When Brad Usry, the vice chairman of the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority, saw four of his colleagues raise their hands to vote against continuing to study the current downtown site for the new James Brown Arena, his heart just sank.
“I was in total disbelief,” Usry said, adding that he turned to look at Coliseum Authority Chairman Cedric Johnson and authority member John Kelley who were equally dismayed. “Cedric, John and I were shocked. Honestly, we’re just not sure where we go from here.”
Only Usry and Kelley voted to continue studying the current downtown location as the potential site for the new $120 million arena. As chairman, Johnson does not have a vote.
With four of the coliseum authority members voting against the motion, the hired consultants from the architecture and design firm of Perkins+Will (formerly Sink Combs Dethlefs) cannot move forward with reviewing the existing downtown location for a new arena.
In a way, the coliseum authority symbolically flushed down the toilet the more than $142,000 it already has paid Perkins+Will to review potential sites around town and begin developing an arena plan.
“My blood pressure was so high after that vote I could hardly speak,” Usry said, shaking his head. “It was pure frustration, because the majority of voters support the downtown location. There’s no disputing that fact.”
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.
Approximately 60 percent of voters supported the downtown location, while about 45 percent were in favor of the Regency Mall site.
But several of the coliseum authority members who didn’t support moving forward with continuing to study the downtown site said that many of the county’s voters were confused by the non-binding questions on the May 22 ballot.
“While Regency Mall was not brought up specifically in the meeting, there were several comments about there was confusion over the ballot, which I don’t understand,” Usry said. “To me, the questions on the ballot were very clear. And the voters supported the downtown location.”
Over the past four years, Usry and Johnson 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, prior to Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis pushing for the former Regency Mall location in south Augusta last year, the coliseum authority had previously announced it was committed to keeping the new James Brown Arena in the downtown area.
But now, the future of the James Brown Arena appears to be in jeopardy.
“I can honestly say downtown is the best area for a new arena,” Johnson has repeatedly told the Metro Spirit over the past several months. “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.”
THE MAYOR’S HAND IN THIS DEBATE
Just last year, the Regency Mall site off Gordon Highway and Deans Bridge Road was reviewed by the arena consultants, and it was ranked third on their list for potential locations.
The former mall site was not deemed as the best option for a new arena, Johnson said.
“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.”
But in 2017, Johnson said he was approached by the mayor about the possibility of the Regency Mall site for the new arena.
“We had a meeting in February (2017) with our architects, Sink Combs Dethlefs, and several other people including Barry White from the CVB, Henry Ingram (chairman of the Augusta Economic Development Authority), 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.”
But, about a month later, the mayor had clearly changed his mind.
“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 told the Metro Spirit last year. “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.
In June 2017, Johnson and Usry again met with mayor.
“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.’”
Instead of providing the information to Johnson, the mayor turned to authority member Darren Smith.
Last year, during an August 22 discussion about the new arena’s proposed location, Smith surprised both Johnson and Usry by bringing 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 about 39 acres on the Regency Mall site to be used for a new arena.
The letter was clearly addressed to “Hardie Davis Jr. Mayor of City of Augusta.”
The majority of the coliseum authority members stunned both Usry and Johnson — along with many local residents — by voting in support of the former Regency Mall location on Gordon Highway as the preferred site for the new arena.
Over the next several months, the debate over the future site of the arena was so intense that the Augusta Commission requested that two non-binding questions be placed on the May 22 ballot asking both Republicans and Democrats whether they supported the new James Brown Arena being built at the former Regency Mall site or the existing downtown location.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Davis — who was up for re-election in May — said he would support the outcome of the two non-binding questions regarding the arena on the ballot: No matter what the decision.
“You can decide whether you want it at the Regency location or whether you want it to be built at the current location downtown,” Davis said. “As your mayor, I am going hold the flag up, and I am going to support whatever decision the people decide.”
However, ever since being re-elected in May, Davis has done the opposite, Usry said.
“I do reference back to the mayor’s comments during the radio program last month saying that voters who elected him voted for Regency Mall,” Usry said. “I really question those statements.”
During a June radio program on WEZO “The Blaze” 1230 AM hosted by Jordan Johnson, the president of the Young Democrats of Augusta-Richmond County, Davis appeared to still support the Regency Mall site, while insisting he was going to “listen to the will of the people.”
“So you have the Republican ballot where they said, ‘We want you to build it downtown,’ and you’ve got the Democratic ballot where they say, ‘We want you to build it at Regency Mall,’” Davis stated on the radio program. “I’ve got two competing interests here. I know who elected me. The people who elected me said, ‘Build it at Regency Mall.’”
Usry said he finds those comments extremely disappointing.
“The mayor said in multiple interviews that he was going to support the will of the people and carry the flag across this community to support what the voters wanted,” Usry said. “And he has yet to do that.”
The mayor needs to keep his promise, Usry said.
“To me, if I was mayor, this is an opportunity to bring the community back together since it has been split,” Usry said. “But instead, we are divided even more.”
Usry still hopes that the mayor will accept the results of the May 22 election and support the downtown location for the new arena.
“I would love to have a conversation with the mayor, personally,” Usry said.
So would the Metro Spirit, but unfortunately, the mayor did not respond to repeated requests for an interview to discuss the future of the James Brown Arena, as well as the Regency Mall site.
MOVING FORWARD WITH THE NEW ARENA
Despite the mayor’s reluctance to talk about the future of the arena, Usry said he’s determined to reach out to the members of the coliseum authority to convince them to allow the consultants to continue reviewing the existing downtown location.
“My hope is that we can have some discussions before our next meeting amongst ourselves and just see what we can do to move forward,” Usry said. “We have architects who are paid, they are ready to go and they are the best in the business. So why not let them finish their work?”
Usry said the voters deserve to have their voices heard and Chris Bird, the general manager at the Augusta Entertainment Complex, and his staff need to know where the arena is headed in the future.
“They know, as we do, we need a new arena,” Usry said of Bird and his staff. “I can say, without any doubt, they want to move forward and finish this study.”
After the vote last week against continuing to review the downtown location, Usry sent each of the authority members a letter addressing his concerns and asking each member to look at the more than 100 pages of previous studies already presented by Perkins+Will.
“Some of the authority members who voted against the motion mentioned they wanted more studies, which I don’t get,” Usry said. “We are over studied.”
In his June 25 letter to the authority members, Usry tried to address some of their concerns.
“One comment yesterday was, ‘Does Augusta need a new arena?’” Usry wrote. “The initial feasibility study by AECOM concluded that Augusta will support a new arena. The JBA is obsolete, and we lose shows every month because of seating and rigging capacity. This study also concluded our area can only support one arena of this size, so if a neighboring community builds before us, we shouldn’t build an arena.”
“North Augusta built the stadium when Augusta didn’t,” Usry added. “Are we going to let the same thing happen to the arena? I hope not.”
Usry said he wrote the letter in hopes that the authority members would want to continue the conversation about the future of the arena and the existing downtown site.
“What is really important is the trend all over this country points to building an arena in a downtown, urban area,” Usry said. “There is not one arena that has been done over the past 20 years outside an urban area of a city our size, unless there was a casino involved or it was a metropolitan area where there are multiple venues like Atlanta, New York or Los Angeles.”
Just last year, consultants from Sink Combs Dethlefs, now Perkins+Will, told the coliseum authority that only 2 percent of the arenas built across the country since 2001 have been constructed in suburban areas like the former Regency Mall site.
Ernest Joyner, a principal with the company, said it was quite a shock when the authority selected Regency Mall as the preferred site for the city’s new $120 million arena last year.
“It was a surprise to us,” Joyner acknowledged. “So, we started to look for other communities that had done similar things.”
The consultants were able to find only one such city: Fargo, North Dakota.
“We went back and looked at the last 60 arenas that were built in the United States in the past 15 years and tried to understand where they were built and who they were built for,” said Michael Harvey, another principal with Sink Combs Dethlefs. “Of the first 30 arenas that we looked at, there is one in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s the Scheels Arena.”
Built in 2008, the Scheels Arena is a 5,000-seat hockey arena located in southwest Fargo and is home to United States Hockey League team the Fargo Force.
The arena can seat up to 6,000 people for concerts, more than 5,000 for ice hockey games and offers 40 suites and 300 club seats.
According to Harvey, the Scheels Arena in Fargo was the closest example the consultants could find to a mid-size city that built an arena in the suburbs.
However, over the past 15 years, Harvey pointed out there have been a handful of arenas built in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta and Dallas.
“Those arenas are what we call secondary market arenas,” Harvey said. “So they have a main arena downtown and they are building a second, third or fourth arena that’s a complementary arena.”
Usry said there are several benefits to the downtown location that he doesn’t think the full authority completely understands.
“Two of the big benefits are ownership and manageability,” Usry said. “We own the property, and we have another building, The Bell Auditorium, right next door. Therefore, we have one management group managing two buildings. So, one thing that even I failed to look at in the very beginning when we were reviewing all the different sites is, we still have to manage two venues. If we split them off, we are going to create a management nightmare.”
Splitting up the arena and The Bell Auditorium could potentially double the expense of staff needed for both locations, Usry said.
There is also a huge benefit for the arena to be located downtown near the restaurants, bars and hotels, he said.
“All the amenities are downtown,” Usry said. “And we do have enough parking. We have a 40-year track record of people coming to that venue and figuring out where to park.
And now we even have more parking because downtown has grown and we have built parking decks.”
Building a new, state-of-the-art arena in the existing location could really change the way some local residents view downtown Augusta, Usry said.
“We now have businesses that you go to before the events that we didn’t have 30 years ago, like a bunch of different restaurants,” he said. “So, walking three blocks after dinner is actually very refreshing. If we can create some nice streetscapes on Seventh and Eighth streets leading to the arena that are well-lit with nice benches, it would be quite a pleasant experience to walk even from the Ninth Street parking deck to a Broad Street restaurant and then to the arena.”
However, a new arena at the former Regency Mall site would be a one-stop destination, Usry said.
“At Regency Mall, there is no off-site parking,” he said. “You have got to park everybody on site because you can’t cross Gordon Highway or Deans Bridge Road.”
Another concern that some of the authority members had during the meeting last week was they feared there hasn’t been enough public input about the new arena, Usry said.
But Usry insists that the authority must get solid plans in place with actual architectural renderings of the building and then approach the public about their thoughts.
“We need get to the point where we have something to show them and something to sell. We are not even at that point yet,” he said. “If you get public input too early, then you’ve got 200,000 different opinions. You’ve got to have something feasible to show people.”
And, in the end, it will be up to the people to decide whether or not they want to move forward with a new arena.
“Let’s keep in mind now, we haven’t figured out how we are going to pay for this yet,” Usry said. “While the authority does have the ability to write bonds, we, as an authority, know that at some point in time we have got to have the backing of the city of Augusta.”
Usry thinks the coliseum authority will likely use a “package of financing” to pay for the new arena that could include Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes and general obligation bonds.
“So, with that being said, this is going to go back before the voters. They’ll be the ones to decide whether they support a new arena,” Usry said. “And right now, in my opinion, we have a major public relations problem.”