TEE Center will help city prosper

On Tuesday, the Augusta Commission will be asked to "TEE it up." No, they won't be asked to swing at a little white ball, but to make the important go-ahead decisions for Augusta's new Trade, Exhibition and Event Center.

 

Voters approved $20 million of special purpose local option sales tax funds for the TEE Center in 2005. This versatile, 40,000-square-foot, open-floor exhibit and trade show space will complement city-owned meeting space, and will provide Augusta with Georgia's most attractive convention facilities and connected hotel rooms outside metro Atlanta. Meeting planners throughout Georgia and the South have said they are looking forward to bringing conventions to Augusta - if and when Augusta can provide exhibit space next to a large, full-service hotel.

THE TEE CENTER has been on the drawing board for more than five years, with the original feasibility study commissioned in 2002. In early 2006, the commission was presented with a recommendation that the TEE Center be built on the 900 block of Reynolds Street, expanding the city-owned Riverfront Convention Center, connected to the Augusta Marriott Hotel and Suites. Several commissioners asked that other potential sites be evaluated or re-evaluated, including Riverwatch/Interstate 20, the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property and the Watermark development at Riverwalk and Sixth Street. A task force commissioned an independent market study to evaluate these sites.

Its finding: While each of these sites has unique attributes, each falls short of the Reynolds Street location on several key criteria. No other site can deliver hotel rooms, meeting rooms, ball rooms, dining and banquet facilities and adjacent convention and trade show space. Selection of any other site would require development of a 300- to 400-room, full-service hotel and 50,000 square feet of ballroom and meeting space. These sites were presented to several developers, and it was estimated that taxpayers would need to invest an additional $20 million to create a comparable facilities package at any other of the proposed locations. Even so, the city of Augusta would be competing with its own Riverfront center.

Every day of delay in approving site selection and a management agreement costs taxpayers thousands of dollars. Not only is the city missing its opportunity to make money from convention visitor spending, but also it is paying interest on bonds issued nearly a year ago. As of April, taxpayers have spent $721,000 just to pay interest on these bonds ($2,200 a day.)

Delays are creating unseen costs, as well. Every month this project is postponed, construction costs rise by about $75,000. Just as has happened with the Augusta Judicial Center, delays will erode the buying power of the taxpayers' $20 million to the point that we will not be able to build the facility Augusta and its visitors want, need and deserve.

The task force also recommends commissioners endorse a management agreement with Augusta Riverfront LLC. This is the same group that has operated the Marriott (formerly Radisson) Hotel and the city-owned convention center since 1992. This successful public-private partnership has generated $13.3 million in direct revenue for the city through sales and room taxes; parking and facility rental fees; and an estimated $356 million in direct economic impact. After 17 years of use, our Riverfront convention center has been so well-maintained that it still looks as good as new, and is a place we can all be proud of.

Not only does Augusta Riverfront LLC bring proven expertise, it has offered to donate to the city downtown real estate valued at an estimated $1 million. The LLC also will pay annual center operating expenses over $250,000 and capital improvements over $100,000 a year.

ONE KEY FEATURE of the agreement is a guaranteed block of hotel rooms set aside for the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau to market to major groups. This will allow the city to know that its investment in the property is being used to attract city-wide conventions - the types of groups and meeting business for which it was intended.

Every leading economic development organization in Augusta supports the TEE Center and the Reynolds Street site - including the Augusta Chamber of Commerce, Augusta Tomorrow, the Development Authority of Richmond County, the Downtown Development Authority, the Greater Augusta Sports Council and the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The TEE Center will bring thousands of visitors and millions of dollars into Augusta every year - but not until it is built. On Tuesday, it is time for commissioners to put the city's economy in play for millions of visitor spending dollars and "TEE it up."

(Editor's note: The writers are, respectively, the 2007 chairman, and the president and CEO, of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau.)

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