Originally created 11/26/03

New plan needs public investments



A new proposal to build and manage a regional sports and entertainment arena was presented to potential investors Tuesday.

Supporters of the proposed arena said the vacant Regency Mall was a better site than others because it would be easier to develop and would encourage investment in Augusta's southside.

The new plan also called for public investments to fund the arena's operating company.

The combination of a better site and public investment in the project should provide more public support for initial funding and encourage patrons to use the venue and support its ongoing operation, arena supporters said.

A broad public buy-in would send a strong message to Augusta commissioners considering which projects will go before voters on a sales tax referendum, supporters said.

"If they know we've got a roomful of folks invested in this thing, that tells the county commission something," said Paul Simon, a spokesman for Augusta Entertainment LLC. The limited liability corporation recently purchased the Augusta Lynx ice hockey team and has pitched the most recent public-private partnership to develop and manage the proposed arena.

"I think there are a lot of people who would like to be a part owner of a hockey team and part owner of their civic center," Mr. Simon said.

Tuesday's meeting at Julian Smith Casino was attended by about 60 potential investors and the media. It marked the second time support has been sought for a regional arena.

AN EARLIER PROPOSAL, floated nearly one year ago to build the 12,000-seat arena near the intersection of Interstate 20 and River Watch Parkway, received little support from governing officials and the public.

"Our community needs this building," said William S. Morris III, a partner in Augusta Entertainment LLC and the chairman and chief executive officer of Morris Communications Co., the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle.

Augusta Entertainment is led by Bobby Jones Ford owner Frank Lawrence and Mr. Morris. Mr. Lawrence also owns the city's dormant arenafootball2 team, the Augusta Stallions.

Although the new plan still relies primarily on public funding, it does not include a larger private investment from Mr. Morris for an outdoor equestrian center and barn complex.

He also is the chairman of the Augusta Futurity and controls the National Barrel Horse Association, both of which hold competitions at the existing civic center.

With the two horse shows and the Lynx home games, about 60 days a year would be booked into the new arena. That is important to the profitability of the venture.

The new plan would require $60 million in special purpose local option sales tax money to construct the building.

The Regency Mall site also would require $24 million in excise tax bonds and $10 million in revenue bonds, for a total project cost of $94 million. That includes site development, construction and additional neighborhood improvements in the surrounding area.

An additional $6 million would be needed to pay off bond indebtedness at the existing civic center.

Under the new proposal, the existing civic center would be torn down or converted to another use. There are no plans to change Bell Auditorium.

Wetlands and a creek on the Regency Mall property would be cleared and improved to be incorporated in the overall site design. Rocky Creek will be developed into a water recreation area with lakes and a stream.

THE CO-CHAIRMEN of a sales-tax study committee also attended Tuesday's meeting and said the south Augusta location would likely be crucial in swaying public opinion on the new arena.

"The Regency Mall site is something that will get a lot of interest," Ed Tarver said. "This certainly presents an opportunity to use that site."

"I think the new location changes the whole dynamic of the SPLOST," Monty Osteen said.

If the arena is approved as a sales tax-funded project, Augusta Entertainment is proposing a partnership between its privately funded corporation and the city. The money provided by investors at $1,000 a unit would be used to pay off the loan used to buy the Augusta Lynx, and to promote and develop the new arena. Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Morris each would have 150 units, a 5 percent share.

ScheerGame Sports Development would have a 5 percent interest and the contract to run the center. ScheerGame is owned by Carl Scheer, who also owns the East Coast Hockey League's Greenville Grrrowl and the Charlotte Checkers.

If the sales tax is approved by voters, ScheerGame would receive another 5 percent share.

The remaining 80 percent ownership would be shared by outside investors.

After bond payments, profits for the new arena would be shared equally by the city, the shareholders and ScheerGame.

In lieu of a governing authority over the facility, Augusta Entertainment has proposed a memorandum of understanding with the city that would set forward an operating agreement.

The proposal, although still in its early stages, is receiving some support from elected officials. Augusta Entertainment officials said they have met with most members of the Augusta Commission and the local legislative delegation to give them a preview of their plans.

"I thought the project looks good. It really looks good on paper," said Commissioner Marion Williams. "I think we're going to have to do some more talking, but it's a good talking point."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.