Augusta commissioners review convention center documents

Augusta commissioners inched closer Wednesday to approving a set of legal documents they first saw last week that will govern operations at the nearly completed Augusta Convention Center, also known as the TEE Center.

While four current commissioners weren’t in office at the time, Paul Simon, the president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, reminded the group of eight in attendance at the work session that the body voted in 2007 and 2009 to approve many of the details, including authorizing City Administrator Fred Russell to begin the construction project.

Several of the agreements up for approval would be added to a 50-year contract between the city and Augusta Riverfront to run the existing Marriott conference center. The hotel, conference center and new convention center will make up the convention complex Augusta Riverfront hopes to run as a unit.

Augusta Riverfront has close ties to management of Morris Communications Co., owner of The Augusta Chronicle.

Simon said the benefit to the city came from bed taxes and sales taxes paid by guests, “not profits from the center itself.” The agreements require Augusta to pay the company fees for management and catering, but profits and losses are Augusta’s.

Simon added that the complex ought to be marketed as Augusta Convention Center, a city-owned convention venue, not by the TEE Center name, a brand developed and used by Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is paid to market the convention space.

“Marriott will not support the name ‘TEE Center,’ ” said Darryl Leech, the general manager of the Marriott and, soon, the entire complex.

The convention space will require eight full-time employees, Simon said, and the rest will be Marriott employees or temporary workers.

Some of the land beneath the new construction is owned by Augusta Riverfront. In exchange for allowing the city to build on the site, Augusta Riverfront gained use of a kitchen built to serve the entire complex.

Commission decisions to issue tax-exempt bonds for the project and put it on a fast-track, however, necessitated changing many details, said Jim Plunkett, the special city counsel hired for the complex project.

“When we fast-track, we have to deal with the things that come up,” he said. “It is a very unattractive process.”

Two commissioners who have questioned the project most, Bill Lockett and Alvin Mason, were absent Wednesday. Lockett said Tuesday he wanted the city to put management of the convention facility out for bids.

Simon repeated concerns Wednesday that the documents be approved soon so the facility can be staffed and ready for a January convention. If the city has to cancel its first convention, “we lose reputation,” he said.

Despite some hurdles, the complex still might lose money the first few years, and utilities alone will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Simon said.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham said the Wednesday meeting “went better than it could have” but added that the real challenges lie ahead in bringing a steady stream of events to the complex.

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Topic page: TEE Center

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