Commission fails to approve convention center operating plan

Management of the Au­gusta Con­vention Center remains up in the air after the Augusta Commission on Monday rejected two motions to approve a set of operating documents.

 

Paul Simon, the president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, asked the commission for direction afterward in light of the first convention approaching in January at the venue, also known as the TEE Center.

“This is very disappointing to see this not move forward,” he said. “I just feel badly for the city.”

Seven commissioners and the mayor attended Monday’s meeting. Speaking against the deal was Al Gray, a former Columbia Coun­ty resident who now lives in Lincolnton. Gray, who runs a construction auditing business, called the deal “the Mona Lisa of aggressive contracting.”

Simon, whose firm shares management with Morris Com­muni­cations Co., owner of The Augusta Chronicle, and City Administrator Fred Russell disagreed with several of Gray’s assertions, including a claim that the deal represented a 50-year “blank check” for the management company, to be paid from the city’s general fund.

The agreements have 15-year, not 50-year terms, Russell said, and are “controlled yearly by this commission’s input on the annual plan.”

“Every year you’ll have a bite of the apple to make things different and better,” Rus­sell said. He called the scrutiny Gray and others were giving the deal “pretty cool.”

Commissioner Matt Aitken made a motion to approve the documents, with a motion pre-written by attorneys. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Jerry Brigham.

“There is no such thing as a perfect deal,” Mayor Deke Copenhaver said, and not finalizing the operating details might create “a domino effect” if the facility gets off to an uncertain start.

Organizations are taking note of the uncertainty, said Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Po­lice, whose Jan. 27 winter training conference is scheduled to be the center’s first event.

If the 547-member organization has to find an alternative venue on short notice, “It’s not going to endear police chiefs to ever return to the area,” Rotondo said.

The group hasn’t given up or found another site, however.

“People want Augusta to work, but we want it to work on a time period that we contracted for,” he said.

Aitken, who is in a four-way race to keep his District 1 seat, said after making the motion that he had run on downtown progress and wanted to see the deal through.

“People in this community want to see the progress,” he said. “They don’t want to see bad press; they want to see us working toward the common good.”

Before the vote, Commis­sion­er Wayne Guilfoyle offered an alternative motion to enter into a one-year provisional agreement, after which the commission could re-examine the details.

Russell said after the meeting that he doubted Marriott, the brand on Augusta Riverfront’s downtown hotel and conference center, would agree to a provisional agreement.

Russell said the city has designated funding sources to cover the losses, which Simon said might surpass $900,000 in 2013. The center has booked only 13 conventions for its first year.

Deputy Finance Director Tim Schroer said the city has about $920,000 designated from the $1-a-night hotel bed tax and car rental excise taxes to use for the center’s operating expenses in 2013. An additional $460,000 is set aside from the same sources in 2014, and raising the bed tax to 7 percent could generate an additional $800,000, he said.

Commissioner Corey Johnson, who said the documents still lacked “enough language that protects the city and the citizens,” joined Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles and Guilfoyle in voting for the alternate motion, which failed 4-3.

Aitken’s motion failed 5-2, with Johnson and Guilfoyle voting against, but the commission agreed to reconsider the documents Oct. 29.

Commissioners Bill Lock­ett, Alvin Mason and J.R. Hat­ney were absent. Reached by phone, Lockett said he would have voted against both motions.

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