Michaux: Is outdated James Brown Arena really worth the trouble?

The Augusta RiverHawks take to the ice at James Brown Arena, something they will not be doing in the 2013-14 SPHL season.

This is not about whether Augusta needs a hockey franchise.

This is not about the merits of Global Spectrum’s management of James Brown Arena.

This is not about political infighting or taxpayer apathy.

This is just about discussing what direction the greater Augusta area wants to go and what it might take to get there.

The announcement Tuesday by Augusta RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner that his franchise would take a one-year leave of absence from the Southern Professional Hockey League was just a conversation starter. Kerzner took that unfortunate step because arena officials have not yet addressed replacing the broken ice-making system, which forced the RiverHawks to play their final eight home games at the Augusta Ice Sports Center.

Since insurance won’t cover the cost of a new ice system, this seems to be the perfect time to discuss what it is Augusta really wants in an arena. Does it want to continue along maintaining a 33-year-old facility in million dollar increments, or does it want to build a modern new multi-purpose arena that can serve its citizens for decades to come?

This is what needs to be discussed as a community, just as you would with your own family.

Consider your car. It’s paid for and is getting up there in mileage. Then the transmission goes. Do you want to spend a few thousand dollars on a rebuilt transmission to keep the car going until the next inevitable major repair? Or do you decide to take on another car payment to get a new vehicle that you can reasonably rely on for the next 6-10 years under warranty?

This is where we are now with James Brown Arena. A new ice system isn’t cheap. Probably in the neighborhood of $1 million or more. A working ice system is required to sustain a hockey franchise or attract popular events like Disney On Ice.

So the folks in charge of James Brown Arena have a costly decision to make. And perhaps it’s time for the community to be part of the process instead of just leaving it in the hands of Global Spectrum and the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority.

How do you want to spend the money?

Personally, public financing of major sports arenas has never been a popular option. Too often it merely serves the vanity and wallet of the primary tenant.

For instance, it seems ridiculous that Atlanta is spending a large fortune to help build billionaire Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons a gaudy new stadium when the perfectly good Georgia Dome isn’t even old enough to legally drink.

That seems excessive and unnecessary, but Atlanta officials have decided the possibility of losing the Falcons to some other city willing to build Blank a new temple is too much to risk.

Augusta is a different animal altogether. The second largest city in Georgia has only one major-league franchise – the Masters Tournament – and Augusta National Golf Club takes care of itself just fine. There is no minor-league arena tenant with the potential of lining his or her pockets at the public’s expense.

But Augusta and the surrounding communities need a viable and appealing multi-use facility. It is a civic necessity to attract and feature the kind of events – concerts, tournaments, conventions, etc. – that make a community a great place to live.

Augusta-Richmond County voters in 2004 rejected extending a special purpose local option sales tax that could have funded a local arena project. Columbia County officials considered and tabled their own arena discussions.

Augusta also consistently shot down overtures to build a new downtown baseball stadium, ultimately sending the project to be built as part of an ambitious complex across the river in North Augusta.

James Brown Arena is almost 10 years older than it was the last time voters rejected replacing it. The world has changed a lot since 1980 when it first opened and facility requirements have advanced as well – both from the tenant and fan perspective.

I don’t presume to know the answer, only the question. Augusta needs to talk about what it wants – either build something that the community deserves or kick the can down the road until the current arena gets closer to 50 years old and deeper into retirement age. And if not Richmond County, then Columbia County or North Augusta should discuss amongst themselves.

Eventually, somebody needs to step up and make a decision that will serve the best interests of everyone.

Augusta no longer majoring in minor sports

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