Developer to bid if golf gardens land goes to auction

Jacoby Group, one of the partners in the proposed development of a $38.7 million downtown baseball stadium, said Monday that if the former Golf Hall of Fame property goes up for auction, the company will make a bid.

"It is Jacoby Development's intent to put an option on the property," Senior Vice President for Development Scott Condra said in a statement issued through spokesman Howard Lalli.

After some tweaking by the governor's office, a bill expected to clear the state House and Senate today will see the property -- 16 acres of prime riverfront real estate -- put up for bid rather than sold or deeded to the city.

With a minimum price of $2.8 million to pay off the state's remaining bond debt, and given the lean economy and the city's ongoing budget difficulties, Mayor Deke Copenhaver said he doesn't favor the city bidding.

For what he's been pushing -- a multiuse minor league field -- the city wouldn't have to bid if Jacoby can get the land.

The company, headed by Jim Jacoby, developed Midtown Atlanta's Atlantic Station and was on board in a stadium proposal submitted to the state in 2008, along with the city and Ripken Baseball.

But with a bidding process can come surprises, and there's no guarantee some heretofore unknown interested party won't walk away with one of the last slices of available downtown property along the Savannah River levee. Copenhaver said he's resigned to that, and he supports the language in the bill, even if it means no new home for the Augusta GreenJackets.

"I have said all along that the stadium was a plan, and if anybody has a plan B, I'm open to it," the mayor said. "The property is doing no good to the citizens of Augusta sitting empty, growing weeds and generating no revenue."

The situation illustrates how the legislation, introduced by Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Gracewood, gets the golf gardens property out of deadlock, but not entirely out of limbo. Along with the question of ultimate ownership, there remains the question of who will maintain the property during the height of the growing season.

The bill puts it in the care of the State Properties Commission, which State Property Officer Steve Stancil said lacks the funds or manpower to do regular grounds maintenance.

Once passed, the governor has 40 days to sign the bill. Even if the two- to three-week bidding process happens quickly thereafter, the property can't officially be turned over to a new owner until the Legislature approves the transfer in the 2011 session, a year away, Stancil said.

Davis' first version of Senate Bill 449 would have had the state sell the land to the city for $1, something his Senate predecessor, Ed Tarver, tried in vain to accomplish in last year's session.

The bill got changed on the Senate floor to have Augusta buy it for the market value or pay off the state's outstanding $2.8 million debt.

It went through further amendments in the House, with the Economic Development & Tourism Committee requiring that the land be sold at a competitive bid for no less than the fair-market value or the debt amount. (Not addressed was the $6 million in sales tax funds the city invested in the property.)

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the governor's office worked with House committee member Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, and Davis and Copenhaver, in pushing for the competitive bid stipulation.

Perdue's attorneys were concerned about violating the state constitution's gratuities clause, which forbids giving away public assets without compensation, Brantley said. Because the land has been sitting empty for so long, it would be difficult to set a fair market value, and a single-seller deal could be challenged as unconstitutional, he said.

"The bid process, in and of itself, will set the value of it," Brantley said.

Davis' bill also disbands the Golf Hall of Fame, which let the property go to seed after its budget was gutted in 2007, and puts the six bronze golf legend statues in the city's possession.

"I haven't heard much chatter about it, but I'd say it has a good chance," said House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, the second-highest-ranking member of the House.

Augusta's delegation chairman, Democratic Rep. Quincy Murphy, said he's heard of no organized efforts to derail it.

That being the case, city commissioners, most of whom are opposed to or undecided on the stadium proposal, are mixed in their positions on submitting a bid.

Joe Bowles said he has no desire to do so, that the land should be in private hands so it can go back on the tax rolls. Jerry Brigham said he'd support paying $2.8 million for it, but not much more than that.

Were there six votes for submitting an offer, City Administrator Fred Russell said the money could be taken out of the reserve fund, which is about $28 million.

As for other bidders stepping forward, certified commercial and investment real estate expert David C. Penix, the owner of David C. Penix & Associates, said there has been loose talk around town about developing high-end residential units, incorporating restaurant and retail space, for medical professionals.

But with a buyer having to pony up at least $2.8 million -- a steep price of more than $173,000 per acre -- he doubts many developers in the region can muster that kind of backing in this financial climate, especially given the way the Watermark development went belly up a little ways down river.

"To be honest with you, there's no cash out swinging around in the marketplace right now," he said.

Perdue, appearing in Augusta for a bridge dedication Monday, said he still believes the stadium would be a good use for the property, but what happens now is up to Augusta's community. As chairman of the State Properties Commission, he said, he wanted to make sure the sale was fair and transparent.

"I think it's a great piece of property," the governor said. "And I think at some point in time, even in this economy, it could sell for a good value."

Morris News Service reporter Walter Jones and Staff Writer Susan McCord contributed to this article.

Halls Struggle

The Georgia Golf Hall of Fame will be no more under a measure expected to clear the state House and Senate today.

Even before the current budget crisis, the Legislature had begun spinning off or closing most of its halls of fame and museums. None have lived up to their original projections of visitors and revenue.

Macon legislators are pushing a bill allowing that city to raise its hotel-motel tax so it can take over funding of the Music Hall of Fame and Sports Hall of Fame before state money runs out.

State taxpayers shouldn't be funding the halls of fame, said Rep. Burke Day, R-Tybee Island.

"I've always believed that these halls of fame ... are too finely attached to the teats of the state," he said. "I've always believed they should be self-supporting."

 -- Morris News Service