Originally created 11/30/03

Augusta's rare opportunity



On the surface, the question before us appears to be whether Augusta wants a new sports and entertainment arena. And whether private investors and public officials - and, ultimately, voters - will get behind it.

But the real question is much more important and sweeping.

The real question facing us is exactly what Augusta thinks of itself.

Is the second-largest city in Georgia up to this? Is it worthy of it? Is the community visionary enough to see what needs to be done - and gutsy enough to do it? Are we willing to invest in ourselves?

The real question is whether we believe in ourselves.

If we do, then we need to come to grips with the fact that Augusta has fallen far behind the competition when it comes to crucial quality-of-life issues.

A citizens committee is considering a number of projects that might be funded with an extension of the current special purpose local option sales tax. The sports and entertainment arena, a performing arts center, flat-floor exhibition center and expanded library are among the proposals.

These things aren't luxuries today, folks. They are critical quality-of-life components in any community that aspires to be great - or to even stay afloat in a sea of very competitive, aggressive and progressive communities.

The simple fact is, we won't be able to continue attracting jobs and high-paid professionals - in Augusta's vibrant medical community, for instance - if Augusta doesn't have a rich and vibrant cultural life.

We can't continue to shoot for "good enough" anymore. Because when other cities such as Greenville, S.C., Columbia, S.C., Columbus, Ga., and others reach higher with their cultural institutions and infrastructures, Augusta gets left behind.

And all it takes to get left behind is to stand still.

The sports arena, as much as any proposal now on the table, is dramatic evidence of that fact.

Augusta's current civic center is clearly inadequate. Anyone who has done the least bit of traveling can see that. It's dreary, it's small and landlocked, and, due to vagaries of local politics, it's been poorly run in recent years, actually scaring customers off.

We can change that. And we must.

Augusta Entertainment LLC, a new company formed by businessman Frank Lawrence and Augusta Chronicle publisher William S. Morris III, last week unveiled a design for a new arena. They're offering shares in the company, which already owns the chief potential tenant, the Augusta Lynx hockey team. And they're proposing a rare public-private partnership with the local government.

OK, let's talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, this newspaper's owner and publisher is taking a lead on the project. But when all shares of Augusta Entertainment are sold, he'll have a 5 percent stake - and whatever is earned off it will be donated to charity.

This isn't about money - although injecting the profit motive into the arena's operations can only help; this is about making a community better.

And this is so much bigger than one or two men.

Consider just the proposed arena location: the vacant and mildewing Regency Mall. Removing the structure will erase a blight - and, in its place, leave a sparkling new facility in south Augusta. It would be the biggest thing to happen to the area since - well, since the mall opened so many years ago.

Moreover, the architects have shown exciting vision in proposing to turn a rock-strewn creek on the site into bodies of water fit for family recreation.

Imagine, too, the other redevelopment that will surely occur in the area.

Communities rarely have this kind of opportunity - to turn such a negative on such an enormous plot of land into such an extraordinary positive for everyone.

We will soon find out if Augusta has the vision, cohesion and - well, the chutzpah - to get it done.

Whether we do will go a long way toward demonstrating what we think of ourselves.