2 conventions canceled because of center dispute

Group cites inability of parties to agree
Commissioner Bill Lockett (right) asked why the commission negotiating the details of the Augusta Convention Center contract when the city pays a lot of money for a legal staff charged with the task.

The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police has canceled two conventions scheduled at the Augusta Con­vention Center because of city officials’ inability to agree on operating details.

Frank Rotondo, the exec­utive director of the association, said Monday his group had to proceed with plans for a winter conference and couldn’t wait for the Augus­ta Commission and a hotel operator to reach an agreement.
The group’s annual winter training conference was to be the first event held at the convention center, also known as the TEE Center, which is nearing completion.

“The reality is that after today’s meeting, we will seek another venue,” Rotondo said. “A lot of people are expressing remorse in the way the city officials as well as the hotel officials couldn’t reach their business agreements, but ultimately they have hurt mine.”

The chiefs association had booked the new convention center for events in 2013 and 2014. About 250 delegates, police chiefs and top law enforcement officials from across the state, in addition to exhibitors, were scheduled to attend the Jan. 27-30 training conference after the group decided to move it from the Omni in Atlanta to Augusta’s new venue, he said.
Rotondo said he was also concerned by the lack of communication from city and hotel officials about any issues, which he said he had instead been following through media reports.

“I mean no disrespect to city government, or the hotel, but life has to go on,” he said. “I have an obligation to my members.”

Barry White, the president of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that the cancellations were the only ones he knew about and that 12 other events remain planned during 2013.

“I understand their position,” White said. “(The chiefs association) is roughly three months from the convention and they had to make a decision. It’s unfortunate, and I think the effects will be greater than the losses of the 2013 and 2014 conferences.”

Mayor Deke Copenhaver warned last week that canceling conventions before the center opens will “stigmatize” Augusta and create the potential for “major, long-term losses” greater than the amounts the commission has been debating with Marriott operator Augusta Riverfront LLC. He repeated the concerns Monday.

Commissioners critical of the deal said concern about losing conventions was overblown.

“I would rather risk losing a convention or two than saddling the taxpayers of Augusta with a bad deal,” Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said.

The “deal” is a set of operating documents that skeptical commissioners say overly benefits Augusta Riverfront LLC and offers too few protections for taxpayer money. Augusta Riverfront, which has run the downtown Marriott and conference center since the facilities opened, shares management with Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle. The proposed arrangement has the city paying the company a fee to run the center and cater its events, but also shouldering all losses, estimated at nearly $1 million next year.

“All that has been thrown on us in the last five weeks,” Bowles said.

Bowles said Monday his most pressing concern was the $1.4 million kitchen, which he said Augusta Riverfront, under the proposed agreements, could use to prepare food for hotel guests. The facilities are physically connected.

“My concern now is basically why did we buy $1.4 million in kitchen equipment for the Marriott?” he said.

Commissioner Bill Lockett, among the deal’s biggest critics, called the cancellations “a smokescreen” and argued that the association’s small group could easily have gone to another venue.

The commission deleted an agenda item Monday to approve the documents because six needed votes weren’t there, and planned a workshop Wednesday to go over them again.

At the meeting, Lockett and Commissioner Alvin Mason argued that it wasn’t the commission’s place to negotiate contracts, such as those convention center documents now before the body.

“Its place is to approve contracts,” Mason said.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who previously voted with Bowles and other commissioners to approve the documents, said City Administrator Fred Russell and special counsel Jim Plunkett had done the negotiating.

“It’s not that the contract has failed to have been negotiated,” Brigham said. “It’s failed to have been approved.”

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