Mayor Deke Copenhaver is warming up to ask Augusta commissioners to authorize city staff to create a financing package for a downtown baseball stadium, condominiums and retail complex on the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property.
The package, which would outline the proposed project and means of financing it, is needed for the city to get the property from the state this year, and drawing it up would cost nothing, the mayor said.
Without it, three years of working with Gov. Sonny Perdue and the State Properties Commission on acquiring the abandoned 17-acre tract will be all for naught, and the city will be back to square one, he said.
"There's a bond attached to the property that will not be paid off for another six years, so the large potential is that if we don't get something done this year, that property will sit empty, grow weeds and produce no tax revenue for the next six years," Copenhaver said.
In addition to paying $2.8 million for the property, possibly leasing it for six years, the city will have to hustle because the transfer must be approved by the Legislature this session and be signed off on by the governor.
It's a field of dreams for the mayor and those who support a new $38.7 million stadium for the Augusta GreenJackets.
But to others, including most Augusta commissioners, it's fantasy baseball -- a risky venture that could end up on taxpayers' backs.
The mayor said it's too early for commissioners to make that call.
"In order to support it or not support it, the first thing we have to have is that finance package, and we're not detailing anything solid right now," he said. "So until I can get their go-ahead to give our staff the directive of putting the finance package together, I don't think they can make an educated decision whether or not they support it."
It's a hard sell for most commissioners.
"Let somebody else do the plan, somebody that's interested in investing down there," Commissioner J.R. Hatney said. "You can't do a plan free."
The mayor talked to Commissioner Don Grantham on Monday about using the city's tax allocation districts and private investment to finance the project, but didn't convince him that the direct expenses won't be a future expense for the taxpayers.
"I don't see how you're going to avoid that," Grantham said.
The package the mayor presented Grantham didn't include what GreenJackets owner Cal Ripken Jr. would contribute toward making the facility viable, he said.
The mayor and Ripken Baseball executives contend that such ventures have been highly successful in other cities, such as Greenville, S.C.
Grantham also wondered who would pay for the stadium.
"Are we looking to the taxpayers, or is this a private investment?" he asked.
Copenhaver said it would be a public-private partnership and that when he submitted a proposal to the state, Jim Jacoby, the developer of the Atlantic Station in Atlanta, was on board as a partner.
"He is still a part of the project should it go forward," he said. "The portion of the property he's looking at -- one of the ideas he has for that property would be high-end residential condominiums, this being based on the fact that by the time you would complete this project the economy would have returned.
"What we're talking about is a mixed-use sports and entertainment facility that would have retail, eventually restaurants, banks. It would not just be a sole-use baseball stadium. They don't build them like that anymore."
The mayor said acquisition of the property requires that it have a project attached to it.
"If we do not have a project attached to it -- and nobody's come up with a Plan B -- there's no way we will get the property," he said.
The mayor says there can't be any specifics about the proposed project until a financing plan is put together, but specifics are what commissioners say they want.
When asked whether he would support authorizing city staff to draw up a financing plan, Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason said: "Plan for what? Is that all in one, or are you talking about options? Perhaps a baseball stadium? Perhaps condos? Or are you talking about one thing, or something all together? Or are you taking about options?
"It could be a mixed-use development that could be the best thing to do down there. It could be condos like we were supposed to have at Reynolds Street that never happened. I don't know."
The state could assign the property to another state entity, such as the Medical College of Georgia or Augusta State University, said George Snelling, a member of the State Properties Commission from Augusta.
"I'm not advocating that," he said. "I believe that could be a possibility. The state would want to see a viable project. The governor wants the state to get the absolute best deal it can."
The Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Botanical Gardens opened in 2001 and closed in June 2007, during a drought that killed many of the plants when the water was cut off.
Later that year, the city began maintaining the property, but it stopped last year as part of cost-cutting measures.
Copenhaver maintains that the baseball stadium is still the best hope for reviving the property. Last year, the state put out a request for proposals for other uses, and the only others were for a Goodwill Industries job-training center and an assisted-living complex.