Thursday, December 20, 2012

New Stadium Did Not "Slip Away" From Augusta

Thursday, December 20, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

Project Jackson. It sounds like a top secret military program, and yesterday some of its details were declassified in a public presentation in North Augusta, SC. It turns out that all of the rumors flying around last week were true: there indeed is a plan to move The Augusta Greenjackets across the river  --- and  a proposed new stadium will be a centerpiece of Project Jackson.

The response to this news ranged from enthusiasm, confusion, and hand wringing -- depending  on what side of the Savannah river you are on. A riverfront ballpark has been debated for more than six years, but up until now, the discussion has always centered on a location along the downtown riverfront on the Georgia side of the river. Yesterday's presentation revealed the most specific proposal to date for a new stadium for the Greenjackets. Here is what we now know:

The Details

Ripken Baseball will be selling the team. The new owners will be an Investment Group  known as Agon Sports and Entertainment. One of the principals of this new group is none other than Jeff Eiseman, the past President of The Augusta Greenjackets under the Ripken group.

Project Jackson will be more than just a ballpark. It includes over $110 million in additional private developments that include a luxury hotel, apartments, town homes, restaurants, retail and office space.

The public sector is expected to chip in 30% of the cost of the project, totaling around $43 million. This would include the cost of the stadium, a conference center, and a riverfront park.

Despite the move to South Carolina, the new team owners expect the name to remain The Augusta Greenjackets.

This is just a proposal. There is no guarantee the stadium will be built. Depending on what funding mechanisms are used, voters could reject the stadium in a public  referendum. Also, some nearby residents of the affluent neighborhoods of Hammonds Ferry and The River Club have expressed concerns about noise, congestion and light pollution from a stadium. So, this is not a done deal by any means.

A Collective Whine

As soon as the details of Project Jackson emerged yesterday in North Augusta, you could practically hear a collective whine from across the river. An article on the stadium proposal appeared yesterday on the Augusta Chronicle website and  received over 100 comments by the end of the day.  Generally, people who were proponents of a new stadium on the downtown Augusta riverfront viewed the news as a major defeat and wanted to point the finger of blame. To paraphrase some of the comments from those wringing their hands over the announcement : "Augusta blew it,"  " Augusta just lost a great opportunity", "This idea was just too big and progressive for the people of Augusta" and "would the last person leaving Augusta turn the light off?" 

Some people wanted to blame Augusta commissioners for supposedly "letting this great opportunity slip away."  That blame is misplaced. For more than six years, Augusta commissioners have asked for a specific proposal from the Ripken Baseball group and the mayor. Those specifics never came. Instead, all Augustans got were vague sales pitches of  "Multi-use facility" and "public/private partnership". The Ripken group was intentionally coy about how much of their own money they were even willing to invest in the project. In fact, after the dozens of meetings Mayor Deke Copenhaver and City Administrator Fred Russell held with Ripken Baseball officials, not once did they produce a concrete proposal like the one that was revealed yesterday in North Augusta. Not once were actual costs presented to the public and Augusta commissioners. All we got was a six year long sales pitch for a product we never even got to see.

Show Me The Money!

It was obvious that the Ripken group had their eye on the former Golf and Gardens property  almost as soon as they purchased the team -- perhaps even before. When the state of Georgia announced that the downtown golf themed attraction -- that never even fully materialized -- would be closing, the sales pitch for a baseball stadium at the site began almost immediately. But instead of making an offer on the property when it was available, the Ripken Group stalled and teased the public with pretty conceptual water colore renderings. They created a "Bring Baseball Downtown" website that was supposed to look like a public grass-roots effort. They talked about possible condos, and all sorts of goodies, but with no specifics and  more importantly, no actual dollar figures. The trite term "public/private partnership" was continually batted around, but with no specifics of how much the private sector would invest into the project versus the public sector.  And after the recent debacle of the "public/private partnership" between the city of Augusta and Augusta Riverfront LLC over the TEE center and numerous other failed downtown boondoggles over the years, that term naturally sounded  off alarm bells in the minds of taxpayers from Washington Rd to Willis-Foreman Road.

Several years ago Mayor Copenhaver  asked commissioners to commit to acquiring the Golf and Gardens property from the state of Georgia for potential use as a site for a new baseball stadium. This would have cost the city $millions more for a property that it had already sunk $6 million of SPLOST money into for the failed golf and gardens attraction. Commissioners were naturally hesitant, especially when Ripken Baseball was still unwilling to give them more specifics. So time went by .. and the Ripken Group never made an effort to acquire the Golf and Gardens property on their own, and they still never brought a specific proposal forward to the commission. Instead they engaged in back room meetings with the mayor and city administrator and went on a prolonged six year tease with the public. We kept hearing reports over the years that a "big announcement" was imminent over the ballpark.. but nothing ever materialized. Bottom line is, Ripken Baseball and the mayor had six years to make a presentation to the public like what was done yesterday in North Augusta, and they never did.

Augusta is the Big Winner

Despite all of the hand wringing from some, the city of Augusta stands to be the big winner if Project Jackson   happens. The metro area will still have a minor league ball team, and that team will still be called the Augusta Greenjackets. This team will have a new state of the art facility much closer to downtown Augusta than the current one at Lake Olmstead. But the best part is that  Augusta taxpayers will not be on the hook paying for any of it.

And the private aspect of Project Jackson -- the hotel, the apartments, the town homes, restaurants and retail and office space -- is what is expected to  pay for the ballpark. That was a crucial missing element from proposals floated for the Augusta riverfront. Initially, six years ago, we did hear about the possibility of a mixed-use development, but talk was always vague and never as specific as what is being proposed in North Augusta. As the years went on the proposal for the Augusta riverfront started to be called a "multi-use facility", which is a big difference. This basically means they were pitching a baseball stadium that could be used for other events like weddings and concerts. The talk about a mixed-use development, including upscale condos and restaurants, seemed to have completely disappeared from the discussion and the sales pitch from the Ripken Group.

And it is not like the Golf and Gardens property on the Georgia side of the river will sit fallow. It is slated to become the site for an exciting expansion of the new merged University. This will include student housing, research and teaching facilities and even possibly a performing arts center. So downtown Augusta stands to benefit from two big projects: a ballpark and town center complex right across the 13th street bridge and a new university campus in the heart of downtown. If commissioners had of committed the city to acquiring the golf and gardens property for a ballpark, downtown Augusta would have ended up with far less... likely only a taxpayer subsidized stadium that would sit vacant most of the year. In this case, Augusta gets to have its cake and eat it too.

Even Mayor Copenhaver had to admit that this news might be good for Augusta:

And what if Augusta taxpayers had built the Ripken Group a new stadium to keep them in town? Well, it appears, based on yesterday's announcement, that may not have even have made a difference. The Greenjackets are getting a new riverfront stadium, but yet the Ripken group is selling the team anyway. What guarantees did Augusta have that building a new stadium would have kept Ripken baseball and the Greenjackets in Augusta? None.

Perhaps former Augusta mayor Bob Young summed it up best in a comment he posted to Facebook earlier in the week when the details of Project Jackson started to emerge:
"Time to put down the Kool Aid and have a reality check. 
First, North Augusta is going to develop a project with a baseball stadium that requires about 4 times the public investment stadium supporters in Augusta were talking about. This tells me that the true cost of this project is finally seeing the light of day. Second, Ripkin is selling his team, even though he is getting a new stadium. What's with all of his talk about loyalty to Augusta? Folks, if the people of North Augusta want to go on the hook for this, more power to them. 
Augusta's challenge now is the stadium on the lake. It's bought and paid for. The city gets control back when Ripkin leaves (remember, the contract gave Ripkin control over all uses of the park, not just baseball.) New home for our local college teams, perhaps?"
Indeed. The challenge for the city of Augusta is what to do with Lake Olmstead stadium. The city owns the facility free and clear, and now with complete control of it, Augusta can receive all of the profits generated from events and concessions. Maybe it's time the city started marketing that facility. The other option is to lease it out to the new merged university for college sports. Either way, the city is in a much better position in regards to controlling its asset at Lake Olmstead and reaping the benefits from it.

But officials should not jump the gun, So far, Project Jackson is merely proposal, and North Augusta citizens could give it the same icy reception that Augusta did with talk of spending tax dollars on building a ballpark. Also, there may very well be a push back from residents in nearby  Hammonds Ferry . It's still very early in the game, but by all appearances it looks like North Augusta officials went about this the right way. They came up with a specific proposal first with actual cost figures and who would pay what... and now they are pitching that to the public. It's the complete opposite way Ripken Baseball and the mayor went about handling selling the downtown stadium proposal.

The challenge for North Augusta officials now is to make sure that the private sector keeps their end of the bargain. As we have reported in previous stories, when cities build new stadiums on the promise of adjacent private development, it often does not materialize or not to the extent as promised. If North Augusta is going to commit $43,000,000 towards Project Jackson, taxpayers will want to be confident that the private development will come and pay back the public's investment. That means North Augusta officials need to insist on clauses in their partnership agreement that stipulates a time frame for construction of the private portion of  Project Jackson, with financial penalties if the private sector breaks their promise. Luckily, North Augusta does not have the incompetent Fred Russell as their city administrator.. so we expect they will negotiate a much better deal for the taxpayers.

The end result of Project Jackson is that it may finally help unify both sides of the Savannah River. Hopefully it will also make Augusta leaders  look at how North Augusta handles planning and negotiating these big projects, and they will learn something. You could say that both sides of the river could view this as a home run.**

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