So we have had over a week to get to the bottom of the inexplicable “end around” that four members of the Augusta Richmond County Coliseum Authority pulled in their “out-of-nowhere” vote to change established course and locate a new performance arena on the site of what was once Regency Mall. The new plan is a complete reversal of an earlier vote to locate the new facility within the general current footprint of the 40-year-old James Brown Arena in downtown Augusta.
You have seen the details — and complaints about the lack of reasoned debate and information involving this move — all over traditional and social media. Now, let me tell you a few things you probably did not know.
Mayor Hardie Davis is said to be the cheerleader who got this ball rolling, apparently somehow getting word to four members of the Coliseum Authority that he had a great offer on the table to move the whole project to the Regency site. I say that, because the remaining members of the group, Chairman Cedric Johnson, and members Brad Usry and John Kelly, say they had no idea the offer existed.
This all came about reportedly because of a letter sent to the mayor.
I am told pro-Regency Authority member Darren Smith read portions of the rather crude letter, which appeared to be pecked out on an antique typewriter, purportedly from the owner of the property, vaguely outlining terms for an agreement to use his property. That owner, Alan Cardinale, is said to be recovering from open heart surgery from three weeks ago. I wonder how he managed to crank out the letter you see here dated August 21st, if he was too frail to respond to reporters’ inquiries last week?
Johnson and Usry told me they were astonished at the speed with which Smith and three other Authority members managed to agree to pursue the deal, especially with such sketchy information in hand.
They estimated it was two minutes from the time Smith stopped reading, until the motion was made, seconded and approved, 4-2, to reverse previous commitments and move the $120 million project to the Regency property at the intersection of Deans Bridge Road and Gordon Highway. (Usry and Kelly voting no, Johnson only votes to break ties.)
At last week’s press conference where the mayor attempted to defend the decision, there was an interesting collection of folks lined up behind Davis to support the Regency move that I recognized as either former members of, or good buddies with, the notorious (and long believed dead) “South Augusta Mafia.” There were even two guys I once considered “new Republicans,” or as Lowell Greenbaum likes to call them “neo-cons,” Ulmer Bridges and Roy Stampley. Ulmer of course was once an Augusta City Commissioner, and Roy served with me on the Coliseum Authority 14 years ago, both representing the southside.
It occurred to me as I counted heads and took note of demographics, that we may have seen at Mayor Davis’ press conference the rebirth of the political alliance that once ruled unincorporated Richmond County, and most of the state legislative seats from this area, with an iron fist. Old line South Augusta whites, and a mix of urban and southside-based minorities.
That once-solid coalition started fading about 15 years ago, when black leaders and voters realized they didn’t need white votes to win citywide and countywide seats. As soon as they discovered most positions could be won in the Democratic primaries, the southside white folks were about as useful to them as tits on a bull. In recent years, there has been virtually zero cooperation or fraternity between the two factions.
But this arena project is going to require a good cross section of voters if it comes to down to securing bond approval at the ballot box. Voter turnout is still enough of an issue in Augusta that if conservatives on the west side challenge the vote hard enough, and believe me, they will, the new/old coalition, featuring the revived South Augusta Mafia, will need all pistons firing to get the measure through.
Watch for other old names and faces to emerge as connected to this transaction, even if they try their best to hide their influence. I thought I sensed some familiar greasy fingerprints on this deal, and low and behold, check out who owns 4 pieces of real estate almost immediately adjacent to the old Regency property, now on the verge of a multi-million dollar government facelift: J.B. Powell!
Another odd smell? The fact that Coliseum Authority attorney Ed Enoch is and has been the longtime campaign chairman for Mayor Hardie Davis. How did Davis know who to get that letter to on the Authority, who would have the ability to line up four votes on such a major project, on such scant notice, and with so few details? If Enoch worked on that connection and any deals between Davis and Darren Smith, behinds the backs of Chairman Johnson, Brad Usry and John Kelly, he is going to be in for a world of professional and legal hurt.
As Coliseum Authority attorney, Enoch will make a percentage of any deal to move the facility, and the bonds that would finance the move. The more expensive or complicated the deal, the more money he stands to make. If Enoch assisted in engineering a deal that he stands to make a pretty penny from, and he did it without the full knowledge of all members of the Authority, that could be a sticky wicket indeed.
By the way, did you know that Enoch recently teamed with former State Senator, and local U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver, as a law partner? Imagine what a small world it really must be for me to be told that Tarver was seen enjoying lunch in Aiken County just last week with J.B. Powell.
Stay tuned, folks … and follow the money!