Save the ‘J’

Heedless decision to move arena from downtown cannot stand

Surf’s up downtown. So run the other way?

 

Just as waves of people and excitement are hitting the shores of the Savannah River downtown, some Augusta leaders want to take our surf boards somewhere else.

With a critical mass building on both sides of the river downtown — the cyber explosion, Augusta University consolidation and a revitalized theater district, as well as restaurants, on the Georgia side and a new ballpark and related developments on the South Carolina side — the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority inexplicably voted last Tuesday to move the new James Brown Arena to south Augusta, at the site of the comatose Regency Mall.

Downtown Augusta is on the cusp of its first big boom since retail flight in the 1970s — and the Coliseum Authority thinks this is the time to abandon the city core?

That’s just bats.

It’s contrary to what the expert consultants the authority hired for $142,000 recommended, which was the current general location along 7th Street downtown — adjacent to the arena’s sister Bell Auditorium, and not far from James Brown Boulevard and the growing number of dining and entertainment options on Broad Street.

The current location makes sense not only from a crowd convenience perspective, but in every business sense too. It’s where the growing audience wants to be, it benefits countless businesses along the river, and it allows the arena and auditorium management to run the nearby facilities most efficiently.

By a 4-2 vote, the Coliseum Authority is bucking common sense, business sense and everything the experts are saying.

Mayor Hardie Davis, believed to be behind the vote, has made the argument that the Regency Mall site is “the geographic center of our county.” So what? That means absolutely nothing. Consider: The geographic center of the United States is near Lebanon, Kan. Population 218. Not exactly Broadway.

The new arena needs to be built where the people are and where they’re going — and that’s downtown.

We appreciate the fact that Mayor Davis has made development along Regency Mall’s Gordon Highway a personal crusade — even arranging to have developers tour it en masse a few months ago. But until private developers decide that’s where the money and people are, that’s all it will be: a personal crusade.

Government is ill-equipped, at least in a free country, to decree where people wish to congregate. The best thing government can do is see which way the parade is headed and jump in — creating the incentives and infrastructure that enhance the economic forces already at work.

The decision of where to put an estimated $110 million arena can’t be one revolving around notions of social engineering. It has to be based on expert analysis of demographics and economics.

Everything points to downtown. It’s what nearly every other community in the nation is doing — and what Augusta’s neighbor across the river is doing in North Augusta, S.C., with the newly named SRP Park and related developments in Riverside Village at Hammond’s Ferry (formerly known as Project Jackson).

The experts know it. And so do ordinary folks, who’ve already created a “Save the J” campaign to keep the James Brown Arena downtown — modeled after the successful grassroots “Save the A” drive to keep “Augusta” in the name of newly consolidated Augusta University.

We hope the mayor, Coliseum Authority and the Augusta Commission — which must eventually weigh in on the arena’s financing — will come to realize the Regency Mall site has all the appeal of a flat tire on a rainy night.

If the four Coliseum Authority members think a new James Brown Arena is going to bring economic growth to south Augusta, “they are sorely mistaken,” Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom told WRDW-Channel 12. “You’re talking about a venue that’s maybe going to have 100 events. Are they going to build restaurants for 100 events? Are they going to build hotels for 100 events? No, they’re not going to build that. So I think we are selling South Augusta something that’s not really there.”

Frantom also noted that the majority of arena ticket sales come from west Augusta and Columbia County — meaning a Regency Mall location that is much farther away from the arena’s biggest share of audience members.

Coliseum Authority member Brad Usry, who opposed the Regency Mall site, was still livid at the authority’s actions on Thursday. Listening in by phone from out of town, Usry said four of his fellow authority members appear to have rendered their decision after merely hearing part of a letter of agreement read to them by one of the four, Darren Smith.

No legal documents. No official proposals. No site studies. Just part of a letter from Regency Mall LLC that, Usry said, wasn’t even tendered to authority Chairman Cedric Johnson or the other members. Who in the world makes a $110 million decision on such a paper-thin basis? The proposal might as well have been scribbled on a cocktail napkin.

When we suggested that sounded like negligence and malfeasance on the part of the authority, Usry said, “I don’t disagree.” He said he thought about quitting, but decided to stay on and fight this wacky decision.

Usry said arena and Bell Auditorium General Manager Chris Bird argued strenuously against the Regency Mall site. Usry said separating the two facilities would add to operational costs “exponentially.”

Downtown businesses and their advocates were scurrying late last week to figure out what kind of economic hit they would take from an arena move to Regency Mall.

This is just cuckoo. Augusta and its leaders, public and private, have been working for decades to revitalize downtown — and just as it’s happening somewhat organically, a governmental authority has voted to move a major institution out of the area.

Coliseum Authority members need to reconsider their decision and save us from themselves. Or we’ve got to find someone else to do it for them.

 

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