The Augusta Commission closed the chapter on a Regency Mall arena for the year Tuesday, in spite of Mayor Hardie Davis’ nearly half-hour defense of the effort. One commissioner, however, vowed to return the item to the next commission meeting agenda.
The commission voted 7-3 to reject the vacant mall as the arena location and end negotiations with mall owner Cardinal Management. Commissioners Marion Williams, Andrew Jefferson and Bill Fennoy opposed the motion by Ben Hasan.
The plan has drawn controversy since Davis pushed it forward in August. It has pitted downtown supporters – reluctant to subtract a major existing facility, James Brown Arena, from what appears to be an economic revival there – against south Augusta residents whom Davis argues are overdue for and have been deliberately denied government investment.
“This area of our community has been systematically excluded from the overall prosperity. Overall, systematically excluded,” said Davis, who has argued that an arena complex will trigger redevelopment through south Augusta.
“What you have in front of you,” he continued, will help those “individuals who are born in impoverished conditions, who grow up in impoverished conditions and who ultimately die in impoverished conditions because our city has talked, talked, and talked about what should happen, what could happen and has done nothing.”
Since the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority voted in August to approve the site and attempt negotiations with Cardinal, Davis said he’s been maligned as a divisive figure, despite his “One Augusta” campaign slogan.
“The narrative since Aug. 22 has been ‘he has divided our city, he has divided our city, he has divided our city,’” Davis said, banging his gavel.
The commission did not bend to Davis’ wishes, and Hasan said Davis had withheld support for a south Augusta development committee earlier this year to favor the mall project, then mishandled negotiations with the mall owner.
“All of the sudden we’ve got a panacea here,” Hasan said of the arena proposal. “All of the sudden we can part the Red Sea. Well, the same thing here, we’ve got it on the agenda today.”
Davis had moved appointments to a development committee – an advisory panel for a new development position looking to foster growth in underserved areas – until after the arena item.
Hasan said he’d learned Tuesday that developer Clay Boardman has spoken with the mall owner about finding a viable use for the property. Boardman and other developers sparred with Davis over the past few months about the wisdom of the mall location.
“Let’s find a solution and not just think this is the end-all be-all if the arena doesn’t pass today,” offered Commissioner Sean Frantom.
Frantom asked Hasan to amend his motion to include a request for the Coliseum Authority to select another site, but Hasan left his motion as is.
Jefferson, who represents the mall area, said other commissioners referred to south Augusta as if it was a third-world country. He said one commented that “west Augusta will not tolerate” an arena at Regency Mall. Frantom, whose district includes parts of west Augusta, took offense and denied making the comment.
“It is a sense of superiority when it comes to this issue,” Jefferson said. “It is a sense of entitlement. .
“I want the entire area to see exactly if it doesn’t go out there, it’s not because it’s a bad site, it’s because there is bias about what happens in Augusta.”
Asked whether he is ready to move on after the vote, Davis indicated he is not.
“This was a conversation about how do we best reconnect our city,” the mayor said. “This is an investment that gives us an opportunity to take a shot at that.”
Marion Williams, who returned the project to a committee agenda last week, said Regency is the “model” and the location “we’ve been looking for.” He said he won’t give up any time soon and called for City Clerk Lena Bonner to place it on a meeting agenda early next year.