LAWRENCEVILLE -- Commissioners gave a preliminary nod to a proposal to build a hotel at the Gwinnett Center, giving assurances that ethical questions have been answered.
With Commissioner John Heard, who works for developer Chittranjan "Chuck" Thakkar, abstaining from the vote, three board members voted to pursue a deal that could bring a 300-room full-service Marriott to the county-owned Sugarloaf Parkway campus.
A headquarters hotel is expected to draw more convention business to the center, bringing 210 direct jobs and $71.2 million in county, schools, hotel and sales taxes over the next 30 years, according to a consultant.
"This is a very unusual situation we find ourselves in," Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said of the bid submitted to the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, seeking to build the $57 million hotel without any financial assistance from the county.
Thakkar, of Nilhan Hospitality, had already set up funding, including $30 million in federal recovery bonds, to build the hotel on another corner of Sugarloaf's busy intersection with Satellite Boulevard. He decided to pursue the project at the Gwinnett Center site after discussions with Heard. Earlier this year, Thakkar hired Heard, an architect, to work on other projects, and Heard resigned from the convention and visitors bureau board.
According to an affadavit submitted at Nash's request, Thakkar said Heard was paid $10,000 a month for the other projects before his contract was terminated at the end of August.
"Most importantly, Mr. Heard was not paid any monetary compensation or otherwise, related to the RFP (for the hotel) or the outcome," the affadavit said.
Heard declined to talk about the vote but said he was never involved in the convention center hotel bid process.
"Having turned it upside down and looked at it from every direction ... I have come to believe this is the right decision to make to proceed with further negotiations," Nash said.
While the vote does not obligate the county to agree to a final contract, Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said he believes the tourism board should have begun the bid process anew.
"I can recognize the need for this," he said, before casting the sole nay vote. "(But), I am still concerned, extremely concerned, about the level of involvement with one of our board members. ... I have some serious questions about us going down that road again."
Ethical questions have plagued the board since 2010, when one commissioner resigned and another was indicted after a special grand jury looked into questionable land purchases. This year, former Commissioner Shirley Lasseter pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges, and was sentenced to 33 months in jail.
The convention bureau's Preston Williams said negotiations to reach a final deal could be concluded in the coming months, and leaders hope to open the hotel in the fall of 2014.