Who will step up to the plate?

Nate Owens/Staff

A downtown baseball stadium is the most ambitious venture of Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver's political career, but two years into discussions, he still lacks specifics on how it will happen.

He and baseball Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr., have big plans for a ballpark along the Savannah River, conceived as an economic boon for downtown and a step up for the Augusta GreenJackets, owned by Ripken Baseball.

Conceptual drawings show an outfield backing up to the river, multilevel office and condo buildings and a steamboat-shaped restaurant at the levee level. The stadium was incorporated into Augusta Tomorrow's downtown master plan. Private money paid for a feasibility study that laid out the stadium's $31.8 million construction cost -- $38.9 million including infrastructure improvements -- and 5,500-seat capacity.

What hasn't been laid out is how much taxpayers will have to pay. Mr. Copenhaver says the public's portion of the public-private partnership could involve bonds issued through the city's new tax allocation district, and his goal is for the city "to have as little exposure as possible."

As for how much is a little, Mr. Copenhaver says he doesn't know yet, nor will he identify what proportion of the stadium's cost he would consider too much for the city to bear.

"I could not say," he said. "This is why I need finance people putting the deal together."

The lack of details has several Augusta commissioners unnerved. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue might be on board, saying he'll agree to transfer the 17-acre Augusta Golf and Gardens property from the state to the city so long as the stadium gets built on it, but without the support of commissioners the project isn't going anywhere.

Six votes would be needed to take any action -- whether it's to accept the land under the governor's conditions or to issue bonds. Had it been put to the commission last week, the project would have undoubtedly sank.

Of the 10 commissioners, six -- Betty Beard, Corey Johnson, Joe Bowles, Calvin Holland, Jimmy Smith and Don Grantham -- say they're against building a stadium right now. Jerry Brigham says he's undecided, but leaning against it.

"He needs to come up with something a little more concrete than what he's been talking about for the last year and a half," Mr. Grantham said of the mayor. "I just don't think we need to head in this direction until we know more about it."

Mr. Johnson said voting in favor of a $32 million stadium during this dismal economic climate "would be suicide to my career.

"That would be a slap in the face to the people," he said. "I'm not saying it's not a good idea for the future. I'm just saying it's not a good idea right now."

THE CITY has more time to review the issue, thanks to a misunderstanding about the process of transferring state-owned land. After an April 16 conference call during which the governor said he'll help put the land under city ownership, Mr. Copenhaver and Mr. Ripken held a news conference at Lake Olmstead Stadium saying they planned to break ground on a downtown stadium by fall.

But that's impossible, according to the State Properties Commission, because the land transfer would have to be approved by the Legislature, and the General Assembly is not scheduled to meet again until January. Were such a resolution passed, the city wouldn't take ownership until summer 2010, properties commission Deputy Executive Director Rod Bowlden estimated.

The holdup is just fine, said Mr. Copenhaver, who was taken aback by the negative reaction to his announcement with Mr. Ripken.

"All we're talking about is a concept," he said. "Until you have a package together, you really have nothing to say yea or nay about."

Several commissioners said they thought the stadium was on hold because of the economy and didn't appreciate finding out from the news media that it was being fast-tracked. Mr. Copenhaver said he didn't mean to blindside anyone, but then it's not as if he just sprang the idea on the city this month.

In 2007, a 28-member exploratory committee was formed. The feasibility study by Rosser International predicted the stadium would draw more than 350,000 patrons per year downtown.

Last year the properties commission put out a request for proposals on other uses for the Golf and Gardens property. Other than the stadium idea submitted by the city, Ripken Baseball and developer Jacoby Group, the only other proposals were a job training center by Goodwill Industries and an assisted-living complex.

"If somebody had a better idea moving forward, I was open to all ideas," Mr. Copenhaver said.

With a governor who likes the project and is agreeable to a handover, Mr. Copenhaver said he's concerned that if nothing gets done before Mr. Perdue leaves office at the end of 2010, his successor might not be so amenable. Then Augusta would go on having a large tract of riverfront property growing weeds and generating no taxes, he said.

IF THE MAYOR doesn't have all the answers about financing, part of it has to do with so many aspects of the land transfer still being up in the air. It's unknown whether the city would have to pay the state for the property. The state has about $2.8 million in bonded indebtedness tied up in it, and how that would be handled has not been discussed.

Mr. Copenhaver said the first thing he'll ask the commission to do is direct the finance department and City Administrator Fred Russell to come up with a financing structure showing how the public-private partnership could be split. At least two commissioners -- Mr. Grantham and Mr. Holland -- said they won't even vote for that.

Both the feasibility study and documents submitted to the state last year said the private sector would pay for the non-baseball aspects of the overall mixed-use development, such as the office building, apartments, condos, a parking deck and hotel, which aren't included in the $38.9 million price. The private sector would also pay for ongoing maintenance of the facilities, the documents say.

Both Mr. Copenhaver and Ripken Baseball CEO Chris Flannery said, however, that doesn't mean the city would fund the stadium construction alone.

"At the end of the day, I have to feel that it's beneficial to the city," Mr. Copenhaver said. "There are models where these deals have been put together with minimal risk to the taxpayers. That's the kind of deal I'm looking for."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.