A New Civic Center in South Augusta?
Editor’s Note: In August, the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority voted to locate a new civic center at the site of the defunct Regency Mall in south Augusta to replace the aging James Brown Arena. Most people had expected the site to be downtown, as recommended by a consultant study. The Augusta Commission still has to approve the coliseum authority’s proposal, but the decision has already generated controversy. Here, five local business owners and leaders weigh in with their views.
Josh Pierce has lived and worked in Augusta for too long to view his downtown community as anything less than family. When across-the-street sushi restaurant Sole needs avocados, Whiskey Bar, where Pierce is the general manager, gives them avocados. That’s how downtown works these days, Pierce said.
That didn’t come easily. As Pierce reflects on the time it took to turn downtown into the vibrant scene it is today, he pays homage to the vision that people like Soul Bar and Sky City owner Coco Rubio have had for the area for years.
So, Pierce doesn’t take the pending decision for a location of Augusta’s new civic center lightly. He doesn’t think anyone should.
I talked to Pierce and a few other business leaders in the downtown area and in south Augusta – many of them in the food and beverage industry, a vital element of local entertainment – not only about the importance of local businesses to the success of a civic center, but how those businesses create communities. Here’s what a handful of businesspeople around town had to say about the location Augusta’s new civic center:
Larry Sconyers, owner, Sconyers BBQ in South Augusta
When you weigh the pros and cons of a new civic center location, what factors do you think about?
I think saying it has to be in a particular spot, that’s not really a necessity. If you think about what you see in Atlanta stadiums – SunTrust Park – they’ve got a whole lot of businesses and restaurants in and around the stadium itself. Take Riverside Village (in North Augusta) – it’s going to be a total complex, not just a ball field. So for this new arena, it would make a lot more sense for there to be other restaurants and entertainment built in and around the arena as part of the development.
But with Regency Mall, I wouldn’t take that lease. To take that lease for 35 years and then once that’s up, it’s not yours anymore? That’s a joke. No smart businessman would do that, and I wouldn’t either.
One thing that made sense about a Regency Mall location is the availability of parking, and it needs to be put by a major highway. That part makes sense.
Sean Wight, owner of downtown restaurants Frog Hollow, Craft and Vine and Farmhaus
Your restaurants have been a big part of the revitalization of downtown over the last few years. How important is the James Brown Arena to that community?
I don’t think moving the arena would negatively affect the restaurants, but I think it would negatively affect the JBA. It will be less successful because it won’t be a one-stop package. I think that’s a very poor decision, to move JBA out of downtown, which has all the amenities. When my wife and I go to a show out of town, we don’t pick the band necessarily. We pick the city we’re going to.
My theory is that the whole premise of spurring economic development with a new civic center is a false premise. I think it’ll hurt the success of the JBA. The center needs the businesses. You can’t build a business off 60 nights a year. It just doesn’t work.
Brad Usry, president, Fat Man’s Mill Café and vice chairman of Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority
How do you envision the needs of a new civic center when it comes to entertainment like restaurants and bars?
This arena needs to be built for 18-, 25-, 30-year-olds. That’s who it’s going to be for, and they love downtowns. Malls aren’t sexy anymore to Millennials. Ninety-five to 97 percent of recently built arenas have been or are being built in downtowns, and the 3-5 percent of venues that aren’t being built in downtown areas are in cities that have a million or more people in the area.
They built the Braves’ stadium outside of town, but you can’t compare that! The median income there is not close to the area around Regency Mall. Neither is the population. Anybody who makes that argument just does not know the facts. Also, if you look at JBA and Bell Auditorium, combining two venues creates one kitchen, one loading dock – the efficiency of that business is crazy good.
Lance Spence, general manager, Acura of Augusta in south Augusta
What potential do you think a new civic center at the Regency Mall site has to grow business in the area?
Anything that’s close to the interstate is a good choice. Everything here is a stone’s throw away from everything else. The arena downtown seems a little congestive as far as traffic. I’ve seen things move from one side of town to the other, and if you have an area that’s able to be improved, that’s a good thing. Activity breeds activity. You get more events, more advertising. I hate to see stuff leave based on how people feel instead of what’s right.
Josh Pierce, general manager, Whiskey Bar
What’s the importance of the JBA to downtown’s business community?
Downtown is a family. And we support the JBA by making sure people get excellent service and they get to that event. That’s the relationship all of us have down here, and that took a long time to develop.
Whether or not a civic center at the Regency Mall site floats or sinks – that depends on the support around it. If there’s not much there, I’m worried about it to begin with. I understand the desire to build up other places, but what it feels like is that south Augusta is not prepared for a build like this because there isn’t enough infrastructure around it. And if you’re going to drop the money and bail out cause you know it’s not going to work – don’t do it.