Ever since the Metro Spirit began back in 1989, the newspaper has been committed to covering the issues that are shaking this region.
Whether it’s the constant feuding inside the Marble Palace, the corruption of state legislators or the scandals in Columbia County, the Metro Spirit has spent the past 28 years making sure that readers get both sides of the story.
One issue that is making headlines today, much like it made headlines over the past three decades, is the James Brown Arena.
Over the years, its leadership has frequently changed with various general managers asked to steer the ship. Those have included Pat Cumiskey, Reggie Williams, Larry Rogers, Robert “Flash” Gordon, Monty Jones and current general manager, Chris Bird.
There also has been a long line of several extremely strong-minded members of the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority that have caused some meetings to resemble more of a soap opera or a WWE championship match than a gathering of a local board.
Who will ever forget the brawl between former coliseum authority member, and now Augusta commissioner, Bill Fennoy and community activist Woody Merry?
The two grown men actually faced off in a bumping, pushing and kicking spat just minutes before a 2008 coliseum authority meeting.
When asked about the tussle during his campaign for commission, Fennoy insisted he didn’t initiate the encounter with Merry.
“Three times I walked away from Woody Merry. He kept following me and following me,” Fennoy told the Metro Spirit in 2010. “It wasn’t until he put his hands on me did I decide I was going to defend myself.”
Encounters like that don’t happen at most ordinary government meetings.
These days, another battle is brewing among coliseum authority members, but this fight is over the future location of the new $120 million arena.
The majority of the coliseum authority wants to relocate the James Brown Arena to the former Regency Mall site in south Augusta, while the chairman and vice chairman of the authority, Cedric Johnson and Brad Usry, insist the new arena needs to be downtown.
This is where having a little history regarding this particular subject comes in handy because Augusta has been here before.
Way back in October 2001, then-Augusta Mayor Bob Young held a press conference to inform the public that he had been involved in discussions with private businessmen for more than a year about building a new, 12,000-seat arena that would be designed to accommodate horse shows, arena football, hockey and other activities.
The price tag for the new arena, Young estimated at the time, was about $65 million.
An example of existing public-private partnerships that Young said the CSRA could look to as model for its proposal was the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C.
“These are public-private partnerships where the government has an equity stake in the facility and the private sector has an equity stake in it as well,” Young said. “So, this is an entirely different concept from what Augusta-Richmond County has now.”
By January 2002, two tenants of the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center — William S. Morris III, chairman of the Augusta Futurity and the National Barrel Horse Association, and Frank Lawrence, then-owner of Augusta’s now defunct arena football team — commissioned a $200,000 feasibility study on whether Augusta could support a new, 12,000-seat multi-purpose arena for the CSRA.
“The study is going to look at potential ownership arrangements, financing, the size and scope of the project and potential locations for it,” Young said in 2002. “We also had representatives from Aiken County, North Augusta, Columbia County and Augusta-Richmond County meet with the private partners to discuss their involvement.”
Both Lawrence and Morris said that it was time for the area to build a new arena.
“For our football team, I think we need a better arena. I think there needs to be better perks for our ticket holders,” Lawrence, owner of the local arenafootball2 team, told the Metro Spirit in 2002. “I mean, we need newer bathroom facilities. The bathrooms are atrocious. The place is not clean. The parking is limited. I mean, there are 1,100 parking spaces for a place that seats 6,000. I could go on and on.”
However, not all the tenants at the civic center at the time felt that way.
Peter Gillespie, then-principal owner of the Augusta Lynx hockey team, said the existing civic center was a perfect hockey arena.
“Every seat is a good seat,” Gillespie said. “In most areas, the arenas are too big.”
But Mayor Young told the public that Augusta was ready for a new arena.
“All the feedback I’ve gotten on the subject of a new civic center has been extremely positive,” Young said in 2002. “On the surface, people are ready for a new, modern civic arena.”
Two main issues were pushing the idea of a new civic center to the forefront. The existing facility has only about 8,000 seats, which is 2,000 less than what many feel is the minimum in order to get the attention of booking agents.
And the existing facility, which opened its doors in December of 1979, was looking rundown … even back in 2002.
“It’s showing its age; there’s no doubt about that,” Young said. “You see that every time you go over there.”
By late 2002, details of the proposed new arena began to emerge.
Basically, the feasibility study proposed that Augusta needed a $89.7 million arena funded primarily by sales tax dollars.
The study’s research team, led by ScheerGame Sports Development, LLC. from Jacksonville, Florida, found that the existing civic center had become the Achilles’ heel of Augusta.
“The existing building is undersized; it’s not competitive; it’s losing events; it’s losing teams; and it now has a very negative image,” said Steven Stern, chief executive officer of ScheerGame Sports Development, LLC. “As a result of all that, it’s experiencing significant operating losses, and it hasn’t contributed to the economic redevelopment or revitalization of downtown.”
During a 2002 press conference to announce the results of the feasibility study, Stern said that the current civic center has actually acted as a wall, dividing Augusta’s neighborhoods from the downtown commercial district along the Savannah River.
“It is an arena in a sea of parking,” Stern said. “It’s the kind of building we tend to find out on an interstate or out on a suburban site, rather than the center of downtown. In a sense, it has created a barrier of a kind between the neighborhoods and the rest of downtown and the river.”
Initially, Stern recommended that the city tear down the existing arena and build a new $89.7 million entertainment and sports complex along the River Watch Parkway and Interstate 20.
The proposed 12,000-seat arena would have included 20 suites, 500 club seats, a press box, a club lounge and a privately funded equestrian facility with 600 permanent horse stalls, a covered outdoor arena and cattle-holding pens.
“The new location needs to be where the people are,” said John Shreve of HOK Sport +Venue +Event, a Kansas City-based sports development company, said back in 2002. “It needs to be near the population center. It also needs to be accessible to the entire region.”
Stern also said that the new arena needed to be a comfortable facility.
“The experience of the spectator is what drives the building,” he said. “It has to be a building that people want to come back to.”
Stern suggested the the city fund the majority of the $89.7 million civic arena by asking the citizens the following year to vote to extend the then 1-cent sales tax at least 10 years.
But, as most things in Augusta, politics began to play a major role in the proposed development.
Over the next two years, the entire plan was turned upside down and a new site was introduced.
Can anyone guess where?
Voters were asked in 2004 to support the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST V list, that included $81.4 million for a new sports arena at Regency Mall.
Locals began jokingly calling the proposed $89 million sports arena, the “Billy Barn,” after William S. Morris III.
But the proposed arena didn’t have a chance. It was a disastrous year for SPLOST.
Augusta commissioners turned their SPLOST “need” list into their “want” list, and it exploded into an enormous $486 million SPLOST issue.
In the end, even Morris himself couldn’t vote for the SPLOST list. He had no choice but to vote against the proposed “Billy Barn.”
“Even with the funding for these projects, the irrational array of other projects included, the irresponsible manner in which they were put together and the sheer magnitude of the total price tag — and the years necessary to pay for it — make the SPLOST initiative impossible to support,” Morris wrote in a 2004 editorial. “This city can’t afford the financial burden or the incomprehensible waste offered to taxpayers.”
Needless to say, the SPLOST list, along with the proposed arena, was shot down by voters.
Since that time, the Regency Mall site has remained vacant and completely untouched.
But now,13 years later, the idea of a new multi-million dollar arena at Regency Mall once again has reared its head.
Isn’t history fascinating?
Thank goodness the Metro Spirit has been around to cover it all.