Commissioner says he's pushing new deal on exhibit center

The downtown trade, exhibit and event center isn’t dead; the funding structure proposed by City Administrator Fred Russell just needs some changes, one of the city commissioners who voted against it said today.

Since a vote on the TEE center plan blew up into a heated argument and a split along racial lines Tuesday, Commissioner Corey Johnson has been working to bring his colleagues back to the table. He said he’s talked to Mr. Russell, commissioners Jerry Brigham, Don Grantham, Calvin Holland and Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason.

“We just ran into a little bump in the road,” Mr. Johnson said. “Sometimes the puzzle has to come apart to be put back together.”

Mr. Russell’s plan involved a new 5-member Urban Redevelopment Authority issuing $26 million in bonds to build a $38 million exposition center and a $17 million parking deck. Voters approved $20 million for the TEE center in 2005.

The authority would issue another $9 million in bonds to jump-start revitalization of the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods. Inner city redevelopment projects will earn $37.5 million over 50 years from a $1 per night hotel fee, which was conceived as a compromise to get a sixth vote from Commissioner Betty Beard to fund the TEE center’s Reynolds Street site and operating agreement with Augusta Riverfront LLC in 2007.

Mr. Johnson said he wants the parking deck and the new development authority taken out of the plan.

“That was never discussed,” he said of the garage.

The city shouldn’t be issuing $17 million of debt for that while the economy is so rotten, he said. The Downtown Development Authority should build it, and maybe in a few years it could partner with one of the hotel operators, Mr. Johnson said.

The DDA should also issue the bonds, he said, rather than starting a new bureaucracy and bringing in a new set of disparate personalities to oversee millions of dollars.

“I think that with what we already have in place, we can get the same results,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Grantham said he and Mr. Johnson are trying to set up meetings between commissioners. Mr. Grantham said he’d be willing to take out the parking deck and the new authority if that’s what it takes, though Mr. Russell added those components on advice from bond counsel and financial advisers, who said it would save money in the long run and help the projects move forward faster.

Public talks on the plan will begin on Monday, when a proposal to kill the $1 hotel fee is on the Finance committee meeting agenda.

Commissioner J.R. Hatney contended Tuesday that the neighborhood projects can go forward – without the TEE center – because that money has been approved, but Commissioner Jerry Brigham says collecting the hotel fee might be illegal if it’s not going toward tourism.

“What we’re gonna’ have to do is talk,” Mr. Johnson said. “What happened with this plan, and what we can do to make it right.”

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