|By Jeff Wilkinson, The State, Columbia, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 28, 2004 - A committee recommending the developer for Columbia's convention center hotel narrowly endorsed a Greenville firm's proposal -- but with a $3 million city-subsidized upgrade.
In return, the Windsor/Aughtry firm would change its 225-room hotel from a Hilton Garden Inn into a higher-end Hilton, developer Bo Aughtry said.
Five of the nine members present endorsed the recommendation on Thursday. The four who didn't either opposed the public subsidy or had other concerns. Two members were absent.
City Council is expected to vote on the proposal on Wednesday.
Council is not bound by the recommendation, but it will carry a lot of weight, some council members said.
"Because of the 5-4 vote, I want to thoroughly understand the recommendation," Mayor Bob Coble said. "If the recommendation is that (Aughtry) do a full-service Hilton hotel, I certainly will support that." City Council member Jim Papadea said he, too, would likely vote for the proposal.
"The project has had too many delays and should have been started two years ago," he said.
Next week's expected vote would end months of wrangling and delays over the convention center hotel.
In March, City Council voted to put plans for a city-financed $71 million Hilton hotel on hold after a public outcry over its cost and the city's participation.
Aughtry, a Columbia native now based in Greenville, owns the Hampton Inn on Gervais Street. Hampton Inn is a member of the Hilton group of hotels.
Aughtry commended the council for backing away from a publicly-financed deal. "It took courage for the city to realize they were making a mistake and change direction." The hotel would be built at the southwest corner of Senate and Park streets. The city also had considered using the northeast corner of that intersection, where its old Fire Department headquarters sits.
Aughtry presented letters from Hilton indicating the company would support the plan.
"The city has the momentum and the dynamics that -- if politics doesn't get in the way -- the hotel will be successful," he said.
Aughtry's proposal is for a 225-room franchise Hilton hotel costing $28 million to $33 million, which would include the $3 million subsidy.
It beat out two contenders who had included larger city subsidies or loans in their proposals:
--A proposal for a 300-room hotel for $54 million with a $14 million subsidy. The Columbia Hilton group's plan was proposed by developers, builders and financiers who had worked on the city's aborted effort to publicly finance a hotel.
--FaulknerUSA, an Austin, Texas-based firm, planned a 234-room Sheraton that would have cost $35 million with a $10.5 million city loan.
Panel member Rusty DePass, said he didn't support Aughtry's upgraded proposal because it required a public subsidy.
"What private capital can do, we ought to let them do at their level of comfort," said DePass, who was among citizens who had voiced concern over the public deal before the city reopened the process.
"This town just doesn't have the history of supporting a high-class hotel with a lot of trinkets." Chairwoman Cathy Novinger, who did not endorse Aughtry's plan, said the convention center needs a top-flight hotel.
"This community is at a point of renaissance," she said. "We're going to the next level and we want this hotel to help take us to the next level." Member Kester Freeman, of Palmetto Health Alliance, had concerns about Aughtry.
"It would be an unfortunate mistake to pick someone who has no experience with convention center hotels," he said.
Aughtry said the distinction was minimal. "I've built nine hotels and the only thing that makes it a convention center hotel is its proximity to the convention center," he said.
Assistant city manager Steve Gantt said he hopes ground can be broken by September. Completion is scheduled for Dec. 31, 2005.
The convention center on Lincoln Street is set to open in September.
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