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Convention center takes shape after contentious year (The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.)

By Susan McCord, The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Dec. 31--EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final installment of a 10-part series on the top stories of 2012.

A decade in the making, the Augusta Convention Center took shape during 2012 and now stands ready to play host to the conventions a 2002 study said the city was losing because of a lack of suitable space.

Delays and gridlock that plagued the project for nearly two years until its funding and location were approved by the Augusta Commission in 2009 resurfaced in 2012, with commissioners taking most of the year to debate, tweak and eventually approve management agreements for the Reynolds Street center and its parking deck.

The year saw the emergence of a Facebook group's influence on several commissioners, prompting questions about dealmaking surrounding the project. But by July, the commission abandoned plans to hire a costly external forensic auditor to investigate alleged criminal activity related to the parking deck.

Most of the concerns involved operations agreements with Augusta Riverfront LLC, a firm that shares management with Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle. The commission voted several years ago for Augusta Riverfront, which runs the adjoining Marriott hotel, to also operate the complex.

Other hurdles were a decision to fund an $836,288 change order to improve smoke ventilation to Marriott standards, how to divide a shared kitchen between Marriott and the convention center if the deal fizzled and, most recently, whether to approve building a nearly $1 million skywalk over Reynolds Street connecting the parking garage to the center.

The debates saw the frequent appearance of Augusta Riverfront President Paul Simon, who urged the commission to unanimously approve the agreements the body had committed to follow through with years earlier.

The commission at last approved a shortened management agreement for the center Nov. 8, with commissioners Alvin Mason, Bill Lockett and J.R. Hatney opposed.

By then, however, delays had cost the city its first convention, a gathering of Georgia police chiefs planned for January.

Organizers said they couldn't move forward with their plans without assurance someone will be running the center.

Despite the ordeal, city officials have said the decisionmaking couldn't have been made easier. Attorney Jim Plunkett, hired in 2009 to represent Augusta's interests in the project, said much of its complexity stemmed from a 2010 decision to issue tax-exempt bonds, which saved the city money but complicated land ownership issues for the parking deck.

"There are always going to be a set of circumstances that you have to work through; because you're in an urban setting, there are going to be issues," he said.

One issue never resolved was the community's name for the complex. Despite signage bearing the words "Augusta Convention Center," the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau continues to call the facility the TEE Center, a golf-themed acronym developed by the CVB that stands for Trade, Exhibit and Event Center which Marriott officials do not use, saying it is unmarketable to its convention-going clientele.

Today, Marriott's Augusta convention center Web site lists 11 events booked at the 38,000-square-foot complex for 2013, starting with a Savannah River Site-related event in February.


(c)2012 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

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