Pop Rocks: James Brown Arena decision becoming political, but should be practical

James Brown Arena has been the venue for everything from outdoor expos and the circus to concerts and graduations. Many questions remain with talk of building a new arena on the former Regency Mall site. FILE/STAFF

I’ve always found that it’s best to make informed decisions based on facts. The future, as the late great Joe Strummer once said, is always unwritten, but with a foundation of hard truths, there is at least some idea of how plots and plans might unfold.

 

This is, of course, no secret formula. It is the way most of us operate. Which is why I am surprised at the way the should-it-stay-or-should-it-go conversations surrounding James Brown Arena have transpired. So many questions. So few facts.

For instance, in a recent press conference Mayor Hardie Davis, who supports the idea of moving the arena to the old Regency Mall site, said that while the current owner has proposed a 35-year lease, he thinks it would be more appropriate to purchase the site.

Here is where the questions begin. What would the asking price for the property be? Is the owner interested in selling? Would inability to procure the site be a deal-breaker?

Supporters of the move have sited the ability to build a larger arena at the Regency site, a venue that might attract top-tier acts. This, too, brings up questions. What size arena is appropriate for Augusta? Are we talking 18,000 – the size of Colonial Life Arena in Columbia? Larger? Smaller? What level of acts are being considered? At what ticket price? More questions.

And the hits keep coming. For instance, what is the operational reality of the downtown and Regency sites? What does operating two facilities in two locations mean in terms of staffing? Is it economically feasible? If the current facility is expanded, what does that mean in terms of bookings? Will the arena need to go dark and, if so, for how long?

Do we know, from a site preparation standpoint, if the Regency Mall site is appropriate for the infrastructure of an arena?

Will removing James Brown’s anchoring presence affect downtown’s burgeoning Entertainment District?

What we do know is this. The Augusta area is growing – quickly. The arena’s facilities – now nearly 40 years old, have become dated. Augusta needs a new arena and that need will only grow. Although all seem in agreement on these points, the dispute over where it might happen has spawned what might be the thorniest question of all: Have we poisoned the well?

All this talk of downtown versus Regency, of South Augusta versus West Augusta, of politics and pride has stemmed from the fact that opinions are being squeezed from far too few facts. And yet battle lines have been drawn. It’s become a question of for or against rather than a thoughtful response to a very real need.

What will that mean when the Augusta Commission must vote on this proposal? The issue has become political rather than practical. History has taught us that it is not unreasonable to expect commissioners to vote along geographic lines – not the best scenario.

And what happens when the public is asked to vote on funding this project? If that vote were tallied today, could we expect reasoned consideration of pros and cons or a clash of catchphrases? SOGO versus Keep the Brown Downtown.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently in favor of keeping the James Brown downtown, in no small part because I believe a strong entertainment district will prove a powerful tool for civic growth – but I also know there are facts yet to be determined. And so, for now, I will keep an open mind, looking both to the South and downtown. I know the right answer is out there somewhere. Hopefully we can arrive at it together.

 

More