“We worked for six years to try to build a financing model,” said Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who led a downtown stadium committee that sought public support, financing and land for a multipurpose stadium complex. “We weren’t able to get there, so I would much rather see a stadium in North Augusta than to see the team leave the area.”
An underlying theme in Augusta’s negotiations with the GreenJackets was always that the team might depart Augusta for a newer stadium. Other themes were lack of public support – Democratic voters panned the idea in a 2010 straw poll – and skepticism among Augusta Commission members reluctant to spend public money on the development.
Presenting North Augusta’s proposal for a $166 million riverfront hotel, conference center, retail and multipurpose stadium complex Wednesday, Mayor Lark Jones said it won’t move forward without public approval and private investment.
“We’re not going to strap it to the backs of the North Augusta taxpayers,” he said.
Instead, the city likely will rely on lease payments from the GreenJackets, ticket taxes plus tax increments resulting from the development to cover North Augusta’s 30 percent funding commitment, according to City Administrator Todd Glover.
Augusta and GreenJackets officials agreed Wednesday that the state of Georgia’s decision this year to transfer the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Botanical Gardens site – diagonally across the Savannah River from the proposed North Augusta site – to Georgia Health Sciences University likely sent the GreenJackets looking for another riverfront site.
“The public owns that, and we would have had to spend at least $3 million just to acquire the property,” Augusta Commission member Jerry Brigham said of the golf hall site, which remains vacant. He cited the New York Giants’ move to New Jersey.
“Did New York lose any prestige?” he said. “If North Augusta wants to pay for (a stadium), that’s fantastic.”
Copenhaver said that the North Augusta project’s developers were the same as those who shopped for opportunities in Augusta and that the proposed development is remarkably similar.
Greenstone Properties’ Chris Schoen, who presented details about the multipurpose stadium facility to North Augusta residents Wednesday, included photos of a riverfront stadium development he is doing for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps.
“I have always had a regional focus, and this actually moves the stadium closer to our city center,” said Copenhaver, voicing concern instead for what will become of the GreenJackets’ existing home at Lake Olmstead Stadium if the North Augusta deal goes through.
Envisioning water taxis hauling tourists across the Savannah for a ballgame, Copenhaver said the move requires Augusta to step up development along the river to benefit from what will become a regional attraction.
“They’ve got more leniency; they don’t have a levee,” commission member Joe Jackson said of North Augusta’s plans. “Evidently, we didn’t fit the mold they wanted so they went somewhere else. Certainly North Augusta may be more prepared.”
Commission member Corey Johnson said the two cities’ relationship means all will benefit.
“I think it will be a great thing,” he said, suggesting Richmond and Columbia counties join forces on an arena-style facility off Interstate 20 near the county line.
He said other communities such as Savannah, Ga., rely on water transportation between venues such as Savannah’s convention center, which is on an island that guests access by ferry.
“We’ve got to start thinking like a big city,” Johnson said.
Augusta businessman and sports enthusiast Ed Presnell, who was involved in many of Augusta’s stadium discussions, said that the stadium location makes no difference but that having a large, state-of-the-art venue will help the franchise stabilize and grow.
“The magnitude of this one, as it’s grown, will really benefit the whole region,” he said.
Less enthusiastic about North Augusta’s plan was commission member Matt Aitken, who championed the downtown project as a boon for his District 1. Aitken said the development’s 300 housing units will lure Augustans and even Columbia County residents away. It also could jeopardize pending hotel developments downtown, Aitken said.
“Look how fast they moved on it,” said Aitken, who recently lost a re-election bid. “We had the opportunity to do that and we missed it. It’s going to be a huge blow for Augusta.”