Augusta parking deck deal could pass at commission meeting

It didn’t pass during last week’s Finance Committee meeting, but a management agreement with Augusta Riverfront LLC to operate a new downtown parking deck stands a better chance Tuesday when the agreement goes before the full Augusta Commission.

The deck management agreement — a contract governing operations of both the new Trade, Exhibit and Event Center parking deck and an existing parking facility for the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center — has been on hold for nearly five months.

At issue when it was first presented by City Administrator Fred Russell in October was whether Augusta was getting as much revenue as it could from the deck, so the commission sent Russell back to renegotiate the deal.

By the time Russell returned with a revised agreement last month, however, questions not related to deck revenue prompted the commission to seek a forensic audit of the dealmaking by Russell and special counsel Jim Plunkett with Augusta Riverfront that led to the deck’s construction.

Among the questions were a land swap city attorneys made with a state senator for a corner parcel on which the deck was built; a lien on adjoining parcels on which the deck now stands; and, to the surprise of most commissioners, that the city doesn’t own most of the real estate beneath the deck. Rather, it owns only air rights.

Russell and Plunkett have said the deal is a highly complex transaction, but their explanations were insufficient to persuade two commissioners — Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett — who cited their concerns in voting against the parking management agreement in committee last week.

The new agreement shortens the term of the TEE Center parking garage lease to five years, allowing the city to renegotiate once the new convention center opens and “profitability” can be determined, according to city documents. It also awards Augusta half the profits from the new deck.

When the documents go for approval Tuesday, their passage is more likely with four commissioners — Jerry Brigham, Matt Aitken, Joe Bowles and Joe Jackson, who opposed seeking the forensic audit — present to bolster its chances. The agreement needs six votes to pass.

Aitken said Friday he likes the new agreement’s shorter term.

“When we get tourism dollars coming into our events, it’s going to be major,” Aitken said of the TEE Center’s scheduled opening later this year.

Another commissioner, Wayne Guilfoyle, who voted for the audit and has raised several questions about the complicated dealmaking, was undecided Friday.

“I still don’t feel at ease with it,” said Guilfoyle, who said his biggest issue with the deal was that the commission wasn’t privy to the details until recently.

“What else has not been told to us?” he asked.

Former mayoral candidate Lori Davis and Lincoln County resident Al Gray are on Tuesday’s agenda with plans to voice concerns about the deal.

Sandwiched between them on the agenda is Convention and Visitors Bureau President Barry White, who is slated to unveil a “pre-opening marketing plan” for the TEE Center, which presently has only four events booked during the 2013 season.

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