Brunswick city commissioners on Wednesday voted 4-0 to defer consideration of a contract to build a proposed conference center on Newcastle Street and several residents spoke out against the project.
Commissioner Johnny Cason, North Ward, made the motion to delay consideration of the contract with Jacksonville-based Elkins Construction Co. to perform pre-construction and construction management services of the planned Oglethorpe Conference Center until Dec. 19. Mayor Pro Tem Felicia Harris seconded the motion.
City Attorney Brian Corry said the matter was deferred to give him more time to review the contract.
If the agreement is approved later this month, pre-construction would cost the city $35,000 over a three-month period. During that time, Elkins Construction Co. would work with Savannah-based architectural firm Gunn Meyerhoff Shay to finalize blueprints and finalize the total cost of the building. The final cost, also know as a guaranteed maximum, would be Elkins’ budget to build the center. The 20,000-square-foot facility in the 1700 block of Newcastle Street has previously been estimated to cost about $8 million.
About $2.5 million remains in a special-purpose, local option sales tax account to build the center. Commissioners have signaled their willingness to borrow the remaining cost. Last month, the Richmond, Va.-based financial firm Davenport & Co. gave a presentation to commissioners about borrowing options. The firm presented several choices for borrowing $4.5 million and recommended using direct bank loans. Commissioners voted for Davenport to release a request for proposals from banks.
Davenport told commissioners borrowing $4.5 million would cost the city about $2 million over 20 years, with debt service — principle and interest — totaling about $320,000 each year.
This debt service is a cost to the city on top of the expense of operating the center. A study earlier this year by Savannah consultant Bob Coffey found the conference center would likely lose more than $300,000 annually without a hotel adjacent; with a hotel, the losses are closer to about $180,000 each year. Both estimates show losses for at least the first five years — the furthest out in time the study looked.
Several people at the beginning of Wednesday’s commission meeting spoke in opposition to the conference center project.
Sandy Colhard of Albany Street noted the competition the center would receive from other area meeting spaces, including the Jekyll Island Convention Center and Epworth by the Sea.
“The city commission should focus on and prioritize our many current problems,” she told commissioners. “They should be representatives of the people and avoid high-risk projects which put them in the role of trying to predict what the market wants, a task city government is ill-suited to carry out.”
Likewise, Cumberland Island Circle resident Janis Schnellman said the city should use any extra funds it has to raise police, firefighter and public works employees’ salaries.
“For years, you’ve budgeted a full staff of 70 officers,” she told the commission. “But because you won’t budget a decent salary, commensurate with the risk and sacrifice required, we flunk at recruiting and retention. Therefore, we consistently lack officers. Currently, we have a 14-officer shortage. Our notoriously poor salary simply fails to support recruitment and retention of good officer candidates.”
Schnellman received a round of applause from the gallery.
Sandy Dean of Union Street was perhaps the most pointed in her opposition. She questioned the ethics of Urban Redevelopment Agency Chairman LaRon Bennett, who is heading up the planning stages of the conference center project.
She pointed to a series of emails Bennett sent to city officials in late October in which he asked to be paid more than $12,000 for drafting site plans for Mary Ross Waterfront Park. News of the emails was first reported in The Islander on Monday.
The city responded Bennett’s request in an email, citing Georgia law that makes it illegal for Bennett, or any member of the URA, to benefit financially from URA projects.
Regardless, days after being counseled by the city attorney about the legality, Bennett sent another request via email, this time on URA stationary, asking the city to hire him as the project manager with a salary of $120,000, with an additional $50,000 to hire an assistant.
The city also denied that request.
The News filed an open records request Nov. 27 after being made aware of these emails. The city responded Friday, and The News has been examining the city’s responses, which includes several emails sent by Bennett to city officials. The News planned to wait to publish this information until after comment from Bennett could be obtained, but has decided to move forward in light of Dean’s comments Wednesday.
Reached by phone around 9 p.m. Wednesday night, Bennett denied wrongdoing and said he was merely trying to move the projects along.
“I was trying to facilitate the process,” he said. “If we tried an RFP (request for proposal), that costs more money and more time. I tried to provide a service — and it’s a lot of work. I wouldn’t do that for free.”
As for the $170,000, Bennett said the city would need a contract manager for the conference center project, and he was advocating for the URA to have an executive director who could oversee its various projects.
Georgia law explicitly prohibits redevelopment agency members from benefiting financially from the agency’s activities.