Emails uncover council battle over Waterloo Convention Center - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Emails uncover council battle over Waterloo Convention Center

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Conflicts between Waterloo city council members emerge after city emails were uncovered, revealing friction over a multi-million dollar renovation project in eastern Iowa. 

Just last month, a major sale was approved for the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center in Downtown Waterloo. 

The 40-year-old center is now undergoing a major renovation, headed up by Leslie Hospitality Company, which is based out of Omaha. 

The Ramada Inn across the street is also being given a major facelift through the project. The Waterloo City Council is giving the project the green light during a vote last month, with four council members voting yes, and three abstaining. 

One of the city council members, who abstained from voting, did so because of a conflict of interest. Now, the reason for that conflict is coming front and center in a number of emails between city council members who are questioning the developer Leslie Hospitality's financial history. 

In an email, coucilman Bruce Jacobs praises Leslie Hospitality's Managing Director Michael Jones, who expressed his support behind the project, noting that he's excited and that it will be a "draw to the city." 

Jacobs, back in May, even offered a loan from his employer Great Western Bank for the project, saying "I would like to inquire as to the possibility of providing local financing for the project." 

Leslie Hospitality declined to offer the work with Jacobs and Great Western Bank. That's when CEO Edwin Leslie says their credibility and financial history came into question by select city council members. 

"You know to me it appears this has become more of a vendetta or witch hunt or whatever you want to call it than just looking at the facts, we have the ability to execute on this project, we have the financing to execute on this project, we have the financial wherewithall to execute on this project," said Leslie in a phone interview with KWWL. 

Leslie even made it a point to address those concerns during a July city council meeting, defending his company. 

"Our company has had two hotels that have failed-two out of forty-two," said Leslie on July 17. 

Despite what Leslie says has been his transparency in providing his company's history, Councilman Jacobs, following the vote of the convention center, questioned the city's vetting process in an email to Mayor Hart saying that he was "embarrassed by this deal" and asking why the "city is so resistant to any negative information" and asked to see the development agreement. 

Meanwhile, Councilman Steve Schmitt says he abstained from voting on the deal because he hadn't seen the agreement.

"I, Tom Lind, Bruce Jacobs, we all support the development of this thing," said Schmitt. "You look down in Cedar Rapids, you look in Dubuque we've got some serious competition in our hands, we like to compete. But, we are just looking for facts."

But records show otherwise, the city providing the development agreement to council members back in June. 

Mayor Quentin Hart says he's confident in Leslie Hospitality and their vetting process, even visiting its Omaha project. 

"We're talking about a hotel operator and convention center operator that has to meet four diamond standards," said Mayor Hart. "This is a performance based development agreement. So if they don't meet the benchmarks that we have in place then they don't receive the residuals from the development agreement that we have in place. This wasn't something that was out on the whim. This is a great project for the community. We are going to support Leslie Hospitality."

Leslie says his company has nothing to hide. 

"I just want to be treated fairly as a business owner. And I have no problem discussing my past or my history with anyone. I just want the same fair treatment that everybody should receive. And I want to be held to the same standard everybody else has been held to on business deals that they've done with the city. Our goal is just simply to get this finalized. i think it's a great project for the city-we are so excited."

KWWL reached out to Councilman Jacobs, he declined to comment. 

Leslie has reached out to Councilman Tom Lind to set up a face-to-face meeting. He says, at that time, he'll provide even more of his confidential financial records and involvement in previous projects.

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