A bill designed to “reconstitute” the governance of the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center and move it from a local entity to a state authority passed the Georgia House on Friday with little opposition from local officials — possibly because most of them knew nothing about it.
House Bill 354, sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens and co-sponsored by Reps. Jesse Petrea and Carl Gilliard, was introduced at the request of trade center authority chairman Mark Smith, who characterized it as “basically a housekeeping item” that would give the trade center board more leverage in asking for funds to expand.
But Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott, who learned about the legislation through a reporter’s inquiry Thursday, disagreed and said the change is more than cleanup.
The trade center, located on Hutchinson Island, across the Savannah River from City Hall, opened in 2000. According to Scott, Chatham County taxpayers funded 81 percent of the building’s $96.4 million cost and 100 percent of the Riverwalk Extension, pre-opening marketing and operationg expenses. The state kicked in an initial $18 million for the building. The county also funded nearly $30 million in infrastructure, for a total investment of more than $100 million.
Never intended to make money, the trade center is supported primarily by local hotel/motel tax receipts.
“I knew absolutely nothing about this until then,’ Scott said Friday. “And I spoke with several authority board members who also were unaware of the bill.”
Scott said he then spoke to Stephens in Atlanta.
“Ron was under the impression I’d had a meeting with Mark and was on board with it,” he said. “There has been absolutely no transparency on this whatsoever.”
Asked if he had made his board aware of his intention to ask for the bill, Smith said he had discussed it with the executive board but could not recall if it had gone before the entire board.
Several authority members contacted indicated the issue was never in front of the full board, nor was Smith able to produce minutes indicating otherwise.
“It was simply a housekeeping thing,” he said. “As we looked at the need to expand the trade center, we knew we would need to get the state on board.”
Smith recently accompanied Stephens to Atlanta to ask Gov. Nathan Deal for $3.5 million in his supplemental budget to fund the preliminary design of the expansion.
“It just makes sense,” he said. “As a state authority, we will have a higher profile and a more robust vehicle to fund the expansion.”
There are other advantages to becoming a state authority, he said.
“For one thing, it would put us on equal footing with the Georgia World Congress Center, a state authority that has the management contract for our building.
“And it would clarify questions that have come up from staff, such as where we get the authorization to be exempt from state sales tax.”
Becoming a state authority would allow the board and its officers to be covered under state insurance and it would allow the board to conduct business telephonically in the absence of a quorum, he said.
“But primarily, as a state authority, we could receive state funds and have other financing options.”
Scott said he does not necessarily oppose the bill, but wants the opportunity to have input.
To that end, he and Stephens have scheduled a meeting today in Savannah, and Scott has asked county attorney Jon Hart to take a look at the bill.
“I realize Mark Smith considers this a housekeeping issue, but I’m not sure how the taxpayers of Chatham County will feel about walking away from their $103 million investment with no compensation.”
Smith said opposition from county and/or city leaders wouldn’t make a difference in his stance.
“We are an entity unto ourselves,” he said. “We’ve done a good job running this building.”