Two leaders deny walkout after vote on TEE center

Two of the four Augusta commissioners who left Tuesday's meeting before the remaining six commissioners approved a trade, event and exhibit center for Reynolds Street have denied being part of a walkout.

Meanwhile, Mayor Deke Copenhaver called the approval historic.

"I do believe this is the best opportunity this city will ever have to truly revitalize the inner city as well as bring in a first-class entertainment complex that will put us on a footing to be at or above a grade level of competition with other cities of our size," Mr. Copenhaver said.

Commissioners Calvin Holland and Bernard Harper said they had appointments. Mr. Holland said he had to meet his wife.

"She was taking care of some business and needed my signature," he said.

The timing was coincidental, and he's not upset about the final vote, he said.

"I would love to have the TEE center," he said. "I just think it was disrespectful that several of us did not know anything about what they were doing. We had no input in it. Maybe some of the others got some phone calls, but I didn't."

Mr. Holland said he plans to work with the center's development and hopes the inner city gets $750,000 a year left over from a proposed new $1 hotel tax, as promised.

"I just didn't like the way the proposal was presented," he said. "It could have been done more professionally, but I feel good. Just like James Brown, I feel good."

Mr. Harper said he left the meeting for a medical appointment. Besides, he said, he thought all the other commissioners were leaving, too.

"Joe Bowles was in the parking lot," he said. "And Andy Cheek had his bag on his shoulder like he was leaving."

Mr. Harper also said that he sees the need for a TEE center but that all of the commissioners weren't brought into the loop beforehand. He also had a concern about whether the proposed $750,000 a year would materialize.

Commissioner Marion Williams made no bones about why he left the meeting after the first 5-3-2 vote left the TEE center in limbo.

"This was something put together by six commissioners," he said. "If they didn't think no more of the rest of the commissioners, I decided the best thing for me to do is leave. I just think it is a wrong deal, a back-room deal set up by certain people."

Commissioner J.R. Hatney, who also left the meeting early, did not return a phone message Wednesday.

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard, who had previously abstained on a vote to approve the Reynolds Street site, said the promise of $750,000 a year for the inner city changed her mind.

"That's a dream of mine for the inner city," she said. "How could I not go with a proposal like this?"

Asked whether she expects criticism for her vote, Mrs. Beard said, "It doesn't matter. I know my husband is happy about this."

Mrs. Beard's husband, Lee, was a commissioner until his death in 2003.

The 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.

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 Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.