TEE center stuck in neutral

The fate of the downtown trade, exhibit and event center still hangs in the balance, and with it, support for the $184.7 million sales tax package before voters.

 

Augusta super district Commissioner Don Grantham had hoped to resolve funding the TEE center at a special-called meeting Thursday, but the plan unraveled because Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason and Commissioner Corey Johnson went out of town for the long weekend.

Both are considered key to getting six or more votes on a financing structure to move the project forward. An earlier proposal by City Administrator Fred Russell failed 5-4-1 on May 5, splitting the commission along racial and super district lines.

Changes have since been made to Mr. Russell's plan to satisfy concerns of Mr. Mason and Mr. Johnson. Mr. Grantham said he understood from the negotiations that it would be worked out by the end of this week, before the start of summer, when voters start leaving town in droves.

As things stand, it appears the commission can't deliver on a sales tax project approved by referendum four years ago, and Mr. Grantham said he was hoping to change that perception before Memorial Day.

He said he's not sure why the two commissioners left town before settling the matter. Neither returned phone calls from The Augusta Chronicle on Wednesday or Thursday.

"I don't think they got notification" of the meeting, he said.

Commissioner Betty Beard said she believes a compromise will be reached before June 16, the last day to cast votes. But nothing was going to get done Thursday because she and other "no" voters had reservations about things they saw in information passed out Wednesday.

Had the meeting not been canceled, she would have skipped it, she said.

The meeting has been rescheduled for Tuesday, the same day committee meetings will be held. Mr. Grantham said he's worried now about keeping the five commissioners within his super district unified, and he might turn against the sales-tax package if the board stays deadlocked.

Commissioner Joe Bowles said he would like to reach a deal, but he is indifferent as to whether it affects the referendum. Government waste needs to be cut, he said, and ending the sales tax could save residents a penny per dollar on purchases.

"I sure hope it causes SPLOST to fail. It should fail," he said. "I think it's time for the voters to say, 'We're sick of you taking our money and throwing it away.' "

The financing plan Mr. Russell proposed in April involved creating a new development authority to issue $26 million in bonds to build a $38 million TEE center with a $17 million parking deck, and $9 million in bonds to start redevelopment projects in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods. The two issues have been tied together since 2007, when Mr. Grantham and Ms. Beard reached a compromise to approve the TEE center's site and operating agreement by generating $750,000 per year for the inner city through a $1-a-night hotel fee.

After the vote on Mr. Russell's plan failed earlier this month, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Mason said they weren't against building the facility, they just wanted the parking deck and creation of a new development authority nixed.

Mr. Grantham said the new authority is off the table, and the parking deck has been reduced to a $12 million, 475-space garage, to accommodate future add-ons.

Under the latest version of the plan, the revamped seven-member Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority would handle financing for the TEE center and the Downtown Development Authority could handle the inner city.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT'S NEXT?

The special-called meeting to potentially vote on a funding structure for building the TEE center and starting redevelopment projects in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods has been rescheduled for Tuesday, the same day commission committee meetings will be held.