Trade center talk runs dry

Andrew Davis Tucker/Staff
Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard resigned as chairwoman of the Augusta Commission's finance committee.

Augusta commissioners did a lot of talking about important issues that affect the city's economy Tuesday but took little action.

Issues such as the city's stalled trade and exhibition center, a delayed judicial center and a proposed drag strip triggered dissension and complaints, leading one person in the crowd to say afterward that everybody with sour grapes got to make wine.

After first rejecting a revised operating agreement put forth by Augusta Riverfront LLC for the trade and exhibit center on a 7-3 vote, commissioners voted to refer the issue back to a committee for further study, also on a 7-3 vote.

The revised agreement calls for the city to pay $250,000 in operating funds and $100,000 in capital funding annually - adjusted for the cost of living each year. It differs little from the one commissioners balked at in September.

The new plan, like the old one, recommends that the center be built on Augusta Riverfront's Reynolds Street property, next to the convention center and Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites. Augusta Riverfront's land would be deeded to the city.

Commissioner Don Grantham said the board needed to see whether anyone else is interested in managing the center and should not be making its decision with only one choice.

Commissioner Marion Williams made a motion to reject the proposal outright "and start from scratch."

"There's no way we can sit here and support what we've got," he said. "We're going to do the controlling. We don't need to be jerked around."

Commissioner Andy Cheek lamented the delay, saying that every day the board wastes it is losing two days to other cities who have trade centers. Commissioner Joe Bowles said two studies had already been done on the center, at a cost of $100,000, and both recommended the Reynolds Street site.

Augusta Riverfront LLC is a subsidiary of Azalea Development Corp., which is headed by William S. Morris III, the chairman and CEO of Morris Communications Co., the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle.

At a suggestion that he continue negotiations on the center, City Administrator Fred Russell said he didn't think he could do any more without more input from commissioners. However, he said he wasn't sure the city should start over.

"I think you need to be intimately involved at this point," he said.

In another matter, Bill Kuhlke, the chairman of the Judicial Center Committee, said the subcommittee hasn't done anything the past two years because the sales-tax money for the center is not scheduled to start coming in until next year. In addition, the city is still in the process of acquiring the land.

The budget, originally set at about $80 million, now stands at about $55 million, Mr. Kuhlke said.

"Basically, we're going to have to start over," he said.

He asked commissioners whether they wanted to continue with the same advisory committee and with Turner & Associates or select another architectural firm, questions that the board voted to send to the commission's Engineering Services Committee.

In an unrelated matter, Mr. Russell said that because the Industrial Authority of Richmond County had voted not to grant the land in Augusta Corporate Park for a drag strip, he could not proceed. Mr. Williams said he should proceed anyway.

"Six votes have already voted to proceed," Mr. Williams said, saying he wasn't satisfied with the report from Walter Sprouse, the development authority's executive director, about efforts to recruit development for the site.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.

OTHER ACTION TUESDAY

- After some commissioners balked at Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard's request that they rescind her appointment as chairwoman of the Finance Committee and appoint Commissioner Jerry Brigham, she simply resigned. After Mr. Brigham said he wouldn't accept the chairmanship even if the board gave it to him, commissioners voted 7-3 to appoint him anyway. He said he would have to think about accepting it.

- Richard Hatfield will continue as manager of the Newman Tennis Center. Commissioner Marion Williams had recommended that the position, which was included in this year's budget, be rescinded.