The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners voted 3-1 Tuesday to authorize negotiations with a developer who wants to build a hotel at the county convention center.
Nilhan Hospitality wants to build a 300-room Marriott hotel at Gwinnett Center in Duluth at no cost to taxpayers. A majority of commissioners believes Gwinnett has nothing to lose.
“It’s appropriate to proceed with trying to flesh out the details,” said Chairwoman Charlotte Nash. Those would include such issues as lease terms for the county-owned land.
Commissioner Mike Beaudreau voted against the proposal, citing concerns about fellow Commissioner John Heard’s business ties to the developer. Heard abstained from voting and has recused himself from discussions of the project.
Gwinnett has long sought a hotel for the convention center. Supporters say an on-site hotel it will enable Gwinnett to compete for bigger conventions, attracting more visitors and generating more tax revenue.
In April the Gwinnett Convention & Visitors Bureau – which runs Gwinnett Center for the county – recommended Nilhan Hospitality to build the hotel. The company submitted the only proposal that did not require public funding.
Convention officials say a privately funded hotel at a public convention facility is unusual and have urged commissioners to approve Nilhan’s plans. Two consultants also concluded the project poses little financial risk to the county.
Heard was a member of the convention bureau board when Nilhan submitted its plans in January. That same month, Heard – an architect specializing in hotels – became a paid consultant for DCT Group, a company affiliated with Nilhan.
In an affidavit submitted to the county Tuesday, DCT Group Chuck Thakkar said he paid Heard $10,000 a month through August to work on various other hotel projects. He said Heard played an “insignificant” role in the proposed Gwinnett Center hotel.
Thakkar said he paid neither Heard nor any Gwinnett County or convention bureau official or employee “any financial enticements” in connection with the Gwinnett Center hotel proposal.
Heard disclosed his ties to the developer in February and resigned from the convention bureau board. Those ties gained new scrutiny after former Commissioner Shirley Lasseter’s admitted in May she accepted $36,500 from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for her vote on a proposed real estate development.
Beaudreau expressed concerned about Heard’s ties to the company and said the project should be rebid.
Nash said she has “turned (the proposal) upside down making sure we’re protected. I’ve come to the conclusion this is the right decision to make.”
Tuesday’s vote authorizes the convention bureau to negotiate a final agreement with Nilhan. Commissioners must approve the final agreement.