The die is cast and the information blitzkrieg is underway as the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority touts the benefits of a new James Brown Arena.
On Nov. 7, Richmond County voters are being asked to go to the polls and vote in favor of a referendum creating a half-cent sales tax to pay for the project.
SB230 creating the Coliseum Special Local Option Sales Tax, or C-SPLOST was approved by the Georgia Legislature during the 2023 legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp.
Now, the onus is on supporters of the plan, particularly coliseum authority members, to make this plan palatable to the same voters who rejected a referendum increasing property taxes in 2022.
“So, right now what we’re doing is, in addition to media interviews, we’re meeting with every single people group, if more than two are gathered, we are trying to make sure, especially in the summer months, where folks are not paying attention to what’s going to be happening in November, to talk and say this is happening,” explained Ryan Mahoney of Parlay Marketing Partners, LLC, hired to help show voters why a yes vote is the right vote.
“I think the big takeaway from the last effort was that so many people didn’t know what they were voting on when they were voting,” he added. “So, I think our goal for the next several months is educating as many people as possible throughout the community about what’s going to be on their ballot, and frankly, hoping that the more that they learned, the more that they’ll tell other people.”
In addition to explaining the dollars and cents, Brad Usry, vice chairman of the authority and chairman of the new JBA subcommittee, said they tell voters about the benefits that can be reaped from an Augusta Entertainment Center, including an estimated $1.5 billion-dollar economic impact and creating 600 new jobs.
“About 40% of this is going to be paid for by people outside Richmond County. And this finance package has clarity. The one before it was very vague, and I’m not sure we even understood it. But this is real clear, halfpenny, and it’s going to go away when the debt’s paid off. Period,” Usry explained.
Those limits, capping the amount of money to be raised at $250 million and discontinuing the tax when that amount is raised, were written into SB230 by members of the legislature.
“I’ve testified three times in front of the state legislature, I was on the hot seat,” said Usry. “They just said, ‘You’re going to cap it at 250 (million) on this project and only going to be spent on this project and this debt.’ They made it clear. That’s in this state law.”
But $250 million isn’t the only number that will appear on the ballot. The measure also factors in the amount of interest on the bond.
“That number ($250 million) is the max. Right now, bonds are being issued at 2.99%. You know what we figured for this payback? 6.99. So, more than double what rates are going for just to make sure we were putting the max there,” Usry said.
The breakdown is included in the election notice that’s posted on the city of Augusta’s website (https://www.augustaga.gov/DocumentCenter/View/17116/Election-Notice-C-SPLOST-__23_Augusta-Arena-Project-Call)
“Voters desiring to vote for the imposition of such sales and use tax shall do so by voting “YES” and voters desiring to vote against the imposition of such sales and use tax shall do so by voting “NO,” as to the question propounded, to-wit:
“Shall a special 0.5 percent sales and use tax be imposed in the special district of Richmond County, in order to raise $433,196,500 to fund coliseum capital outlay projects and related project costs.”
“If the imposition of the tax is approved by the voters, such vote shall also constitute approval of the issuance of general obligation debt of Augusta, Georgia in the principal amount of $250,000,000 for the above purpose.”
Usry said that simply updating the existing arena is not an option. There’s no way to increase seating capacity and aging systems are beginning to fail resulting in costly repairs.
The new entertainment center is three phases. First, renovations and improvements to the Bell Auditorium, are currently underway. Second, the new arena. The third component will be a concourse connecting the two venues.
Usry said it is impossible to predict what shows will be attracted to a new arena, but he said two big shows that bypassed Augusta were Carrie Underwood and the Dave Matthews Band.
He said the new arena could also open doors to sporting events that currently cannot be played in Augusta.
“This building is not qualified to have an NCAA event here. They have minimum standards. So, if we wanted a division two basketball regional tournament here, for instance, they could not do it with this facility,” he said.
Usry, Mahoney, and Mayor Garnett Johnson said the ultimate goal is to create a center that makes Augusta a destination spot for people throughout the region and tourists.
“I’ve seen how other communities have done it,” Johnson said. “If you look at what Savannah-Chatham County has done, they certainly have done a phenomenal job. I like how they paid for this, they use SPLOST dollars. In our case, we’re using half a penny to pay for us as well.”
“We know that we’re a destination in April. And we know that this community can support that. And hospitality is second to none. And we’ve got great restaurants and hotels and all that sort of stuff,” Mahoney said. “So, we get the benefit as folks who live here, and the jobs and the investment. But 40% of folks that are actually paying this, and that’s not just obviously for when they’re coming to see shows, but folks that are coming in for the Masters and folks that are coming in for Ironman, that’s a really nice way to offload some of that tax burden, so we get a great benefit.”
Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of Richmond County voters on November 7. Usry said trying to find another funding plan can push the project back 15 years or more.
“This is kind of like we got one bullet. We’re fixing to use it,” he said.