Deal on hotel fee in August 2007 tied TEE center to revitalization

Backed by a feasibility study that said a trade, exhibit and event center would create jobs and provide an economic boost for downtown, the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau asked that $27 million be put into a sales tax package that went before voters in 2005. The committee in charge included $20 million.

 

The SPLOST 5 package, totaling $160 million, passed.

In 2007, attempts by Augusta commissioners to have the TEE center built adjacent to the existing convention center in the Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites, and run by the same operator, Augusta Riverfront LLC, failed repeatedly in disagreements along racial lines.

In August 2007, Commissioners Don Grantham and Betty Beard broke the stalemate in a deal involving a new $1-a-night hotel fee, which would fund TEE center operations and pump $37.5 million into Laney-Walker and Bethlehem over 50 years. The idea was to use most of the $750,000 a year for bond payments, allowing millions to be raised up front. Ms. Beard gave white commissioners a sixth vote on the TEE center.

In 2008, TEE center architects balked at building it for $20 million, saying it would cost twice that. Commissioners instructed city Administrator Fred Russell to find a way to make up the difference, and he proposed that bonds be issued to build a $38 million TEE center and a $17 million parking deck, paid back by rerouting the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority's hotel/motel taxes and reimposing a car-rental tax.

The issue split the commission along racial lines again in May, with black commissioners saying the deal had become inequitable, that voters hadn't approved a $38 million facility or a parking deck. Ms. Beard said a recession was the wrong time to build a center at that price, contending that there was no guarantee it would be successful. Black commissioners expressed interest in moving the TEE center site, saying Augusta Riverfront -- which has ties to the ownership of The Augusta Chronicle -- wasn't being open with its financial records. White commissioners contended that without the TEE center, the hotel fee was illegal because it was created to fund tourism, meaning inner-city projects would cease. Black commissioners asserted that revitalizing black neighborhoods would spur tourism.

There was a vote in September to have Mayor Deke Copenhaver form a TEE center subcommittee in hopes of breaking the gridlock. That was briefly held up by the sheriff's office's investigation of David Fry, a retired attorney who allegedly offered Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason and Commissioner Corey Johnson lucrative posts with a parking deck operator if they would vote for the TEE center.

The matter was finally settled Dec. 1, when Matt Aitken won a runoff for the District 1 commission seat, guaranteeing a sixth TEE center vote, which was part of his platform.

In a special called meeting Monday, the commission voted 7-1-1 -- Mr. Mason opposed, Ms. Beard abstaining and Calvin Holland absent -- to float bonds to build a $38 million TEE center on Reynolds Street with a $10 million parking deck and to raise $8 million to jump-start Laney-Walker/Bethlehem revitalization. The vote also advanced $1 million to the inner-city initiative. Mr. Mason said he voted no because the deal had grown into more than $100 million in projects, far more than voters approved, and he felt another referendum was needed. Ms. Beard said she abstained because she still opposes a $38 million TEE center, but she didn't want to appear spiteful in opposing the revitalization bond.

The $1-a-night hotel fee is projected to raise at least $1.5 million a year as tourism picks up, and in his motion to pass the plan Mr. Grantham tweaked the spending formula.

The first $350,000 a year will still go toward TEE center operations ($128,000 in management and catering fees to Augusta Riverfront, the rest for operational expenses and a capital fund for future building expenses), and the next $750,000 will still go toward inner-city neighborhoods.

However, only the next $400,000 will go to Augusta Public Transit, and any collections over $1.5 million a year will be split -- 60 percent to expand the bus system and 40 percent for a special fund for revitalizing neighborhoods throughout the city.

More