Originally created 12/14/03

Early support, project backers stir optimism in developers



When incoming Augusta Commission member Jimmy Smith thinks of a planned 12,000-seat arena for south Augusta's Regency Mall area, the 71-year-old is reminded of a time more than half a century ago when he learned to swim in the waters of Rocky Creek.

The tributary runs through the abandoned mall property - land marked not by bustling commercial activity or a bubbling creek but by decaying buildings, crumbling parking lots and an overgrown creek bed.

"Right now, you don't even know the creek is there," Mr. Smith said last week.

That is one of many things that may soon change with plans for the new sports arena.

Early drawings show a building with Corinthian columns, landscaped parking lots and a beautified creek whose waters can be seen from the arena area's urban terrain.

Mr. Smith is among those who envision restaurants and retail outlets flocking to the depressed area, called the Rocky Creek Enterprise Zone. What's perhaps most important, he sees the return of Rocky Creek and its surrounding subdivisions.

"It can do wonders for the neighborhood," he said.

Businessmen working with the project say it's that kind of interest paired with planned investment from the community that will allow the proposed arena to succeed - financially and politically.

They should know. They've done this before.

Just five years ago, Carl Scheer, the CEO and chairman of ScheerGame Sports Development, celebrated the grand opening of the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C. Mr. Scheer developed the $63 million, 15,000-seat coliseum after decades of failed attempts by others to build such a facility in the Upstate city.

"If you talk to people in Greenville, you get almost unanimous opinion that's changed the whole landscape," Mr. Scheer said last week from his Greenville office. "It has afforded the people a whole different perspective of how to live."

AUGUSTA HAS A distinct advantage over Greenville, Mr. Scheer said. Unlike the South Carolina arena's developers, most of whom were outsiders, the two prominent businessmen he's working with to push Augusta's arena are deeply vested in the community, he said.

Those men are Bobby Jones Ford owner Frank Lawrence and William S. Morris III, the chairman and chief executive officer of Morris Communications Co., the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle. They both are officers in Augusta Entertainment LLC, along with Mr. Scheer, who owns the East Coast Hockey League's Greenville Grrrowl and Charlotte Checkers.

"In Augusta, we have some really substantial people who are going to be developing the project," Mr. Scheer said.

Augusta Entertainment, which recently purchased the Augusta Lynx hockey team, is proposing to develop and manage the arena in cooperation with city government - similar to the way the Greenville arena was developed and paid for.

The Augusta deal also proposes that shares of the arena's management company be offered for sale - a move that is expected to boost the public's investment even more, Mr. Scheer said.

THE ARENA WAS proposed last month for the decaying mall property after a failed attempt to sell the arena at a west Augusta location, near Interstate 20 and River Watch Parkway.

The mall site, at Deans Bridge Road and Gordon Highway, is considered to be Augusta's epicenter, and it is in an economically deprived enterprise zone, offering several tax benefits.

The building is expected to cost $94 million and would require $60 million in special purpose local option sales tax money. The tax collects about $32 million a year, which means nearly two full years of proceeds would have to be dedicated to the project, although the total would be spread out over five to 10 years.

If Augusta's arena becomes a reality, Greenville officials say, the community has a lot to look forward to.

"The biggest thing it's brought to this community, from a tangible standpoint, is some incredible talent," said Chris Stone, the president of the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Janet Jackson, Elton John and Rod Stewart are some of the big-name acts that have appeared there. Even smaller performances, such as Disney on Ice and the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey circus, have been big hits with the community, he said.

"The other thing that it did was it gave people a sense of confidence that maybe they didn't have before," Mr. Stone said. "It was, 'Wow, look at what we can have. We don't have to drive to Atlanta or Charlotte to see these kinds of performers. We can have them in our own hometown."'

A NUMBER OF POLITICAL obstacles remain for Augusta's arena. Some elected officials say they're displeased with a proposal to eliminate the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority - the government entity that oversees the civic center and Bell Auditorium.

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

Commissioner Richard Colclough said recently that, given the amount of public money proposed, a public board should oversee the arena. He said he also would favor more private contributions toward the project.

"That would help me because the citizens are going to have to pay for this thing," Mr. Colclough said.

In spite of funding and political concerns, earlier critics say the location has been a selling point.

"I think it's a good plan. I think it's a perfect location," Commissioner Marion Williams said. "That's the center of the city."

The project's price tag concerns him, however.

"I think $60 million is a lot of money to add to the SPLOST," he said, and a profit-sharing plan between investors and the city needs to be scrutinized, he said.

"If anybody receives anything, the city ought to receive its fair share," Mr. Williams said. "But the location - that's the center of this city. It's a perfect location."

"It gave people a sense of confidence that maybe they didn't have before. It was, 'Wow, look at what we can have."' - Chris Stone, on the effect of the 15,000-seat Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C.

What's next: For the special purpose local option sales tax to be included on the March presidential primary ballot, Augusta Commission members would have to agree on a projects list by Dec. 31. However, the residents committee that held town meetings on the tax is not expected to make recommendations to the commission until after the first of the year.

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