Advanced voting is underway to determine if the $235 million new James Brown Arena Complex will get the green light to purchase bonds and begin construction, but some voters are skeptical about the proposed project.
The project has taken almost seven years of planning and studies. Members of the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority say they have developed the perfect concept that creates a new 10,000 seat arena complete with a club, a giant ballroom, roof terraces and meeting spaces.
The concept also links the new arena to the Bell Auditorium, which is slated for a $9 million makeover.
Not everyone is sold on the concept. Augusta resident and former candidate for the Augusta Commission Michael Thurman says he fears cost overruns could soar to as much as $300 million dollars and the majority of the financial burden will fall on taxpayers.
“We can’t keep our parks safe; we can’t cut our own grass. So, spending a quarter of a billion dollars on a bright, shiny new civic center just doesn’t seem to be money well spent right now,” Thurman said.
Coliseum authority member Brad Usry concedes that there will be a property tax increase of roughly $100 a year per $100,000 in property value, but he also insists there is a lot of misinformation about the funding of the project.
According to Usry, every last angle and small detail has been scrutinized to make sure there will be no last minute, unexpected costs, and the tax increase will only taper down over the years as the bonds are paid off over 30 years.
“That (tax increase) is a worst-case scenario, but the millage rate is determined every year and so, over the years as the bonds are paid down, the tax will go down accordingly,” Usry said.
A great portion of the expenses will be paid by the hotel/motel tax, and Usry says he favors increasing that tax to lessen the burden on local taxpayers.
“Most cities our size have an eight percent hotel/motel tax, and Augusta’s rate is only six percent. I would like to see our rate more in line with other cities, and that will serve to pay off the bonds even faster,” Usry said, adding the estimated interest of $20 million is already factored into the overall cost of the bonds, meaning that the rate of interest will not change and cause unforeseen costs.
Aside from property and hotel/motel taxes, $25 million dedicated to the new arena will come from SPLOST 8 which was approved overwhelmingly by voters in March.
Some opponents of the project have said that the Coliseum Authority should have reached out to officials in Columbia County to help fund the project, but Usry says that such a discussion never even made it on the table.
“In a utopia, we would love to have Aiken County pitch in, the state of Georgia to pitch in, Columbia County to pitch in because everyone gets to enjoy it. But the fact of the matter is, it is inside the incorporated area of Augusta/Richmond County, and we have to pay for it,” Usry said.
However, Thurman says he is totally against the plan and has launched a social media campaign and handing out “Say no to arena tax” yard signs to attempt to defeat the measure at the polls.
“I didn’t vote for the $25 million included in the SPLOST, and I am not going to vote in favor of the bonds either,” Thurman said.
Usry says that he hopes people will go to the New James Brown arena website created by the Coliseum Authority, which, according to Usry, has information on every aspect of the project down to complete copies of every study conducted.
“I have said all along that we have one chance to get this right, and I believe we have come up with a comprehensive plan that is going to truly benefit our community,” Usry said.
Advance voting continues until Nov. 2.