Senate Bill Could Clear Way for New Convention Center in Greenville

January 10, 2014

Investigative Reports

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GreenvilleThe city of Greenville would be off the hook for reimbursing state taxpayers $7 million used to help renovate its convention center if it builds a new center, under a bill sponsored by two Greenville senators.

In effect, the city – if the bill becomes law – could hit up state taxpayers again for millions for a new convention center before state bonds used for the existing center are paid off, though a city official told The Nerve on Thursday that wouldn’t happen.

“I talked with some leaders in the Senate about this, and they asked, ‘Are you going to come back and ask for more money?’ And we told them, ‘No,’” said Julie Horton, the city’s governmental relations manager.

Horton added, however, that she wasn’t speaking for other public entities, such as Greenville County Council or the Greenville Arena District Board, which might decide to participate with the city in building a new center.

A 2004 law (Section 11-41-30(2)(e) of the S.C. Code of Laws) allows the sale of state bonds, which state taxpayers have to pay off with interest, for a “national and international convention and trade show center” of at least 200,000 square feet, though another section (11-41-70(2)(d)) requires the public agency that received the bond proceeds to pay back the bonds with interest to the state should it sell its convention center.

A bill (S. 828) prefiled last month by Sens. Mike Fair and Ross Turner, both Greenville Republicans, would exempt public agencies – though it doesn’t specifically mention the Greenville convention center – from that requirement if the property is sold and the sale proceeds are “used in their entirety for a new meeting and exhibit space.” The General Assembly returns to session on Tuesday.

“It’s got to be exactly the same thing,” Fair said this week when contacted by The Nerve. “It has to be used for a convention center.”

“This does not open the floodgates; this is just a rifle shot,” Fair continued. “The taxpayers in Greenville will have to make the case that the city is generating tax dollars – in this case, through tourism.”

In 2006, the state sold $14 million in bonds authorized under the 2004 law, half of which was used to finance renovations to Greenville’s convention center, then known as the Palmetto Expo Center and now called the TD Convention Center; and the other half to finance improvements to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, according to information from the S.C. Treasurer’s Office.

The city of Greenville purchased its convention center from the Textile Hall Corp. in 2001 for $6.75 million; a $22 million renovation project was completed in 2008, according to the center’s website. The facility, located on Exposition Drive near Greenville Downtown Airport, has 280,000 square feet of exhibit space, plus 60,000 square feet of meeting and conference space, including a 30,000-square-foot ballroom, according to the site.

Under current law, the city would be responsible for reimbursing the state $7 million in bond principal, plus about $3 million in interest, should it sell the convention center, according to an information sheet provided this week to The Nerve by an assistant at Turner’s insurance agency. The 15-year bonds are scheduled to be paid off in 2021, according to the sheet.

Efforts this week by The Nerve to reach Turner for comment were unsuccessful. Turner’s assistant in a written response said his work schedule this week has been “crazy.”

The information sheet provided to The Nerve, which addressed “clarifying questions” by the Senate Finance Committee, said although the city of Greenville “does not need to sell (its convention center), there is a company interested in purchasing, which is rare due to the age of the facility.” The present center location opened in 1964, according to the center’s website.

Fair told The Nerve that the city has “another private buyer to buy the whole thing,” though he added he didn’t know the identity of the potential buyer. But Horton said there is no immediate deal in the works, noting that a potential buyer approached the city in April and May of last year but later “faded away.”

“We don’t have a lot people coming to us as a potential buyer for this convention center,” she said, citing the building’s age and large size.

A tenant of the TD Convention Center is NewSpring Church, which, according to its website, averages 26,000 in total attendance during weekend services at its eight campuses statewide. It wanted to build a 1,400-seat church next to the International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, but those plans fell through in September after the Greenville Board of Zoning Appeals rejected its request to be exempted from a parking-space regulation, according to media reports.

The Nerve on Thursday could not reach reach Perry Noble, the church’s founding pastor, for comment on whether the church is interested in purchasing the convention center. Gresham Barrett, a former state House member and U.S. congressman who also was a 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate, is NewSpring’s stewardship director based at the church’s Anderson campus, according to his online LinkedIn profile.

Horton said while there is interest among city leaders about relocating the convention center downtown to be closer to hotels and other attractions, there have been no formal actions on the matter.

“I think it’s down the road because it would take a lot of money and several entities to do that,” she said. “It’s a wish list in the future.”

Still, she acknowledged, the bill by Fair and Turner would put the city in a better position to move forward with those plans.

Under the legislation, if the city sold the TD Convention Center, it would not have to reimburse the state for the $7 million in bonds, plus interest, if:

  • The land for the new convention center is owned by the city at the time of the sale of the existing facility or is purchased within 18 months of the sale;
  • Construction of the new center begins within five years of the sale; and
  • The project is completed within 10 years of the sale.

The bill would require that before a public agency could sell an existing convention center that benefited from the sale of state bonds, plans for the sale would have to be reviewed by the state Joint Bond Review Committee, currently chaired by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

Leatherman was the primary sponsor of the 2004 law allowing, among other things, the sale of state bonds for a “national and international convention and trade show center,” and served on a conference committee that approved the provision.

Unlike other economic development projects eligible for taxpayer-funded bonds, the law exempts eligible convention and trade show centers from meeting minimum job-creation and investment requirements.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.