Government officials and business leaders hoping to create a regional industrial recruitment organization were dealt a major setback Wednesday when the plan was torpedoed by a faction of Richmond County officials during a sometimes contentious two-hour meeting.
The summit between leaders from Richmond and Columbia counties yielded no consensus on the plan to create a public-private Augusta Regional Partnership that would take over economic development functions previously handled by the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.
The partnership, which also would include Burke County, was pitched as a vehicle to allow the area's business community to fund a nonpolitical organization to market the three-county region to new business and industry.
Under the concept, once a prospective company decides on a specific location, it would be referred to development officials in that county to seal the deal.
In the first half-hour of the meeting, attendees said in opening statements that cross-county cooperation is vital to improving the metro area's economy.
However, discussion became heated when the regional partnership's chief opponent, Richmond County Development Authority Chairman Loren Perry, characterized the plan as a "Trojan horse" attempt by the Augusta Metro chamber to get back into economic development and grab the "purse strings of all three counties."
"I can assure you this meeting is not about economic development and regionalism," he said.
The Augusta Metro chamber was for years the marketing agency for Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.
The counties funded portions of the chamber's economic developers' salaries while larger contributions from area corporations, through the chamber's 10-year, $6.3 million Forward Together fund-raiser, paid for everything else.
But internal strife during the administration of then-President James West, who resigned in 2002, convinced chamber board members that the region needed a model for economic development that took the chamber out of the picture.
The Augusta Regional Partnership plan is based on models used by Richmond, Va., and Green-ville, S.C., and was crafted nearly a year ago by government and business leaders from both counties.
"The whole rationale is not to get (economic development) into the chamber; it's to get it out of the chamber," said Robert Osborne, a past chamber chairman and a board member of the Richmond County Development Authority.
But Mr. Perry said most of the proposed partnership's board members were "present, past and future" chamber volunteers - people he alleges mismanaged Forward Together funds by allowing the chamber to create a bloated bureaucracy years ago.
"In my opinion, the money was simply wasted," said Mr. Perry, who at times pounded his fists on the table for emphasis.
His allegations brought a sharp rebuff from Charlene Sizemore, the chairwoman of the Augusta Metro chamber and a member of the Richmond County Development Authority.
"That is a lie," she said, later adding that the reputations of the chamber board members "are above reproach."
Mayor Bob Young stepped in to restore order during the rancorous exchange.
"This is pretty embarrassing," he said.
Other officials showed displeasure at the airing of dirty laundry.
"Forget what's been done," said Augusta Technical College President Terry Elam. "We're trying to move forward."
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, holding a copy of the bylaws of the proposed partnership, said the document said nothing about the Augusta Metro chamber having any authority over the partnership's operations, policies or funding.
"I don't know what else to say," he said to Mr. Perry. "All you have to do is read it."
He asked Mr. Perry what it would take for him and his supporters to back the regional partnership plan.
"To get out of it completely," said Mr. Perry, who repeatedly said his position represented the majority of the Richmond County Development Authority.
However, Mr. Osborne pointed out that Mr. Perry was present when the development authority unanimously approved the Augusta Regional Partnership plan at its March 18 meeting.
"I'm not sure who the majority is," Mr. Osborne said.
The minutes from that meeting have never been approved because Mr. Osborne objected that they contained errors in the sections dealing with motions pertaining to the regional partnership approval.
"It's fallen apart since that vote," Mr. Osborne said.
After the meeting, Walter Sprouse, the executive director of the Richmond County Development Authority, said the tape recording of the meeting has been recorded over.
Wednesday's meeting ended with a recommendation that the three county development authorities meet to create their own regional marketing plan, which would include private-sector funding from businesses.
Mr. Perry said he planned to call a meeting later this month or in January.
Mr. Cross said he will wait until then to see whether the outcome "looks positive." If not, he said, Columbia County will begin making plans to create an entity without Richmond County's assistance, as it indicated it would do when negotiations broke down a month ago.
"We're going to take a regional approach, regardless of what happens," Mr. Cross said. "We're going to promote Columbia County-Augusta."
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Richmond County Development Authority officials say they meet later this month or in January with their development authority counterparts in Columbia and Burke counties to discuss creating a regional marketing plan that is more to their liking.
What is it: A nonpolitical entity funded mostly by private-sector corporations in the Augusta area that would be charged with marketing a three-county region to new business and industry, a role previously handled by the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Why is it needed: To pool the resources of the counties that make up the region and prevent counties from competing with one another for industrial projects before the company has a chance to decide on a specific location.
Who would run it: A 12-member board of business leaders and representatives from the three area counties. The majority of the board would be private-sector business leaders, those responsible for the vast majority of the partnership's funding.
What's the dispute: Some Richmond County leaders, largely a faction of the Richmond County Development Authority, object to the private sector-heavy board composition and are concerned that Richmond County would not receive equitable representation.