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Trade Center: Pooler lone holdout on long-term hotel tax collections

Subheadline: 
Savannah, Chatham, other municipalities on board for next 20 years

At Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center, Savannah-based lobbyist Lee Hughes reported on his progress in renewing agreements with the county and area municipalities to collect a 6-percent hotel/motel tax, one penny of which helps fund trade center operations.
 
“We have six partners in the community that collect the 6-percent hotel/motel tax,” Hughes told the trade center board.
 
“They are, in order of the size of their contribution to the trade center, the city of Savannah at $2.5 million, Tybee Island at $500,000, Chatham County at $270,000, Pooler at $170,000, Port Wentworth at $130,000 and Garden City at $40,000.”
 
Hughes reported that, while he had not yet talked with Port Wentworth, four of the remaining five had agreed to extend their long-term commitments to the trade center.
 
The county is in the 10th year of a 50-year commitment, he said, adding that Savannah and Tybee had already agreed to extend their existing contracts for another 20 years, when the votes came up at Garden City and Pooler councils Monday.
 
At their meeting, Garden City council members approved a new agreement extending the existing contract with the trade center through 2036.
 
Garden City Mayor Don Bethune said the council voted 5-2 in support of the agreement, with himself and Councilwoman Kim Tice dissenting.
 
The mayor said he voted against the document because he preferred an agreement with a shorter extension. 
 
Bethune said he suggested instead a five-year agreement with automatic renewals, but the majority of the council approved the 20-year contract.
 
Pooler officials, unhappy with what they consider a lack of effort to market their city, agreed only to extend their contract for a year, with no automatic renewal, Hughes said.
 
“There was also some concern that Pooler might someday have its own convention center and they wouldn’t want to have to send their money to us under those circumstances,” he said, adding that he offered an opt-out clause to address that issue.
 
“But we have a good history with Pooler and hope that will continue.”
 
Trade center authority chairman Mark Smith said the agreements, which date back to 1996, are important as the trade center contemplates expanding the facility.
 
“If we are called on to participate in a bond issuance, we want to be able to show we have long-term agreements that will provide the funds we need to amortize the bonds.”
 
Change on the way
For the last year, the trade center has been contemplating expansion of its building in concert with courting developers to build a new convention hotel on Hutchinson Island.
 
In addition to Savannah’s impressive growth as a destination for both business and leisure travelers, Smith said his staff researched how much has been invested on the island to support the convention center in its 16 years of existence. “The numbers were pretty impressive,” he said.
 
“To date, the county has invested $104 million in the building, water and sewer improvements and roads on the island,” he said. “The state has put in $38 million and the federal government $14 million, with most of the federal dollars going to the water ferry system. The authority has invested $6 million.” Requests for Proposals for the convention hotel were due last month from the three finalists, presumably prompting the executive session Smith called at the end of Wednesday’s meeting, although he would only say the board needed to discuss a real estate matter.
 
The board returned from executive session and adjourned without discussion or vote.

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