A proposal to build an arena at the vacant Regency Mall was vetoed Tuesday when seven Augusta commissioners voted against the plan, after an earlier vote that saw Mayor Hardie Davis break a tie to extend arena negotiations for 45 days.
Davis, whose own negotiations with mall owner Cardinal Management gave rise to the proposal approved last week by the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority, said the 7-1 vote left open the possibility of continued negotiations to build an arena at the mall site, but several officials disagreed.
“The reality of it is, we can’t tell (the authority) what to do,” Davis said after the vote.
The proposal drew criticism from Augusta’s business community for attempting to relocate a downtown asset, the James Brown Arena, at the cusp of that area’s revival. But supporters viewed it as a deserved investment in Augusta’s south side that would eradicate blight plaguing the area for decades.
The latest version of Cardinal’s proposal involved it gifting a 10-acre tract where the city would build a 12,000- to 15,000-seat arena but let the New York-based company retain the remaining 62 acres, much of which the city was expected to maintain, insure, pay all taxes or abate them and give Cardinal all rights to develop.
Authority Chairman Cedric Johnson said based on Commissioner Sammie Sias’ earlier motion to give the authority a Nov. 30 deadline to develop a deal, the arrangement had to be “acceptable to the commission,” which it was not Tuesday. Plus the authority needs commission support to fund the project, he added.
Authority Vice Chairman Brad Usry said members agreed when voting on the deal last week that they will move on to another site if the commission rejected the plan.
“It’s time to move on and I think we can get a very nice arena downtown, and in the midst of this we can start conversations about something suitable for Regency that will help the whole city,” Usry said.
Johnson and Usry opposed the authority’s votes to build at Regency over an architectural study’s and site selection committee’s recommendation of keeping the arena downtown.
The seven commissioners who voted against the plan Tuesday were Dennis Williams, Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis, Sias, Ben Hasan, Sean Frantom, Wayne Guilfoyle and Grady Smith.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who represents downtown and the current James Brown Arena site, left the meeting before the vote.
Mary Davis said the vote rejects Regency as an arena site but leaves open “continued discussions for development at Regency, but not the arena.”
Smith, Mary Davis and Frantom said they had no idea a substitute motion to extend negotiations would surface and receive five supporting votes, plus the mayor’s tiebreaker.
“We had a couple people that said they were going to do one thing, then did another,” said Smith, who on Monday predicted six commission votes against the mall proposal.
Commissioner Ben Hasan said he accidentally voted yes on the earlier substitute motion from Commissioner Marion Williams. The motion, which received extensive discussion, was to extend arena negotiations with Cardinal, approve the mall site for an arena, create a subcommittee and establish a funding source for the arena, which currently has no designated source of funding.
Marion Williams said he introduced the substitute because the “mall is the best site” for the arena. He’s previously said an arena there will have a “wow factor” Augusta needs for development.
Hasan, Sias, Fennoy, Marion Williams and Commissioner Andrew Jefferson voted for the substitute motion and the mayor broke the tie. Hasan said he was unaware he’d voted for that motion until questioned later by media.
“I did not realize until about 15 minutes ago that I actually voted for that motion. I did not support it but I ended up voting yes,” Hasan said.
The mayor said some commissioners changed their position after a small crowd who attended for the arena vote left the meeting. “The public was gone,” he said.
The mayor bucked Hasan’s effort to reconsider his vote, ignoring the raised hands of Hasan and Frantom, then adjourning the meeting and leaving the dais.
“You’re going to do that? The citizens deserve better,” Frantom said.
Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis stepped in to reconvene the meeting, then Hardie Davis returned to his seat and called to “suspend,” then huddled with General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie in the corner of the chamber.
Motions that followed to reconsider and reject the earlier motion both passed 7-1 with Jefferson opposed, Fennoy out and Marion Williams not voting, but pressing Smith’s vote counter instead. Smith said Williams was joking around.
Sias made the initial motion to reject Cardinal’s offer, calling it “not a good deal” for Augusta, which spawned the substitute motion. He later voted to extend negotiations before joining six other commissioners to kill the deal.
to extend negotiations, approve the site and establish a funding source, had earlier called Cardinal’s offer “not a good deal” for Augusta and moved to reject it.
Sias said after his motion he will not have “anybody thinking they can just direct me, whether it’s through the media, whether it’s in person, or whether it’s through innuendo and threats” but did not elaborate.
Last week the coliseum authority came under fire for inviting Sias, Hasan, Fennoy and Dennis Williams into a closed-door session to discuss the proposal. Georgia Press Association lawyer David Hudson said the move amounted to giving “selective attendance rights” to the public, and commission candidate David Dunagan filed a formal complaint Monday seeking to void the subsequent arena vote claiming it was done after an illegal meeting.