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Trade Center board agrees to pursue state authority status

A bill designed to change the governance of the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center from a local authority to a state authority stalled in the Georgia Senate earlier this week amid confusion about whether local officials — including the trade center’s board — had been appraised of the measure.

At Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the trade center authority, board chairman Mark Smith sought to rectify that with a presentation on the proposal that passed the state House on Friday and was set to go before the Senate this week. That legislation has now been withdrawn pending a determination by the authority board.

After the briefing, the board voted unanimously to proceed forward with the legislation, contingent upon a meeting, requested by County Manager Lee Smith, with both county and city leaders to be sure there is total clarity on the issue.

Lee Hughes, legislative liaison for the trade center, said once that meeting takes place, the bill could go to the Senate committee next week for consideration.

While there were a number of reasons to consider becoming a state authority, Mark Smith said, the main advantage is the leverage it would offer the trade center as it seeks to raise the funds needed to expand its facility.

With a new 300-room Omni convention hotel set to come online west of the trade center within the next three years, Mark Smith said it’s imperative that the trade center expansion be in sync with the new hotel, which will be built with private funds. But, he added, it’s equally important that all stakeholders be on board. The state budget includes $3 million for design for the planned explanation.

”This is a community project and we have to have consensus within the community on what we’re going to build and the associated costs,” he said. “In that vein, we have to also have consensus in the community with regard to how we govern ourselves.”

To that end, Mark Smith asked that, before the vote, trade center attorney Tom Gray clarify what would and wouldn’t happen under House Bill 354, which was sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens, co-sponsored by Reps. Jesse Petrea and Carl Gilliard and introduced at Smith’s request.

The bill, which Gray said “was recommended by the state’s legislative counsel,” would exempt the authority from state sales tax, allow a quorum by conference call, allow board members to be covered by the state under the Tort Claims Act and provide the authority with the ability to borrow money.

“There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about what this bill would do,” Gray said.

“This bill does not transfer ownership to the state, other than what the state already owns; does not change the name of the facility, does not change the composition of the board, does not change the local legislators’ appointment of board members and does not give up local control,” he said.

The state already owns the trade center property and building, Gray said.

“That was done in 2002 when the state put $17 million into the project and was required by law to hold title,” he said, adding that the state then leased the property back to Chatham County, which leased it to the trade center authority.

The subject of the trade center becoming a state authority came up in December, Mark Smith said, adding that trade center executive director Sherrie Spinks first broached the subject because of questions she had regarding sales tax exemptions and other issues.

Hughes said he and trade center attorney Jon Pannell first discussed the possibility at Savannah-Chatham Day in late January, when the legislature was already in session and time was of the essence.

“I think at that point, events overcame the meeting schedule of the board,” Mark Smith said. “I apologize for that and I bear responsibility for that. But now, we need to determine if we want to move ahead with this or not.”

The trade center, located on Hutchinson Island, across the Savannah River from City Hall, opened in 2000. Chatham County taxpayers funded the lion’s share of the building’s $96.4 million cost, 100 percent of the Riverwalk Extension and another $30 million in infrastructure, for a total investment of more than $100 million.

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