Saturday, March 24, 2012

Azziz Should Consult Public on Development of Golf and Gardens Property

GHSU President Dr. Ricardo Azziz
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Augusta, GA Commentary
By The Outsider

Officials from Ripken Baseball, Jacoby Development, and the city of Augusta met with GHSU President Ricardo Azziz yesterday to discuss the future of the Golf and Gardens property, and to make a pitch, yet again, for a "multi-use" minor league ballpark to be incorporated into the site. Azziz has requested the state-owned property be transferred to The Georgia Board of Regents so that it could be used for expansion for the new university that will emerge from the merger of GHSU and ASU.

Azziz says he envisions the site as a hi-tech bio research park attracting some of the nation's leading researchers. Think of it as a smaller version of North Carolina's Research Triangle Park on Augusta's downtown riverfront. Azziz says it would provide a dynamic "gateway" into downtown and could also include student housing. But the site is only 17 acres, and a minor-league ballpark would consume nearly half of the property, and that's not including parking and the "baseball camp" wanted by Cal Ripken, owner of The Augusta Grteenjackets. A ballpark would leave little room for Azziz' s vision for development focusing on academics and research.

Azziz was diplomatic at yesterday's meeting, saying that "nothing is off the table" in regards to the ballpark, but sources tell us that he isn't exactly enthusiatic about the idea, but is willing to listen to a variety of proposals for the site. Once the property is transferred to the University, Azziz will be in the driver's seat in deciding how it will be developed. That prompted Ripken Baseball officials and pro-ballpark boosters to repackage the downtown stadium idea as a "public-private partnership" with the University, hinting that a "multi-purpose" ballpark could be jointly used by The Greenjackets and an expanded university athletics program.

Frankly, whenever the buzz phrase  "public-private partnership" pops up, taxpayers should get very worried. Remember that The Golf Hall of Fame fiasco was also pitched as a "public-private partnership". So was the TEE Center. But let's break through the code-speak and call it what it really is: Taxpayers paying for the pet projects of a private entity or group. In this case it's Ripken Baseball hoping to get the taxpayers of Georgia to build them a new ballpark for about $40 million, but if history is any guide, you can be assured to add another $30 million to that. Remember, the taxpayers were initially told the TEE Center would only cost $20 million, but ended up costing over $72 million when you add the parking deck, the operational subsidies to Augusta Riverfront LLC .. and the price tag keeps ballooning with more change-orders coming.

Frankly the public is getting tired of these costly  "Public-Private Partnerships" that do  nothing more than transfer public tax money into the private bank accounts of a small well-connected oligarchy.

We are excited about the possibilities  that a new larger merged university may bring to Augusta, especially Azziz's vision for a high-tech bio research park that has the potential to bring hundreds of high paying jobs to the downtown core. Now that is something that would be a major boost to downtown businesses and would be a major catalyst for a real downtown renaissance. Ripken Baseball officials can keep coming up with new creative phrases for their ballpark: "Mixed-use facility".. "Open-air Civic Center".. whatever.. in the end it's still just a ballpark for a class A minor league baseball team, that will sit dormant a majority of the year. And excuse us if we don't get all that excited over the prospect of events like weddings being held on the pitcher's mound when not hosting ballgames.

We believe that Azziz's vision for the property is probably much closer to that of the general public, which has never really embraced the ballpark proposal in its various incarnations in the first place. A Democratic primary straw poll and several media polls have shown overwhelming opposition to public financing for a new ballpark. And many people still question the need for one. The current facility seems to be more than adequate to accommodate fans, and they seem to like its intimate ambiance by Lake Olmstead. And it would seem to us that if this new larger university wanted to expand its athletics program, then a higher priority may be a larger home for the winning basketball team that is now a part of ASU.

We appreciate Dr. Azziz'z willingness to entertain a myriad  of proposals for developing the Golf and Gardens property, but we have to ask, why has the public never been consulted about what they would like to see there? Officials from Ripken Baseball have had dozens of meeting with our Mayor about a ballpark.. they have been in secret negotiations with city Administrator Fred Russell on how to finance it...and now they come down to Augusta and get to have a face to face meeting with Dr. Ricardo Azziz to pitch their proposal yet again. But last time we checked... Ripken Baseball has not invested one single penny of their own money into the Golf and Gardens property and they still didn't say at yesterday's meeting how much of their own money they would commit to the ballpark proposal. But then, why do that if they can get the state taxpayer's to build it for them? Maybe they've taken a few notes from Augusta Riverfront LLC over the TEE Center on how to get the taxpayers to build you free stuff?

But you want to know who already has millions of dollars invested in the Golf and Gardens property? The taxpayers. In fact, $6 million of Richmond County SPLOST dollars were pumped into the Golf and Gardens. So shouldn't Richmond County taxpayers have some say-so in this matter or at least be consulted for their suggestions? To date there has not been one single open public forum or town hall meeting to discuss what to do with the Golf and Gardens property.. yet Ripken Baseball and the other well-connected elites can ride into town and be heard right away. Is that fair? We don't think so.

So we would like to ask Dr. Azziz, while he is entertaining Ripken Baseball's proposal for a ballpark, he should also consider consulting with the taxpayers of Richmond County for suggestions on how to develop the property.. since they have far more of their money already invested in it. We think the public deserves the opportunity to be heard.  So far a ballpark as dominated the discussion over this land... but maybe the public has other ideas that have never been discussed before. It seems to us that the public deserves its chance at bat.***

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