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ORLANDO-Orange County has opened a formal investigation into allegations by some county commissioners that the fourth phase, $750 million, 3.57 million-sf expansion of the 20-year-old Convention Center is being mismanaged by the center’s executive director and the three private construction companies serving as the project’s manager.

At the same time, county comptroller Martha Haynie confirms she is looking for a national construction consultant to do a year-long audit on the project, one of the costliest commercial public ventures in county annals. Haynie didn’t disclose the estimated fee the county would pay the consultant.

GlobeSt.com reported the audit was being considered in a June 22 article.

Orange County chairman Rich Crotty is paying prominent Orlando lawyer Egerton van den Berg $48,000 to do a 90-day investigation on the convention center’s progress to date. That is the newest element in a scenario that may show more smoke than fire, even critics of the expensive project tell GlobeSt.com on condition of anonymity.

The probe and the audit follows charges by some county commissioners that they are being stonewalled by Ackert and his associates when they request progress reports on the project. Ackert denies those charges and welcomes the investigation and probe, representatives in his office tell GlobeSt.com.

Commissioners say Ackert will be asking them to approve another $40 million shortly, bringing the total cost of the job to $390 million for 972,000 sf of new exhibition space; 1.7 million sf of lobbies and support space; and 170,000 sf of meeting rooms. That would bring the gross size of the center from four million sf to 7.57 million sf. The phased 20-year construction cost of the center is an estimated $1 billion to date.

Ackert couldn’t be reached at GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline. But associates who work with him and are intimate with the project’s blueprints tell GlobeSt.com on condition of anonymity that the commissioners may be misreading the original construction plans.

For example, they say, the $40 million for the western wing of meetings rooms and air-conditioned walkways weren’t on the original blueprints. Commissioners say if they weren’t, then they were previously led to believe they were in the original plans.

Commissioners note the $535 per-sf hard construction cost on the $520-million exhibit hall-only portion of the $750 million fourth phase may be among the steepest in the industry. But convention center officials contend the expensive addition is necessary to produce a world-class product that can compete with Las Vegas, its No. 1 rival in the convention-booking business.

So far, no fingers have been pointed at the three private general contractors who are managing the design-build project at an estimated combined fee of about 6% of the $750 million construction cost or $45 million.

They are Hubert, Hunt and Nichols Inc. of Indianapolis, IN; Clark Construction Group Inc. of Bethesda, MD; and Construct Two Group of Orlando.

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