Originally created 11/26/03

Car dealer holds Augusta sports' fate in his hands



You know his car dealership on Wrightsboro Road, the one near the mall with the shiny new trucks and SUVs and the Augusta National replica clubhouse for a showroom.

You know his TV commercial, the "35 bays, 6 days" hook, the peppy little "Dealer Makes the Difference" jingle. You know his beleaguered Augusta Stallions arenafootball2 team, the franchise that failed no matter how hard he tried.

But here's something about Frank Lawrence you may not know.

As the new majority owner of the Augusta Lynx, he holds the city's long-term success in pro sports in the palm of his hands.

If Lawrence and his group have their way, attendance and financial strife would be terminated as quickly as Lynx coaches and GMs the past three years.

Above all, the picture of off-ice success enjoyed by the ECHL's Greenville Grrrowl since their inception in 1998 would be mirrored here in Augusta.

That's where Lawrence's group enters the mix, a power troika bent on building a winner on the ice and, most of all, a sparkling, new arena for Augusta.

Tuesday afternoon, at a luncheon for some of Augusta's most prominent business people, Lawrence and his group took a giant step forward toward making that dream a reality.

"This is a community project, and I am so excited about the possibilities," Lawrence said. "I can't say that I've ever been this excited before. The future of our hockey team has never been brighter, and the plan for a new arena has never been this close to happening."

As part of Augusta Entertainment Corp. - the Lynx ownership group that includes Augusta Chronicle publisher William S. Morris III and sports franchise and arena development mogul Carl Scheer - Lawrence hosted Tuesday's get-together of around 60 of Augusta's movers and shakers whom the triumvirate earmarked as potential players in their project of a lifetime.

The primary goal: Sell off 2,400 shares of the Lynx ownership group - Augusta Entertainment Corp. - at $1,000 a pop.

The ultimate goal: raise $2.4 million to launch the development of a new arena at Regency Mall by forming a group of local investors interested in ensuring the long-term viability of minor-pro hockey in Augusta.

"What you would own as an investor is an interest in Augusta Entertainment," said Pete May, a member of the Augusta Entertainment steering committee and a vice president for Morris Communications. "With that investment, you would own a part of the Lynx and the rights to develop and manage a new arena. To help get the arena project up and running. It's a pretty exciting concept."

An exciting concept, but certainly not a new one.

As president of the Grrrowl and CEO of ScheerGame, Scheer executed the very same plan seven years ago in the South Carolina upstate.

The former commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association and a longtime pro sports owner and arena developer, Scheer helped bring pro hockey and a state-of-the art arena - the Bi-Lo Center - to Greenville by following the same business plan presented here Tuesday.

The Grrrowl have been at the top of the ECHL in attendance the past five seasons.

Lawrence says he believes Augusta's proposed new arena - a building May says would cost around $90 million and would make the Bi-Lo Center pale in comparison - would yield the same level of success, with crowds upward of 5,000 for hockey and 12,000 for concerts. Above all, as new face of the Lynx and the arena project, Lawrence is determined to bring his dreams to life.

"Billy Morris is a giant in his field, and Carl Scheer is a giant in the sports industry," Lawrence said.

The timing of Lawrence's game plan is fitting. Look at the Lynx on the ice, a team fast becoming giants of the ECHL once again, an exciting, young club on their longest unbeaten streak in more than two years under new coach Stan Drulia.

Lawrence is working on a streak of his own. Together with Drulia and general manager Paul Gamsby, the Lynx never have been in better hands.

Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.