When someone mentions the city of Fargo, North Dakota, most people can’t help but picture mounds of snow, a desperate car salesman named Jerry Lundegaard, the Blue Ox Motel and a gruesome scene involving a wood chipper thanks to the 1996 film, “Fargo” by directors Joel and Ethan Coen.
But Augusta soon might have a lot more in common with Fargo than one might suspect.
Last week, Denver-based consultants Sink Combs Dethlefs presented members of the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority with some eye-opening data regarding the construction of new arenas over the past 15 years.
Only 2 percent of the arenas built across the country since 2001 have been constructed in suburban areas like what is currently being suggested by the coliseum authority at the former Regency Mall site, according to the consultants’ findings.
Ernest Joyner, a principal with Sink Combs Dethlefs, told the coliseum authority on Sept. 26 that it was quite a shock when its members recently voted 4-2 in support of Regency Mall as the preferred site for the city’s new $120 million arena.
“It was a surprise to us,” Joyner acknowledged. “So, we started to look for other communities that had done similar things.”
The consultants were able to find one such city: Fargo, North Dakota.
“We went back and looked at the last 60 arenas that were built in the United States in the past 15 years and tried to understand where they were built and who they were built for,” said Michael Harvey, another principal with Sink Combs Dethlefs. “Of the first 30 arenas that we looked at, there is one in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s the Scheels Arena.”
Formerly known as The Urban Plains Center, it was renamed the Scheels Arena in 2010 after Scheels All Sports purchased the naming rights.
The arena can seat up to 6,000 people for concerts, more than 5,000 for ice hockey games and offers 40 suites and 300 club seats.
However, Fargo actually has two city-run event centers and one privately-owned facility, according to The Bismark Tribune.
A 115,000-square-foot indoor athletic stadium called the Fargodome was built back in 1992, and it can seat about 18,700 people for football games and more than 25,000 people for concerts.
The city also has the Fargo Civic Center with 15,000 square feet of convention space, as well as the privately-financed 4,600-square-foot Scheels Arena, according to the Bismark newspaper.
But, according to Sink Combs Dethlefs, the Scheels Arena in Fargo was the closest example it could find to a mid-size city that built an arena in the suburbs.
Fargo has a population of approximately 120,700 people, compared to Augusta’s population of about 197,180 people.
Over the past 15 years, Harvey pointed out there have been a handful of arenas built in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta and Dallas.
Authority member Darren Smith, who supports the Regency Mall site for the new James Brown Arena, questioned whether Sink Combs Dethlefs had looked at some of the nearby arenas in neighboring states that have been built in suburban areas.
Harvey said Sink Combs Dethlefs had looked at the Gwinnett Arena, which is now called the Infinite Energy Arena near Duluth, Ga.
The Infinite Energy Arena is an indoor arena that seats 13,000 people in the Atlanta metropolitan area.
“That is roughly about the size we are talking about (for the James Brown Arena) with 13,000 seats,” Smith pointed out.
While the size of the proposed arena in Augusta is similar to the Infinite Energy Arena, Harvey explained the arena in Gwinnett is different because it’s not the only arena in the Atlanta area.
“Gwinnett is classified as outside of Atlanta,” Harvey said, adding that metropolitan Atlanta has several existing arenas. “But if you build the James Brown Arena over there (at Regency Mall), you wouldn’t have an arena downtown. So we are thinking that is a different category. The Gwinnett Arena is a secondary market arena.”
Other arenas that Sink Combs Dethlefs reviewed that were built in the suburbs, but were constructed in cities around major metropolitan areas included the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park, Texas, outside of Austin; the Allen Event Center outside of Dallas; the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City; the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., outside of Los Angeles; the Hartman Arena in Park City, Kansas, outside of Wichita; the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates outside of Chicago; the 1st Bank Center in Broomfield, Colo., outside of Denver: the Leonard E. Merrill Center in Katy, Texas, outside of Houston; the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., outside of Phoenix; and the Xfinity Arena in Everett, Wa., outside of Seattle.
David Stone, president of the Stone Consulting Group of California, has worked in the planning, site selection and funding of dozens of arenas nationwide over the past 25 years.
In May 2015, Stone completed the new arena feasibility and economic impact study for the coliseum authority, and he agrees with Sink Combs Dethlefs that the trend in arena construction over the past decade has been to build in downtown areas.
“Over the last 10, 15 to 20 years, what we have seen nationally is that these facilities are very consistently built in the downtown area,” Stone said. “They are being built downtown to take advantage of existing assets in the downtown and to help further revitalize the downtown area.”
In fact, an overwhelming majority of new arenas, approximately 63 percent, are being constructed in downtown areas, Stone said.
That’s why Sink Combs Dethlefs recommended that the city build the new arena at the existing James Brown Arena site in downtown Augusta, Harvey said.
Initially, Sink Combs Dethlefs preferred a site on upper Broad Street next to the King Mill, but after speaking to the Augusta Canal Authority, Harvey explained the site didn’t seem to be a viable option.
First, the Augusta Canal Authority didn’t appear overly excited about the proposal of a new arena in that location and, second, the possibility of the arena using hydro power wasn’t going to be an option, Harvey said.
“Without hydro power, its attractiveness wasn’t quite as strong,” Harvey said about the upper Broad Street location. “But after meeting with the canal authority, I drove back to the arena, down Eighth Street and saw its connection to downtown. It made me rethink the idea of staying here.”
Earlier in the discussions about a new arena, Chris Bird, the general manager of the Augusta Entertainment Complex, told Sink Combs Dethlefs that it wouldn’t be feasible to build on the existing location of the James Brown Arena.
“Early on, Chris said it was a no-go to destroy the James Brown Arena and build right where we are right now. So we didn’t pursue it very hard,” Harvey explained. “So, during that same visit, I talked to Chris about the idea of just staying here at the existing location. It’s a good site.”
As Bird began considering all of the options, he realized that building on the existing James Brown Arena site could work.
“I think everybody as a board knows how I’m a programing guy. I want to put shows in the building, and the thought of taking a building off-line for a couple of years was a no-go for me from the beginning,” Bird said.
But, when it became clear that the authority was facing a number of obstacles with the other locations, Bird said he gave the proposal of staying at the existing site a second look.
“The idea was, look at the budgets, take off the expenses, take off the revenues, and what obstacles do you face if the building is not there?” Bird said. “Obviously, there are community partner events, there are graduations, there are things that we need to address, but the idea that this is the next 50 years versus two years, I can’t just sit here and stomp my feet that this is what I want to happen.”
Bird said he needed to consider what was best for the Augusta community in the long run.
“So, yes, look at it,” Bird said of the existing James Brown Arena location.
Cedric Johnson, chairman of the coliseum authority, said he also had doubts about the existing James Brown Arena being closed during construction.
“It was a concern for me,” Johnson told the Metro Spirit. “Until I talked to Chris, it took me a while to wrap my head around being closed for two years. I just didn’t think we could do it. But we would still operate the Bell Auditorium during the construction time, and Chris felt very comfortable that all the acts would be glad to come back once the new arena was completed.”
Johnson said he believes it is a tough decision, but a necessary sacrifice in order to get a better site for the arena.
“The fact is, sometimes you have to make some sacrifices to get a wonderful facility. And that’s what we need to do,” Johnson said. “And when people start seeing things go up, they will start getting excited about the new arena and the events it will bring. It will be a whole lot better in the long run.”
Therefore, Sink Combs Dethlefs supported the existing arena location because of all the assets available in the downtown area including the close proximity of the convention center, the numerous hotels and restaurants, the expanding theater district and the fact that the coliseum authority already owns the property on Eighth Street.
“So, we came back to the existing site, here on Eighth Street, with all of the great assets of downtown,” Harvey said.
It should be noted that Sink Combs Dethlefs has more experience with helping to construct mid-size arenas than any other architecture firm in the nation, but the authority ultimately disagreed with the consultants.
The majority of the coliseum authority members voted on Aug. 22 that the former Regency Mall location in south Augusta was the preferred site for the new $120 million arena.
Since that time, the consultants at Sink Combs Dethlefs took “a breather” and put together a detailed presentation to thoroughly explain why they still recommend the downtown location.
“In the end, we just wanted to present what the current trends have been over the past 15 years of where people are building and investing their money,” Harvey said, adding that the information was not opinion based. “It is purely data.”
But several of the coliseum authority members and Augusta commissioners still did not seem convinced.
“I don’t have a problem with the Regency Mall site,” said Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy, whose district includes the downtown area. “I think Regency Mall would be an ideal location because of the easy access, and it would probably spur economic development in south Augusta.”
Fennoy’s only concern is the possibility of the city building a new $120 million arena on the Regency Mall property that is privately owned by the Mattituck, N.Y.-based company, Cardinal Management, LLC.
“I don’t like that part of the arrangement,” Fennoy said, adding that the offer of a 35-year lease from Cardinal Management isn’t sufficient. “I don’t like us signing a deal that 35 years from now, somebody takes the control of the arena out of our hands because they own the property it was built on. That’s the problem I have.”
Even though Sink Combs Dethlefs outlined the fact that only 2 percent of new arenas are currently being built in suburban areas, Fennoy still supported the Regency Mall location over his own downtown district.
“I’m not worried about downtown. Downtown Augusta is on the move,” Fennoy said, pointing to the development of the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center on Reynolds Street, the addition of new hotels, the creation of the Augusta Innovation Zone and the establishment of the theater district. “You’ve got so much going on in downtown Augusta, it’s unbelievable. Downtown is going to be OK, but I think we need to share the wealth.”
South Augusta needs more attention, Fennoy said.
“I lived in south Augusta for almost 30 years,” Fennoy said. “I’ve been downtown for about 15 years. I represent downtown. It is a part of my district. I want to see downtown grow and prosper, but I also want to see Augusta as a whole grow and prosper. That’s why I support the Regency Mall location if we can get a fair deal.”
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, who did not attend the presentation given by Sink Combs Dethlefs, told the Metro Spirit that the Regency Mall site should be the preferred location because it would not impact the existing events at the James Brown Arena such as Augusta Futurity, the Kicks 99 Guitar Pull and the local high school graduations.
“These are all things that people expect to see happen that can’t if you tear the arena down,” Davis said. “If you tear it down and you have nothing for three years, all of that goes away. And then we are going to hope, wish and pray that we are going to bring all of those events back. I don’t think that is wise.”
Davis said it is time for Augusta to think outside of the box and not stick with the downtown location just because it is recommended by the consultants.
“I don’t think that is prudent for a city that is growing at the pace that we are growing right now, that has the opportunities available to it,” Davis said, adding that he fully supported the Regency Mall location. “This gives us the greatest opportunity to succeed as a city and to equally develop our city as opposed to just focusing on a single area. As mayor, you have got to have vision for the whole city, and that’s what this is about.”
But not all of the authority members believe that building the James Brown Arena in a suburban area is a wise move.
“If we build it at Regency Mall, we would really be bucking a trend and taking a gamble, especially on somebody else’s land,” said Brad Usry, vice chairman of the coliseum authority. “It is really rolling the dice to me.”
When it comes to more than $120 million in taxpayer dollars, Usry said he is not willing to take that gamble.
“Like I said before, I am going to fight it to the end,” he said. “Whether it is until another vote is taken by the coliseum authority and Regency Mall moves forward, I am going to go to the Augusta Commission and ask them not to vote for it. If it passes on the commission, I’m going to lead the charge to have a no vote on the general obligation bonds that go before the public. I’m going to tell everybody, I just don’t think it is the right place for the new arena.”