Early discussions of a new regional civic arena for the Augusta area bring with them an air of excitement and endless possibilities for expanded leisure opportunities - especially for Columbia County, whose citizens are among the more frequent users of the current, inadequate Civic Center.
The likely source of Columbia Countys potential share of public funding for a new arena is the sales tax. The best feature of sales tax funding is that voters would have the final say on the expenditure; if voters are convinced a new arena is a good idea, theyll approve the funding. Its that simple.
Columbia County wont be in it alone, of course. Eventually, all of the governments involved in the regional project will have to come to the table with their own share of funding, and with assurances that each of the partners will be treated fairly.
Before we can ever get to that stage, however, Columbia Countys elected officials have their own front porch to sweep: They must settle the lingering and growing distrust of the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce and its Augusta-centered leadership. It is a problem that has festered far too long, and without resolution it will threaten future attempts at forging other regional partnerships.
It is a lack of vision, a comfort with the status quo, that has allowed the Chamber problem to go unresolved for so long. Similarly, because politicians have failed to explore the possibility of a better venue for entertainment, William S. Morris III (owner of The News-Times) and Frank Lawrence (owner of the Augusta Stallions arena football team and Bobby Jones Ford) are putting up as much as $200,000 so Scheer Game Sports Development - the company that evolved from construction of the much-envied Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C. -can study the possibility of a new, bigger Augusta-area arena.
When the study is completed, its too bad Morris and Lawrence cant keep the ball rolling by paying for the new arena themselves, putting it on private land, keeping it away from meddling politicians. Unfortunately, a giant arena is beyond even their considerable means - and besides, such facilities are expected to be public projects because of the need for broad general use.
Necessarily, then, politicians will have to get involved because some of the money must come from taxpayers. Public officials representing Augusta and North Augusta, Columbia County and Aiken County will have to work together to craft a deal that ensures a fair, regional approach.
Each of these areas will have their own hurdles to leap in selling the project to their citizens. For many in Columbia County, the Chamber relationship is the big challenge because it represents what they see as a phony regional partnership - one that takes Columbia Countys money yet does little in return.
There has been a growing sense that the Chamber isnt earning the nearly $150,000 it gets each year from Columbia County taxpayers. Those misgivings grew last week with the news that Columbia County Chamber Director Brian Quinsey will pull additional duty downtown until ex-recruitment guru Kevin Shea can be replaced. Its fair for citizens to ask if our store is being minded at all.
The Chamber also is under attack from within as state Sen. Charles Walker promotes the creation of a city-run economic development agency. Inadvertently, Walkers move may finally force Columbia County to deal with the Chamber issue: Columbia County could hope to become a more important partner in a weaker, but still regional, Augusta Chamber; or, it could keep the taxpayers money and try to do the job in-house.
If Scheers arena study lays out a plan for a new facility that requires Colum-bia Countys involvement, as is likely, local politicians will have major selling points in their favor - especially if such a facility is more accessible to Columbia County. But if the lingering distrust of the Chamber hasnt been resolved, can any local politician convince voters that a regional deal on a new arena will be any better managed than the long-faltering Chamber relationship?
It doesnt take a study, privately or publicly financed, to seek a solution to Columbia Coun-tys Chamber woes. Like an alcoholic taking the first step to recovery by admitting he has a drinking problem, local politicians must acknowledge that the Chamber relationship is broken so it then can be fixed.
With that hurdle out of the way, if those leaders can assure voters that Columbia County will be a true, equal partner in the development and funding of a first-class regional civic arena, then selling the concept to voters should be a slam-dunk.
(Barry L. Paschal is opinions editor of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barrypaschal@ yahoo.com.)
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