The future of James Brown Arena is now in the hands of 10 Augusta commissioners, who are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposal to relocate the civic center to the former Regency Mall property.
An agreement to build a new civic center on 10 acres at the defunct shopping center hinges on a six-vote majority. The city charter says the mayor can vote only to break a tie.
An Augusta Chronicle poll of commissioners this past week shows no clear consensus on the plan, which could cost up to $110 million. Of the seven commissioners who responded to the Chronicle, three said they oppose the plan, two said they were undecided and two declined to state their positions.
The property’s owner, New York-based Cardinal Management, has offered to give the city 10 acres for a 12,000- to 15,000-seat arena in exchange for tax abatements and other concessions on the surrounding land, which the company would redevelop into retail shops, hotels and other compatible uses.
The non-binding agreement advanced to the commission this past week when the Augusta Coliseum Authority approved it 4-2 following a closed-door discussion on Tuesday that the Georgia Press Association’s general counsel says violated the state open meetings law.
The arena’s future site has been a contentious issue since August, when the Coliseum Authority voted to pursue the Regency site despite recommendations from a local committee and a Denver architecture firm to expand the arena’s existing downtown location.
Regency site proponents say moving the facility to the long-vacant shopping center would help revitalize parts of south Augusta. Opponents say fewer people will use the facility if it is taken from the burgeoning downtown entertainment district, where it already is complemented by a growing number of restaurants, bars and hotels.
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, whose conversations with Cardinal put the Regency site into play, has called relocating the civic center to the corner of Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road “visionary.”
District 2 Commissioner Dennis Williams said he supports the Regency site but opposes Cardinal’s current offer because of the 10-year tax abatement and lack of assurances the surrounding land would be redeveloped in a timely manner.
“If we can’t negotiate a better deal, we just need to drop it and keep on going,” he said. “I’m good with the concept, but I’m not good with the agreement.”
Terms of the deal aside, District 3 Commissioner Mary Davis and District 7 Commissioner Sean Frantom said it is a mistake to move the arena from its existing site, where it shares a block with the Bell Auditorium and is within walking distance to Broad Street’s Imperial Theatre and Miller Theater.
“I can’t imagine taking an entertainment venue away from an area that is seeing so much growth and activity,” Davis said.
Frantom said the public will not support a Regency arena.
“Even if the commission had six votes to pass this proposal, it would never pass a public vote on a (general obligation) bond or (special-purpose local option sales tax),” he said. “…The arena talk needs to end at Regency Mall.”
District 10 Commissioner Grady Smith said he is undecided on the matter because his super district covers parts of west Augusta, which he said generally supports the downtown site, and south Augusta, where the Regency property has been an eyesore for nearly two decades.
He said he is concerned young people will not go to the arena if it is moved from the city center.
“They’re all saying it needs to be downtown,” he said. “And they’re the ones who are going to be paying for it.”
District 1 Commissioner William Fennoy has previously voiced support for the Regency site but on Friday told the Chronicle he was officially “undecided.”
“What I want is the proposal to be presented to all the commissioners so we can get together and set which direction we want to go,” said Fennoy, whose district encompasses downtown. “I would expect us to have an executive session on it.”
Fennoy, Williams, District 4 Commissioner Sammie Sias and District 6 Commissioner Ben Hasan sat in on the authority’s closed-door meeting Tuesday.
Sias and Hasan, while attending a ribbon-cutting event on Thursday, refused to state their position on the issue when asked by a Chronicle reporter.
“You’ll get a direct answer on Tuesday when we vote,” Sias said.
Said Hasan: “We’re still looking at the information that was given and we’ll make a decision Tuesday.”
Also present at the ribbon-cutting was District 5 Commissioner Andrew Jefferson, whose district encompasses the Regency site. Jefferson, who has previously expressed support for a Regency arena, said Thursday his mind has “been made up a long time” and that he would elaborate during an Friday morning phone call. Jefferson did not call Friday or return phone messages throughout the day.
Mayor Davis on Friday canceled a scheduled a meeting to discuss the proposal with the Chronicle.
District 8 Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle and District 9 Commissioner Marion Williams did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.
Unless a commission majority votes to reject the Regency site outright, there are two possible outcomes on Tuesday: the commission sends the agreement back to arena officials for renegotiation, or it moves forward with the deal as written and authorizes attorneys to draw up a formal letter of intent.
Such a letter would spell out terms of the deal, create a due diligence period and establish a commitment by all parties to work toward a fully binding contract, Coliseum Authority Attorney Ed Enoch said Friday.
But for the project to become reality, he said all parties would need to be satisfied with the due diligence inspections and terms of the definitive agreement. A funding mechanism also would need to be secured, he said.
“The timing on those is hard to predict and all three have costs,” Enoch said. “The commission and the authority would need to put together a schedule of steps to get from a signed letter of intent to an ultimate closing on the deal.”
Pursuing the Regency site would put city leaders at odds with Augusta’s business community – the city’s chamber of commerce, tourism board and downtown development organization all support a downtown arena – as well as the consulting firm Sink Combs Dethlefs of Denver, which is now part of Chicago-based Perkins and Will.
The firm’s study selected downtown as the best option for an expanded arena, with the Regency site coming in third. The firm said 63 percent of civic centers nationwide are located in downtown areas.