TEE panel told about negatives of gridlock

For the second meeting of the Augusta Commission's TEE center subcommittee, Mayor Deke Copenhaver had a consultant explain that it's not just construction of a trade, exhibit and event center that's at stake if commissioners can't end six months of gridlock.

Also at stake is a plan to generate nearly $100 million in economic development to rebuild the blighted Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods -- with the vast majority coming from the private sector, according to Jesse Wiles, the president of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Asset Property Disposition, Inc.

"Cities throughout the country would love to have the opportunity to do this," Mr. Wiles said.

When most cities want to revitalize their worst neighborhoods, they have to rely on federal grants with limiting strings attached, Mr. Wiles said. This plan would use local dollars -- specifically, proceeds from a $1-a-night hotel fee, or transportation fee, enacted last year to pay for TEE center operations, Laney-Walker/Bethlehem projects and subsidizing the public transit system.

Under a deal worked out in 2007, when Commissioner Betty Beard gave Commissioner Don Grantham the sixth vote to put the exposition center on Reynolds Street and have it operated by Augusta Riverfront LLC, $750,000 per year in bed fee proceeds was to go toward the inner city for 50 years for a total of $37.5 million.

Since then, the deal has unraveled in a split along racial lines on the commission. Voters approved $20 million for the TEE center in a 2005 sales tax referendum, but architects say it's going to cost nearly twice that. Black commissioners have been unwilling to approve issuing bonds to build it for $38 million with a $12 million to $17 million parking deck and have expressed interest in changing sites; white commissioners contend the hotel fee -- and therefore inner city projects -- can't continue without the TEE center because the money has to be used to generate tourism.

The five-member subcommittee was formed last month to recommend a compromise, then the mayor put meetings on hold while the Richmond County Sheriff's Office investigated the attempted bribery case involving attorney David Fry, who allegedly offered Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason and Commissioner Corey Johnson parking deck proceeds in exchange for voting yes on the TEE center.

The subcommittee met for the first time last week, with Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Barry White explaining how multiple sites were studied for the TEE center, and the Reynolds Street location was by far the best.

One subcommittee member, Commissioner Corey Johnson, said afterward that he wasn't impressed. He didn't attend Wednesday's meeting. The other members, the mayor and commissioners Joe Bowles, J.R. Hatney and Joe Jackson, were all present.

Mr. Wiles, who the city hired to oversee the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem Neighborhood Action Plan, said work had already begun, but it's ground to a halt because of a lack of money. Bonds need to be issued to raise start-up funds, he said. While $750,000 per year gives the city enough to make payments, it's not enough to get much done.

The hotel fee has generated about $1.5 million since collections began in April 2008, with $850,000 spent on the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem initiative.

"Essentially, we're stopped at four houses and 15 demolitions on Pine Street, without further funding," Mr. Wiles said.

He said he has 103 properties with a total $1.6 million value under contract, but has no money to close and sellers are losing interest.

He showed commissioners how salvageable homes would be rehabbed and the worst ones would be demolished and replaced. Architects, engineers, builders, developers and marketing and public relations firms have all been hired through the Procurement department, he said.

Mr. Copenhaver said for next week's meeting, yet to be scheduled, he'll bring in developer Courtland Dusseau, who wants to build a Hyatt hotel beside the Augusta Common if the TEE center is built on Reynolds.

After that, the committee will start hashing out solutions, but first he wants to clear up misinformation and show that both initiatives are already "a good ways down the tracks."

Mr. Hatney said afterward that he still sees the TEE center and Laney-Walker/Bethlehem as two separate projects, and he's trying to get equitable funding for the latter.

"I'm hoping we can resolve this, so we can go on," he said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.