Proposal for multi-use riverfront development in North Augusta would be a regional winner

Cal Ripken Jr., whose Ripken Baseball owns the GreenJackets, has plans to sell the Class A team.

Hearing some of the initial reaction to Wednesday’s announcement of a proposed multi-use riverfront development in North Augusta that would include a new baseball stadium for the GreenJackets, it sounded like a new episode of The Biggest Loser.

However, from either bank of the Savannah River, there seems to be nothing but regional winners in this local reality show.

With no available location in downtown Augusta to build a new ballpark – and nowhere close to consensus among Augustans to help pay for one – North Augusta has stepped up with an attractive offer to create something special directly across the 13th Street bridge.

The proposed project adjacent to Hammond’s Ferry includes a 200-room hotel and conference center, up to four restaurants, 75 townhouses, 225 apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space, 40,000 square feet of office space and 900 parking spaces.

Oh yeah, and a new stadium to house the Augusta GreenJackets with views across the river toward downtown Augusta.

It sounds just about perfect – with all the amenities the GreenJackets have been asking for right in our backyard. That the backyard happens to be a Bubba Watson drive across the water in South Carolina instead of Georgia seems an insignificant point. Kind of like the New York Giants and Jets playing across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

But the peanut gallery that raises its voice on these kinds of things are painting it as Augusta’s loss. How? Unless they want to come up with the $43 million of public funds and pry the Golf & Gardens property from the hands of the consolidated university’s clutches, this seems like the perfect alternative.

Especially when Augustans have already balked at the idea of forking over $38.7 million in public financing that the original downtown stadium complex proposals have suggested.

Ed Presnell, a downtown Augusta resident and former president of the Augusta Sports Council, sees the North Augusta stadium option as “a win-win.”

“A lot of time in a business development process, one thing leads to another and ultimately it all culminates in a good opportunity,” Presnell said. “This is an excellent opportunity to really fulfill all the goals that have been laid out. It has the potential over the long haul to change to face of the region.”

That seems to be the whole point. People are so busy assessing blame for the shortcomings of their own individual fiefdoms, they lose sight of the bigger regional picture.

This is a regional endeavor, benefitting Augusta even as it raises the profile of its North Augusta neighbor.

It stands to be a plus to the economies of the collective community on both sides of the river in the same way that Riverview Park or the Savannah River Plant do already.

“I think it benefits the area,” said Presnell, an avid GreenJackets supporter. “You can’t have everything in one place or the other, so one should feed off the other. A decent location of a stadium will feed the downtown business community in Augusta before and after games. A clean environment in North Augusta will attract people from Augusta and Columbia County and the surrounding community without trepidation.”

It’s easy to understand the sensitivities of Augustans these days. The last few months have been devoted to an entrenched fight to save the name “Augusta” from banishment in its new consolidated university. The idea of the GreenJackets “moving” out of state feels like another loss.

But it’s not.

If a shiny new ballpark surrounded by a clean and vibrant retail area can attract more fans to see the minor league franchise, that’s all good.

It’s still very much “local” and the improved experience can be shared by all.

Perhaps the rising tide of an enticing Savannah riverfront has the ability to lift all boats.

North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones called it “the biggest proposal that has ever been made” by the South Carolina city. It stands to be the centerpiece for a stronger North Augusta.

And folks on the Augusta side won’t have to pony up the public money to keep their GreenJackets with a more localized ownership group.

There’s obviously a long way to go before this proposal becomes reality by the desired deadline of 2015.

If the public reaction in North Augusta is similar to Augusta’s regarding financing a stadium, the fight could get pitched and so could the proposal.

But at first blush, it seems like a winning plan all the way around.

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