Mayor warns of larger losses at Augusta Convention Center

If critics are concerned about the city losing money at the Augusta Convention Center, they should consider the long-term impact of having to cancel conventions, Mayor Deke Copenhaver said Friday.

“If we do not put in place a management agreement, we will start to lose bookings and we will stigmatize the facility, leading to major long-term losses for the city,” the mayor said.

The Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, which received $350,000 in city dollars to pre-market the facility, and Marriott officials already have booked 13 conventions at the 38,000 square-foot center, also known as the TEE Center, with the first event scheduled for late January.

Critics, including several commissioners, have taken issue with details included in proposed operating agreements between the city and Augusta Riverfront LLC.

The firm, which shares management with Morris Communications Co., owner of The Augusta Chronicle, runs the adjoining Marriott and was designated at the time the convention center project was approved to become its operator.

With critics speaking out against the agreements last week, a vote to approve the 15-year management agreements failed 5-2, with commissioners Wayne Guilfoyle and Corey Johnson against. The body will reconsider the documents at a meeting Monday at noon.

Guilfoyle, who offered an alternative motion last week for a shorter agreement with Augusta Riverfront, maintained that the documents up for approval Monday offer too few ways to control costs. Under the proposed agreements, the city pays Augusta Riverfront a flat rate to run the convention center and cater its events, but also shoulders all losses, which Augusta Riverfront President Paul Simon said could surpass $900,000 during 2013.

“The reason I made that motion is what it does is give us a snapshot of the 2013 budget to see how the next 14 years could be controlled,” Guilfoyle said, giving no signal Friday he’d become the sixth vote to pass the agreements as written. “I think another workshop needs to be done.”

Among critics’ concerns are that a new kitchen, to be shared between the Marriott and convention center, would be used to prepare food for the hotel, shifting that expense over to the city, or that Augusta Riverfront’s sale of the franchise would leave the city at the mercy of its new owners.

“It’s a lot easier to do any kind of changes now than later,” Guilfoyle said.

While Marriott staffers operated a nearby new parking garage on a month-to-month basis while commissioners similarly haggled over the operating agreement, Copenhaver said the hotel chain was unlikely to agree to the same for the convention center.

“I don’t think that gets any traction,” he said. “On the parking deck, that short-term option didn’t work out too well. What was supposed to be short term... drug on for a year.”

Copenhaver said he was reminded of the North Georgia Annual Conference of United Methodists’ 2002 decision to cancel a conference at James Brown Arena after experiencing poor service and conditions. While arena management has since been turned over to Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of Comcast, the Methodists continue to bring up the decade-old problems for the reason they won’t return.

“The domino effect is a scary proposition,” he said. “It’s basically like Congress on sequestration driving us toward the fiscal cliff. It’s the local equivalent of that.”

Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who supported approving the documents last week, said he expected them to keep coming back until approved.

“In the long run, we want to get into the tourism business,” Brigham said. “I think that’s one of the few things we can do to improve the economy around here, to increase our tourism business.”

Nov. 6 elections could replace four of the commission’s 10 members, so if the agreements aren’t approved by January, the newcomers will be tasked with examining the complex legal documents and making the decisions.

Copenhaver said he hoped the decision came sooner.

“The big picture is the long-term losses, and stigmatizing the facility out of the gates,” he said.

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