The next topical storm

After the political storm, facts will lead the new arena downtown

Hurricane Irma has put Augusta’s current “where to put the new arena” debate into a sharp perspective.

 

There are infinitely worse problems to have than where we’ll construct a $110 million-plus sports and entertainment arena. Even in our quibbling, we are boundlessly blessed.

Still, after the tropical storm has subsided, the topical one will rage on.

Mayor Hardie Davis and a cadre of south Augusta supporters are pushing hard to relocate the new James Brown Arena to the Gordon Highway site of the forlorn Regency Mall — whose lonesome shell has begged renovation ideas for decades.

Somehow, Mayor Davis seems to have maneuvered a 4-2 majority of the governing Coliseum Authority into recently voting for the Regency site — based solely on a perfunctory letter from the mall’s owner. The decision was an about-face for the authority, which for some time had appeared headed for a downtown location, likely next to the current 40-year-old site.

The decision also ignored an opinion by hired consultants that the downtown site was far and away better. The Regency site, it turns out, didn’t even place second on the consultants’ list.

That’s because the consultants looked at the decision as a business one, not a political one.

Which, notes Chronicle music columnist Steven Uhles, it has morphed into.

“The issue has become political rather than practical,” writes Uhles.

Indeed, only political considerations — including an armchair attempt at social engineering — could account for the Coliseum Authority’s bizarre choice to turn around and turn its back on the recommendations of experts.

More information would be sorely needed on the Regency proposal to even take it semi-seriously. Currently it is nothing more than what The Chronicle’s Susan McCord called a “three-paragraph proposal.”

“For the topics covered in the letter to ever turn into a binding agreement,” Chronicle and Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson told McCord, “a complete lease document covering terms in the letter as well as many other details of the transaction would have to be included in a formal lease document and approved by a vote of the Augusta Commission.”

Even Coliseum Authority attorney Ed Enoch has written mall owner Cardinal Management for more information about its request for a 10-year tax abatement and parking lot upgrades, which its letter indicates it is seeking in exchange for a 35-year dollar-a-year lease. He was also careful to make sure the authority’s meeting minutes included his desire for more clarity on the terms, as well as his reminder that bond attorneys would also have to be appeased with any deal.

But all of that ignores the fact that the experts — and the Coliseum Authority’s own site selection committee — much preferred the downtown location.

Further, it’s an outrage that authority members were asked to vote on the Regency site without even having been tendered a copy of the cursory letter from the mall’s owner — which only proposes the Regency site, and doesn’t even build a flimsy case for it.

It’s a mystery why four members would go along with such a skimpy scheme.

The mayor’s obvious hope is that an arena whose lights are on but 60 or more nights a year will inspire the building of restaurants, hotels and other amenities along Gordon Highway. He’s trying to engineer development based on hope and politics, not business and evidence.

The amenities which an arena cannot create, but can feed off of and feed, are downtown, where increasing cyber-related growth is already occurring. As Augustan Jim Hull has said, “critical mass is the friend, and fragmentation is the enemy” in such decisions.

Then again, what does Hull know about real estate? He’s only the founder and managing principal of Hull Property Group. What does he know about multimillion-dollar decisions? He’s only vice chairman of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.

Then there’s David Stone of Chicago, who authored a 2015 study on the arena’s size needs.

“In general, downtowns do have an advantage,” he said. “It’s where these facilities are being built these days. These kinds of facilities don’t revitalize a neighborhood or an area at all on their own, but can help spur development when you have existing assets in place.”

We hope the political interests in all this can be beat back while a careful deliberation takes their place.

And we’re confident a careful examination of the facts, and of the experts’ recommendations — as well as an unscientific poll of most business owners, who know a little something about going where the crowds are — will make it exceedingly clear that it doesn’t make sense to move the James Brown Arena out of downtown.

Once the winds die down — both the tropical and the topical — calmer heads need to prevail.

 

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