Many people might not know how close the Augusta area was to losing the GreenJackets.
It was 2012, and the team had been owned since 2005 by Ripken Baseball, the group headed by Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Billy. The group’s vice president was Jeff Eiseman.
Augusta officials had been courting Cal Ripken for several years in a bid to help build a new stadium for the Jackets on the Savannah River, on the former site of the Georgia Golf and Gardens. And the player known as baseball’s Iron Man – for playing in 2,632 consecutive games – was growing exhausted.
“I tried to convince him to stick it out and he was like, he was done,” Eiseman told members of the Downtown Development Authority of Augusta on Sept. 14. “He was fatigued from the political process. He said, ‘I want it sold. I don’t care who buys it or where it goes.’”
At that point, the responsibility fell on Eiseman, and he had two options.
The first was to sell the team to an extremely motivated ownership group that wanted to move the team to Wilmington, N.C.
The second was to find a way to keep the Jackets in the Augusta area and proceed with a vision for growth.
So Eiseman started having conversations with officials in North Augusta – and both sides liked what they heard.
“It was becoming apparent that this was real. And I tried to convince Cal: This is real. This is different. This is not the same conversation that we’ve been having,” Eiseman said. “But he still was adamant. And it became a very different conversation to find civic stakeholders, not only here in Augusta.”
The result is what you see taking shape just across the 13th Street Bridge in South Carolina. Eiseman and Atlanta-based developer Chris Schoen formed Agon Sports and Entertainment to buy the Jackets, and with cooperation from the city of North Augusta, the sprawling multi-use development now called Riverside Village is expected to be completed in April 2019, but baseball games and other events are planned for the centerpiece stadium at least a year before that.
And all that should be beneficial and transformative for downtown Augusta.
Folks who feel that Augusta somehow “lost” its baseball team may not realize that the Jackets now will be closer to the downtown core than they were when they were out at Lake Olmstead Stadium.
Geography, sports-wise, can be a mere technicality. Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels play in Anaheim. Football’s New York Giants play in New Jersey.
“We are Augusta-centric. We are remaining in the Augusta region,” Eiseman said. “This is a regional brand. We’re not just North Augusta’s baseball team, though they’re the conduit to make all of this happen.”
Augusta isn’t really losing anything. It’s gaining one more potentially powerful economic and lifestyle draw to our region, which is what many Augustans have wanted all along.
And it’s not just a baseball stadium.
A Crowne Plaza hotel in the development will have 180 rooms and a conference center. The hotel’s rooftop restaurant likely will be a high-end steak house.
There will be a 280-unit apartment complex called Ironwood Apartments. More apartments will go behind the stadium’s left-field wall.
There will be shops, offices, single-family homes and even a senior living facility. And its connection to North Augusta’s already-established Greeneway makes the whole thing very walkable.
None of that would’ve happened if the team had stayed at Lake Olmstead.
The stadium there is hemmed in by the lake, by public housing and by the Georgia Army National Guard’s 878th Engineer Battalion headquarters. Parking there is notoriously inconvenient.
And even though it was built just in 1995, it’s showing its age poorly, even after Ripken Baseball had sunk tens of thousands of dollars into stadium renovations. There was only so much the owners could do without room for a Riverside Village-level of expansion.
“Lake Olmstead was built in a different time and a different place, not just for the baseball industry but for sports and entertainment in general,” Eiseman said.
Because of that, promoters were loath to stage many non-baseball events there. If it was easy to book a ton of concerts at Lake Olmstead, the team’s owners would’ve done it.
But now that Riverside Village and the Jackets’ SRP Park present the right opportunities, several companies specializing in events, hospitality and destination management have reached out to the team’s owners for bookings. The stadium could be a very busy place come next Masters Week. The very first event at the stadium could be a huge concert.
It wasn’t that long ago that the phrase “cool factor” hovered around town to describe an abstract concept that Augusta needed to improve to attract growth and activity.
Now there’s something cool taking shape across the river – and Augusta, in turn, should expect to feel something cool very soon.
It’s a good thing we have Jackets.