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Hotel proposal could be mired in ethics questions

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John Heard

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Recent ethics problems for the Gwinnett County Commission could derail a deal to add a headquarters hotel to the Gwinnett Center, the county's main tourism venue.

The deal, described as a "no-brainer" by Gwinnett Center CEO Preston Williams, would bring a 300-room, full-service Marriott to the center, located at Sugarloaf Parkway and Satellite Boulevard. It is unusual because developers have asked for no funding from the government, while nearly all full-service, headquarters hotels built nationwide since the 1990s have required a community buy-in.

Officials have pledged to scrutinize the numbers to determine the risk, but the biggest issue brought up during a briefing to commissioners Tuesday was an assurance that commissioners would not profit off the deal.

Earlier this year, Commissioner John Heard, an architect, notified officials he was hired by Chuck Thakkar, the developer who submitted the proposal. Heard resigned as a member of the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau board and did not attend Tuesday's briefing on the issue. He has said he would not vote on the matter.

But other leaders said they are especially "sensitive" to ethical concerns, since the 2010 resignation of two board members over a grand jury investigation into land deals and, more recently, former Commissioner Shirley Lasseter's guilty plea last month to a federal bribery charge.

"We want to make sure that we can comfortably assure ourselves that there was no impropriety in the project," Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said, asking that Thakkar, of Nilhan Hospitality, submit a letter attesting that no commissioner would profit from the decision. "We all are very cognizant of the need to be totally transparent in any project."

Commissioner Mike Beaudreau also asked for a timeline outlining Heard's involvement in the deal.

Williams said he was also worried about "any possible stench" with Heard's conflict and would understand reservations from the board, which control the use of the 90-acre Gwinnett Center property.

But he added that the headquarters hotel proposition would do a lot to boost the center's ability to book major events, impact the local economy and grow tourism.

Williams said the "stars aligned" in the proposal because Nilhan already had plans to build a full-service hotel just across the street from the Gwinnett Center site, and had $57 million in financing already lined up, including $30 million in federal stimulus financing. Officials also promised to set aside a $6.5 million contingency for cost over-runs, to ensure the county that no public funds would be required.

According to a consultant, the project would bring 210 jobs directly to the community and bring in $71.2 million in county, schools, hotel and sales taxes over the next 30 years.

"There's an opportunity to be had," Williams said. "If this hotel gets built across the street ... it will no way near impact what it will if it is moved 1,000 feet."

A vote on the proposed lease of the Gwinnett Center land has not been set. With Lasseter's position now vacant and Heard's conflict of interest, the measure would require unanimous consent from the remaining board members.

If it is approved, officials hope to have a groundbreaking in the fall and open the hotel in the fall of 2014.

Comments

WantingFacts 1 year, 10 months ago

How can Gwinnett Center CEO Preston Williams statement be true:

"It is unusual because developers have asked for no funding from the government, while nearly all hotels built nationwide since the 1990s have required a community buy-in."

Further down in the story, it says:

"Williams said the "stars aligned" in the proposal because Nilhan already had plans to build a full-service hotel just across the street from the Gwinnett Center site, and had $57 million in financing already lined up, including $30 million in federal stimulus financing".

I guess Preston Williams does not think federal stimulus money came from the taxpayers. No wonder he is worried about a possible stench! Maybe he realizes that Gwinnett County taxpayers are sick and tired of the BOC and the Gwinnett Chamber ripping off the taxpayers. Doesn't Preston Williams give $100,000 per year of taxpayer money to the Gwinnett Chamber? Does the Gwinnett Chamber use that money to push for this hotel, TSPLOST and commercial service at the airport? They are using our money against us. Someone like the US Attorney or Danny Porter needs to look into this.

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CD 1 year, 10 months ago

Beaudreau asking for a timeline on Heard's involvement? How about a timeline of Beaudreau's questionable votes?

As much as it pains me to say anything positive about the BOC, I will admit that at least Heard did the right thing to disclose and recuse. I don't expect anyone to stop earning a living, but I do expect transparency. And thus far the man has lived up to his promises.

Nash, bless her heart, she's okay for a country gal.

So the US taxpayer will be on the hook for 30 million for this hotel. Hopefully the military has some overpriced toilet seats left over they can donate

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Don 1 year, 10 months ago

Who is to say that Preston Williams or others at the chamber have not been or are not getting paid off to support this?

I really do not see the difference of the hotel being across the street.

Yeah and I guess 30 million in stimulus is not taxpayer money. Makes one think how smart Preston really is.

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babybecca 1 year, 10 months ago

Don the Chamber on Commerce is an orgaization of business owners. They have nothing to do with zoning, or approvals.

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R 1 year, 10 months ago

AH ... ok ... sure... NO input at all...

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Reason 1 year, 10 months ago

And none ever placed on the Development Board for approval, either...

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Cleanupguy 1 year, 10 months ago

Right, and a Chamber person that helped to put the stadium deal together wasn't the co-foreperson of the grand jury investigating it, right? Strictly business, albeit shady business.

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Dubbin 1 year, 10 months ago

Heard reported getting $100,000 in consulting fees to work on this hotel design before he resigned from the GCVB. So does it strike anyone else as funny that a sitting BOC and GCVB member would get a $100,000 contract with a real estate developer working on a politically touchy hotel zoning only AFTER he wins an election? And does anyone remember that Heard didn't pay the school portion of his property taxes for years because his bill was "accidentally" tabulated incorrectly? I think the only way that "John Heard" and "ethics" can be used in one sentence is if the word "violation" is in there as well.

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tjsully 1 year, 10 months ago

Dubbin I think you have it nailed. I'd say it already is mired in Questions, like has he cashed the check yet? Heard will not vote on the issue and has resigned from GCVB but if you want to be truly transparent perhaps he should return the $100,000 for "Consulting". Isn't that what Kevin called his contributions from the developer, "Consulting".

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babybecca 1 year, 10 months ago

Talk about a witch hunt.

Clearly what Williams is saying is local taxpayer tie in. I'm sure he knows that federal funding comes from taxpayer money. You can't take two sentences from an interview and link them together with out know what else was discussed in between.

The area needs a full service hotel. The area will benefit in jobs, and the county will benefit in tax revenues, hotel taxes and more conventions coming to Duluth.

Seems to me the board is taking care to be sure there is nothing improper. And the county will only benefit from the new hotel.

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R 1 year, 10 months ago

The funding source really hasn't been "clearly" presented with respect to the FEDERAL monies involvement for awhile now...

When you continually state “no public funds” used above the fold, it may have been better to state no “public county” money.

Personally, I'd be tempted to let it go let it go though at this point as the “Good Bye” to the 1980’s. It’s the last parcel of a project from an era gone by.

AS LONG as it doesn’t come back on taxpayers to operate or refurbish in 15 years
and we may NEED the income to cover the ballfield operation in about 4 more years.

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Don 1 year, 10 months ago

Not complaining about the hotel just the "connections" involved with our politicians. I want to see a fair land lease worked out without any concessions. I would not want to see the current facilities become landlocked because of this hotel. Maybe a pedestrian bridge over Satellite?

I mean the Omni Hotel downtown is across the street from the World Congress Center and I do not think that has been a detriment. The Westin and Marriott is even farther.

With all that has gone on in Gwinnett and its dirty politicians we have a very good reason to be concerned. I mean Heard is not one of the top hotel designers, especially when it comes to Marriott.

Oh and not to let anyone forget who brought us the Gwinnett Braves stadium! Now that is even a bigger reason to get concerned since Preston said it would be great for us and bring us all kinds of revenue, NOT!

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R 1 year, 10 months ago

BUT surely that will change with Bert Nasuti kicking around in the back channels...

BESIDES the stadium PAYS for itself right? ... right? ... RIGHT?

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roaads1 1 year, 10 months ago

It doesn't matter who can't stand who. This should happen. It's jobs, development, and a tax base. You guys can complain about the commissioners all you want. This is progress. You can't stop all major development because you think some of the people voting on it have made decisions you didn't like in the past. Push bias aside and get behind something that could actually grow into an industry that could help Gwinnett moving forward.

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R 1 year, 10 months ago

Granted as long as it doesn't require special Fire apparatus as a hidden cost.

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Dubbin 1 year, 10 months ago

ROAADS1: I think a properly constructed hotel that could make the Gwinnett Center more usable isn't a bad idea. The infrastructure is there, no neighborhoods would be impacted, and tax revenue/jobs would be a plus but I'm not sure there is that much extra demand for the facility to be honest. My issue is that the deal already stinks like a Bannister/Kennerly/Lasseter project so I have to wonder what else is not Kosher with it. If it survives vetting then so be it but if this is more kickbacks and money under the table then we should be talking about jail time for those involved. Hopefully they'll be in the cell next to Lasseter. (I really do wish Porter had done his job and gone after Bannister and put him in jail.)

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CD 1 year, 10 months ago

R, as usual, you have some very good points. I say go ahead with the hotel, but ONLY after exhaustive review of ANY potential liabilities and a VERY reasonable assurance the cash flows to the county will more than offset the costs even under the most stressful economic scenario (and those projections should include more than a few, pretty pictures).

To answer your question about my post censorship: evidently the GDP does not like it when I mention "BOC" and "drugs" in any sentence construction.

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R 1 year, 10 months ago

Understood... I mean its not like its a FEDERAL case or anything ...

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Cleanupguy 1 year, 10 months ago

Heard is a long-time Bannister Buddy (if I'm not mistaken, Bannister repaid some of Heard's old campaign debts), so hopefully no one is surprised. Heard was originally put in place on the BOC to be Bannister's guaranteed third vote (along with sock puppet Lasseter). This incident is just a rare fortunate case of catching one of them BEFORE the damage is done.

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Don 1 year, 10 months ago

babybecca- I fully understand that they have no zoning voting rights etc. but they do have a HUGE influence on the BOC. I ask you to go and do some research on the Gwinnett Braves and tell me they do not have influence.

Yeah the Chamber is composed of some of the most influencial business people of the community. I mean read the plaque on the wall, it is a who's who of Gwinnet. Can not wait to see how many of those people Shirley has turned state eveidence on. Mason, Bowen and clan.

Yes to the hotel but without any concession from the taxpayers, No infrastructure should be footed by us. I want to see the land lease deal prior to giving it to them.

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rco1847 1 year, 10 months ago

The Good Ol' Boy network is Part of the Republican aristocracy and Fixed News nutworks club. Insuder all the way. Never saw a conflict of interest they couldn't profit from..

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kevin 1 year, 9 months ago

not "could be" but "will be" now.

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