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Legislators call on cities to help strengthen Arena at Gwinnett

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LAWRENCEVILLE - Concern over the Arena at Gwinnett Center has caused legislators to shelve bills that would have added tourism bureaus to Suwanee and Buford.

State Rep. Bobby Reese, whose district encompasses the majority of both cities, said he won't sign onto legislation the cities requested after officials pointed out that the jurisdictions do not give money to support the arena.

Without Reese's signature, the bills won't come before the General Assembly for a vote.

"I don't see any reason why Suwanee or Buford needs a visitors' bureau. I don't see where all the tourists would go," Reese said. "And it would take so much money away from the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau it would cripple them."

The issue, though, doesn't just encompass those northern Gwinnett cities. Norcross, Snellville and Lawrenceville also charge lower tax rates to their hotels and do not contribute to paying off the arena's construction or operating the convention center.

They still reap the benefits, said Richard Tucker, a member of the county bureau's board of directors who lobbied legislators against the Suwanee and Buford proposals.

"We have a county convention and visitors' bureau that serves all the cities of this county. We have a civic and cultural center and an arena" that brings business to hotels across Gwinnett, he said. "Nobody's against a city having its own convention and visitors' bureau, but we want a level playing field. The hotel tax should be uniform throughout the county."

In Norcross, he said, hotels in the city limits only charge 3 percent while those in the unincorporated county - some even right across the street - charge 7 percent.

According to state law, jurisdictions are allowed to charge 3 percent as a tax on hotels for any purpose. If the charge goes up to 5 percent, then the government has to use the additional 2 percent to support tourism. Taxes can go to 7 percent to pay for capital improvements or to support a convention bureau. In Gwinnett County's case, that money is to pay back general bonds used to construct the arena, which opened in 2003.

While the Gwinnett Center has been bringing in more revenue since the arena opened, this year, the county has to begin paying principal on the loan, which is expected to cost $3.6 million. In 2004, the last year where numbers were available, the county's loan payment was $2.2 million.

Tucker pointed out that if the county can't cover the debt with the hotel/motel tax, the burden could fall on property tax owners.

Of Gwinnett County's 97 hotels, 11 are within the city limits of Norcross, nine are in Suwanee, seven in Lawrenceville and two each in Buford and Snellville. While Norcross charges 3 percent, the four other cities charge 5 percent.

In January, the Suwanee City Council and Buford City Commission asked legislators for visitors' bureaus in order to create a sounding board for the local hotel owners, according to attorney Gregory Jay, who represents both cities.

The measure passed the state Senate, but has failed to gain support in the House. Both chambers approved a bureau for Braselton, which has a hotel in Barrow County.

Tucker said he's capitalizing on the situation to broker talks over the unequal tax burden.

Buford Chairman Phillip Beard said he's willing.

"They've got a point. They've got a big obligation, but this is the way the Legislature set it up," he said, explaining that the city cannot charge 7 percent if it does not have a visitors bureau.

Beard has not promised that the city would up its rate or that the extra money would go to the arena, but he said it isn't even an option because of the restriction in the law.

"We're not going into competition with the county. ... Buford's got a lot of little things people are interested in seeing," he said. "I'm a citizen of Gwinnett County, too, and I've got the same obligation those guys have."

Besides, Beard said, his citizens are helping to fill in the seats at the arena.

"I'm open-minded about the whole situation. We can resolve it," he said. "But the county shouldn't have the right to force us to do anything. This is politics. Whoever has the most votes wins. Today, they may have it, but tomorrow, there could be a new count."

Suwanee Mayor Nick Masino said city staff members talked to county officials last week about contributing to the arena. Suwanee is the only city that has a contract with the Gwinnett Convention and Visitor's Bureau. It pays $1,000 per hotel for the bureau's services.

"It sounds like a lot of misinformation," he said. "I think they're separate issues. ... They are not connected, but one is being used as leverage for the other."

Masino said he was also interested in sitting down with all the parties involved to talk about the issues.

Both Masino and Beard said they could wait until next year - after the 2006 election, they may have other representatives to deal with.