Mayor Hardie Davis hailed a loosely-drawn proposal to replace James Brown Arena with a new facility at the former Regency Mall site as “visionary” during a Wednesday news conference while backers of a downtown location continued to scratch their heads.
The conference followed Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority’s 4-2 vote last week to reject a decision made a few days earlier by a site selection committee to keep the arena downtown and instead, acting on a letter produced by authority member Darren Smith, build at 1700 Gordon Highway, where the vacant mall stands.
Flanked by south Augusta politicians including Smith and his father, former city Commissioner Jimmy Smith, Davis said Wednesday the Regency site choice “takes our future into consideration” but won’t compromise downtown redevelopment.
“The James Brown Arena will do nothing more than open up SOGO,” Davis’ acronym for South of Gordon Highway, he said. While cyber-driven growth at Augusta University downtown shows the importance of Fort Gordon, “we now want to take that same level of momentum” and “send those efforts toward this area as well,” he said.
The Coliseum Authority’s chairman and vice chairman both voted against the site choice and each remained opposed and skeptical Wednesday. Chairman Cedric Johnson said the authority is seeking more information than was included in the three-paragraph letter and will use outside counsel to negotiate with the mall’s owner Cardinal Entities Co., based out of New York.
The Aug. 21 typewritten letter signed by mall owner Alan A. Cardinale proposes to lease the 39-acre mall site for $1 a year for 35 years, possibly for “development of the new sports arena,” with the city granting a 10-year tax abatement and agreeing to upgrade and maintain the mall’s expansive parking lot.
Mall representative Mark Axler offered no assurances about the proposal Wednesday, saying “we’re not doing anything right now” and that Cardinale is unavailable because he is recuperating from heart surgery three weeks ago.
Currently, authority attorney Ed Enoch is negotiating with Cardinale on the authority’s behalf, Johnson confirmed. Enoch has served as Davis’ campaign chairman since his 2006 campaign for the state House of Representatives, according to campaign finance records.
Davis said the Regency site is preferable to downtown due to its access via Gordon Highway to Interstate 20, Highway 278 and Bobby Jones Expressway, versus “the bottleneck calls CSX and Norfolk Southern,” two rail lines that cross downtown Augusta. He said the new facility would retain the name of the music legend while a move would free downtown land for “high rise apartments with grocery store underneath” that downtown Augusta needs.
Questioned about Cardinale’s proposal, Davis said it was a “framework” that could turn into Augusta having a “controlling interest” in the property, because actually owning the land is “one of most important options.”
Community opposition has been strong to the proposed move. As of Wednesday some 4,259 people had signed a change.org petition to “Keep JBA in Downtown Augusta.” A petition to move the arena had garnered 707 signatures Wednesday, and several south Augusta commissioners say they approve the location. The commission would have to authorize the project moving forward, including how to secure financing for it.
District 5 Augusta Commissioner Andrew Jefferson, who represents the Regency area, said the mall is “a great, accessible site” for an arena, which will “revitalize the area and do something positive.” Jefferson said concertgoers will have ready access to hotels further west, at Gordon Highway and Bobby Jones Expressway, while low-end motels near the mall will soon be replaced.
The mall site was ranked fourth of five possible sites by architects Sink Combs Dethlefs, which the authority hired to develop plans including site selection and the development of community support, for a new arena. The firm’s price tag has been more than $147,000, while arena construction estimates exceed $110 million.
Most recent determinations based on a dozen site criteria including size and location, cost, availability, infrastructure, building compatibility, infrastructure, parking availability and other factors gave Regency 70 out of 100 points. The site ranked behind an upper-Broad Street site near the Augusta Canal, the existing arena site, and a location off Riverwatch Parkway.
Last week’s coliseum authority meeting was contentious, according to an official recording obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.
Usry spoke out against the change, saying removing the arena from downtown will likely eliminate an Augusta University sports connection and go opposite the ongoing growth pattern.
Augusta’s downtown is finally rebounding from a downturn caused by construction of malls – including Regency – in the 1970s and 1980s, he said. “Now we’ve got amenities coming, tons of investment on Broad Street, and now we’re talking about leaving downtown,” he said.
Usry said the initial presentation of the plan to the public is critical to secure buy-in. “We only get one chance to make a first impression with the renderings,” he said.
Davis revealed an architectural sketch of the “James Brown Arena at Regency Town Center and Park,” its origins unknown, during the news conference.
Concert promoter Joe Stevenson appeared with several concerned events promoters on former Mayor Deke Copenhaver’s radio show and at the news conference Wednesday. Copenhaver himself spoke out about the need to accommodate the area’s growth with expected venues such as an arena located downtown.
Stevenson told The Chronicle that much vital information was missing from Davis’ proposal, including how it made its way to an authority vote.
“How do you justify making a $120 million investment based on a proposal that hasn’t been vetted?” Stevenson asked. “I want to see south Augusta revitalize as much as anyone, but not by damaging the growth in Augusta’s downtown entertainment district.”
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.