Marriott's Hotel To Nowhere

Jack Ellis, Mayor of Macon, Georgia, has been in the news recently due to his expression of solidarity with Venezuela’s dictator, Hugo Chavez.  While Ellis might have gotten Macon negative attention it did not deserve, the Macon City Council’s latest scheme with Marriott International, Inc. should be getting national attention as a morality tale of out of touch government.

Macon is the geographic center of Georgia.  One hour south of the busiest airport in the world, Macon saw the first baptism in North American in 1540, is home to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, more Yoshino Cherry trees than any other place in the nation, and was the musical launching pad of Otis Redding, Little Richard, and the Allman Brothers.  It should be a booming tourism hotbed.  But it is not.  It even lost the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention to Columbus, Georgia because of inadequate hotel space.  City leaders, in their infinite wisdom, decided something had to be done.  That something was to build a hotel on a vacant lot of land across the street from Macon’s Coliseum and Convention Center.

The City formed a panel to review a plan by National Ventures Macon, LLC.  The hotel would be a “convention center” quality hotel built on the lot across from the hotel.  The developer, nationally experienced in such projects, did his best to get a sweetheart deal from the city, but in turn committed to developing the area around the hotel.  The hotel would be entirely financed by the private sector, but the city would waive taxes and provide some ancillary funding.  In exchange, the developer, through related development, would expand the city’s tax base.  For a moment it appeared the city would get its hotel without much controversy and at very little cost.

Then, of course, something happened.  Several of the investors in National were unhappy with the equity distribution in National.  They set up a competing group and, after a few stumbles, joined with Noble Investment Group, Inc., one of National’s competitors, to make a competing bid.  The contrast was startling. 

National had provided schematics, financial projections, initial plans, drawings, commitments, etc.  Noble had none of those things.  Noble did claim it had Sheraton’s backing — a claim National undermined by proving it had an exclusive relationship with Sheraton.  None of that mattered, though.  Noble hurried off, got Marriott International, Inc. on board, made large campaign contributions to members of Macon’s City Council a few weeks before it voted on the matter, and expressed delight and surprise when City Council accepted its proposal against the advice of an independent panel.

Amazingly, the City Council members sold the taxpayers down the proverbial river for a few thousand dollars in campaign contributions.  The Macon Telegraph reported on May 11, 2007, “[Noble will] pay the city $625,000.00 over twenty-five years.  On the other end, the city [will] pay Noble $1.44 million over 15 years.”  Digging further into the documents, the Telegraph noted the City Council chose “a plan that will obligate city taxpayers to pay off bonded indebtedness of $10 million plus interest, probably totaling some $17 million, over a plan by rival National Venture … that would have placed the financial obligations onto private financiers.”  Which made many Maconites angry: why should we be paying these costs at all?  Were the city council members simply bought? 

Reasons for citizen outrage didn’t end with this news.  Noble’s deal scrapped plans to build on the vacant lot across from the Coliseum and contemplated no additional development.  Once again, the costs to the developers went down and the costs to the city went up. The City Council, instead, gave Noble permission to build on the Coliseum’s parking lot.  The 3.85 acre hotel will take up 400 parking spaces during construction and permanently take 100 parking spaces.  Noble, naturally, did not want to build a parking deck with its hotel.  The Telegraph reported “Coliseum sources have said that [the Coliseum and Convention Center] will lose business, not gain it, if the hotel is built in its parking lot”  City Council was undeterred by the facts.  It calculated it could take parking spaces from the hospital adjacent to the Coliseum — the city has a pre-existing lease and does not believe the hospital’s claims that it is strapped for parking.

After months of simmering rage, Macon’s voters expressed their anger at the ballot box.  Macon, being the only one of 515 municipalities in Georgia to have partisan elections, went to the polls on July 17, 2007.  With a registration of 7 Democrats to every 1 Republican, the primary in Macon is the de facto general election.  Forty percent of the city’s registered voters turned out and 70% of them voted to throw out of office all but one member of City Council who voted for the hotel.  The one who was spared, Elaine Lucas, still saw her challenger — accurately described as a child support owing dead-beat — get 40% of the vote.  Three races went to runoffs, one pitting Willette Hill-Chambliss, the Chairwoman of City Council’s Property Committee and a vocal proponent of the hotel, against Miriam Paris, the most vocal opponent of the hotel on City Council.

In a dynamic typical of Macon’s politics, there are five wards in the city with three posts in each ward.  Post 1 in each ward runs city wide, while the other two are elected from within the wards.  Paris had been a Post 3 candidate in Ward 4 with Hill-Chambliss running in Ward 4, Post 1.  After battling Hill-Chambliss for a year over the hotel’s costs, Paris left her very safe seat to pick off Hill-Chambliss.  On August 14, 2007, Paris did just that.  In a record breaking turnout for a city runoff, Paris garnered 70% of the vote against Hill-Chambliss.  In the two other runoffs, both candidates who expressly opposed the hotel won.  [Full disclosure: I voluntarily served as Miriam Paris’s campaign consultant]

On December 15, 2007, Macon’s City Council will see its largest turn over in a decade.   Out of 15 seats, eight will be new people or incumbents who decided to run city wide against hotel supporters.  I will be one of those new city council members.

It would be nice to report that the Macon “Parking Lot Hotel” as people now regularly describe it, is dead.  Unfortunately, the outgoing members of City Council see the writing on the wall.  Ignoring the voters, City Council has announced plans to accelerate the hotel’s development.  Working hand in hand with Noble Investment Group and Marriott International, Inc., the City Council put pressure on the Urban Development Authority, the local government body that must approve bonds for the hotel, which readily agreed to move forward.

Elaine Lucas, one of the three Council members from Ward 1, the ward in which the hotel would be built, ignored the fact that every hotel opponent won the precinct where the hotel would be built and declared that the hotel “is in my Ward.  We’re talking about jobs for my ward.”  She then told a WGXA-TV reporter, “This is a democracy.  In a democracy the majority wins and there was a 9 to 6 vote for the hotel.  Everyone now needs to get in line behind it and support it.”  Ms. Lucas, of course, chose not to see the clearing out of City Council as a message from the voters.  Charles Jones, another hotel supporter who had the good fortune of not being opposed, told the press, "The worst thing we can do is come into council and try to change the past for our own benefit. If we go into the new year with this, we’re going to be in the same mess we’ve always been in."

The incoming members of City Council have expressed their desire that Noble, at a minimum, move its hotel across the street.  Noble, for its part, has said it intends to proceed, undeterred, with the parking lot hotel.  Marriott, which prides itself on being a good corporate citizen, appears intent on living off Macon’s taxpayers and in defiance of both the voters and a majority of the incoming City Council. And Marriott’s campaign contributions to the city council members should be the subject of a lot more scrutiny. 

The irony of this story is that, in their zeal to build a parking lot hotel, members of City Council who have served for decades now find themselves either out of office completely or bracing to have their committee chairmanships and all their power stripped away by the new City Council.  Sadly, unless Marriott forces Noble Investment Group to listen to the voters, nothing else will change and the parking lot hotel will slowly take shape in downtown Macon, at huge — and growing — cost to the citizens of the city.