TEE center critic could be consulted

The president and CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau went before Augusta commissioners Tuesday with another pitch for a trade, exhibit and event center, hoping they would see that "with more visitors to our city, every resident wins."

 

Instead, it looks like Barry White will be pitted against a Harvard-educated public policy professor in a debate, courtesy of Commissioner Betty Beard.

On a suggestion from Ms. Beard and a motion from Commissioner Calvin Holland, the board voted 9-1, with Jerry Brigham dissenting, to have City Administrator Fred Russell find out what it would cost to bring Haywood Sanders to Augusta, whether in person, through a teleconference or in a conference call.

Dr. Sanders, a professor in the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas-San Antonio, wrote a 2005 report for The Brookings Institution criticizing cities' "arms race" to build and expand trade centers, saying that while the supply of exhibit space is expanding, demand is plummeting.

Mr. Russell was also told to distribute copies of the Brookings report to commissioners.

"We're already short of funds," Commissioner Joe Bowles said, "so we're going to pay to bring someone in to tell us they don't like TEE centers?"

"That's one way of looking at it," Ms. Beard said.

The TEE center wasn't expected to come up Tuesday because Mayor Deke Copenhaver has put his subcommittee -- charged with finding a solution to the impasse involving the $38 million facility and inner-city revitalization -- on hiatus until the sheriff's office completes a bribery investigation. Attorney David W. Fry has been charged with offering Commissioners Alvin Mason and Corey Johnson posts in a parking deck management company if they would vote for extra funding for the TEE center.

Mr. White was on the agenda to tell the commission about a "CVB Activity Report," which turned out to be a short video with testimonials by workers whose jobs depend on tourism, and Mr. White describing how cities such as Columbia and Athens, Ga., are expanding their trade centers.

"We're still losing millions of dollars to our competition," he said. "The promise of more money and more jobs is not a hollow promise."

Ms. Beard disagreed and cited Dr. Sanders' work as proof that the TEE center is being overhyped.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Sanders said he would be glad to come to Augusta and would ask only for a "modest honorarium" and reimbursement for expenses. He said his findings from 2005 still hold up. The report said overall attendance at the 200 largest trade show events languished at 1993 levels.

"If you asked me what's changed, it's gotten worse," he said.

Dr. Sanders said cities throughout the country are losing money on trade centers and, desperate to book events, are offering discounts and incentives that make competition even stiffer. Such is the case in Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati; and Orlando, Fla.

But the centers keep getting built, he said, because they hold out the hope of more business for the hospitality industry, and property owners perceive them as ways of boosting downtown development.

"I've heard stories like that from your counterparts in dozens of cities from throughout the country," Dr. Sanders said. "It's the kind of thing where it's very easy to say, 'We know folks will come here.' "

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

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