Members of the authority who voted last year to keep a new James Brown Arena downtown now say the best idea is to build the new arena on the site of the long-abandoned Regency Mall.
While the authority’s vice chairman can’t explain its sudden pivot, he called the move “a bad investment for Augusta, and a bad decision for Augusta.”
But the members who voted for it say it’s just what south Augusta needs to spur economic growth.
Vice Chairman Brad Usry was part of an ad hoc committee charged with reviewing arena proposals and choosing a location. The other committee members were Johnson; City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson; authority member Darren Smith; and Augusta businessmen Henry Ingram, who also is chairman of the Development Authority of Richmond County.
Five locations were considered. Usry said the Regency Mall location was included in the list at the request of Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, “out of respect for the mayor.”
Built in 1978, Regency began losing anchor tenants in the early 1990s and changed owners and grew emptier until the last tenant, a Richmond County Marshal’s Office substation, moved out in 2011.
Its new owner, New York-based Cardinal Entities Inc., is asking $63 million for the 78-acre property, which includes a gutted 800,000-square-foot building.
The city paid Denver-based architectural firm Sink Combs Dethlefs last year to develop an arena plan and rank the locations. Keeping the arena downtown emerged as the best choice, Usry said. Regency came in third.
Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority Chairman Cedric Johnson told The Augusta Chronicle earlier this year that the authority was locked in to downtown as a location for the proposed $110 million arena.
“We voted a while back to put it downtown. Anything we vote, we can’t un-vote,” Johnson said then.
On Tuesday, the authority un-voted.
At the meeting, Usry presented the ad hoc committee’s recommendation to build the new arena on the site of the old arena. But Usry said he was “blindsided” by a motion from Smith, and “with no rationale” the authority approved a resolution 4-2 favoring the Regency site.
But Smith said the committee recommendation was for a plan he had not seen before last week. The plan had the new arena connected to Bell Auditorium.
“The first time I saw that with any meaning behind it at all was at that ad hoc committee,” he said. “They wanted to vote on it as a recommendation right then. I had never seen that.”
Not knowing more about that recommendation, Smith cast the sole “no” committee vote, and he introduced the Regency motion Tuesday.
Smith said the Regency option had been included on the list of choices for months. And when Sink Combs Dethlefs ranked the choices, downtown scored 74, but Regency scored very close behind with 71.
Smith also said the architects admitted that the criteria used to judge the locations were skewed to favor downtown.
Calls to Johnson were not immediately returned.
Authority member Bonita Jenkins, who voted for the Regency move, said the southside decision makes sense. With the authority trying to get more and bigger local performances, building a new arena on the site of the old arena won’t help.
Authority members have said they won’t build on the existing site or its parking lot to avoid revenue lost during construction. The two parcels between Sixth and Eighth streets cover about 17 acres.
“To take the James Brown Arena out of commission for two, three or even four years was not even smart to me,” Jenkins said. “We just had our best year.”
Jenkins also said moving the arena to Regency would help revitalize previously stalled development in south Augusta.
“What better way to revitalize that area?” she said. “It doesn’t have to be anywhere but in Richmond County. That’s how I looked at it.”
Authority member Booker T. Roberson agreed. He and many others consider Regency to be in the center of developed Augusta, which is a prime location to spur surrounding development.
“South Augusta doesn’t have anything out there, and that would build it up,” he said. “A lot of people are going to be mad about it. But if you build it, they’ll come.”
It’s still far from being final. The Augusta Commission has to approve the recommendation. Also, there are financial and legal questions.
Authority Attorney Ed Enoch said the resolution would commit the authority to the Regency Mall site “subject to negotiating the terms in a more legally binding fashion” with the property owners, Cardinal Entities, which purchased the 78-acre site in two transactions totaling $3.4 million.
Enoch said several contingencies would need to be explored before actual work could proceed at the mall site, including whether the authority would be able to finance the project through bonds, since the proposed deal with Cardinal would be a 35-year lease, at $1 a year.
Usry said he was upset by the abrupt change in direction because he “worked his can off” to move the project forward at the downtown site, which he said is by far the best place to put a new arena, based on the $142,000 study by Sink Combs Dethlefs.
“I don’t have anything against south Augusta,” he said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to see it in west Augusta, either. I thought it was a terrible idea when we were talking about putting it out near the Costco.”
But Usry said moving the arena out of downtown would strike a crippling blow to a resurging downtown economy.
“We need it in the downtown,” he said. “We have new hotels, multiple restaurants. It makes sense there.”
Usry also said operating the Augusta Entertainment Complex at two far-flung locations – Bell Auditorium downtown and a possible James Brown Arena on the south side – would be more expensive and less efficient.
Usry, who was in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, had to attend the authority meeting by phone. “I could hear our general manager pleading that this was a bad idea,” he said.
Smith said the downtown site is hampered by being landlocked, prohibiting expansion, and suffers parking and infrastructure problems. But Regency’s location at Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road offers “four lanes going in, four lanes going out, both of them leading to (Interstate) 520, which is much easier ingress and egress.”
Also, he said, “I believe you’ve got room out there for future growth, a lot of economic impact, which I think the arena will attract.”
Jenkins, too, is optimistic.
“There are questions that need to be answered. There are some more considerations,” she said. “But it’s not like we’re going to start building tomorrow. It’s exciting. It’s a new beginning.”
Staff Writer Damon Cline contributed to this story.
Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.