|By John C. Drake, The State, Columbia, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 2, 2004 - The two teams that were passed over for a chance to build Columbia's convention center hotel say the city's independent selection committee unfairly let the winning firm change its proposal.
And the committee's chairwoman also says the expedited process may not have been fair to everyone.
The concerns add another layer of controversy to an already contentious issue.
A committee of local tourism and business leaders chose a proposal by Greenville-based Windsor/Aughtry Co. on Thursday.
That proposal included a $3 million city subsidy to build a Hilton hotel. But in his original proposal, developer Bo Aughtry had offered a Hilton Garden Inn -- without public funds.
City Council is set to vote today on the recommendation, and Mayor Bob Coble said he will ask council to direct city staff to begin negotiations with Aughtry.
But the other two finalists -- Texas-based FaulknerUSA and a local Columbia Hilton Team -- say Aughtry was unfairly allowed to change his proposal after the May 4 deadline for submissions.
"Nobody else was given an opportunity to change theirs," said Robert Lyles, chairman of Stevens & Wilkinson Inc., the architectural firm on the Columbia Hilton Team.
The coalition of local firms, privately dubbed the "Dream Team" by some city officials, was on tap to build a publicly financed hotel until March, when the city bowed to pressure to again seek bids. The group resubmitted its proposal for a 300-room Hilton with a $14 million city subsidy.
FaulknerUSA is asking City Council to hold off voting until the firm can consider the feasibility of a higher-end hotel, such as a Westin, said Terri Dusek, a firm spokeswoman. FaulknerUSA had proposed a 234-room Sheraton with a $10.4 million city loan.
"Given that an upgraded proposal was given during the presentations and selected, we would also like to have the opportunity to explore a similar scenario," Dusek said.
But Aughtry said the last-minute wrangling by the other two developers was "just simply sour grapes, and certainly not in the city of Columbia's best interests." Cathy Novinger, a local businesswoman who chaired the selection committee, will submit the recommendation to council today, even though she said there were problems with the process.
"We were supposed to complete our work in about four meetings," Novinger said. "I think that put us on such a fast track that procedurally we probably didn't cover all of our bases." She said the process was flawed in three ways:
--Some committee members and FaulknerUSA did not know the final meeting last week would be public.
--Each developer made verbal changes to its written proposal, which she said was improper.
--The committee received additional documentation from Aughtry, but additional documents submitted to the city by the Columbia Hilton Team never made their way to the committee.
In a letter to city attorney Jim Meggs, which was obtained by The State, a lawyer representing the Columbia Hilton Team says Aughtry only adjusted his proposal after hearing the other presentations, in violation of the city's rules that the developers' teams leave the room during competitors' presentations.
"The Columbia Hilton Team is very upset because they proceeded within the rules, and then were taken advantage of by the city's allowing Mr. Aughtry to operate outside the rules," attorney A.
Camden Lewis said in the letter, dated Friday. Efforts to reach Lewis Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Aughtry said he is not aware of any member of his team viewing the other presentations and said he planned all along to offer the alternative that was chosen.
"We changed nothing," he said. "I'm a little flustered with all this mudslinging." Assistant City Manager Steve Gantt also said he believed the amended proposal existed before the public presentations.
Gantt said the process was fair. "I'm trying to just move forward and get a convention center hotel built." The Columbia Hilton Team has asked the city for minutes or recordings of the committee's deliberations prior to the public presentations. Gantt has said the meetings were held in private because they involved contractual matters.
Committee member Rusty DePass said that at the Thursday meeting, in which the committee voted 5-4 to accept Aughtry's proposal, developers were allowed to lobby committee members.
"The last meeting was just an incredibly ham-handed attempt to somehow inject -- I think improperly -- more lobbying into the process."
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