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.