by J.D. Brown and Margaret Backenheimer | September 01, 2016

The appeal of coastal locations is undeniable. Seaside resorts, lakefront inns and riverbank hotels have drawn in meeting-goers for generations. It’s always a surprise, then, when destinations squander their waterfronts, abandoning them to tracts of land without purpose, least of all pleasure. However, a number of cities and towns are investing money into revitalizing key waterfront areas in an effort to both improve the quality of life for residents and to lure visitors eager to spend time enjoying activities in or near the water.

Restaurants, sports arenas and meeting hotels are all part of the development formula, and so are shorefront promenades, piers and green lawns, many designed to host events. A case in point is Allentown, Pennsylvania, where the site of the Lehigh Structural Steel facility is morphing into a 1.2 million-square-foot development called the Waterfront, with residential, shopping, working and dining opportunities along the banks of the Lehigh River. Plans include a half-mile River Walk on its western shore, gardens, two floating docks, amphitheaters and two plazas.

Site work has already begun on the $325 million project, which is expected to go up in two phases and take between eight and 10 years to complete. Just more than a mile away is the two-year-old, 10,000-seat PPL Center, home to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms hockey team, and the adjacent, year-old Renaissance Allentown Hotel, which offers 170 guest rooms and nearly 18,000 square feet of meeting space for groups of up to 400 people.

Sports venues play a part of redesigned waterfronts, too. In Cincinnati, a new 18-acre Ohio Riverfront project known as the Banks is neatly sandwiched downtown between the Great American Ball Park, home of the Major League’s Cincinnati Reds, and Paul Brown Stadium, where the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals play. Started in 2008 on the site of the razed Cinergy Field, the Banks already boasts a 12-story office building, apartments, shops, ample parking and the quite-popular Smale Riverfront Park, a three-mile corridor with playgrounds, gardens, water features, event lawns and even an old-fashioned carousel.

A second phase of construction is underway, and work on the entire project is expected to continue until 2020. Starting this month, the Banks will be served by a new transportation system—the 3.6-mile Cincinnati Streetcar—and in June 2017, Marriott plans to open the 171-room AC Hotel/Cincinnati at the Banks with an outdoor courtyard, rooftop bar and 900 square feet of meeting space.

From Cincinnati, the Ohio River meanders southwest to Louisville, Kentucky, where an 85-acre municipal development called the Louisville Waterfront Park is situated adjacent to downtown. Opened in phases starting in 1998, park features now include numerous sculptures and an 800-foot-long water feature; the Big Four Bridge, an 1895 railroad trestle that has been adapted for pedestrian and cyclist use; and the 1914 Belle of Louisville steamboat, which can be chartered for special excursions for up to 650 people.

Event venues include the Brown-Forman Amphitheater, which can accommodate thousands of people; the Great Lawn, which can host up to 20,000; the 3.5-acre Festival Plaza, for up to 10,000 people; and several other small meadows and lawn spaces for small group gatherings. In addition, the park is less than a mile from several large event properties including the Galt House Hotel, the KFC Yum! Center and the Kentucky International Convention Center.

Savannah, Georgia, is also investing in its riverfront, currently spending $14 million to improve its Bay and River streets with safety and landscaping features.

Lined with century-old buildings that were once cotton warehouses, River Street is the place to watch yachts, cargo ships and barges ply the broad Savannah River, as well as to browse through locally owned shops and enjoy a seafood meal. Among the meeting-hotel choices are the Cotton Sail Hotel and the River Street Inn (both on Bay Street) as well as the Savannah Marriott Riverfront, with 24,556 square feet of meeting space for groups of up to 1,600.

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area takes in two important waterfront ventures, one more mature and the other in its infancy. National Harbor, Maryland, is located just a few miles south of the city on the Potomac River near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and is anchored by the 2,000-room Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. The center features 500,000 square feet of meeting space and a new 23,000-square-foot freestanding ballroom building with spectacular views of the river. National Harbor is home to a marina, restaurants, shops, condominiums, a beachfront walking path and the 180-foot-high Capital Wheel. A new hotel, the MGM/National Harbor, is scheduled to open late this year with 308 guest rooms, 28,000 square feet of meeting space and a casino.

Washington’s newest waterfront undertaking is The Wharf, a mile-long neighborhood along the Washington Channel of the Potomac River in the Southwest quadrant of the capital. Plans call for condominiums and apartments, offices, shops, a concert hall and a small convention facility. Many restaurants (none of them national chains) are scheduled to open next year as are three hotels. These include a 175-room Canopy by Hilton and a 238-room Hyatt House, both of which will share 2,500 square feet of meeting space, and a 278-room InterContinental with 17,000 square feet of meeting space. Also anticipated is Jazz Alley, a block-long entertainment street, while District Pier will be a waterfront venue for festivals and gatherings. The Wharf is convenient to several Metro lines.

On the other side of the country, two waterfront enterprises are in the works in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Construction has begun on Waterfront Vancouver, a planned 32-acre urban neighborhood with residences, offices, restaurants and retail space on a tract formerly occupied by a paper mill. A highlight of the new project is the cable-suspended Grant Street Pier, which will extend 90 feet into the Columbia River with two restaurant buildings. It could be ready as early as late 2017. A 120-room Hotel Indigo is also part of the plan.

Adjacent to the Waterfront Vancouver, the Port of Vancouver is redeveloping its Terminal 1 property to include several mixed-use buildings, a public market and a 150-room AC Hotel by Marriott with 4,000 square feet of meeting space.

These seminal projects add up to “a destination-changing development for the City of Vancouver,” said Jacob Schmidt, director of marketing and communications for Visit Vancouver USA. As in other cities, properly utilized, a waterfront can become a landmark attraction and, in turn, the location of a landmark meeting.