A three-paragraph proposal used to bolster a coliseum authority vote to reject a downtown site for a new arena and build it instead at the Regency Mall site is just a starting point that demands much more information, even among supporters of the plan. Supporters of the arena being built downtown just wish the Regency proposal would go away.
Mayor Hardie Davis trumpeted the plan at a Wednesday news conference, calling the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority visionary for voting 4-2 to approve his wishes for an arena at the blighted former mall site on Gordon Highway.
Ed Enoch, who said his duties as authority attorney are not in conflict with his role as campaign chairman for the mayor, penned an email to mall owner Cardinal Management seeking more detail about the proposal’s request for a 10-year tax abatement and parking lot upgrades in exchange for a 35-year lease of the property. Issuing tax-exempt bonds for construction projects puts restrictions on the deal, including requiring any lease to be at least as long as the building’s useful life, which Enoch said in the email was likely at least 40 years.
Enoch and authority members said they first saw the written proposal moments before member Darren Smith motioned to reject an earlier site committee’s decision to build downtown. Enoch said he asked to amend draft meeting minutes to include his statements making the site change contingent on review by bond attorneys and obtaining more much more clarity about the proposal’s terms.
A call to mall owner Alan A. Cardinale of Cardinal Management, who signed the letter, was not returned, nor was an email to James McKinnon, Cardinale’s son-in-law, who participated in a bus tour of the mall last year at Davis’ request. Mark Axler, a Jacksonville-based representative for Cardinal said he wouldn’t comment on the letter’s legitimacy and that Cardinale was recuperating from heart surgery three weeks ago.
The Augusta Chronicle’s attorney called the letter a set of talking points that form a “framework for discussion” but are not legally binding.
“For the topics covered in the letter to ever turn into a binding agreement, a complete lease document covering terms in the letter as well as many other details of the transaction would have to be included in a formal lease document and approved by a vote of the Augusta Commission,” said attorney David Hudson, who also serves as attorney for Georgia Press Association.
Approval would take six votes of the 10-member commission.
Davis, to whom the letter was addressed, offered no additional information about the proposal in a set of documents he sent commissioners Thursday, which said the mall space is easily accessed by highways and could incorporate greenspace along what a $1 million 2010 city master plan called the “Jobs Corridor” between downtown Augusta and Fort Gordon.
Authority Chairman Cedric Johnson and Vice Chairman Brad Usry were taken aback by Smith’s abrupt turn, two years into the arena replacement process, and Usry voted against it. The chairman doesn’t vote except in a tie.
“The architects’ ideas, thoughts and initial drawing connecting the James Brown Arena and the Bell (Auditorium) are extremely clever and visionary for the use of land, creating one complex including Bell improvements and simplifying the manageability of both buildings,” Usry said. “This plan will improve the Seventh and Eighth street corridors from Walton Way to Broad Street, helps develop a true entertainment district and hopefully create a pedestrian pathway from downtown to the complex.”
The lack of detail in the mayor’s mall plan was a stumbling block for all the city’s commissioners, several of whom see the Regency move as impacting their and the mayor’s reelection chances next May.
“I’m trying to get the mayor to do it right,” said Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who represents rural District 8 in south Augusta and said he was awaiting more information about the proposal. The announcement might “win on the front end,” but “when it goes to voters, it won’t.”
The authority, which runs the existing James Brown Arena at an annual loss, is authorized to issue bonds up to an amount they can underwrite but would likely need additional revenues – in the form of new taxes, fees or a general obligation approved by voters – to back what is projected as a $120 million or more project.
“I don’t like the idea of spending $120 million to $150 million on property that doesn’t belong to us and not knowing what the future holds,” stated District 1 Commissioner Bill Fennoy, echoing several of his colleagues.
While his district would lose the asset, Fennoy said he was open to possibly moving the arena if more information is provided.
“I think that putting the arena at the mall will have a greater impact on south Augusta than putting it downtown would have on downtown Augusta,” Fennoy said. “What I would like to see is a discussion with the commissioners and the coliseum authority, with the mayor about the pros and cons of putting it downtown and the pros and cons of putting it at Regency Mall.”
Moving out of downtown isn’t the trend except among the largest, pro-sports facilities that literally create new towns around their sports complexes, said the author of a 2015 authority study on the area’s ability to support a 10,000-seat arena.
“In general, downtowns do have an advantage; it’s where these facilities are being built these days,” said David Stone, who authored the study for AECOM but is now a private consultant based in Chicago.
“These kinds of facilities don’t revitalize a neighborhood or an area at all on their own, but can help spur development when you have existing assets in place,” Stone said.
Fennoy and other commissioners said their phones are ringing with calls both for and against the proposal.
Commissioner Grady Smith said rural residents tended to favor the Regency location, while urban dwellers want the facility downtown. He said its final destination needs heavy discussion and input from millennials, “because they’ve got to live with it for the next 30 years.”
The mayor’s proposal appears self-interested and may hurt him, Smith said. “He should have stepped to the side. It backfired in west Augusta.”
For at least two on the commission, keeping the arena downtown as the area enjoys its biggest boost in years is a no-brainer.
“I’m in favor of keeping the arena downtown!” Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis said via text message.
She said with all the growth happening downtown and the proximity of restaurants and hotels plus growth across the river in North Augusta, the arena should remain downtown, even though Regency needs redevelopment.
“The most respected person and (University System) Board of Regents member Jim Hull told me ‘critical mass is the friend, and fragmentation is the enemy,” said Commissioner Sean Frantom, a proponent for keeping the arena downtown.
But Commissioners Marion Williams, Dennis Williams and Ben Hasan said they are receptive to moving the arena, with more information.
“Enough people like the location,” Marion Williams said. “If I can find information, I can make an informed decision.”
The mayor’s “suggestion from Day 1 is not sufficient,” said Hasan, who was open to a better deal for the city at Regency.
“I’m not satisfied with the agreement as I know it but I’m 100 percent behind the site selection,” Dennis Williams said. Adding an arena would improve the area’s image, boost its economy and “get rid of a blighted piece of property,” he said.
Staff writer Joe Hotchkiss contributed to this story.
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