If city leaders are searching for a sign as to how residents feel about the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority’s recent vote supporting Regency Mall as the preferred site for the city’s new $120 million arena, they don’t have to look very hard.
Signs are popping up all around town proclaiming “Let’s Keep the Brown Downtown,” “Save the J” and “Improve, Don’t Move The Groove.”
An online petition calling to “Keep JBA in Downtown Augusta” established on change.org has already garnered more than 4,000 signatures.
“Oh yes, I’ve heard from a lot of people,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis, chuckling. “Quite a lot.”
Less than 24 hours after the coliseum authority voted in support of the Regency Mall site, Davis said she had already been contacted by more than 50 people upset about the plan.
“Almost all of the people I’ve heard from don’t like the Regency Mall location,” she said.
“My concern is this new deal with Regency Mall just came out of left field. I didn’t know that this plan was even in the works, and that bothers me.”
Davis said she knew that several locations across Richmond County were being considered for the new arena site, including property near River Watch Parkway, land along Broad Street near the Augusta Canal, the current arena site and the former Regency Mall space.
However, she was told that the abandoned Regency Mall location in south Augusta was not ranked favorably by the consultants hired by the coliseum authority.
“It was my understanding that Regency Mall was never really in the discussion because the ratings weren’t favorable, so that really concerns me,” Davis said. “Downtown, in my opinion, is where the arena needs to be. There is just so much going on right now. And, for me, who has lived here my whole life, downtown has finally turned the corner and we are becoming more of a destination city with all of the new restaurants, bars, hotels and the new ballpark being built across the river. It just doesn’t make sense to leave that now.”
As the chairman and vice chairman of the coliseum authority, Cedric Johnson and Brad Usry couldn’t agree more that new arena needs to be downtown.
“I can honestly say downtown is the best area for a new arena,” Johnson said.
“With everything going on, the synergy is downtown. Now, I am very mindful of south Augusta. I have lived in south Augusta. I have worked in south Augusta. So, yes, I want to do anything I can to help promote economic development in south Augusta. But downtown is the best location for a new arena.”
Therefore, when the majority of their fellow coliseum authority members voted in support of the former Regency Mall location on Gordon Highway as the preferred site for the new arena last week, both Johnson and Usry were baffled beyond belief.
Over the past three years, the two men have dedicated countless hours reviewing and considering all of the city’s options regarding a new 10,000-plus seat arena for the Augusta area.
In fact, the coliseum authority had previously announced it was committed to keeping the new James Brown Arena in the downtown area. The group had been moving towards developing plans for a new arena in the civic center’s existing location on James Brown Boulevard.
However, with one vote, not only did the coliseum authority ignore Johnson and Usry’s efforts over the past three years, but it also dismissed the findings of the $142,000 arena plan developed by the Denver-based consultants, Sink Combs Dethlefs.
“We have spent $142,000 of taxpayers’ money to get a recommendation from experts and guess what? We just said, ‘We should have not paid them a penny,’” Usry said, shaking his head.
“It is amazing to me. We finally got a critical mass downtown, and we are running from it. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
The site had been discussed in the past, but it was ranked third on the consultant’s list for potential locations, and it was not deemed as the best option for a new arena.
“When Brad and I got appointed to the authority several years ago, within a matter of months, we realized we had to do something with the arena. It was in bad shape,” Johnson said, adding that after studying the matter further, they knew there was really only one solution. “We knew we needed to start planning to build a new arena. We made our first official step in April 2016 when we hired the consultants. So we hadn’t just started working on this. From our standpoint, there was no rushing into this decision. We needed to make the right choice.”
However, earlier this year, Johnson said he was approached by Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis about the possibility of the Regency Mall site.
“We had a meeting in February with our architects, Sink Combs Dethlefs, and several other people including Barry White from the CVB, Henry Ingram, City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson, (authority member) Darren Smith, Brad (Usry), me and the mayor were all there,” Johnson said. “At that point, the mayor was in favor of a downtown location. That’s what he said he wanted.”
However, about a month later, the mayor asked for a meeting.
“When we met in his office, the mayor said, ‘I am not going to try to strong arm you on this, but I am looking at the Regency Mall location,’” Johnson said.
“The mayor asked, ‘Would y’all slow up so I can do the due diligence on that location? I have some people who want to make sure that the mall is kept in the loop.’”
Out of courtesy to the mayor, Johnson said he agreed to do so.
A few months later, Johnson said he clearly recalls meeting with the mayor again on June 19 because it was following the groundbreaking ceremony for the new $50 million Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center on Reynolds Street.
“After the groundbreaking ceremony, we met with him and showed him the results that we had from the consultants stating that the Regency Mall location scored third on the list of preferred sites,” Johnson said. “With that, he said, ‘Well, if I could get some information saying that the owners would give you the 30-plus acres, would that change things?’”
At that point, Johnson felt he should be honest with the mayor.
“I told him, ‘Mayor, not really for me because I just don’t think it is a good location,’” Johnson said. “But I said, ‘Give me the information, and we’ll look at it.’”
That was on June 19.
Johnson said he never received any information from the mayor regarding Regency Mall.
On Wednesday, Aug. 16, Johnson texted the mayor asking for a copy of the information on Regency Mall. Johnson showed the text to a Metro Spirit reporter.
There was no reply.
On Friday, Aug. 18, Johnson called the mayor to ask him for the information.
“The mayor said, ‘I will get it to you on Friday afternoon,’” Johnson said. “I never heard back from him.”
Johnson did not receive anything over the weekend or all day Monday, Aug. 21, from the mayor.
Finally, Johnson arrived at the coliseum authority meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 22.
During the discussion about the new arena’s proposed location, coliseum authority member Darren Smith brought out a letter from Cardinal Management, LLC, the Mattituck, N.Y.-based company that owns the Regency Mall site.
In the letter dated Aug. 21, Alan Cardinale of Cardinal Management proposes a $1 a year land lease for 35 years for approximately 39 acres on the Regency Mall site to be used for a new arena.
The letter, which is clearly addressed to “Hardie Davis, Jr. Mayor of City of Augusta,” appears hastily written and includes several typos.
“Rental will be $1 per year for the first 35 years plus a 10year tax abatement at any time during that period,” Cardinale’s letter states. “The City will agree to asphalt entire parking lot, provide new lighting, landscaping and maintenance of such thru out the duration of lease. Cardinale will at the same time, renovate the exterior of the remaining portion of Regency Mall.”
Both Usry and Johnson said they never got to see the letter detailing the proposal prior to the Aug. 22 meeting.
They also believe the majority of the coliseum members who voted to support Regency Mall as the preferred site also had not seen the letter.
Johnson said one of his biggest concerns about the deal is the 35-year lease on the Regency Mall property.
“The people who were concerned about the air rights for the parking deck (in downtown Augusta on Reynolds Street), they should really be concerned about the $120 million plus arena being built on somebody else’s property with a 35-year lease,” Johnson said. “What happens after 35 years? You can’t move the building.”
Usry said he is deeply troubled by the entire process.
“The best way to know this is a terrible site, not only a bad deal, but a terrible site is our management team during that meeting was arguing that this was a terrible place,” Usry said.
“The deal is bad, the site is bad, and I believe I can speak for myself and Cedric, we are going to fight this to the bitter end.”
As for Mayor Hardie Davis’ take on the deal, he insists that the plan was actually presented by Darren Smith of the coliseum authority.
“Well, the last time I checked, coliseum authority member Darren Smith brought this to them,” Davis said.
Smith did not return several phone calls from the Metro Spirit seeking a comment on the Regency Mall decision.
“As I understand it, the coliseum authority was reviewing the sites, and as they were reviewing sites, this is one that I know, one of the authority members said, ‘Well, why haven’t you considered this as one of the sites?’” Davis said. “So they included that in the conversation.”
Davis applauded the authority’s selection of the Regency Mall site as the preferred location.
“I think it is an outstanding idea,” Davis said. “It is an outstanding idea because, historically, as we have desired Augusta’s downtown to grow, we have seen over the past two and a half to three years, a tremendous renaissance in our city that has started here in the urban core. It will continue. And that growth, as I understand it from an economic development standpoint, is not because we have a civic center or an arena downtown. But rather because the private sector has finally decided to step up and make investments in our community. Not withstanding the fact that, over the last two decades, much of the growth has been because of the public sector.”
Davis said it is time for some of that growth to be spread to other areas of the county, including south Augusta.
“This is, again, me applauding the efforts of the coliseum authority saying, ‘This is our time,’” Davis said, referring to south Augusta and the Regency Mall location.
“If we are going to tie this city together, this is a strategic area for us to do it. I fully support that, and I think now is the time.”
“We have talked about this area for no less than 25 years of what should happen and what could happen, but there has never been a willingness by anyone to actually do something. To see the coliseum authority finally say, ‘We want to do something about that,’ I think is monumental.”
“I want to make sure that I get behind that decision and work with the commissioners to further cast a vision for what our city could be.”
While Augusta Commissioner Dennis Williams was unfamiliar with the actual details of the Regency Mall proposal, he said he was in support of the south Augusta location.
“I believe it is a perfect site,” Williams said. “It is new blood for that area, it provides easy access getting in and out of there, and we need something in that part of town to brighten it up.”
Williams also said he was not concerned that there weren’t many hotels or restaurants near the Regency Mall site on Gordon Highway.
“They will come,” Williams said. “I just believe that side of town has been neglected so long. You look over at Peach Orchard Road and all behind there, it is horrible. You look at my district, there are overgrown lots everywhere. So we need to improve in that area of town.”
It is important to spread prosperity to all areas of the county, he said.
“If you get off I-20 and you come down Washington Road toward downtown, you don’t see anything but good stuff,” Williams said. “We are not just a one-sided community. It should be that both sides of Augusta are nice. Not just one.”
Even though Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan likes the idea of a new arena being built at the Regency Mall site, he has grave concerns about the deal that is being proposed.
“I think the Regency Mall site is a good location because of the different corridors and it’s easy to get to. You wouldn’t have to widen the roads or anything like that, so I thought it would be a great jumpstart,” Hasan said.
“However, with that being said, the process that was used to get us here, I definitely don’t approve of because I think it was more of a coup.”
Some of the coliseum authority members appeared to be intentionally kept out of the loop, Hasan said.
“The ad hoc committee that was established to review the sites didn’t recommend that location,” Hasan said. “Of course, the authority can always do something different, but it concerns me that the members did not have the total background and details of the proposal before they ended up endorsing it. I’m uncomfortable with that.”
After reviewing the Regency Mall proposal himself, Hasan said it raised some serious red flags in his mind.
“I really don’t like it,” Hasan said. “We are going to be investing more than $120 million in a location that we don’t own. At least where we currently are on James Brown Boulevard, we can say that we can build on land that we own. But if we build at the Regency Mall site, at the end of 35 years, we won’t own anything. So, in my opinion, it is a bad deal, at this point.”
But for Mayor Davis, the fact that the city doesn’t own the Regency Mall property does not concern him at all.
“The city didn’t own the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center property, but we just made an investment of $12 million,” Davis said, referring to the parking deck. “We are always coming to the table when the state or Augusta University or anyone else needs us. Again, I think that is a very weak argument from the standpoint of, ‘We don’t own that land.’ But we just wrote a check for $12 million saying, ‘We’ll help you.” So, no, I don’t think that is an issue.”
The mayor said he believes the Regency Mall location is the perfect site for a new arena.
“This location gives us tremendous opportunities to not only make that investment but to see other private sector investments take place and to tie the city together,” he said. “We are talking about, effectively, a five-mile trip from (the current) James Brown Arena to Regency, and it is the geographic center of the city. Whether I am coming from Harlem, Grovetown, Appling, Evans, Waynesboro, Thomson, Columbia, S.C., I’ve got one highway that I can get on to get there. We have had rampant joblessness and poverty in this area (of south Augusta), and we are going to do something about it.”
If the mayor is hoping that a new arena at Regency Mall is going to transform that area of south Augusta, Usry believes that is an unrealistic expectation.
“An arena is not an economic engine,” Usry said. “It supports economic growth.”
However, Usry said he would love to see the former Regency Mall property put to good use, just not as an arena.
“I would say Mr. Cardinale, give us the same deal, a $1 lease for 35 years, but take the stipulation off of it being an arena,” Usry said. “Give us two years to do our due diligence to find the proper fit for that property that will help our community. I am all for that. I will chair the committee.”
Given that kind of deal, Usry insists there are a lot of positive possibilities for the Regency Mall property.
“I am telling you, a huge film stage with a huge square box (building) because everybody wants to do film now in Augusta would be great. Bring it on,” Usry said. “Let’s build a facility for them to have a central location for them to do the staging for movies that would have everything they need. Or everybody keeps talking about Cyber and Fort Gordon and this corridor. How about a nice office park that we will do with a public-private partnership? That is an economic engine. That is a project that would have people there 52 weeks a year, not just 60 events a year like an arena.”
Almost immediately after the coliseum authority voted to support the Regency Mall site, Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom quickly began voicing his objections to moving the new arena out of the downtown area.
“We are going to spend $120 million on land that we don’t own? I think the citizens are going to be very upset about that,” Frantom said. “What happens after 35 years? Are they going to own the arena? I think there is a lot of discussion that still needs to happen, but I am not going to support the new arena at Regency Mall.”
It simply makes no sense, Frantom said.
“One of the things that really upsets me about this is we had partnerships, possibly with Augusta University if the arena was downtown, where their teams could play basketball at the new arena,” Frantom said. “We had companies, and I met with one of them, that said they would love to see their name on the building. Not replacing the James Brown Arena name, but have their name associated with the building. That would save taxpayer money, but if you move the arena out to Regency Mall, that’s all gone.”
Frantom believes the mayor is providing a false impression to citizens that the new arena in south Augusta will be a catalyst for growth.
“It is not a catalyst, and the mayor is trying to make it a catalyst,” he said.
“What has happened is, because this is the mayor’s initiative and the mayor wanted to get it done, now we have pitted south Augusta against the entire Augusta area, and that’s not good for this community. Not at all.”
And those local leaders who oppose the new arena being built at Regency Mall are being painted as anti-south Augusta, Frantom said.
“Because I’m passionate about the arena staying downtown, they are trying to say I’m not in support of south Augusta. That’s not true,” Frantom said, adding that he has always wanted to see south Augusta grow and thrive. “When it comes to the arena, this isn’t a downtown initiative. This is a regional initiative because we have a lot of people from Aiken, North Augusta and Columbia County that come to shows at the James Brown Arena. They are major ticket buyers. So to take the arena out of downtown and pull it away from where most of the tickets come from doesn’t make any sense. So that’s why I have been so passionate about it. I mean, what are we thinking?”
When it comes right down to it, both Usry and Johnson said they were terribly disappointed in the way the Regency Mall site was selected.
“The mayor is driving the location,” Usry said. “It was not fair to the authority the way he presented the letter. The motion was made by a partially read letter. No one fully read the letter before Regency Mall was chosen.”
Johnson agreed that the full authority should have been provided the letter from Cardinal Management prior to the meeting.
“We were very accommodating to the mayor when he asked for more time regarding Regency Mall. And we didn’t have to do that. But we wanted to be fair,” Johnson said. “And the part that really disturbs me more than anything about this situation is there are people out there that are saying we manipulated the process. We absolutely did not. That is the furthest thing from the truth.”
For the number of years that they have been working to select a new site, Johnson and Usry said they honestly wanted to do what was best for the city and never intended to undermine the mayor.
“We have been very forthcoming with information to the mayor throughout this process,” Usry said. “We’ve been totally honest and upfront with everyone. And, I’ll tell you this, I would have this same interview with the mayor sitting right here next to me. I would say the exact same thing.”
“So would I,” Johnson replied. “The exact same thing.”