Not all visions are “visionary.”
That’s the term Mayor Hardie Davis used to describe the sketchy proposal to build a new James Brown Arena at the former site of the forlorn and mournful former Regency Mall.
To be visionary, an idea must be singular and unexpected – out of the box. The notion of putting an arena – or anything else – at the moribund Regency Mall site is hardly unique; people have been brainstorming ideas for the site for decades. When envisioning a new arena, the Regency site would be obvious to consider, and – from a purely business perspective – quickly dismissed.
From that perspective, the ancillary businesses that one would normally associate with a successful sports and entertainment arena – restaurants, bars and hotels – are notably absent in the Regency area.
Nor could a facility where the lights are turned on and the doors are opened as few times as 60 occasions a year be expected to draw new eateries and beds to the area. It just doesn’t make business sense.
And make no mistake about it: Though built and then subsidized by taxpayers, an arena is a business.
But that’s not how Mayor Davis and the misguided Coliseum Authority have approached it, with the authority’s vote last week to move the JBA to Gordon Highway. Rather, they are making a $110 million business decision based on social engineering -- not on dollars, and certainly not on sense.
The mayor has it in his head that he can wave a scepter and deign development along and south of Gordon Highway – what he refers to as SOGO.
That’s not the way development works, at least not in a free country. Individuals, families and companies have a funny way of deciding for themselves where they want to eat, play and live. The best that government can do is follow their lead and create the infrastructure and atmosphere that lends itself to development and critical mass.
Here, Hardie Davis is trying to lead the parade instead of paving its way. It’s a subtle insight that’s lost on many public servants. The difference between a boon and a boondoggle can be that thin.
There’s also a marked difference between a private-sector venture capitalist – who risks private and often personal money on a highly speculative venture – and elected officials gambling the public’s hard-earned cash.
And let’s make no mistake about that, either: The Regency play is a big-time gamble with your money. The mayor and four of six members of the Coliseum Authority are willing to bet $110 million of your money that the experts – well-paid, well-traveled consultants recommended building at the current site downtown, where the restaurants, hotels and growth already are – are just wrong.
That’s not “visionary.” That’s hubris and pretentiousness. It’s the belief that if you just build it they will come. It doesn’t often work that way.
The mayor should take a cue from President Obama and lead from behind.
His wager is all-the-more precarious when you remember that the Regency site would be much further away from the bulk of the arena’s audience: Most ticket sales come from west Augusta and Columbia County – the latter of which may be more inclined to build its own arena, if Augusta goes forward with the Regency site.
Moreover, the plan – obviously secretly in the works for weeks if not months – was essentially presented on a cocktail napkin: A fuzzy letter with vague terms from Regency’s owner, and a quick sketch made to look architectural.
Would you bet $110 million on such a “vision”?