The convention center held 36 events in its first 10 months – far more than the dozen or so lined up when the facility opened its doors in February 2013 – and posted operating losses, after parking revenue, substantially less than projected.
“At the end of the day, we budgeted to lose $850,000, but we only lost $535,322,” said Simon, whose company shares management with Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
Simon, who maintains the new downtown complex attached to Augusta’s Marriott isn’t a money-maker, but rather an economic engine for the city, said the 36 conventions’ 37,625 attendees spent some $10.2 million downtown for the city’s investment of just $407,797.
“These places are not designed to make money; they’re designed to bring economic benefits to the city,” he said.
General Manager Darryl Leech said contributing to the center’s success was “excellent price value” compared with similar facilities in Savannah and Athens, Ga., and the convenience of hotel rooms on-site.
By comparison, Athens provides the Classic Center some $1.4 million annually for operations, while Savannah contributes $970,000 to the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center, Simon said.
Augusta’s losses were mitigated by $127,525 in revenue generated by the center’s two parking decks, he said.
With the report, Simon revived the company’s expectation to use remaining project funding to construct a pedestrian bridge between the Reynolds Street parking deck and the convention center.
While original cost estimates did not include the bridge, cost savings during construction left sufficient funds for the project, which contractor R.W. Allen has agreed to do at his previous estimate of $991,561, he said.
Also incomplete – and delaying the effective date of agreements between the city and Augusta Riverfront – were several other items, including a room block agreement with Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau and a contract giving Augusta the right of first refusal should Augusta Riverfront choose to sell an adjoining piece of property ideal for expanding the convention center, Simon said.
Commissioners spent much of 2012 negotiating with Augusta Riverfront over the contract details, including those of the new parking deck. An end result of those negotiations, which shortened the contract term and increased Augusta’s share of profits, was the commission’s consent to pay for the pedestrian bridge.
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said it was “not a good time” to ask for the bridge.
“The city has agreed to do a crosswalk,” said Simon, including 2012 meeting minutes in his presentation to the city’s Public Services committee.
Safety is the primary reason for the bridge. With Augusta experiencing three pedestrian fatalities in recent weeks, the city “doesn’t need” another, he said.
“The money’s not the issue – it’s a dangerous situation,” Simon said. “You can imagine 3,000 people trying to cross Reynolds Street.”
The committee took no action on the request. Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, impressed by the center’s 36 events, asked to refer the item to the next meeting of the public services committee after a meeting between city, Augusta Riverfront, Heery International and R.W. Allen representatives. The motion passed 3-0.