Negative publicity is driving the debate over management of the Augusta Convention Center behind closed doors.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver said he was calling off a work session today on the center’s management agreements after the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police’s decision Monday to cancel two conventions – including the facility’s first event Jan. 27-30 – made news across the Southeast.
“Basically, we are now in damage-control mode, and I would highly recommend that those parties who still have questions or concerns meet with the management group or their representatives directly,” Copenhaver said Tuesday in an e-mail to the Augusta Commission.
Frank Rotondo, the president of the police association, said Tuesday that the planning required to hold a law enforcement training conference – such as booking out-of-state speakers, selecting instructors and negotiating food prices – requires a management agreement be in
place. He gave the city a Monday deadline to approve one.
“A reasonable cut point was after yesterday’s meeting,” Rotondo said. “They can’t operate the facility without that management agreement.”
Though any commissioner who heads a committee can call for another work session, none did Tuesday.
Copenhaver, who warned last week of long-term damage to the city’s reputation over the canceled conventions, said in his e-mail that continuing to air disputes over the agreements “will only continue to bring negative regional media attention to Augusta while at the same time, further negatively impacting our ability to ensure the long-term success of the facility.”
Downtown business owners are upset about the canceled events and lost revenue, the mayor said.
Ben Casella, the president of the Downtown Augusta Alliance, called the situation “incredibly unfortunate” and “nothing short of embarrassing.”
“We see the (convention) center as huge for downtown,” Casella said. “We think that cities that have convention centers are looked at carefully, and those that don’t are overlooked.”
The Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated $8.4 million in direct visitor spending from the 12 events still scheduled at the facility during 2013.
The spending numbers do not impress critics, who point instead to estimated operating losses and proposed management agreements they contend will gut the city’s general fund with no commensurate benefits.
Commissioner Joe Jackson, who voted previously with four other commissioners in favor of the management plan, said he had been contacted by constituents Tuesday who praised the commission for slowing the process.
“All I’m doing is trying to control how much we lose,” he said.
The commission OK’d building the center next to the Marriott on property partly owned by Marriott operator Augusta Riverfront LLC in 2009. The company, which has operated the hotel for two decades, shares management with Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
The operating documents were presented to the commission just a few weeks ago. Similar documents related to the convention center’s parking garage took the commission about six months to tweak and approve.
Commissioner Bill Lockett, one of the project’s biggest critics, hadn’t wavered Tuesday. He called the documents – which were prepared and reviewed by Augusta Riverfront officials, City Administrator Fred Russell and city attorneys – “a blank check” that, in effect, left the commission responsible for negotiating the deal.