Regency Mall owners are impressed by the “serious” community conversation going on about plans to build a new arena at the dilapidated site, said an Augusta Commission member invited to private talks with the owners.
But other commissioners not invited to meet with mall owners Alan Cardinale and James McKinnon questioned Mayor Hardie Davis’ secrecy about the meetings held Wednesday and Thursday.
Davis sparked a firestorm in August when he announced that mall owner Regency Mall LLC had agreed to lease part of the vacant mall site for 35 years in return for the local government building a sports arena on the property. The vague proposal was presented by Darren Smith, a member of Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority, when Smith and three others voted to disregard a consultant’s site selection study and build at the mall rather than downtown.
But Thursday, Cardinale and McKinnon were “open for discussion” and seek “a public-private partnership” with Augusta regarding the long-vacant mall’s future, said Commissioner Ben Hasan, one of two commissioners invited by Davis to meet with the owners.
Hasan called Cardinale “a really decent guy; very thoughtful,” who spoke of the need to redevelop mall properties into mixed-use developments better suited to today’s consumers.
“They’re not married to it being an arena,” Hasan said. “They’re married to the fact that it makes good business sense if you get some of your local people to partner.”
The commission recently discussed plans to condemn all or part of the mall, once Georgia’s largest, which has been vacant for more than 15 years and long a community concern. In years past, the owners have disputed property tax assessments, despite demanding a high sales price for the mall site.
Commissioners Sean Frantom, Dennis Williams and Grady Smith said they’d been excluded from the meetings.
Davis said he did not invite Frantom because he opposed building an arena at the mall – a choice Davis has called “visionary” – but included Hasan and Commissioner Sammie Sias because the pair “had been the most vocal in expressing concerns” about the mall owners’ arena proposal.
“My invitation got lost in the mail,” Smith said. “If they can’t work a better deal than they’ve got they’re going to leave the taxpayers hanging in about 35 years.”
Smith said the location ought to be decided by millennials who will be around in 35 years when the lease runs out.
Frantom said having the mayor direct the arena site selection was confusing a process delegated to the Coliseum Authority. The authority, which governs James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium, was awarded sales tax funding to begin site selection and land acquisition for what is projected to be $120 million facility.
“I’m in the dark like everybody else,” Williams said of being excluded. “The only way to make a good sound decision (is) knowing what’s going on.”
Davis said Thursday was supposed to include a meeting between the mall owners and community leaders, including Coliseum Authority Chairman Cedric Johnson.
That meeting was called off by the mall owners, Authority Vice Chairman Brad Usry said.
“I am disappointed,” said Usry, who expected to attend. “Look forward to the meeting and the conversation.”
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-2315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.