Friday, March 16, 2012
No Joy in Mudville: Has Deke Struck Out Over Downtown Ballpark?
By The Outsider
It appears that Mayor Deke Copenhaver may have struck out on his dream for a new ballpark at the former Golf and Gardens site in downtown Augusta. Dr. Ricardo Azziz, President of GHSU, threw a curve ball earlier in the week when he formally requested the 17 acre riverfront property be deeded over to The Georgia Board of Regents by The Georgia State Properties Commission so that it could be used for expansion of a new merged GHSU/ASU. Conspicuously missing from Azziz's vision for the property was a new baseball stadium for The Augusta Greenjackets. When asked about a new ballpark being part of his plans for the property by George Eskola of WJBF news, Azziz said: "It would be difficult to put a baseball stadium in a property that will actually be destined for developing the academic enterprises of the university...this new university,” and he went further saying, "It is not in our plans at this point.”
Azziz envisions a research park and innovation center for bio-tech and more, including possibly student housing. He says a conservative estimate could bring between 300 and 500 new jobs downtown and perhaps hundreds of full-time student residents. That would certainly be a big boost to downtown business. One of the main criticisms of locating a ballpark at the location is that it would sit empty a majority of the time and even when it does host games and other events that it would not necessarily mean business would spill over to the rest of downtown. Ballparks are generally one-stop destinations, where patrons go to see a game, eat a hot dog, have a beer, and then hop in their cars and go home. But having full time student residents and hundreds of new jobs in the area could indeed create a demand for more businesses in the downtown core.
The land is already owned by the state of Georgia so shifting it over to The Board of Regents for university expansion can be accomplished with little effort. But Mayor Copenhaver and Ripken Baseball officials were hoping to convince university officials to make a new ballpark part of their plans, but according to Azziz it isn't.
Indeed, as we told you back in January, a ballpark would consume a large portion of the Golf and Gardens property and it is not clear that it would have any benefit for the new university. The seasons for collegiate baseball and The Augusta Greenjackets coincide, so sharing a facility would be problematic. Also, GHSU doesn't really have a sports focus. ASU does have a sports teams, but their facilities are located at a complex off Wrightsboro Rd, and it is likely the new university would want to keep sports facilities consolidated in that location. A minor league ballpark just doesn't appear to factor into Azziz's vision for university expansion. He sees more hi tech jobs and an academic focus, not peanuts and cracker jacks. But could there be more going on behind the scenes?
Did Backroom Deal Over Wal-Mart Doom Ballpark?
If there was ever any hope for a partnership between GHSU and Ripken Baseball for a new ballpark at the Golf and Gardens site, it may have been squashed over the controversial land deal for a new Wal-mart off 15th street. Sources tell us that Dr. Azziz was outraged over the city conspiring behind closed-doors to ink a deal to sell a city owned parcel that was previously used as a bus washing facility to developers for a Wal-Mart grocery store for $400,000. The MCG Foundation says they had already made offers on the property for $1 million, more than double what the city was selling it to Wal-mart for. Dr. Azziz even threatened that legal action may be an option over the deal. Azziz says that Wal-mart does not fit into the University's plans for that area. The MCG Foundation says it also undermines their lease agreement with Kroger, which operates a grocery store adjacent to the site Wal-mart is eyeing. They also maintain the way the deal was conducted in secret was illegal.
Sources also tell us that key figures pushing the deal with Wal-mart are also big proponents of the downtown ballpark.. namely developer Clay Boardman and Mayor Deke Copenhaver. Clay Boardman has bought up dozens of properties in and around Harrisburg under the guise of various LLCs, and his vision for the area seems to differ greatly from that of GHSU and the MCG Foundation. Azziz and The MCG Foundation see more expansion for facilities housing academics, clinics and student housing for a merged university instead of a Wal-mart which they see as in congruent with their master plan. The friction has been building for years, but the deal over the Wal-mart brought it all out into the open.
The Bargaining Chip Theory
Another theory suggests that the power-play over the Wal-mart was well orchestrated and was intended to outrage Dr. Azziz. Boardman and other ballpark proponents had already gotten wind that Azziz was eyeing the Golf and Gardens property and had no intention of allowing a ballpark there. They also knew that the MCG Foundation wanted the the Augusta Transit property, so by snatching it away from them, they could use it as a bargaining chip to force Azziz's hand on including a ballpark into the Golf and Gardens site. Developer Clay Boardman, a big downtown ballpark proponent and an in-law of Mayor Deke Copenhaver ,also sits on the board of the MCG Foundation, so he would certainly know about the intentions of that organization in wanting the Augusta Transit parcel off 15th street.
Seems far fetched, right? Well, maybe not. Sources tell us the city was well aware that the transit parcel was not big enough to accommodate a Wal-mart.. .they also wanted the land fronting 15th street where the Kroger sits that is owned by the MCG Foundation. In essence the Wal-mart cannot be built without the larger parcel. But now knowing how badly GHSU and the MCG Foundation wants the transit parcel maybe they can strike a deal... we will give you a sweetheart deal on the transit parcel if you give us space for our ballpark at The Golf and gardens site. Again, this is only one theory.. but knowing the crowd behind this ballpark we wouldn't rule out any shenanigans. Let's also not forget that Fred Russell was a principal negotiator over the Wal-mart deal. At the same time he has been having talks with Ripken Baseball over where to build and how to fund a new ballpark.
Not Giving Up
The Mayor and Clay Boardman do not appear to be giving up on the downtown ballpark. Boardman already owns property across the street from the Golf and Gardens and is also trying to get the city to relocate the fire station on Reynolds street to ostensibly accommodate some kind of mixed-use development. Boardman told George Eskola of WJBF news regarding Azziz's plans for the site: “He hasn't finalized his master plan, so until he determines what his needs are for the property for the combined enterprise you can't really answer that question he can't answer that question is what he told me two or three nights ago.”
Boardman still believes there is room for negotiations over the ballpark, but will Azziz simply forget about the power-play over the transit facility property in Harrisburg that GHSU and The MCG Foundation wanted? Or does Boardman expect to strike a deal over that land in exchange for the ballpark? Fred Russell confirmed with George Eskola that a meeting has been arranged with Ripken Baseball officials to meet with him and Dr. Azziz next week to discuss the potential development of the Golf and Gardens property.
But even commissioners who have seemed to be on the Mayor's side are now saying that if a new ballpark is built, it will likely be built elsewhere. Jerry Brigham told George Eskola of WJBF: "I think it ends it for that site. (Golf and Gardens property) I don't think it ends the discussions about a baseball stadium.”
And other sites have been discussed, most notably the Villages of Riverwatch property near the new Costco. Others have suggested the old Regency Mall, but that site is likely out because of the high price tag wanted by owners of the mall and the cost to demolish the facility.
But why the push to build any new ballpark? It has never been a popular topic with the general public, especially any proposal that includes public financing. Public polls and a democratic primary straw poll have shown overwhelming opposition to public financing for a new ballpark. The current stadium is only 16 years old and rarely fills to capacity and many baseball patrons enjoy the intimate ambiance of Lake Olmstead stadium. Lori Davis, a candidate for the District 1 Augusta Commission seat, has made opposition to public financing for a new ballpark a key plank of her platform, saying that "the city faces higher priorities which are not being adequately funded."
But moving the new ballpark may also factor in to Clay Boardman's vision for Harrisburg. It may not be so much about the need for a new ballpark but rather wanting the land where the current ballpark sits for other purposes.
Mayor Copenhaver contends that a new ballpark will need to be built at some point, telling George Eskola of WJBF news: " At some point, we're going to have to look at doing a new facility for the GreenJackets whether it is there or someplace else."
But with whose money? In the past six years that there have been discussions over a new ballpark, Ripken Baseball officials have yet to put a number out there of what their financial commitment would be towards a new facility and how much they expect the public to chip in. And the Mayor has made it clear that he would like to avoid a public referendum on the matter, instead searching for "creative public financing" options. That basically means finding a way to leverage public debt without having to get the consent of the public to do so, and it happens all of the time. And commissioners can redirect SPLOST money without a public referendum, and there are millions sitting around in bank accounts all over the CSRA.
But if Azziz stands his ground, a downtown riverfront ballpark may have struck out for good. There may be no joy in Mudville for Deke and his downtown baseball acololytes. But unlike Casey, the Mayor hopes to force this game into extra innings so that he or a designated hitter can step up to the plate and hit a homerun. But Azziz and the voters may just call a foul and bench this ballpark for good. More to come. ***