Trade center wins approval

Commissioners approved a proposed multimillion-dollar trade, exhibit and event center Tuesday, but only after four commissioners walked out of the contentious meeting.

The 6-0 vote in favor of the proposed site and operating agreement came after an initial vote failed 5-3-2.

The TEE center will go on a site adjacent to the city-owned convention center and the Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites on Reynolds Street. The vote also approved a 50-year operating agreement with Augusta Riverfront LLC to cover $350,000 in annual capital and operational costs.

City Administrator Fred Russell said the next step is hammering out a formal contract between the city and Augusta Riverfront, though he said he's not sure how long that will take.

It likely will be 2010 before the city sees a building, said Barry White, the president of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau. It will take about a year to design the center and two to build it.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver called for a 10-minute recess after the first vote, but Commissioners J.R. Hatney, Marion Williams, Calvin Holland and Bernard Harper did not return.

The remaining commissioners voted to reconsider the proposal, which has failed to win approval several times in the past year. It quickly passed as Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who had voted no the first time, cast the needed sixth vote.

The $350,000 will be paid for with a $1 hotel occupancy fee. An estimated $750,000 in excess from that fee will go toward a community-redevelopment plan proposed by Mr. Russell, which would revitalize neglected historic neighborhoods such as Laney-Walker and Bethlehem.

The contract also will now include an annual audit of the TEE center and the convention center.

Several commissioners expressed frustration before the first vote that they had not seen the redevelopment plans or changes to the operating agreement ahead of time and should not be asked to vote on something they had not looked over.

"I don't have any information," Mr. Hatney said during the recess. "Until I see it, it don't mean a thing to me."

Mr. Brigham said he changed his vote after talking with Mr. Russell, who Mr. Brigham said eased some of his concerns.

"He soothed my soul enough that I could vote for it," Mr. Brigham said.

While negotiating the contract for the TEE center, Mr. Russell said he hopes to bond the $37.5 million for the redevelopment project, the excess amount estimated to come from the $1 fee during the contract's 50-year life.

Under the proposal, Mr. Copenhaver and Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard would appoint a group to work with the city's housing and development department to implement the redevelopment plan, which Mr. Russell said could begin six months after bonding.

The $20 million for the construction of the TEE center project was approved by taxpayers in November 2005. Bonds were issued in August. Until now, site approval has foundered as commissioners either sent it back to committee or took no action.

Augusta Riverfront LLC is a subsidiary of Azalea Development Corp., which is headed by William S. Morris III, the chairman and CEO of Morris Communications Co., the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle.

Reach Laura Youngs at (706) 823-3227 or laura.youngs@augustachronicle.com.

HOW THEY VOTED

Augusta commissioners on Tuesday approved a site and operating agreement for the TEE center after the first vote failed.

First votesecond vote
Mayor Pro Tem
Betty Beard
YesYes
Joe BowlesYesYes
Jerry BrighamNoYes
Andy CheekYesYes
Don GranthamYesYes
Bernard HarperAbstainedNot present
J.R. HatneyAbstainedNot present
Calvin HollandNoNot present
Jimmy SmithYesYes
Marion WilliamsNoNot present