Scuttlebiz: Business community silently shocked over civic center vote

Based on the silence this past week from most of Augusta’s business leaders, it would appear many are dumbfounded by Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis’ engineering of Regency Mall as the future site of the city’s new arena.

 

If anyone in a leadership role has come out publicly in favor of Davis’ plan, I haven’t seen it.

Obviously, the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority’s vote to nix a months-in-the-making downtown expansion plan in favor of a handshake deal Davis negotiated with the vacant mall’s absentee owners left some distressed and blindsided.

Hence the stunned silence.

Officials representing organizations that endorsed a downtown site – such as the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Development Authority and the Augusta Convention &Visitors Bureau – are keeping mum about the abrupt change of course. At least publicly.

You know the old adage, if you can’t say something nice. …

Aside from astonishment and disappointment, I imagine a fair number of leaders are bewildered at the prospect of plucking the premier entertainment asset from the region’s cultural epicenter and moving it four miles (as the crow flies) to a failed retail property at the nexus of two downtrodden corridors. Especially since the Regency site was never the first or even second choice in a $142,000 civic center study.

Professionals recommended building the 10,000-plus seat arena on the 17-acre site occupied by the existing James Brown Arena and newly renovated Bell Auditorium off Seventh Street. Those facilities, by the way, are enjoying their best years ever.

If there ever was a time to build a civic center outside downtown, that time passed long ago. The central business district is now firmly established as the metro area’s entertainment center. Dining and night life are thriving. New hotels and a baseball stadium are being built. The Miller Theater renovation is helping create an actual “theater district.”

And it’s where millenials, the largest consumer group, want to be.

Downtown Augusta, as they say, has critical mass. It has the energy to draw people from across the region to support a 10,000-plus seat arena.

The intersection of Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road has no critical mass, and hasn’t in a long time. It lacked the energy to support a Montgomery Ward and a dollar theater. What now makes it a prime spot for a regional arena?

Davis’ #SOGO (South of Gordon Highway) initiative is a worthy one. And clearly there is value waiting to be unlocked at the Regency property (though not the ridiculous $63 million that owners were asking). The 72-acre site has excellent traffic access, is geographically central and is on a main line between downtown and Fort Gordon.

But that’s doesn’t make it the right place for a civic center. If it was a great site, it wouldn’t have to be sprung on the community in such a manner as it was this past week.

Contrast that with the yearlong process the authority’s chairman and vice chairman, Cedric Johnson and Brad Usry, respectively, spent with Chris Bird, general manager for Spectra, the downtown entertainment complex’s management company, getting “buy-in” from local officials and community leaders.

In a city concerned about image and desperate to speak with “one voice,” these out-of-nowhere shenanigans are as unifying as a knife in the back. Don’t be angry with me for pointing that out; I’m just saying what “community leaders” won’t.

A Regency arena is not a done deal. Augusta commissioners would have to uphold the authority’s decision and funding would likely involve a public vote.

Davis’ vision might never come to fruition, but he’ll at least be able to tell south Augusta voters “he tried.” And in the context of a reelection bid, that might be all he needs.

Coliseum authority members defending the 4-2 vote have said they were hesitant to expand the downtown entertainment complex out of concern construction would disrupt months worth of concerts, shows and events.

On that, they make a good point.

But if they succeed in getting a new arena built at the old mall, brisk business will never be a concern again.

 

DON’T YOU KNOW ANY NICE SONGS?: It’s not all criticism and controversy here at Scuttlebiz. There’s plenty of positive business news to talk about, including Augusta topping another housing affordability list.

Just a couple months after it ranked Augusta No. 2 on its “Top 10 Most Undervalued Cities” list, New York-based SmartAsset said the metro area is No. 5 on its list of cities where you can buy the most home for the median household income.

“Thanks to low home prices, the median household income goes relatively far in Augusta,” the personal finance website said.

Although household wages in metro Augusta are lower than other cities in the top 10, the median household income of $41,190 could still buy 741 square-feet of the average home. In the No. 1 city on the list, Frisco, Texas, its typical household could buy 938 square feet of home. In New York City, a median income will get you 138 square feet.

Details on the study, including full methodology and rankings, can be found at smartasset.com/mortgage/median-income-buys-the-most-home.

 

GETTING A LIFT: How do you build a better hydrogen-powered forklift? It helps if you know a thing or two about fuel cells. And $300,000 in federal funds don’t hurt, either.

The Savannah River National Laboratory is helping Hawaii Hydrogen Carriers develop the next generation of hydrogen-powered forklifts with help from a $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy Small Business Vouchers Pilot program.

SRNL, one of eight Energy Department labs participating in the program, is helping the Honolulu-based company “optimize the performance of a metal hydride-based, on-board hydrogen storage system for proton exchange membrane fuel cell powered forklift trucks.”

The solid-state system the company is developing enables hydrogen gas be stored at 800 pounds per square inch, compared to the industry standard 5,000 psi. That makes the low-pressure system safer and able to store twice the amount of hydrogen, letting the forklift operate longer before refueling.

“The long history of work on metal hydride systems at SRNL has already started paying dividends for us,” company President Craig Jensen said.

Scott McWhorter, SRNL’s project lead, said the lab can assist with research and development, full-system engineering and testing that might not normally be available to small businesses.

“We provide resources they wouldn’t normally have, allowing them to innovate faster and be more competitive nationally and internationally,” McWhorter said.

 

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE (WITH FEW): Most start-up companies don’t survive, but a lucky few turn into household names. Very few companies make it to “middle market” status, which is considered revenue between $10 million and $1 billion, and even fewer make it in Georgia.

The recent Middle Market Power Index from American Express and Dun &Bradstreet noted Georgia had an estimated 4,941 middle market companies, or about 0.78 percent of all companies in the state, about two points below the national average of 0.97 percent.

The vast majority of businesses in Georgia, 99.20 percent, are small businesses with less than $10 million in revenues. That’s in the same ballpark as the national average of 99.01.

The largest companies, those over $1 billion, account for only 0.02 percent of all firms in Georgia and the nation.

Though middle market firms are not as prevalent, they have a major impact on the economy, accounting for about one in four business dollars and employing 27 percent of private-sector employees. And middle-market firms were responsible for more than half – 51.7 percent of the 51.8 million new jobs created in the U.S. since 2011.

Georgia, by the way, ranks 11th out of all 50 states for growth in number of middle market firms from 2011-2017.

 

NEW OWNER, NEW LOOK: Expect to see renovations soon at Vintage Creek apartments off North Leg Road.

An affiliate of New York-based real estate investment firm Quad Property Group acquired the 104-unit complex for $5 million from Augusta’s ATC Development earlier this month. Quad Property said in a statement the 1970s-era complex is “ripe for renovation.”

“We plan to make strategic improvements that will improve the tenant experience at Vintage Creek, both inside individual apartments and throughout the complex,” Quad Property principal Jariel Bortnick said.

Improvements include the complex’s common areas, a new leasing office and clubhouse and development of a pet park and a “sport court.” The company said it is “excited about future growth in Augusta and plans additional multifamily acquisitions in the area.

“With Augusta’s reliable base of medical, educational and manufacturing jobs, along with the tremendous momentum related to Cyber Command, the future of Augusta looks incredibly bright,” said Michael Kashan, also a principal at Quad Property Group.

 

A QUEEN’S MAKEOVER: It hasn’t been all that long since the Dairy Queen at 3149 Washington Road underwent a renovation. But it’s getting another one.

The chain, which operates under the DQ Grill &Chill name, is getting a fresh look to its barn-style building in front of the Goodwill Industries complex. Look for a stacked-stone facade to replace parts the painted brick exterior.

Don’t worry about changes in the food: The Oreo Blizzard isn’t going anywhere.

 

I ASKED FOR IT: In last week’s column, in the item about local Applebee’s restaurants not being affected by its parent company’s woes, I said that I didn’t think the chain ever closed a “Neighborhood Grill &Bar” in the metro area. But I also invited readers to correct me if I was wrong. I was, and they did (thanks Lee and Toni), pointing out there used to be an Applebee’s on Wrightboro Road across from Augusta University’s Forest Hills Campus.

 

ALSO IN THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: Silla Cafe’s owners said their decision to close their Broad Street restaurant was motivated partly by their desire to retire, and partly because their rent was doubling. But the building’s owner, Rafy Bassali, later told me Silla’s month-to-month rent only went up by a slight amount because he had to make substantial roof and basement repairs after he bought the building last year.

He believes the confusion comes from the price he quoted to an interested renter, which is double what Silla is paying but still below market rate. He said he wanted to make it clear that he offered to let Silla stay as long as they wanted under the previous rent.

So there you have it.

 

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

 

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