Scuttlebiz: What do James Brown Arena’s hijackers really want?

Nearly every kidnapping, at one point or another, involves a “ransom letter.”

 

The obligatory list of demands is how those who co-opt, hijack and abduct let it be known what must be paid – or done – to ensure the safe return of a loved one or prized possession.

The concept is the same in the governance, where elected and appointed officials often serve as abductor and “hostage negotiator.” That makes it easier to get ransom money from the public treasury.

The most recent case of political kidnapping in Augusta – the abduction of James Brown Arena – is somewhat peculiar; the perpetrators who plucked it out of downtown’s thriving entertainment district have yet to issue a list of demands.

Indeed, the gang behind the Great Civic Center Shanghai of 2017 – led by Mayor Hardie Davis – hasn’t said what it wants in exchange for reversing its decision to relocate the proposed 10,000-plus seat regional arena to south Augusta’s Regency Mall site.

The caper, if you recall, was executed in late August when a faction of the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority made an out-of-the-blue vote to select the vacant shopping center site as the new arena’s preferred location, summarily ignoring two years worth of consultant studies, recommendations from professional venue managers and endorsements from every local business advocacy organization.

The four-member vote to locate the $100 million-plus facility to the corner of Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road is based on Davis’ handshake agreement with the property’s absentee owner. The nonbinding, behind-the-scenes “proposal” wasn’t sprung on the coliseum board’s chairman and vice chairman until just before the vote was called.

As in any good heist, the victim never saw it coming.

So now that Hardie Boys Gang has successfully abducted the arena, the question is: What do they want? Where’s the list of demands?

If you believe this isn’t a ransom deal, that large numbers of people are actually sincere about building a civic center at a site that never scored better than third out of six, you have been slipped some spiked Kool-Aid.

As much as Davis and his SOGO (South of Gordon Highway) boosters are enthralled with the idea of a regional venue reviving a downtrodden section of town – “visionary,” to use the mayor’s words – surely they possess an iota of skepticism that regional entertainment venue might not do very well at the crossroads of Not-Much-To-Do Boulevard and Nothing-To-See-Here Street.

Taxpayers certainly have no appetite for a major public investment on the property. That was evident in 2004 when county voters shot down a special purpose sales tax package that, among other things, proposed a sports arena at the site. Why would public sentiment be different 13 years later, when downtown Augusta has become the metro area’s undisputed center of arts, culture and entertainment?

In the ransom game, a dead hostage is worthless. And the JBA hijackers understand locating the facility at the Regency could cause it to wither and eventually die, much like the shopping mall that perished there when the area was less depressed than it is now.

So, kidnappers, once again: What exactly do you want for the safe return of a downtown arena?

If you seek more resources focused on economic development in south Augusta, hasn’t that demand already has been met by the recent approval of a special city-funded position on the Richmond County Development Authority?

If you want more attention for the “SOGO” initiative, I’d say you have the community’s undivided – though probably not very enthusiastic – attention.

If you want to extract money from the public trust – say, something along the lines of the $37.5 million that was funneled into the Laney Walker-Bethlehem neighborhood in exchange for the “release” of the $40 million convention center expansion – then name your price.

Just let the community know where you want the money dropped, and whether it needs to be in bundles of nonconsecutive $20 bills.

Clearly, JBA is being held hostage for “something.” Is it too much to ask the culprits for a prompt ransom letter with demands that are halfway reasonable?

We know from experience what happens when demands are unreasonable – everybody loses. Case in point: The new Augusta GreenJackets stadium across the river in North Augusta,

Augusta leaders killed the team’s Reynolds Street proposal years ago trying to shake down the team’s former owner, Ripken Baseball.

Jeff Eiseman, a partner with the team’s current owner, Agon Sports & Entertainment, alluded to the political extortion two weeks ago during a presentation to Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority.

“Cal Ripken still owned the club at the time and I tried to convince him to stick it out, and he was like – he was done. He was fatigued by the political process,” Eiseman said. “He said, ‘I want it sold and I don’t care who buys it and I don’t care where it goes.’ “

Eiseman said the company was on the verge of moving the franchise to Wilmington, N.C., before it found a more welcoming atmosphere across the river.

Political ransom, by the way, was not the point of Eiseman’s presentation. He was there to brief officials on how the ballpark is going to be beneficial to both city’s downtowns. He probably wouldn’t have touched on the negative had authority member and Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy not made a comment lamenting the team passing on the Regency Mall site.

“Couldn’t say that I haven’t been approached about Regency Mall at one point or another in 10 years,” Eiseman said with a nervous laugh. “Obviously, the Golf and Gardens site was the place that we (originally wanted). It would have been ideal in lot of ways. … But one door closes, another one opens.”

One must wonder: Is Augusta getting ready to close the door on another opportunity?

^

MAYBE IT’S ALL JUST A RUSE…: Could this JBA-at-Regency nonsense be a ploy to force the 72-acre property’s absentee owner – the illusive (and reclusive) Alan Cardinale – into action?

Or is it a strategy to put the city on a course to condemn the blighted property, as was discussed this past week.

Both are plausible theories, considering nothing seems to change at the property except the height of the weeds pushing through the pavement.

The Cardinale family real estate empire has held title to the decaying mall site for 15 years, having paid a total of $3.4 million through two separate transactions. With the exception of investing about $2 million into interior demolition work – and listing the property at an eye-popping $63 million on a commercial real estate website – Cardinal Entities Co. has done nothing to actively market the site or promote its redevelopment.

Oh, wait, I forgot Cardinale’s son-in-law James McKinnon attended the mayor’s SOGO Summit this spring. I suppose that counts for something. But no astute businessperson would accuse the family of being an aggressive marketer or a motivated seller.

For one thing, this dirt isn’t the only asset in the family portfolio. The Cardinale name is attached to numerous commercial properties along the East Coast – most of which are occupied and actually generate revenue.

Secondly, the Cardinales don’t live with a Regency Mall in their backyard. The place they call home is a ritzy section of Long Island called North Fork, which is not to be confused with the even ritzier South Fork – an area you’ve probably heard called “The Hamptons.” They may winter in Florida and South Carolina, but they have as much interest in Augusta as I do in Groton, Conn., where I spent four nights at a Motel 6.

It would be nice to know Mr. Cardinale’s unfiltered views on his investment here, but he stays out of the public eye in an almost Howard Hughesian way. On the rare occasions his name is mentioned in news stories, it almost always is in the context of him declining to comment, being unavailable for comment or not returning calls seeking comment.

To my knowledge, no one in Augusta’s news media has ever actually talked to him. The only person who seems to have his ear is our mayor, who acts as his sole conduit to the community.

Not even the coliseum authority’s attorney Ed Enoch has spoken to the man. And it’s his job to actually work out the details of a Regency deal.

“At some point, when we get to a binding agreement, then were going to have to know who owns this LLC – who is the managing member or president – just like any other transaction,” Enoch told me last week.

Such ambiguity, of course, makes it difficult for this community to have a meaningful dialogue about the future location of what will be the largest entertainment venue between Atlanta and Columbia, S.C. Reporters can’t exactly have a conversation with someone who communicates through a politically motivated third party via typewritten letters.

The first such letter, which proposed leasing 39 acres of mall property at $1 a year for 35 years in return for a 10-year tax abatement and city resurfacing and maintaining the mall parking lot, was so vague in content and crude in appearance that some suspected it may have been fabricated.

Which led to a second letter, where Cardinale reiterated that he was, in fact, lending his support “to the possible relocation of the James Brown Arena to the Regency Mall property.”

“We have worked closely and cooperatively with Mayor Davis and the City of Augusta toward the common beneficial goal of relocation,” the letter says. “Our interest is to support and encourage this very viable and exciting approach to the revitalization, growth and prosperity, not only of the Gordon Highway corridor, but all of Augusta.”

^

ONE LAST STAB: I’m amazed (sort of) at the business community’s insouciance over the prospect of a key component of downtown’s growing arts and entertainment scene being relocated five miles away. I can only assume they’re still in shock.

Dave Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, explains in his intriguing book, On Killing, that U.S. special forces are trained to plunge their knives into an enemy’s kidney because the extraordinary pain and shock renders the victim unable to speak, resulting in a silent kill.

Based on the continued silence – not a word of the plan, for example, was mentioned at the most recent Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau meeting – Davis delivered a real kidney piercer.

But there’s at least one business leader who doesn’t mind speaking out publicly: Clay Boardman.

As one of the city’s biggest entrepreneurs (his private equity company Flywheel invests in everything from real estate to wine), I wanted to know his take on the proposed move, especially since he knows a thing or two about the entertainment business. He has a stake in Sixthman, a successful music-themed cruise ship company, and Moon Crush, a concert and events promotion firm.

Here’s what he told me via email: “I feel very strongly that the move to Regency Mall would be a disaster. Downtown is doing so well now with all the restaurants, hotels, infrastructure and walk-ability in place that it could “gut” the progress that has been made these last (several) years.

“The location for this type of venue is in a city’s downtown – all you have to do is look across the country for examples. This is a arena for the whole CSRA and the draw will be from all over. The location should compliment that fact.

“There is no reason to place an arena in a mid-county location – there are none of the synergies in place there and, being in the retail business for years, I can assure you restaurants, bars and hotels will (n)ever pop back up in that area – the demographics are simply not there. To lose the synergy in place now with the Miller (Theater) coming along, the Imperial (Theatre) in place and the Bell (Auditorium) would be a travesty.”

^

DOWNTOWN’S WHERE IT’S AT: I’m growing weary of the “live, work, play” trope used to describe downtown Augusta’s renaissance. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Indeed, more people are living, working and playing in the central business district every day.

Residential developers such as Mark Donahue and Bryan Haltermann continue building loft apartments catering to urban dwellers. Two major hotels (three if you count the one at North Augusta’s Riverside Village) are under construction to accommodate increased tourism in the central business district. A fourth hotel has been proposed, but not officially announced, on the 1100 block of Broad Street where the old Sky City building sits.

Local companies continue opening new downtown offices. This past week Alison South Marketing Group announced it will move into the historic Commerce Building at Seventh and Broad streets early next year, which is about the same time Loop Recruiting and its partners will begin renovating 972 Broad St., the tall narrow building that once housed the Bee Hive children’s clothing store. It’s pretty obvious from the signage on its building that advertising firm Wier/Stewart is expanding into the space next door to its office at 982 Broad St.

And play? There’s always something going on in that sphere. You’ve probably noticed some fairly extensive construction work going on at the old Modjeska Theater, which Zia Amadi is turning into a nightclub called Lavish Ultra Lounge. The two storefronts at 1006 and 1008 Broad St. (next door to the future CVB offices) will house a yet-to-be announced restaurant concept from Havird Usry of Fat Man’s Mill Cafe.

And last but not least, you’ve probably seen Vinnie Ingallinera putting the finishing touches on the Source Code Escape Games attraction he’s building at 1025 Broad St.

Yep, downtown Augusta seems to have it all. Except possibly a civic center.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

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