If the crowd at a recent public forum is any indication, Columbia County officials have to come up with a pretty good sales pitch to convince local citizens to help pay for a new Augusta arena.
And Augusta officials will have to do some selling on their own just to convice Columbia County residents to do business with them.
At issue is a major new arena that would be build in Richmond County. Recommended in a privately funded study, the 12,000-seat arena would replace the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center. (Part of the funding for that study was provided by William S. Morris III, owner of this newspaper.)
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, who set up last weeks Savannah Rapids Pavilion forum, explains that the arena is one small part of a $300 million project that since has been scaled back to $180 million.
At first, Columbia County taxpayers were being asked to invest $15 million, with the money likely to come from sales taxes. Now, the county can get on board with any participation were willing to do, Cross says. Paying up front would allow Columbia County to appoint two members to the board that oversees the arena.
I would love to see this built for the benefit of Columbia County, Cross says. I think its neat. But there are a lot of questions.
ased on responses at last weeks forum, Augusta and Columbia County officials have to come up with some good answers before getting an investment out of our taxpayers:
Most of the people of Columbia County have very little confidence in the leadership of Augusta," Cross admits. The main question weve encountered is, Why do we want to get involved with a new arena with a group that cant even manage its old arena?"
Its a valid question. Fortunately, there are signs of improvement in that regard: Augustas Coliseum Authority last week hired well-respected Global Spectrum to manage the Civic Center.
If Columbia County invested in the arena, what would happen if the operation lost money? Would taxpayers have to cough up more money to cover the losses?
Possibly, says County Attorney Doug Batchelor. Under the agreement to operate such a facility , each government would likely share in any losses.
How can anyone justify sending any money across the county line as long as local needs arent being met?
I would like to see the arena built, Cross says, but I dont think we want to sacrifice any of the needs in Columbia County.
Commissioner Mark Devoti who represents Columbia Countys two cities and much of its rural areas says a big payout for the arena sends chills up his spine because of all the roads that could be paved or water lines that could be extended with that much money.
The latter question is especially tough to overcome. In addition to those rural needs, stormwater problems still plague Columbia County. Main traffic arteries badly need unclogging. And demand for community services continues to grow.
Running a government is all about setting priorities for how taxpayers dollars are spent. However, it isnt always a zero-sum game, in which spending a dollar here means taking it away from there; the most visionary projects have long-term and sometimes intangible benefits that pay for themselves.
Could a new community arena be such a project? Maybe so. But local leaders still have a lot of convincing to do if Columbia County citizens are going to be reach in their pockets to help pay for it.
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