HAVE YOU EVER BEEN STUCK IN TRAFFIC NEXT TO A CAR WITH AN oh, sorry; I didn't mean to yell. It's just that I'm temporarily deaf from a concert this weekend at the Gwinnett Center Arena.
It was so loud that it felt like I was inside one of those cars, the really loud ones with a sound system that cost more than the car. You've seen 'em. We've all heard 'em.
Actually, this concert felt like being inside one of those cars while someone whomps me in the chest with a baseball bat in time with the music. Still, except for the lingering ringing in my ears, it was an interesting and mostly enjoyable experience.
Like a fellow there from Fayette County, standing up top with me in the official Orphaned Dads area, I was either brave or stupid to let my 14-year-old daughter and a friend wade into the crowd on the floor. One of the ushers told me the lower level at the Gwinnett Center Arena holds 1,005 people; it looked like they were all crowded into a third of the floor space.
This concert proved to be a good scouting trip. Just before leaving for the ride up to Duluth, I heard all the talk about the possibility of Columbia County building an arena if Richmond County's sales-tax financed arena fails at the polls next week.
The Gwinnett show was a good example of the roll of the dice such a big idea represents. The 12,000-seat arena was only half-filled for the show, even with three popular rock acts on stage. The lesson: Nothing is sure when it comes to filling such a venue, but once a decision is made to build it, it's certain that it has to be paid for.
A suitable, comparable arena for our area is estimated to cost in the $60 to $80 million range. The biggest thing we've ever built in Columbia County is the Justice Center and jail expansion, funded by bonds repaid with a taxpayer-approved property tax increase. Altogether, the bonds raised nearly $30 million for the construction projects.
Would voters be willing to come up with more than double that amount by again raising their own taxes? Not likely. And our sales tax doesn't bring in nearly enough to do it, unless we shut down every other project and spend five years' worth of sales tax on nothing but an arena.
And this doesn't even address the issue of paying to operate of such a facility. We'd love to think a new arena would be an overnight economic success, but that's wishful thinking.
A half-empty night like that one in Gwinnett is all too common, and we'd probably have to use hotel-motel tax money as a cushion. Fortunately, there's plenty of it, with more coming as the county grows. But if those funds had to be used to keep the doors of an arena open, it would cut off funding for a lot of community events.
Could a corporate sponsor come to the rescue? The Lakewood Amphitheater in Atlanta is now Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheater, the result of a fat corporate sponsorship. But "fat" would probably be in the $1 million range -- which still leaves taxpayers scratching for at least $59 million.
It's all about priorities. Augusta voters next week will make their priorities clear. I'm guessing they'll vote to approve the core of their sales tax, and shoot down the rest of the projects -- or shoot it all down while taking a hard swipe at their commissioners' irresponsibility.
What are Columbia County's priorities? Somehow, I don't see one of them being the construction of a massive arena to attract big-name performers to our county, when whoever wants such entertainment can drive down the road to Duluth, or Greenville, or Columbia, and pay the tab out of their own pocket instead of everyone else's.
No use trying to convince me otherwise. I can't hear you anyway.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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