, the main room can be divided to handle two large groups at a time. Both sides of the room feature floor-to-ceiling video walls, complete with conference-grade audio systems. The center’s back doors open to an outdoor patio that can accommodate receptions of up to 300. Surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens, the area’s ambiance will be well suited for weddings and cocktail receptions. “A lot of weddings are going outdoors, now,” Hamrah says. “We’ll have the capacity, year-round. If we have bad weather, we’ll close up part of the patio and move inside.”
Two smaller media rooms will host more intimate gatherings. Believing that their new business has to be good for the community as well as for themselves, the two partners plan to make those smaller rooms available on occasion to nonprofits who lack the funds to afford an off-site meeting. DeLine’s experience as president of the board of Phoenix Programs and past president of Love Inc.’s board has given him an appreciation of the needs of nonprofits.
Hamrah is especially proud of the 600-square-foot prep kitchen that caterers will use as a staging area. “All the caterer has to do is come in and set out the food. We have the utensils, the plates, a walk-in cooler. We want our caterers to know that we have control of the situation and that what they do reflects the image of Port 131,” he says.
Part of that image will include neighboring businesses. DeLine, along with partner company, Alpha Commercial Real Estate, will be building and leasing 24,000 square feet of commercial space adjoining Port 131. They anticipate businesses such as coffee shops and specialty retailers will make the area a popular destination. In addition, a central courtyard will be opened to food trucks and other local food vendors, creating a farmers market atmosphere for east Columbia. DeLine envisions using the space for seasonal festivals as well.
By car, Port 131 is only a minute or two from the Interstate 70. It takes about the same amount of time to walk from the front door of the Holiday Inn Columbia East to the event center. “If it’s raining, we can always drive people from the hotel to Port 131,” says Hamrah, only half-joking. DeLine also sees this proximity to a hotel as a win-win situation. Conference and wedding planners will have a convenient location that can accommodate travelers, and the hotel will benefit from an increase in occupancy throughout the year. “In fact, it’s a win-win-win,” says DeLine, who expects that their project will make the area more desirable to other business people looking to expand or start new businesses in east Columbia.
Amy Schneider, director of Columbia’s Convention and Business Center, expects Port 131 will have an immediate impact on Columbia’s business community. “When you bring people into town, chances are they’ll spend the night, eat at restaurants, buy gas and go shopping,” she says. “A new conference center gives us another opportunity to bring in more business.”
“Columbia is growing as a diverse community,” DeLine says. EquipmentShare, which is just a few steps away from Port 131, is growing at a rapid rate, making the area an attractive environment for retail shops. “I do think you’ll see Columbia expand to the east, in part because of Port 131. It’s sort of like dominoes. Once you have that momentum going, the pieces fall into place.”
Gaining that momentum in the face of a pandemic takes extra effort and planning. Each week that goes by sees construction and material costs continue to increase. “Just getting the chairs and tables for the center takes 26 weeks,” Hamrah says. By April, the partners expect to be able to forecast exactly when they’ll have a grand opening.
When asked how Port 131 will impact the businesses and community around them, both partners don’t hesitate to answer. “In five years, I think people will realize that the Port 131 development is the best thing that ever happened to this area,” Hamrah says. DeLine sums up his view in just a few words: “It’ll be cool,” he says.