A field of dreams

City will need financing plan to get Golf and Gardens property

Mayor Deke Copenhaver is warming up to ask Augusta commissioners to authorize city staff to create a financing package for a downtown baseball stadium, condominiums and retail complex on the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property.

The package, which would outline the proposed project and means of financing it, is needed for the city to get the property from the state this year, and drawing it up would cost nothing, the mayor said.

Without it, three years of working with Gov. Sonny Perdue and the State Properties Commission on acquiring the abandoned 17-acre tract will be all for naught, and the city will be back to square one, he said.

"There's a bond attached to the property that will not be paid off for another six years, so the large potential is that if we don't get something done this year, that property will sit empty, grow weeds and produce no tax revenue for the next six years," Copenhaver said.

In addition to paying $2.8 million for the property, possibly leasing it for six years, the city will have to hustle because the transfer must be approved by the Legislature this session and be signed off on by the governor.

It's a field of dreams for the mayor and those who support a new $38.7 million stadium for the Augusta GreenJackets.

But to others, including most Augusta commissioners, it's fantasy baseball -- a risky venture that could end up on taxpayers' backs.

The mayor said it's too early for commissioners to make that call.

"In order to support it or not support it, the first thing we have to have is that finance package, and we're not detailing anything solid right now," he said. "So until I can get their go-ahead to give our staff the directive of putting the finance package together, I don't think they can make an educated decision whether or not they support it."

It's a hard sell for most commissioners.

"Let somebody else do the plan, somebody that's interested in investing down there," Commissioner J.R. Hatney said. "You can't do a plan free."

The mayor talked to Commissioner Don Grantham on Monday about using the city's tax allocation districts and private investment to finance the project, but didn't convince him that the direct expenses won't be a future expense for the taxpayers.

"I don't see how you're going to avoid that," Grantham said.

The package the mayor presented Grantham didn't include what GreenJackets owner Cal Ripken Jr. would contribute toward making the facility viable, he said.

The mayor and Ripken Baseball executives contend that such ventures have been highly successful in other cities, such as Greenville, S.C.

Grantham also wondered who would pay for the stadium.

"Are we looking to the taxpayers, or is this a private investment?" he asked.

Copenhaver said it would be a public-private partnership and that when he submitted a proposal to the state, Jim Jacoby, the developer of the Atlantic Station in Atlanta, was on board as a partner.

"He is still a part of the project should it go forward," he said. "The portion of the property he's looking at -- one of the ideas he has for that property would be high-end residential condominiums, this being based on the fact that by the time you would complete this project the economy would have returned.

"What we're talking about is a mixed-use sports and entertainment facility that would have retail, eventually restaurants, banks. It would not just be a sole-use baseball stadium. They don't build them like that anymore."

The mayor said acquisition of the property requires that it have a project attached to it.

"If we do not have a project attached to it -- and nobody's come up with a Plan B -- there's no way we will get the property," he said.

The mayor says there can't be any specifics about the proposed project until a financing plan is put together, but specifics are what commissioners say they want.

When asked whether he would support authorizing city staff to draw up a financing plan, Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason said: "Plan for what? Is that all in one, or are you talking about options? Perhaps a baseball stadium? Perhaps condos? Or are you talking about one thing, or something all together? Or are you taking about options?

"It could be a mixed-use development that could be the best thing to do down there. It could be condos like we were supposed to have at Reynolds Street that never happened. I don't know."

The state could assign the property to another state entity, such as the Medical College of Georgia or Augusta State University, said George Snelling, a member of the State Properties Commission from Augusta.

"I'm not advocating that," he said. "I believe that could be a possibility. The state would want to see a viable project. The governor wants the state to get the absolute best deal it can."

The Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Botanical Gardens opened in 2001 and closed in June 2007, during a drought that killed many of the plants when the water was cut off.

Later that year, the city began maintaining the property, but it stopped last year as part of cost-cutting measures.

Copenhaver maintains that the baseball stadium is still the best hope for reviving the property. Last year, the state put out a request for proposals for other uses, and the only others were for a Goodwill Industries job-training center and an assisted-living complex.

Lake Olmstead Stadium

Cal Ripken Jr. bought the Augusta GreenJackets in 2005 and renovated Lake Olmstead Stadium.

Five years later, the stadium is the third smallest in the South Atlantic League.

A downtown stadium committee visited other cities in 2007. Released in February 2008, a feasibility study projected a new stadium could bring up to 350,000 people downtown each year.

Commissioners see tough sell
AGAINST

ALVIN MASON: The mayor pro tem said he wants to see numbers and options.

"It's kind of hard to vote for something you haven't seen."

DON GRANTHAM: "If anything needs to be done right now, it is to spruce up the baseball stadium we've got and do the best we can during this economic downturn," Grantham said. "It's just not wise to spend money on projects that will cost you added expense for the future. That's what a baseball stadium is. I don't think we'll fill it up."

J.R. HATNEY: He said he thinks private money should buy the land and build the stadium.

COREY JOHNSON: "I can't at this time. ... I just think we've got too many other things going on right now, and we just need to focus on finishing the judicial center, and also the TEE center and the things going on on Laney-Walker/Bethlehem. We still haven't gotten the money for that yet. The baseball stadium is something we need to deal with -- if we deal with it -- at a later date."

JERRY BRIGHAM: He said he wouldn't vote to have a financial package put together until he knew where the money would come from to buy the land and build a stadium. "We don't have any money," he said.

JIMMY SMITH: Augusta already has a good stadium that it has spent money on, he said, and parking would be a problem if one were built on the Golf and Gardens property. In response to the mayor's contention that if something isn't done with the property this year it will sit growing weeds for six more years, Mr. Smith said: "Well, it ain't hurting nothing. It ain't costing nothing."

LEANING AGAINST

JOE JACKSON: He said he has "several issues" with building a baseball stadium, one being the state of the economy. "Second, what is it going to cost?" he said. "I think it would be a good idea, but I don't know what it's going to cost. Third, what are we going to do with the stadium we've got?"

JOE BOWLES: If the stadium could be built without involving taxpayers, he said he's for it 100 percent, but he fears it could go belly-up in 10 years, leaving the city to pay off the debt.

UNCOMMITTED

BILL LOCKETT: He said he could support a baseball stadium but would have to know more about it. "It wouldn't be first on my list. There are many things much more urgent that would benefit the citizens of Augusta-Richmond County."

MATT AITKEN: "I really haven't had a chance to talk to my constituents. I didn't know condominiums was going to be tied into it."

-- Compiled by Sylvia Cooper

Mayor makes case

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver wants to talk downtown baseball with Augusta commissioners at their retreat next weekend in Athens.

In an e-mail sent to commissioners Friday, the mayor said he wants to discuss "the potential for a mixed-use sports and entertainment facility (baseball stadium)" he envisions being built on the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame property.

He also wants their approval for the city's finance staff to put together a financing package that he said will cost nothing.

Other points the mayor makes in his e-mail include:

- An exploratory committee has completed its due diligence work, including a feasibility study; visits to stadiums in Greenville, S.C.; Greensboro, N.C.; and Durham, N.C.; and an economic impact study.

- The project has received resolutions of support from the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Development Authority of Richmond County, the Greater Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau and Augusta Tomorrow.

- It is also a part of the city's newly updated downtown master plan.

- His concern is that if the city does not act during this legislative session -- while Gov. Sonny Perdue, state Properties Director Steve Stancil and state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, are on board with the project -- an opportunity to get the property will be lost and it will sit vacant for the next six years, producing no tax revenue.

Downtown baseball stadium
At home

The Augusta GreenJackets hope to move  to the former Golf & Gardens  property from their current residence at Lake Olmstead Stadium off Milledge Road. The 4,822-seat stadium, built on top of the old Heaton Stadium site in 1995, underwent a $1.5 million upgrade starting in 2005, when Ripken Baseball Group purchased the team. Five years later, it’s the third-smallest stadium in the South Atlantic League.

“We’re starting to outgrow it,” GreenJackets General Manager Nick Brown said just before a feasibility study was released two years ago exploring the possibility of a downtown stadium. “Heaton Stadium was a glorified high school stadium, and now we’re just a glorified collegiate field.”

On the road

A downtown stadium exploratory committee made visits to Greenville, S.C., Greensboro, N.C., and Durham, N.C., during the summer of 2007. After the road trips, the committee decided to hire an independent consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study on the possibility of building a downtown stadium.

The study, released Feb. 28, 2008, said a downtown stadium would “potentially bring upwards of 350,000 patrons a year into the downtown area,” and estimated “a total Ballpark development cost of $31,830,000.”

Seven months later, Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver tried to boost support for the project from city commissioners but failed to gain a quorum at a called meeting.

Grass Greener in Greenville

Proponents of a downtown stadium point to similar venues in Greenville, S.C., and Durham, N.C., as examples of what could happen in Augusta. According to GreenvilleDrive.com, Fluor Field at the West End was completed in 2006 on an old lumber yard in downtown Greenville. The team went from an average attendance of 1,719 fans per game in 2005, before the new stadium was built, to at least 4,700 fans per game each of the next four seasons, bringing more than 340,000 people to the downtown area each year.

Not a rookie

Ripken Baseball Group, which purchased the GreenJackets in 2005, owns other minor league teams in Aberdeen, Md., and Port Charlotte, Fla. Both franchises have seen new stadiums built since the purchases. The Port Charlotte team benefited from a $27 million facilities renovation in 2009, thanks to a deal between the Tampa Bay Rays and the city of Port Charlotte that included a 20-year agreement to make the stadium the Rays’ spring training home.

Aberdeen’s Ripken Stadium was part of a $35 million complex completed in 2002, according to The Baltimore Sun, just before the first season of the Aberdeen Ironbirds.

– Billy Byler, staff writer

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