|Barry White, President and CEO of the Augusta CVB|
By The Outsider
On the day that Barry White, President and CEO of Augusta Convention and Visitor's Bureau is scheduled to speak before the Augusta Commission to give details on a $350,000 marketing plan for the TEE Center, there is news floating around that he is being considered for a similar job in Jacksonville, FL. So does that mean that Barry White may be about to jump ship before the controversial TEE Center opens, a project that he was instrumental in getting passed?
Right now we are hearing that everything is very preliminary and that it was all initiated by a search firm and not by White himself. But regardless how "preliminary" the Jacksonville job prospect may be, it will likely be on the minds of most people at today's commission meeting. How much confidence will commissioners be able to put in a marketing plan being developed by someone who may not even be around by the the time the TEE Center opens for business?
White was an early cheerleader of the TEE Center project and came before the commission on many occasions hyping the need for an expanded convention center adjacent to The Marriott hotel. White dismissed other locations and steered commissioners toward the Marriott and Augusta Riverfront LLC to manage the facility at a cost of $350,000 per year. White maintained, that because Augusta lacked an expanded convention center, many conventions and meetings were passing us by and that was costing us tens of millions of dollars in economic impact.
However, the initial bookings for the TEE Center have been less than encouraging. Not one meeting is on the schedule for the first four months the center will be open, and that's after a nearly six month delay in the opening date. Could White see the writing on the wall and now is trying to abandon ship before it sinks? It would be hard to blame him for not being interested in greener pastures, and for someone who's business is tourism, certainly a coastal Florida city would present more exciting opportunities. Outside of The Masters, there's only so much one can do to market Augusta to tourists on the shoe-string budget the CVB operates on.
But the timing does seem rather interesting with all of the controversy swirling around the TEE Center and its companion parking deck: Land that was supposed to be donated that never was, and then to find out that it has liens on it for over $7,000,000. A questionable $800,000+ change-order on the construction of the TEE Center itself for more expensive air handlers when the current ones fully meet state code. A Hyatt Place hotel that commissioners were told was practically inevitable back in 2009 only if they approved the TEE Center, that has yet to break ground two and a half years later. Questionable financial relationships between The Augusta CVB and Augusta Riverfront LLC, the prospective operator of the TEE Center and owner of the Marriott, that begs for more thorough auditing but has been carefully shielded from public inquiry. It all seems to be coming to a head all at once.
But as White gives his presentation today, one question commissioners may have is why the CVB is assuming the responsibility and cost for marketing the TEE Center when Augusta Riverfront LLC is getting a very generous subsidy to manage it. Should that management contract not also cover marketing the facility? Global Spectrum, the private company hired to manage the James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium handles the marketing of those two facilities, so why wouldn't Augusta Riverfront LLC do the same for the TEE Center? And $350,000 is not chump change for the Augusta CVB. Could that money not be better spent marketing Augusta overall as a destination to tourists and conventions instead of being spent to market just one facility attached to just one hotel? How must the owners of other hotels and meeting facilities feel that so much of the CVB's budget is going towards exclusively marketing one facility? One that will compete with them for business?
It's these kinds of tough questions which may be prompting Barry White to gaze South towards the sunny beaches of Florida. But for his own sake, we hope he makes a better impression than Fred Russell did when he went down to The Sunshine State looking for a one-way ticket out of Augusta. And for Augusta's sake, if White does get the job in Jacksonville, maybe he can take Fred Russell along with him, but this time for good.***
LipStick on a Pig: TEE Center Marketing Plan Falls Short
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