What has been a construction site for the past 28 months no longer requires the wearing of a hard hat.
The Augusta Convention Center, also known as the TEE Center, is very near completion. Construction workers swept dust and performed detail work around the 38,000-square-foot meeting space Friday.
Already in use was the convention center kitchen, which adjoins the Marriott conference center run by Augusta Riverfront LLC.
Activities performed in the kitchen, which the city built to serve both the convention center and the conference center, were perhaps the largest bone of contention by the Augusta Commission, which held off approving a convention center management agreement with Augusta Riverfront until Thursday.
Commissioner Corey Johnson, one of six commissioners who consented to the revised management deal, said the changes reduce the city’s risk of losses that can only be estimated because the facility is not yet open.
Under the deal approved Thursday, Augusta Riverfront will be responsible for the expenses and pay the city a percentage when gross receipts exceed $400,000.
The 15-year contract the commission had been considering would have required that the city pay catering expenses, such as utilities, labor, maintenance and food costs, and a fee to Augusta Riverfront to cater the events.
Under a shorter, two-year agreement, which the city can terminate, Augusta Riverfront will pay the city 5 percent when gross receipts are between $400,000 and $500,000; 10 percent of gross receipts between $500,001 and $750,000; and 12.5 percent of gross receipts of $750,001 or more. The kitchen will be on a separate power meter billed to Augusta Riverfront.
Excluding the kitchen, the city will cover expenses and receive all profits but pay Augusta Riverfront a fee.
Johnson said he took some heat from Commissioners Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett, who voted against the changed deal.
“Our job is to minimize the losses,” Johnson said. “We’ve narrowed this thing down to where it’s controllable. I’m not going to sit here and feel bad about a decision I made, because I did my homework.”
Paul Simon, the president of Augusta Riverfront, said his company preferred a long-term contract – originally requesting 50 years – but said the new arrangement “makes for a better working relationship between the two parties.”
“My preference was that we had the full 50-year deal, but this is OK. We can prove to them that we’re the best operators. We’re right there, and we can save them money,” Simon said.
Augusta Riverfront, which has run the Marriott and conference center for 23 years, shares management with Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
Having the same company run the hotel, the conference center and new convention facility will allow Augusta Riverfront to share personnel and services such as marketing among them, Simon said.
The approved agreement requires that the city employ the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau to market the convention center.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver reveled at the facility during a tour Friday.
Though several commissioners have questioned a 2009 decision to build adjacent to the riverfront Marriott, a recommendation made in a CVB study, Copenhaver said it was the only way to go.
“The only place it was really feasible was to go right where it is,” he said.
City Administrator Fred Russell said he hoped to hold an Augusta Convention Center open house before the end of the year, but no date has been set.
The facility has 12 conventions scheduled during 2013.