The future is on the way

A lot of folks are wondering today why it took so long to approve the trade, exhibit and event center.

In a few years, they'll probably be wondering how we ever got along without it.

But thanks to overwhelming Augusta Commission approval on Monday -- and the hard work and infinite patience of a number of local supporters and out-of-town investors -- Augusta will finally have a riverfront exhibition center worthy of Georgia's second-largest city.

The project will create $110.5 million in construction and even redevelopment activity downtown: $38 million for the TEE center; $37.5 million for redevelopment in the Laney Walker/Bethlehem areas of downtown; $10 million for a new parking deck; and a new $25 million Hyatt Regency hotel across the street from the new TEE center.

The TEE center is funded in large part through already-allocated special-purpose local option sales taxes -- and much of the rest will be financed with a recent $1-a-night hotel room fee.

The Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce says the project will create 630 new jobs and will lead to an annual $1.4 million in new tax revenues and an overall $25 million economic impact.

As we've already heard from excited business owners, activity at the TEE center site -- both construction of it starting next spring and once it's open in 2012 -- will help fill area restaurants and other downtown shops.

The likely result is that the Augusta area, which wasn't as hard-hit by the recession as most metro areas in the country, could come roaring back next year. Most areas of the nation would no doubt love to be where Augusta has just put itself.

Some tried to argue during these long months of deliberation that the new economy won't support such facilities. Nonsense. People have gathered together in groups since the dawn of man. Not even the mother of all recessions will change that. Conferences, trade shows and exhibitions will go on for as long as mankind.

Some also questioned the location -- though we're not sure why. Every expert consulted concluded the TEE center needed to be near the river and as close as possible to hotel rooms. Anyone who's ever been to an out-of-town confab knows conferees want meeting and exhibit space that's a short, indoor walk away from the elevators to one's sleeping quarters.

Nor was any existing building in the city amenable to the large shows and exhibits that have been bypassing Augusta for decades for lack of suitable space. They've been patronizing our competitors on either side of the river. Now Augusta will get in the game.

In retrospect, it's amazing this community took this long to do it. But the deed is done, and the future is on the way.

Are the TEE center and all its accompaniments the solution to all our problems? Of course not. It's just a start -- a huge start -- toward realizing our potential as a community.

We will never do that if we expect to be able to sit back and let outside investors carry the load. Augusta needed to invest in itself -- and now it has, albeit in an ingenious way that goes easy on taxpayers through a partnership of public-and-private, resident-and-guest funding mechanisms.

"I'm a happy, happy, happy, happy camper," said local restaurant owner Bryan Mitchell, who can see the extra foot traffic coming from miles off.

Lots of folks deserve to have their hands on the scissors when the ribbon is cut on the TEE center, not the least of which is Mayor Deke Copenhaver, whose calm and patient determination helped a sharply divided Augusta Commission come together in near-unanimity this week after months of difficulty.

It's a new day in Augusta, which will soon begin work on its future.

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