Posted July 15, 2007 05:29 pm

Politics, not economics, killed TEE center

Here’s an ethics question: Would you rather A) make a bad decision in order to look cool to a small group of friends, or B) make a wise decision and look cool to everyone but your small group of friends?

If you chose option A, congratulations! You might have a future on the Augusta Commission.

Some of the city’s leaders last week chose to ignore the facts – or, at the very least, did a convincing job of pretending they didn’t understand the facts – and voted against the latest in a string of proposals to build a $20 million trade, exhibition and event center on Reynolds Street.

The TEE center, as the project is known, would have allowed Augusta’s tourism officials to book conferences and conventions the city is missing out on because it lacks large, flat-floor exhibit space. Voters apparently thought the TEE center was a good deal, because they approved funding it through special purpose local option sales tax money two years ago.

The stars appeared to be aligned Tuesday when the proposal went before the commission:

l Money to build the center is already in hand.

l The best possible real estate in town had been secured (at no cost to taxpayers) next to the existing city-owned convention center.

l The annual cost to run the 40,000-square-foot building – $350,000 – would had been covered through a slight increase in lodging and car rental taxes (both of which are largely paid by nonresidents).

In short, the project made economic sense.

So why would two commissioners vote against it, two abstain from voting and another not even bother to be in the room? Well, the answer to that is obvious – to ensure the proposal would not get the six votes needed for approval while avoiding a tie that would have allowed the mayor to cast the deciding vote. That song’s been played before.

I suppose the better question is this: What do these commissioners, all of whom happen to be black and represent primarily lower-income, mostly black districts, have against a TEE center? Do they believe the city does not need one? Do they believe it’s too big, too small or the wrong architectural style?

No, the answer is pretty simple, and really quite petty: They do not like William S. Morris III.

The Augusta businessman, whose family holdings include the parent company of this newspaper and the company that operates the Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites (which houses the city’s convention center), is the walking, talking embodiment of the white power structure that is hell-bent on oppressing lower-income black residents. At least, that’s what black leaders (mostly of the self-serving variety) have led their constituents (mostly of the ill-informed variety) to believe is the source of most, if not all, of the woes they face.

Never mind that the public-private venture between the Morris family hotel venture and the city convention center has, according to city tourism officials, pumped more than $13.3 million into city coffers. Never mind that his company has offered to donate $1 million worth of real estate to the city on which to build the facility.

Never mind that the TEE center, if it were built, would bring thousands more visitors and pump millions more into the city’s pocketbook. Never mind that the facility would have created service jobs in inner-city districts.

Never mind all of that, and you’ll see that the vote against the TEE center last week was nothing more than a vote against one man.

Had the $350,000 operating agreement been with ABM (Anybody But Morris) Corp., the measure would have passed without discussion.

In the grand scheme of things, the commissioners who orchestrated the proposal’s failure made a monumentally bad decision for the city. At least they looked cool to their friends.

MOVING ON: Expect to hear an announcement this summer about a new medical device company featuring some familiar faces around Augusta.

Marketing wunderkind Joe Testino, who this month sold his stake in eAuction Depot, the successful Augusta-based eBay store franchise, is starting a company called Life Coach Medical with several key players from Osbon Medical Systems, the company whose vacuum-therapy products for erectile dysfunction gave , ahem, rise to an entire industry. It’s not much of a surprise that Mr. Testino would get back into the medical-device business, seeing as how he used to work for Osbon Medical before linking up with the fledgling eAuction Depot two years ago.

Whether lighting strikes twice remains to be seen, but we’ll be watching.