Originally created 10/07/04

County upbeat on arena idea

Columbia County leaders say they are receptive to housing a proposed sports and entertainment arena but add that many hurdles must be cleared before the project can become reality.

Longtime county businessman and state Senate candidate Jim Whitehead said an arena would be positive - if it's done right.

"I think there's a lot of good that could come out of it. (Planners) would have to look at how it would be funded and what it would mean in total revenue to Columbia County," Mr. Whitehead said.

Ron Cross, the Columbia County Commission's chairman, said the first step in an arena plan would be to form a coliseum authority "and let them pursue all of the options of how this could come about."

Mr. Cross said there are concerns about the financing and the control allowed to private-sector backers of the facility.

"It's going to have to be on our terms, and it may not be feasible because it's terribly ambitious."

Mr. Cross said funding issues could involve exploring everything from having more private businesses involved in the venture to having a county bond referendum, which would involve public input.

Tammy Stout, the executive director of the Greater Augusta Sports Council, said her main priority is having an arena built.

"The county line doesn't hurt our prospecting," she said. "Not having a facility hurts."

Jeff Browning, the director of planning and development services for Columbia County, said he's not surprised the arena's principals are eyeing Columbia County in light of the population shift from Richmond County.

"Now we're seeing retail movement, and we're also seeing the movement of jobs and office space. This may be another element," Mr. Browning said.

An arena needs to be located near adequate roads, he said.

Prime locations include Evans Town Center and within the proposed Martinez redevelopment area near Washington Road and Bobby Jones Expressway, Mr. Browning said.

A site would require room where business can grow in response to the increased traffic, he said.

The location of the arena, whether in Richmond or Columbia counties, will likely have little effect on tourism, industry watchers say.

"Visitors don't typically view a county line or state line," said Barry White, the executive director of the Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They're going to seek out that attraction and travel to that destination."

Some are skeptical of the tourism business an arena would have in Columbia County. Dr. Harinderjit Singh, an area hotelier who is building his third property in Columbia County, said he isn't banking on anything until he sees where the facility is located.

"The civic center hasn't done very much in Richmond County to drum up business," Dr. Singh said.

"It all depends on the activities happening there."

Staff writer James Gallagher contributed to this story.

Reach Adrian Burns at (706) 823-3352 or adrian.burns@augustachronicle.com.


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