The authority in charge of James Brown Arena voted 4-2 Tuesday to approve an offer from the owner of Regency Mall to build a new arena at the vacant mall site.
The vote meets a Thursday deadline set by the Augusta Commission for negotiations with mall owner Cardinal Management to end, and the authority agreed to send the terms demanded by Cardinal to the commission within 24 hours for members to consider.
Authority Vice Chairman Brad Usry and member John Kelley protested the decision and voted no. Both men, along with Chairman Cedric Johnson, have publicly voiced their preference for the current downtown site, which a study by Denver arena architecture firm Sink Combs Dethlefs and a site selection committee recommended.
“I just want to go on record that I’m very uncomfortable with these terms and I’m very uncomfortable with us ignoring the recommendations of the architects we hired,” Usry said. “If it comes back and the commission rejects this, we should move on.”
Kelley said the authority should listen to experts.
“We’re tasked with doing what’s the right thing with the coliseum, and what’s the right thing for the community and taxpayers,” he said. “None of us are experts, none of us on this authority or in any public office here are experts in coliseum construction and building and development – which is why we hired the group in the first place.”
The vote followed the authority voting to go behind closed doors but allow four Augusta commissioners – Dennis Williams, Sammie Sias, Ben Hasan and Bill Fennoy – to remain inside. Authority attorney Ed Enoch said the closed meeting did not violate Georgia open meetings laws.
The motion came from authority member Darren Smith, who led the Regency effort on the authority since Mayor Hardie Davis produced a first term sheet from mall owners in August. Members in support of the plan – Smith, Bonita Jenkins, Booker T. Robertson and Linda Edney-Wiley – said nothing of their decision to approve it. Davis has sparred with Augusta business leaders over the proposal he has called “visionary,” and Monday the mayor called Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle’s effort to assess the financial impact of the plan on city coffers “a red herring.”
The commissioners who attended the authority meeting said they did not participate in the closed-door discussion. Asked if they were ready to approve or reject the plan, none would say.
“I’ll have some discussion with my colleagues,” probably behind closed doors, said Fennoy, who represents the downtown area. “I expect some changes on the terms.”
“We can discuss it as early as next week,” Hasan said. “Commissioner Guilfoyle has given us a framework.”
Commissioner Andrew Jefferson, who represents the mall area but did not attend the authority meeting, has expressed support for the mall location. “I support the site but I can’t give up the farm for it,” Jefferson said.
A decision on moving forward with the proposal now likely lies with the commission. The authority runs existing facilities at a loss and lacks a sufficient revenue source to service the level of debt – estimated at at least $110 million – required to build a new arena.
Georgia Press Asso-ciation attorney David Hudson said it would likely require the commission to establish by resolution a tax whose proceeds are designated to repaying the debt.
Cardinal’s latest offer includes the following:
Cardinal will give Augusta 10 acres where the Montgomery Ward store was located, which is part of the 72 total acres owned by Cardinal or one of several entities owned by Alan Cardinale and family members.
The authority will re-asphalt, install lighting and landscaping, provide drainage and utilities and perform all other maintenance of each mall parcel for five years. After five years, the authority will only be responsible for 29 acres of parking designated for arena use.
The authority will build an arena with occupancy of 12,000 to 15,000 seats and sufficient parking.
The authority will pay for maintenance, insurance and property taxes on the 29-acre arena parking site for the life of the arena.
The city will abate all property taxes on the mall property for 10 years. A previous offer called for a 25-year tax abatement.
Cardinal will retain the right to develop the remaining 1.6 million square feet of mall property, with zoning and parking to remain compatible with uses such as shops, restaurants, office space, hotels and residential.
Usry was critical of the deal, saying that while he is not an arena expert, the plan favors the mall owner over Augusta taxpayers and the south Augusta location is unlikely to attract financing and would likely cost more than rebuilding an arena downtown.
“The owner has no obligation whatsoever right now,” he said. “I want to compare costs. Not only are we having to develop that property that we’re building on, we have to do another 30 acres in lights. We have a fiduciary responsibility here.”