Scuttlebiz: Region averts arena disaster

The year 2017 comes to a close with Augusta leaders averting what could have been the biggest business blunder in at least a decade: moving the James Brown Arena from downtown.

 

The Augusta Commission this past week voted 7-3 to reject a plan to build the arena’s new-and-improved version at the former Regency Mall property.

It was either a rare moment of clarity or a coolly calculated pushback – either is fine by me – against Mayor Hardie Davis, whose behind-the-scenes negotiations with the vacant mall’s New York-based owners put this potential debacle in play over the summer.

Plucking the region’s premiere entertainment venue from the region’s undisputed entertainment district is an absolutely wretched idea that defies not only common sense but taxpayer-funded studies, and this past week’s decisive rejection should be the final nail in the arena-at-Regency coffin.

Should.

Sadly, I feel an encore coming on in 2018.

Mayor Davis and the three commissioners who favor moving the arena out of downtown – one of whom, astoundingly, actually represents the central business district and sits on the authority board tasked with downtown revitalization – appear unwilling to shelve what is easily the most shelvable plan ever put before city leaders during the past two decades.

So, if the JBA-at-Regency conversation is to continue in 2018, I would recommend it start with three simple questions to the most die-hard supporters:

1) What site-selection expertise do you have that the arena’s management company and taxpayer-funded consultants – people with actual civic center expertise – do not?

2) Is the primary site-selection goal driven by economics (i.e., to go where the most seats will be filled) or to foster goodwill (i.e., to make south Augusta feel good)?

3) Given the time, energy and transparency invested in pursuing a downtown site, why was a Regency alternative trotted out in the 11th hour without warning?

For question No. 1, not much discussion is required; the answer is an objective and undeniable “zero.”

Answering the second question isn’t as clear-cut, though rhetoric from mall-site supporters indicates “feelings” trumps economics.

Said Mayor Davis at Tuesday’s meeting: “This area of our community has been systematically excluded from the overall prosperity.”

Systematic? Prove it. No Berlin Wall or gestapo-like checkpoints economically seal off south Augusta. At least, I didn’t notice any the last time I spent money there, which was about three weeks ago when I got a smokin’ deal on an Echo leafblower at Outdoor Equipment Co. on Peach Orchard Road.

The point is: Area residents are free to spend their money wherever and however they want. City officials can’t make south Augusta prosperous by force, even if they think they can.

Not to belabor the point, but I will loan that leafblower (gas included) to anyone who can name a single business that located downtown specifically because the arena was built there almost 40 years ago.

Downtown’s thriving entertainment scene is largely the product of two decades of organic entrepreneurism – growth that occurred in spite of government leadership, not because of it. Now that the seeds of those efforts are bearing fruit, we’re going to crop-dust the central business district with Agent Orange to gamble on soil that grows nothing but weeds?

Commissioner Andrew Jefferson, a mall-site supporter whose district includes the long-vacant retail site, said during an earlier public hearing that the arena is the solution to 20 years of blight. It is something, he said, that is “going to make a difference.”

For who? Who benefits from building a $110 million, 10,000-plus seat regional arena that the region will not support. Rebuilding James Brown Arena from the ruins of a failed retail center is not compassion for south Augustans – it is a waste of their money.

The third and final question – why now? – deserves the most discussion. At what point did Davis get his “visionary” idea to use the city civic center to redevelop the Regency site?

The James Brown Arena expansion initiative has been around since at least since at least 2014, the year Davis campaigned and was subsequently elected. If he was an advocate for the eyesore property, he did a poor job of showing it then and all throughout 2015, 2016 and most of 2017 while consensus grew around expanding the arena’s current downtown location.

It was only in late August – roughly 75 percent into his term – that the public learned of this visionary vision.

The most regrettable part of the well-meaning but cataclysmically misguided plan, something that looms so large it may be the singular thing for which the Davis administration is remembered, is that it has only widened the racially-tinged geopolitical fissures that have divided this community for decades.

Ironic for a mayor whose campaign slogan was “One Augusta.”

CLOSING THE PARKING GAP: While city leaders ponder their experiment at social engineering, the region’s businesses and consumers brazenly continue doing exactly what they want.

Which is to come downtown.

That’s the primary reason you’re seeing construction workers turning most of the six acres behind the old train depot at the corner of Sixth and Reynolds into a parking lot. The lot is needed to handle the current and future employee-parking needs of Unisys’ growing downtown operation, which is roughly halfway to creating the 700 jobs Unisys said it would create three years ago in the nearby Discovery Plaza building.

The Fortune 1000 tech company’s decision to locate its flagship service center in downtown Augusta was contingent upon the city providing adequate parking for its workers, who provide help-desk support for the Army as well as cybersecurity services to corporate clients ranging from banks to manufacturers.

At some point – your guess is as good as mine – the parking lot will get incorporated into the yet-to-be-announced mixed-use development deal that city officials have been negotiating with an out-of-town developer for the past two years through an intergovernmental agreement with the Downtown Development Authority.

The glacially slow-moving public-private partnership, said to be in the $90 million range, will reportedly be finalized over the summer, just when the new asphalt lot ought to be nice and toasty.

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about the city’s jobs-for-parking arrangement with Unisys is how loosey-goosey it has been. The company completed its 74,000-square-foot buildout late last year and it could have – theoretically – filled the space with all 700 employees. If they had a place to park.

It’s a ringing endorsement of the region’s workforce when parking is the only thing restraining a company’s growth. It also, obviously, is an indicator that the city needs more parking space in the central business district.

The depot property parking lot, by the way, is somehow being paid for through the Development Authority of Richmond County. I say “somehow” because the $1.26 million that the authority’s board authorized to spend on the project in November exceeds its 2017 budget by more than $300,000.

And because the authority finished out the year without approving a 2018 budget, it presumably will need to dip into some sort of reserve fund.

In fairness, the economic development agency did have a lot of personnel issues to deal with during the last half of the year, including the loss of its two project managers, the retirement of its executive director, Walter Sprouse, the on-boarding of his temporary replacement, former Mayor Deke Copenhaver, and the hiring of a full-time replacement, Cal Wray.

Wray, who was with the Dublin-Laurens County Development Authority in Dublin, Ga., from 2007 to 2014, is expected to come on board Jan. 22 following final board approval Jan. 11. Wray currently heads the Clarksville-Montgomery County Economic Development Corp. in Clarksville, Tenn.

Welcome to Augusta. Work awaits you.

BALANCING THE SCALES: Augusta taketh from Tennessee, but Tennessee also taketh from Augusta. This past week we found out the city’s longtime tourism guru Barry White will be leaving the Augusta Convention &Visitors Bureau early next year to become CEO of the Chattanooga Area Convention &Visitors Bureau.

White has been president and CEO of the Augusta CVB for the past 23 years, so the only thing that would compel him to move to Chattanooga – besides dismay at the prospect of marketing a regional arena at the Regency Mall property – is his desire to get back to his home state. He’s originally from the Kingsport-Johnson City-Bristol metro area, and an unabashed University of Tennessee alum.

His final day on the job in Augusta is Feb. 23. The Garden City’s loss is definitely the Volunteer State’s gain.

A FINAL GOODBYE: Sadly, Augusta lost many prominent business leaders during the year. And that’s loss with a capital “L.”

They include Edwin Pollock, founder of Pollock Office Machine Co.; Dessey Kuhlke, former chairman of the board for University Hospital and SunTrust Bank’s Augusta area operations; Duncan Johnson Sr., president of Cadillac dealership Johnson Motor Co. and creator of Camp Lakeside; and Preston Sizemore, president of the Sizemore Inc. security and staffing firm.

We also lost Olin Plunkett, founder of Plunkett Heating &Air; George Duehring, owner of the area Zaxby’s franchises; Levi W. Hill III, former president of Richmond Supply Co.; Levings Laney, former vice chairman of the Georgia Railroad Bank; Mike Calhoun, a prominent Florida developer whose family co-founded Blanchard and Calhoun Real Estate.

I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention James “Jimmy” Davison, owner of Davison’s Auto Service and former chairman of the local Better Business Bureau; and F. Hamilton “Hammy” Kuhlke, former president of Kuhlke Properties and co-owner of The Boardroom Men’s Clothier.

They will be missed.

RIDE ON, GEORGE: George Pennington also will be missed. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because he wasn’t a “prominent business leader.”

He was, in fact, a truck driver. And a darn good one.

It’s the profession he chose after coming home to Jefferson County from the Korean War, where he spent 28 months as a POW. By 1962, he started driving for Stevens Appliance Truck Co., a small Augusta metal fabricator that had just acquired a small Texas company that made three-wheel golf cars.

The Stevens family sold the venture in the early 1970s, but Pennington kept on trucking for company’s subsequent owners. Today you know that business as Ingersoll Rand Co.’s vehicle division in Evans, Club Car.

I met Mr. Pennington in 2006. He was 76 then and had just logged his 7 millionth mile. “Cannonball,” as he was known on the CB, would log many more before he turned off the ignition switch for the last time in 2010.

But when I interviewed Pennington on that summer day 11 years ago, retirement was the furthest thing from his mind.

“It’s like dying – you don’t plan on it,” he said. “It just happens when it happens.”

 

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

 

More