Some love the idea, some hate it and frankly, others have been panicked by it, but one thing's for certain: Most everyone in the CSRA has an opinion about building an arena in Columbia County.
When I was asked to serve on the Arena Committee by Columbia County Chairman Ron Cross, I was among the members who were cautiously optimistic about the project. We immediately began researching the operation, management and funding of arenas. The time and effort the members put into this committee was commendable, the cooperative spirit exceptional.
We had a number of differing opinions on the subject; however, we were united in completing our assigned task: to determine whether or not an arena was desirable and ultimately feasible in Columbia County.
We toured facilities and interviewed management teams in Macon, Columbus, Charleston, Greenville and Atlanta. We had meetings with representatives from national management companies, listened to reports from commissioners from Gwinnett County, sat through presentations from sports franchise owners and had countless phone conversations with event sponsors, promoters and booking agents across the country.
We did our homework well, and as the project began to take shape, most of us realized that the term "Arena Committee" was a misnomer. The scope and detail of the information we were gathering for the commissioners and ultimately the voters of Columbia County, suggested that a much larger concept than just an arena should be considered. We discovered that an arena would be only one of the facilities included in our study, and might not be the first project we would recommend.
Ultimately, this development could become an economic engine for a huge strip of Columbia County's I-20 corridor. In my opinion, an 80,000 to 100,000 square foot flat trade show and convention facility with an attached hotel of at least 250 rooms should be the first facility considered, unless the voters of Richmond County fund a similar facility as part of their SPLOST vote in November.
(On a side note, I find it interesting that a trade show facility was quickly included in Richmond County's SPLOST after our committee began to seriously discuss building one as the first phase of an arena footprint.)
A 2,200- to 2,500-seat performing arts center is a much-needed venue in the CSRA. An equestrian facility would separate the complex from any other in the Southeast. A 5,000- to 7,000-seat amphitheater could provide an added dimension to the arena footprint that's not available anywhere in the region. Grass overflow parking lots could be used by the Columbia County Recreation Department as practice fields for our youth.
Finally, the Arena could ultimately be the centerpiece of the entire venue. The retail, industrial, commercial and restaurant development that would naturally follow a project of this magnitude could be extraordinary. As the Interstate 3 project develops, there is a real possibility that the arena footprint could be very close to the intersection of two major interstates.
The long and the short of the entire conversation is this: Does the area need an entertainment facility like this? Absolutely! Can we do it in Columbia County? According to SPLOST projections, yes. Should we do it? That question can only be answered by the voters of Columbia County, not the commissioners, not the other elected officials. Contrary to the alarmists and naysayers, the residents of Columbia County are the only people who can decide whether this project has merit and deserves to move forward. If the voters choose to proceed, our research shows that there can be no funding formulas that include a property tax increase.
Regardless of the county consolidation and incorporation issue and bond referendum, the first step is to authorize a feasibility study, which will cost approximately $170,000, half of which can be covered by a OneGeorgia grant. My hope is the commissioners will not table the project for a year or more, and instead will fund the arena study and trust the voters to decide whether or not the project is desirable in Columbia County.
At a minimum we could purchase or let options on the site identified by the study because land in Columbia County is not going to get any cheaper.
As a 20-year resident of Columbia County, I know from experience that the arena project will be closely and thoughtfully examined and considered. If it is constructed, it will be managed by professionals and offer us entertainment opportunities that have previously been out of reach for existing local venues.
With our can-do attitude, I am confident that we can manage an entertainment complex of this magnitude effectively and that it will be a tremendous addition to the quality of life we enjoy here in Columbia County.
(Jim Cox, a member of the Arena/Entertainment Facility Desirability Study Committee, is president of Southeastern Marketing & Production and of Firehouse Consulting, LLC, of Evans.)
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