Local residents beware: Paul Simon, president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, has returned with a new pitch.
This time this savvy spokesperson for William S. Morris III, publisher of The Augusta Chronicle, is proposing to expand the Augusta Common.
But, as with all of Simon’s deals, there is always a catch.
According to the proposal outlined in The Augusta Chronicle this past week, Morris wants the city to extend the Augusta Common from the Savannah River all the way to Ellis Street.
Basically, Morris will generously donate his dirt lots across from the Augusta Common and build a new 130-room hotel if the city agrees to use Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds to develop the Augusta Common from the river to Ellis Street.
Here’s the kicker: According to the Chronicle’s story, the “public would have access to the Common extension but Morris would retain a perpetual right to build an art museum by the river.”
Did you get that, folks?
So, Morris is proposing that the city use SPLOST funds to extend the Augusta Common to the river, but he would retain “a perpetual right” to the property.
Therefore, the city would basically be paying to beautify Morris’ dirt lots, but when Morris is ready to build his art museum, all bets are off. Morris will develop the property as he sees fit.
But the fun doesn’t stop there.
SPLOST funds would also go toward “obtaining the Kress Building to demolish and extend a narrower segment of the Common to Ellis Street, and possibly create a James Brown museum in an adjoining building,” according to the Chronicle article.
Simon said he hopes that the Kress Building’s owner, Bonnie Ruben, would be inspired to “let go” of the downtown building on Broad Street since Morris is donating his dirt lots.
No. 1, the idea that Ruben is going to just hand over that property to the city is laughable. She has held onto that property for decades and that will continue until she is offered a decent stack of cash.
No. 2, Morris isn’t being generous with his land. As previously stated, he is still retaining his right to develop on the property.
What if Ruben asked for the same deal? The city could beautify her property and all of the sudden it might become extremely appealing to a developer.
Next thing you know, Ruben would want to exercise her right to develop the property and there goes the city’s open greenspace along with its SPLOST dollars.
And finally, No. 3, along with requesting that the city extend the Augusta Common from the river to Ellis Street, Morris is also asking that the city expand the parking garage and build not just one, but two pedestrian bridges connecting the parking garage to the hotel and the hotel to the city’s convention center.
While we are at it, why doesn’t the city just build an underground tunnel from every major tourist attraction in this city to all of Morris’ downtown hotels?
Why not? Morris is a member of Augusta National. Masters traffic would flow much easier with a tunnel from the Marriott directly to Amen Corner.
Obviously, the Insider is being sarcastic, but it gets to a point that it’s hard not to ask the question: How can Morris and Simon ask for these deals from the city with a straight face?
Would a new hotel in downtown Augusta be a good thing for the local economy? Sure, it probably would be beneficial.
But why does the city have to bend over backwards to convince Morris to build another hotel?
Back when the city agreed to build the Riverwalk in downtown Augusta alongside Morris’ first hotel, there was a legitimate argument to be made that Morris was taking a huge financial risk.
Downtown was dead back in 1989 and it needed a major boost.
In conjunction with the construction of the Marriott Hotel (formerly the Radisson Hotel) in 1989, a parking deck and conference center was built on the nearby land owned by Augusta Riverfront.
Financing for the project included a loan from First Union Bank for $17 million, a $7.56 million UDAG loan and another $13 million from the city to construct the convention center, parking garage, and Riverwalk expansion.
In total, the city gave over $20 million to the project.
The original agreement stated that Augusta Riverfront had about 30 years to pay back the city for the $7.56 million UDAG loan.
But, in 1998, Augusta Riverfront wanted to strike a new deal.
Simon asked the city to forgive Augusta Riverfront of the $7.56 million in order to construct a new hotel and extend the city’s convention center. At the time, Augusta’s city administrator, Randy Oliver, questioned the deal and decided to counter Simon’s offer.
He was concerned about a “construction, operating and reciprocal easement agreement” the city and Augusta Riverfront signed which stated that 50 percent of the convention center’s revenue went to the Augusta Riverfront for management fees while the other 50 percent, considered taxpayer money, was used for repair and replacement.
This agreement had little hope of ever making profit for the city, because all of the money generated went into capital reserve to ensure the convention center was a “first-class” facility.
Augusta Riverfront assured the commission that maintaining the facility was important because the city would officially own the convention center in 50 years.
“My contention is that (the convention center) has little or no value at the end of 50 years,” Oliver said in 1998.
Oliver also warned commissioners that it was virtually impossible for another hotel to utilize the convention center.
“We’ve given this hotel exclusive rights to do whatever they want to do with the convention center,” Oliver said. “Right now, the Radisson (now Marriott) has exclusive rights and they’re not going to give that up. They’d be crazy.”
Fast forward more than a decade later in 2009, when city leaders built a new $38 million convention center (or TEE Center) and voted to hand it over to the management of Augusta Riverfront. In addition, the city also agreed to build a $12 million parking deck on Reynolds Street directly across from the facility.
The city’s 15-year management agreement with Augusta Riverfront authorized the private company to receive $84,000 a year as a management fee and $48,000 a year for catering.
The city’s initial agreement with Augusta Riverfront was for 50 years, but city leaders wisely scaled it back. Many commissioners felt it was the best deal they could manage at the time.
But two years later, the true details of the deal began coming to light.
Several Augusta commissioners were shocked to learn that the city had built the $12 million parking deck on land it didn’t own.
So, who actually owned the property where the parking deck was built?
Come on. You know… Augusta Riverfront, of course.
All of this to say, Morris and Simon are obviously very talented businessmen. They are clearly looking to make money. There is nothing wrong with that, but the city needs to wise up and, at the very least, thoroughly review the proposal that is being submitted by Simon.
After all, the Augusta Commission’s history with Augusta Riverfront has proven one thing is for sure: The devil is in the details.