Originally created 03/15/05

Mayor, manager disagree on hotel



Mayor Bob Young's desire to see a riverfront hotel and exhibition hall built on city property is ruffling feathers in Augusta's tourism industry.

Darryl Leech, the general manager of the Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta, which was originally the site for the city's proposed exhibit and trade center, said the mayor's plan would weaken the Radisson's city-funded conference facilities.

And tourism officials say the plan to create a new hotel by enticing developers with a city-funded exhibit and trade center would nullify years of studies that support construction of such a center at the Radisson.

Mr. Young, however, said the plan promotes healthy competition and could bring a return on the city's $1.7 million investment in the former pension property along the river between Fifth and Sixth streets.

"We're looking for the best way to use the property," Mr. Young said. "We are just trying to gauge the interest of hotel developers ... ."

The Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau has pushed for the creation of a 50,000-square-foot exhibit and trade center for more than two years to complement the 45,000 square feet of meeting space at the Radisson.

Under the bureau's plan, the $18 million trade center would be built on the Radisson's surface parking lot at the corner of 10th and Reynolds streets.

"The goal is to have everything under one roof or connected via skywalks, or in the very least, within walking distance," bureau Executive Director Barry White said.

But the mayor said he is willing to have the trade center built more than a half-mile away if it means getting a new hotel downtown.

"The logical thing would be to attach it to the meeting rooms we have already," Mr. Young said. "But something like this could be used as an inducement to locate a second convention hotel here."

Mr. Leech said Mr. Young's idea amounted to a "slap in the face."

"I think the mayor forgets we're actually in a public-private partnership," Mr. Leech said, referring to the hotel's city-financed parking deck. "How much of the $2 million we bring in taxes would he like to give away?"

Mr. Leech said that by financing another hotel, the city would essentially be competing with itself for tax revenue.

"I don't think they're competing, they're complementing each other," Mr. Young said. "There is some competition to book the space, but the more space you have, the more opportunities you have to book things."

Augusta businessman Woody Merry tried to buy the pension property for $3 million in June to build high-rise condominiums, but Mayor Bob Young would not sign a letter of intent. At the time, Mr. Young said Mr. Merry's plan wasn't considered because he presented no sales contract or earnest money.

The trade center was one of several projects included in November's failed special purpose local option sales tax vote and could be included in this year's tax referendum.

Mr. White said more hotel rooms will be needed downtown no matter where the exhibit and trade center is built.

"As soon as you open a new facility, you need to think about your future expansion and future growth," he said.

The visitors bureau said downtown would need 650 new rooms if the exhibit center is built. The Radisson, the Country Suites and the Ramada Plaza Hotel & Conference Center on Broad Street account for 560 rooms.

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.