In a final called meeting before Nov. 6 elections, the Augusta Commission will meet Monday to reconsider approving operating agreements for the Augusta Convention Center, also known as the TEE Center, which is complete but awaits their approval.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who called the 10 a.m. meeting to “discuss/approve” the agreements, did not respond to an e-mail Friday requesting comment about his hopes.
Unless the mayor or mayor pro tem calls another meeting, the gathering is the final opportunity the commission will have to approve the agreements before Election Day, when several candidates seeking to postpone action on the center are on the ballot. The commission postponed its Nov. 6 meeting to Nov. 8.
Rooted in commission decisions of 2006 and 2009, when many details were discussed at length, the legal documents up for approval cover many aspects of the relationship between the city and Augusta Riverfront LLC, which runs the adjoining Marriott at the Convention Center and the new parking garage.
Augusta Riverfront, headed by retired newspaper executive Paul Simon, shares management with Morris Communications Co., owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
One document gives Augusta the right of first refusal should Augusta Riverfront consider selling certain parcels of land it owns beneath the center. Other parcels are owned by the city and Downtown Development Authority.
Another document asserts that Augusta has fulfilled the requirements of a 2009 agreement with Augusta Riverfront to build a convention center and a kitchen to serve both the center and the Marriott. Under the arrangement, the city will pay Augusta Riverfront about $84,000 annually to run the center and $44,000 annually to cater its events.
Rarely discussed during the years of debate leading up to the 2009 decision to move forward with construction was the facility's ability to sustain itself. At the request of commissioners, Simon prepared a schedule of the city's operating losses, placing them at nearly $900,000 in 2013. The report shows similar losses at Savannah's convention center and indicates Augusta would have to increase the number of conventions manyfold from the 13 scheduled next year to avoid an operating loss. The city has no designated source to cover the bulk of such a loss besides its general fund.
The city's benefits, Simon and city officials have stated repeatedly, stem from visitor spending resulting in increased sales and hotel tax collections. A Convention and Visitors Bureau schedule of the center's impact, which Simon included in the report, estimates $8.7 million in direct visitor spending from the 13 conventions and increased hotel bookings.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who placed the agreements on an earlier meeting agenda only to pull them because he thought six commission votes were lacking, said candidates with “better ideas” for running the 40,000-square-foot facility ought not “be so secret” with their ideas. Brigham said he doesn’t think putting management of the center out for bids, as Commissioner Bill Lockett and others have recommended, is feasible under binding commitments to Augusta Riverfront “that have already been made.”
Commissioner Joe Jackson said Friday that he believes opposition to the agreements is rooted in Augusta Riverfront's connection to The Chronicle, not in any actual deficiency in the documents.
“It's like I've said before: These aren't here to generate revenue for the city; these are here to bring people to Augusta to spend money,” said Jackson, who has missed recent functions because of his wife’s illness.
Voters approved building a convention center years ago, he added, and “15 years ago’s money is not today's money.”
The center and Augusta Riverfront's involvement represents companies “investing here,” rather than somewhere else, Jackson said, but now it appears members of the community want the endeavor to fail.
“There are certain people that don't want this to happen, setting it up for failure,” he said. “We're pregnant. Do you want an abortion or do you want a delivery? I want a delivery.”
“My only issue is Augusta prepared for the influx of people that come here to shop, to dine, to go to shows, and the answer is no,” he said.