Ripken open to other locations for stadium

After lobbying for years to bring baseball downtown and relocate the Augusta GreenJackets’ home field at a new multipurpose entertainment complex at the downtown riverfront Georgia Golf and Gardens property, the team’s owners now are open to exploring other locations. 

“In an ideal world, the Golf & Gardens would work, and could work, but there are still plenty of barriers there, and we owe it to the community and ourselves to consider all site possibilities,” said Jeff Eiseman, vice president with team owner Ripken Baseball Group.

The response denotes a shift in focus for a group that seemed to have its heart set on downtown. Mayor Deke Copenhaver, long a champion of the project, three years ago presented a plan for the stadium complex to the Georgia Properties Commission, which oversees management of state assets such as the 17-acre former botanical garden.

At the riverfront site once intended to house the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, the proposal was to build a $38.7 million stadium complex, including condominiums and restaurants, through a public-private partnership between Augusta, Ripken Baseball and Jacoby Development, who developed the $2 billion Atlantic Station in midtown Atlanta.

Since then, there has been little visible movement by the Properties Commission toward its auction of the golf hall site besides announcing a minimum bid price of $2.8 million, while community reaction to building a new stadium has been mixed. A 2010 straw poll taken on the Richmond County Democratic Party ballot found 77 percent opposed to spending public money to replace the GreenJackets’ current stadium, and 66 percent seeking a referendum if public money is used to develop the former golf hall site.

At the time, Copenhaver dismissed the straw poll results, but Augusta commissioners voted earlier this month to place a stadium referendum on the 2012 general election ballot. The outcome of such a referendum to finance or otherwise fund a stadium project would be binding on the commission.

Then last week, the commission voted 6-3-1 to develop a “transaction plan, not site-specific” for the “proposed Ripken Multipurpose Stadium,” and Administrator Fred Russell said he is setting up meetings with city facilities, recreation and finance personnel to determine what kind of facility the city needs and what financing options would be available.

The vote was a tough one for Commissioner Grady Smith, who previously stated he was opposed to any public involvement in construction of a new stadium. Smith said afterward he would entertain any proposal, but ultimately would oppose the project if the cost to taxpayers was too much.

“If the numbers don’t look right, then bing, sorry, end of conversation,” Smith said.

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said that while his south-Richmond County constituents remain opposed to a new stadium going anywhere but the south side, he too was open to exploring the options.

Ripken and Jacoby haven't openly indicated where else might be a suitable location, but as commissioners Matt Aitken and Joe Jackson revived conversations on the issue earlier this month, Aitken said sites on I-20 in Augusta were on Ripken Baseball’s radar. Commissioner Jerry Brigham said a site near a major thoroughfare – I-20, Bobby Jones Expressway – was desired.

That would leave a handful of options inside Richmond County, including the privately-owned, 115-acre Village at Riverwatch at I-20 and Riverwatch Parkway near the Columbia County and South Carolina lines, where Costco is breaking ground Thursday on a membership warehouse club. 

The Village at Riverwatch is within a tax allocation district, where the commission and school board agreed to forgo new property tax revenues resulting from development at the site, and to return $10 million in sales taxes collected there to developers.

Other potentially suitable sites include McKnight Properties' large tract near Carmax on I-20 at Wheeler Road on the Columbia County line, or Nixon Trusts' 40 acres at I-20 and Walton Way Extension.

Should developers venture away from the interstate, Commissioner Bill Lockett and others have suggested placing the complex at the former Regency Mall on Gordon Highway, but the vacant mall has a price tag of more than $50 million. While city officials have suggested condemning the site for public use, Georgia law doesn't allow condemnation for economic development.

If the GreenJackets' current home at Lake Olmstead Stadium, a facility that was rebuilt and expanded in 1995, developers of Augusta's newest master plan have an idea for the 14.7-acre tract. Revitalization of the Upper Broad Street area includes development of high-rise, luxury apartments nearby and the restoration and expansion of Olmstead Park.

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