By Nate Strauch

By Nate Strauch

Herald Democrat

When Christian-musician-cum-Dallas-investor Al Denson bought a ranch near Bells a decade ago, long before he ever contemplated building a conference center, one thing in particular perplexed him about the Texoma region.

"When I got here in 2000, one thing I learned — and I couldn’t figure out why — is that for some reason, Sherman and Denison did most things separate," said Denson. "They just didn’t do a lot of things together. So one thing I loved about the Hilton Garden Inn and Conference Center is the city of Denison came in and said, ‘This isn’t the Denison Conference Center, this is for our whole area.’ That’s why we ended up naming it the ‘Texoma Conference Center.’"

It was the Texoma Conference Center’s official groundbreaking on Thursday that brought together more than 100 people from across the region at the corner of U.S. Highway 75 and Highway 691. While actual construction has been underway at the location for more than two weeks, Thursday’s event gave the crowd a chance to celebrate the conference center, which will provide the area with its first dedicated facility capable of hosting large events.

"When the Denison Development Alliance had its first retreat a few years ago to start prioritizing the needs of the city for the future, one of the top five things that came from that event was a regional conference center," said Denison Mayor Jared Johnson at the event. "This has multiple implications for the city, tourism and the region at large, as we bring these people into our area."

Speakers at the ceremony, including former Mayor Robert Brady, emphasized that the excavator and bulldozers working behind the podium had been a long time coming. The Hilton project, which was previously announced in 2008, lost funding and its original backers when the economy collapsed during the Great Recession.

"The Bible says, ‘Good things happen to those who wait upon the Lord,’" said Brady. "I think this is a good thing, and boy have we waited. So we qualify," he said to hoots and hollers from the assembly.

The construction is being bankrolled by Denson, who on Thursday was clad in black Western wear, trimmed by construction-site clay caking his boots. After thanking a long list of contributors, Denson detailed the features of the facility for the gathered crowd. Scheduled to open before Christmas 2014, a restaurant, bar, swimming pool and outdoor dining will be among the hotel’s attractions.

The hotel will be managed by Gateway Hospitality Group, which also oversees six other properties in North Texas, including Hilton Garden Inns in Duncanville, Allen and Lewisville. Gateway representative James Montgomery, who said the hotel will employ between 100 and 120 people, was one of many speakers who stressed the regional nature of the project.

"We want (this facility) to be an area where the community can come and celebrate and have their city and local civic events," Montgomery said. "I can’t wait to open up the doors and welcome everyone in, give you a fabulous meal, a cold drink and a wonderful place to spend the night."

Denson said he was sold on the idea of adding a conference center to the hotel after making a curious discovery at North Texas Regional Airport-Perrin Field.

"I was at (North Texas Regional Airport) one day, and I saw that they were doing some prom or some party inside an airplane hangar," he explained of the conference center’s provenance. "So I kind of said, yeah that might work. By the way, it still looked like a pretty cool prom."

When completed next year, the conference center will be capable of seating 1,000 guests, plated at tables, and will boast two kitchens among its amenities.

"People will be able to come here and use a 24,000-square-foot convention space to meet the needs of their company or organization," said Johnson.

Denson said the construction would not have happened without the specific work of Denison leaders, but once again stressed the regional nature of the project.

"Denison has been so good to come in and partner with us and put some things together to actually make this work," he said. "But our prayer for our team is that this corner will maybe end up uniting our cities. So when people come up here, they don’t think of Sherman or Denison; they think of Texoma."