Tee Center supporters see dream realized

Augusta leaders break ground on exhibit hall

 

In visitors bureau meetings a decade ago, Sandra Fenstermacher first heard talk about the need for an exhibit hall.

On Wednesday morning, she stood with other city leaders, wearing a blue hard-hat and wielding a golden shovel, ceremonially marking the beginning of the construction of that hall.

"To sit through years of meetings when you have to listen to the staff talk about conventions that were turned down because there was no exhibit hall space ... it was a dream and had its ups and downs," said Fenstermacher, who runs Sacred Heart Cultural Center and spent the early 2000s on the visitors bureau board.

"To see it become reality and to see the excitement of the people who were there, the supporters, it really was a dream come true," she said.

For more than a year, Reynolds Street will be the site of several construction projects near the intersection of Ninth Street. The first will be the $38 million TEE Center, which drew city leaders for Wednesday's groundbreaking ceremony.

The trade, exhibit and event center should open in early 2012. The building will be attached to the existing conference center within the Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites.

The next ground breaking will be for the proposed Hyatt Place hotel catty-cornered from the TEE Center. The developer of the $25 million hotel, Cortland Dusseau, attended the TEE Center ceremony and said he hasn't picked a date for his ceremony.

"This leads the parade," he said of the exhibit center which was instrumental in his decision to locate a 139-room hotel nearby.

With the Augusta Commission approving $8.6 million in bonds that will pay for the parking deck under the hotel, Dusseau feels the pieces are falling into place for the project.

"When you consider between the TEE Center and the Kroc Center, the new Master's Table, judicial center, library and the new dental school alone, that's over $340 million in ongoing investment in a 1-mile radius downtown," said Mayor Deke Copenhaver. "You don't see that in other cities at this point."

Augusta commissioners took the moment to reflect on the historic nature of the day.

Commissioner Corey Johnson referred to the ceremony as reaching a milestone.

Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason said the event represents turning a page in Augusta.

"We're actually getting things done," he explained. "There are many times when we had to have discussion before we can make something happen. Once we move past that, you have our 100 percent support."

The feasibility study on the TEE Center was finished in 2002 and first presented to the commission in 2003. Voters approved $20 million in special purpose local option sales tax money for the project in 2006.

The center was hung up in the Augusta Commission for seven months in 2009 as politicians haggled over dollars and details.

"Moving forward, this is a great day for Augusta," Mason said.

Commissioner Matt Aitken said the project is going to benefit all residents of Augusta.

"I said it before, we're growing up as a city," Aitken said. "I think it is going to put us in a position now to be competitive throughout Georgia, throughout the region."

Officials with the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau will use Wednesday's event as a marker to begin a marketing campaign to attract events for the center when it opens.

Tourism officials will be targeting large events that plan years in advance.

After property transfer closings, work crews should arrive for demolition in late July, according to R.W. Allen, the downtown Augusta firm managing the construction.

The center will have 40,000 square feet of exhibit space, expandable toward 10th Street if needed in the future.