When New York-based Cardinale Holdings LLC bought about 700,000 square feet of the Regency Mall property, including the old JB White building, for around $1.2 million back in 2002, the company probably thought it had a real political hot potato on its hands.
After all, for more than a decade, there had been several proposals for that south Augusta property.
Then, there were plans to convert the property into mixed-use residential/office space, but that didn’t work out.
And by 2004, then-Augusta Chronicle Publisher William S. Morris III proposed an $80 million sports arena, nicknamed the “Billy Barn,” to be built on the site.
But that didn’t pan out, either.
And yet, Cardinale Holdings wasn’t deterred.
In fact, the company purchased the remaining 140,000-square-foot Montgomery Ward parcel for approximately $2.3 million in 2007.
They knew local politics and the sentiment attached to the south Augusta site was worth the financial risk.
However, the economy took a nose dive, and local government spending for the city’s “wants” in this community quickly dried up.
For another 10 years after purchasing the Montgomery Ward property, the former Regency Mall site sat vacant and the entire parcel was kept in complete limbo with an asking price that has been listed as high as $60 million.
But Alan Cardinale, the mall’s owner, decided to wait it all out.
Somewhere over the years, he must have picked up a copy of the 1932 novel “Tobacco Road” by Erskine Caldwell with its colorful (which is putting it nicely) characters such as Jeeter, Dude, Ada and poor ol’ Grandma Lester, who gets run over with the family Ford and left for dead near the end of the book, and thought, “Let’s hang on to that property.”
He might have been hopeful there were still a few “Lesters” left in Augusta.
Then, Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis came along.
Suddenly, doors began to open.
Less than two months ago, Davis succeeded in achieving the ultimate political coup by managing to secretly convince the majority of the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority members to select the abandoned former Regency Mall site on Gordon Highway as the preferred location for the new James Brown Arena.
This, despite the fact that the coliseum authority had spent more than a year reviewing locations around the city and had even announced that they were dedicated to keeping the new arena downtown.
The fact that the authority had paid seasoned consultants $142,000 to develop an arena plan regarding the proposed sites that didn’t support the Regency Mall location also didn’t matter.
Apparently, representatives of Cardinale Holdings have found their “Lester” in Mayor Davis. All they have to do now is close the deal.
Just last week, Davis and Philip Cardinale, the attorney and brother to Alan Cardinale, once again began negotiating.
First, Philip Cardinale suggested extending the authority’s proposed lease of a portion of the mall’s property at a rental rate of $1 per year from 35 years up to 50 years, provided the tax abatement on the property was “extended one year for each year beyond 35 years.”
But since there has been a lot of chatter throughout the community regarding the city potentially building a new $120 million arena on property it doesn’t own, Alan Cardinale also offered to sell the 140,000-square-foot Montgomery Ward building and its 39-plus acres for a whopping price of $10 million.
(He was really dreaming with that offer. Even the mayor and his good buddy, coliseum authority member Darren Smith, knew that deal wasn’t going to fly.)
Finally, less than two hours before last week’s coliseum authority meeting, Alan Cardinale said he would be agreeable to “gifting” the Montgomery Ward building and “parcel” to the coliseum authority as opposed to selling it.
But there was one big catch to this so-called “gift.”
Alan Cardinale is requesting a “full tax abatement of all taxes” on the remaining property that he still owns at the Regency Mall site for 25 years.
He is also requesting “long-term, low-interest financing” from the coliseum authority to redevelop the remaining property that it still owns.
So, the coliseum authority is going to act as Alan Cardinale’s personal bank, now?
And the city won’t collect any taxes on the property Cardinale owns at the Regency Mall site for the next 25 years?
Alan Cardinale must think Augusta is made up of “Lesters.”
Fortunately, several Augusta commissioners have had enough, and they are making their objections known.
“Initially, I favored that information and the south Augusta site we talked about, but I don’t favor the deal,” Augusta Commissioner Sammie Sias told a Metro Spirit reporter this week. “If we can’t get the deal worked out, we need to move on. That’s my position. I thought it was a good idea, but if we can’t make the deal work, and right now I haven’t seen anything that makes it workable, it is time for us to move on.”
Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan, who also supports the location, thinks the deal is dead in the water.
“The deal is still not good enough for me,” Hasan said. “I think if the mayor is involved with it, he should get out of it. We need to let the coliseum authority make an independent decision.”
However, Hasan said he is worried that the mayor has already undermined the relationship between the coliseum authority members.
“It seems like the board has been previously influenced by the mayor in so many ways that we might be past them being able to make an independent decision,” Hasan said. “But I think it is time to leave this alone. We need to mend this community. This whole deal has hurt this community and the community is bigger than any arena. We need to try and save this community.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams, who also initially supported the south Augusta site, believes the mayor has hurt the entire process.
“I think the mayor is being secretive about it,” Williams said. “I put on the agenda a few weeks to go ahead and talk about eminent domain regarding Regency Mall to hopefully get a conversation started. He said to me that I should have come to him before I put it on the agenda. Well, he didn’t come to us before he made his proposal.”
Trust is a two-way street and the mayor knows only one direction, Williams said.
“We ought to be working together on this thing, but the right hand don’t let the left hand know what it’s doing,” Williams said. “It takes the mayor and the commission as a team to make things happen. He keeps talking about one team; we ought to be together and on the same page. I have always been honest with him. I have never tricked him or lied to him. I think we have to work as a team, but it has to go both ways.”
One Augusta is getting lonelier and lonelier by the minute, isn’t it Mayor Davis?