Here we go again, folks.
The endless hot potato game of where to build Augusta’s future $120 million James Brown Arena continues to be tossed around this week.
But six members of the Augusta Commission are desperately trying to put an end to this ongoing debate that has lasted more than a year.
Augusta commissioners Mary Davis, Sean Frantom, Ben Hasan, Sammie Sias, Grady Smith and Dennis Williams all voted on Tuesday, Aug. 7, to support the wishes of Richmond County voters and locate the new arena at the existing downtown location.
Only commissioners Bill Fennoy (who represents the downtown area), Andrew Jefferson, Marion Williams and Wayne Guilfoyle voted against the motion.
So, the big question on everybody’s mind this week is: Where does this leave us?
Just two weeks ago, the majority of the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority
voted against continuing to study the current downtown site for the new James Brown Arena.
Only coliseum authority members Brad Usry and John Kelley voted in support of the downtown location.
But with four of the other coliseum authority members voting against the motion, the hired consultants from the architecture and design firm of Perkins+Will will not be allowed to move forward with reviewing the existing downtown location for a new arena.
This action, of course, went against the wishes of the Richmond County voters.
Two non-binding questions on the May 22 ballot asked both Republicans and Democrats whether they supported the James Brown Arena being built at the former Regency Mall site in south Augusta, or whether it should remain at the existing downtown location on Seventh Street.
About 60 percent of voters supported the downtown location, while about 45 percent were in favor of the Regency Mall site.
But the majority of the coliseum authority members didn’t seem to care.
Several authority members insisted that many of the county’s voters were confused by the non-binding questions on the May 22 ballot.
Really? If that’s the truth, the Richmond County School System has truly failed its residents because they apparently can’t read.
So, this week it was the Augusta Commission’s turn to take a stand on the new arena.
Augusta Commissioner Sammie Sias asked his colleagues to support a downtown-only location for a new James Brown Arena at its existing site. Commissioner Frantom quickly seconded that motion.
Immediately, commissioners Andrew Jefferson and Marion Williams objected, countering with a motion to deny Sias’ attempt to choose the downtown location.
“I would like to make a motion to deny based on the fact that, true, it was certified that 60 percent of the people voted for (the downtown location), but I still stand by the premise that the vote was skewed,” Jefferson insisted. “I felt like some of the ballots should have been disqualified, especially when it was a double negative and double positive.”
What Jefferson means is that any of the ballots that voted “yes” for the downtown arena and “yes” for the Regency Mall location or “no” against both, should have been thrown out.
“Those ballots should have been scratched because it was an indecisive vote,” Jefferson said. “So that was confusing, too.”
So, why can’t a voter say, “Yes. I would like a new arena and I don’t care whether it is at the existing downtown location or at former Regency Mall site?”
Such a voter would select “yes” on both questions.
Or how about a voter who does not want to spend at least $120 million on a new arena?
Doesn’t he or she have the right to vote “no” on both locations?
According to Jefferson, those folks’ votes don’t count.
In addition, Jefferson also told his fellow commissioners that they were “infringing on the rights” of coliseum authority members.
“The coliseum authority is an authority, and they should make a recommendation to us,” Jefferson said. “We should not hold their feet to the fire or threaten to fund or not to fund the arena.”
The decision on the location and design of the arena should be in the authority’s hands, Jefferson said.
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams flat out said that he did not believe the non-binding vote was even “valid.”
He also stood by the former Regency Mall location as the best site for the new arena.
“I think we all know that the coliseum authority just voted not to build it back downtown and for good reason,” Williams said. “You wouldn’t build (a new arena) back between two railroad tracks. You wouldn’t build it bigger than it is now with no parking. You wouldn’t tear that building down and take you a year to tear it down and another year to try to build it back.”
Downtown is not the ideal site for the new arena, Williams insisted.
“I would think my colleagues would be in favor of trying to find a better location,” he said. “I don’t know of one better than Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road as far as the location.”
Williams said he understood that some commissioners do not like the proposed deal submitted by Cardinal Management, LLC, the Mattituck, N.Y.-based company that owns the Regency Mall site.
“I don’t think anybody sitting here liked the deal that was offered,” Williams said. “But if we like the location, then we can work on the deal.”
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said the entire government and community have lost control of the arena debate.
“I don’t know how we got to this point,” Guilfoyle said, adding that Jefferson was wrong in his description of the authority’s actions. “It was not taken out of the hands of the coliseum authority. They put it in the hands of this commission, which (the motion) failed numerous times. The only other solution was to put it on the ballot. It was pretty simple: yes or no. Do you want it at Regency Mall? Do you want it in downtown?”
And then the truth came out.
“It was too much of a hot potato for them,” Guilfoyle said of the coliseum authority. “So it landed in our lap, and it kept up and up and up.”
Unfortunately, Guilfoyle said the best thing that could happen at this point would be for the commission to vote not to build an arena at all.
“It’s a done deal,” he said. “Stick a fork in that pig because it will not pass by the people of Augusta.”
But Commissioner Marion Williams still argued that the city needed a new arena.
“We need something better and bigger,” he said. “We need to admit that we need to grow and find another location. If we can’t find a better location than the one we already have, we go back to that location.”
Jefferson took it one step further, insisting that there was “prejudice” against the Regency Mall location.
“I think if we strip the power from the coliseum authority, we become a dictator,” Jefferson said. “I don’t think this body wants to be known as a dictator.”
Throughout the entire debate on Aug. 7, Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis remained silent.
At the end of the discussion, Fennoy said he supported the Regency Mall location, but he intended to “respect the vote” of the people.
“I am in a position where I am going to have to ignore the wishes of the authority or ignore the wishes of the voters,” Fennoy said. “And I don’t like being placed in this position, and I think this is a position that we shouldn’t be in.”
The Augusta Commission has no real choice in this matter, he said.
“My choice is Regency Mall. I really think it should have gone to Regency Mall, but the voters said differently,” Fennoy said. “So I think we should accept the wishes of the voters.”
That’s what democracy is all about, he said.
“If we are going to put something on the ballot, even though it is non-binding, we need to accept whatever that is and move on,” Fennoy said. “If you are not willing to accept what’s on there, we don’t need to put it on the ballot.”
Now that the Augusta Commission has voted 6-4 in favor of the existing downtown location, we’ll see where that takes Augusta.
It might be an endless road to nowhere.