UPDATED: TEE Center vote fails; commissioners divided on plan

A deal brokered in 2007 to build the downtown trade, exhibit and event center appears to be unraveling, and with it, the goodwill between some Augusta commissioners.

In a vote today that split along racial lines, the commission rejected a financing plan proposed by City Administrator Fred Russell to float $35 million in bonds to build the TEE center on Reynolds Street while jump-starting revitalization of the Laney Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods.

What started as commissioners airing concerns about details of the plan became a tense debate, with Mayor Deke Copenhaver finally having to break up a verbal melee between commissioners Betty Beard and Don Grantham. Mr. Grantham said afterward that Ms. Beard isn’t holding up her end of a bargain, and it will have repercussions.

“How can we have the confidence to go in and do an agreement again?” he said.

Ms. Beard said she’s not backing out of building the TEE center. Now just isn’t the time, she said, considering Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick told the board earlier in the meeting that people are having trouble paying their taxes because of the recession.

“When things improve, then we can do it,” she said.

The history between the two commissioners on the issue dates back to 2007, when a compromise with Ms. Beard garnered the sixth vote needed to approve the TEE center and operating agreement with Augusta Riverfront LLC. Under the deal, the city would set aside $750,000 per year from a $1 hotel fee for inner city revitalization, and it could finally move forward with the exposition center which voters approved in 2005’s special-purpose sales tax package for $20 million.

But building the facility and its accompanying parking deck will take nearly three times that, which has complicated matters .

Mr. Russell and his staff, working with bond counsel and financial advisors, developed a plan involving a new 5-member Urban Redevelopment Authority issuing bonds and overseeing construction of the $38 million TEE center and its $17 million parking deck, as well as using $37.5 million – $750,000 collected annually over 50 years – to rehab the historic communities.

Mr. Russell made an impassioned plea to the board to allow him to move forward today, telling commissioners they had an opportunity to transform dilapidated, drug-infested neighborhoods while bringing commerce to the central city.

But Commissioner J.R. Hatney disputed Mr. Russell’s assertion that “there’s no TEE center without Laney Walker, and there’s no Laney Walker without the TEE center.” The $37.5 million has been approved for the inner city, so Mr. Russell can move forward with that part, Mr. Hatney said.

The vote on Mr. Russell’s plan failed 5-4-1, Mr. Hatney, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Mason and Calvin Holland opposed and Ms. Beard abstaining.

Mr. Grantham brought up the 2007 agreement. Ms. Beard shot back that she wasn’t involved in formulating Mr. Russell’s plan.

“Did we have any black commissioners included?” she said.

She also said Mr. Grantham told her that if she didn’t vote to fund the TEE center, he’d retaliate. Mr. Grantham said after the meeting that he did tell her in a private conversation that if she didn’t support it, he would move to redistribute the hotel fees to neighborhoods throughout the city, which he proposed after the vote Tuesday. Commissioner Joe Bowles proposed terminating collection of the fee.

Mr. Bowles said after the meeting that today's vote jeopardizes the next SPLOST package going before voters in June, since the commission has shown that it can’t be trusted to follow through with projects voters approve. He said he won’t vote for it himself.

“It’s not irresponsibility on the part of the government,” Mr. Bowles said. “It’s irresponsibility on the part of the commission.”

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