North Augusta City Council members focused intensely on several blocks of Greenville Saturday afternoon and evening, with an eye on learning more about how a riverside baseball stadium could become a part of Aiken County's future.
The entire Council, after a two-hour afternoon bus ride, got a tour of the Greenville Drive baseball team's facility and some neighboring buildings, in a search for answers about Project Jackson, a North Augusta development proposal with a baseball field as its centerpiece.
Upscale housing, retail stores and a conference center are among other major elements, with Hammond's Ferry and The River Club as nearby neighborhoods.
Project backers have presented the baseball field as the future home of the Augusta GreenJackets.
Project Jackson was revealed to the public in December. Some have hailed it as an economic bonanza, and opponents have raised the specter of problems with parking, safety and congestion.
Financing, with a mixture of public and private backing, has been a major obstacle.
The Drive, a minor-league team, has had Fluor Field as its home turf since 2006, situated on the site of a former lumber yard, in an area that had been on a downward slide in recent years, according to some observers.
“We were there simply for information so that we could make more logical decisions when this actually comes up for a vote,” said Councilman Carolyn Baggott. “As it stands now, there's still way too many questions to commit to a 'yes' or a 'no.'”
'Mass parking' versus 'traffic management'
Councilman Fletcher Dickert chose the word “insightful” to describe the trip in terms of “seeing what the environment is around the stadium and within the stadium as well.”
He said the subject of parking was particularly interesting.
“Most of their parking is on-street parking. The only mass parking lot is a good 10- to 15-minute walk away from the stadium. Project Jackson has planned, mass parking close to the stadium.”
A major difference, Dickert said, is in North Augusta having more issues with access. “I don't believe that we will have as much of a parking problem as we will a traffic-management problem,” Dickert said.
Light pollution and light poles
Also on the bus was businessman Scott Gudith, who has been among Project Jackson's more active opponents. He traveled with his wife, Gina Reddy.
“We were asked to represent our homeowners association,” said Gudith, a River Club resident. “We had a wonderful time. We loved the stadium. We loved the surroundings and loved everything about it, but we are still of the mindset that in no way, shape or form can you compare downtown North Augusta to the west end of Greenville, South Carolina. Just worlds apart.”
He and his wife, he said, walked a few blocks around the stadium and asked questions about such concerns as crime, traffic, rent, home prices and restaurants, and noticed that the roads around the stadium had four lanes, unlike the roads leading in and out of Hammond's Ferry and The River Club. He also named light poles (“300 feet up, or more”) as major problems.
“The lack of light pollution around the outside” was interesting to Councilman Ken McDowell.
“I went up there especially to see that,” McDowell said. “The parking situation – I wish I'd gone out and walked around outside the stadium. We'd have liked to have seen more of that.”
North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones said the experience provided good food for thought in terms of possible placement of condominiums, apartment buildings and The Family Y, all of which have been considered as elements of Project Jackson.
“I think it was also important to see that they did not create a single parking place for a stadium that has 4,500 seats,” the mayor said. “That is one of the major issues that people have raised.”
Chuck Smith, an Aiken County Councilmember representing North Augusta, commented, “I was especially impressed with the vision of the group that put it together and the cooperation that the municipality provided, how that helped revitalize the entire area.”
Options for outdoor exploration were limited by a rain delay of about an hour, so the visitors got to see the stadium crew respond to a downpour by rolling out protective gear to cover the entire infield, and then rolling it back once the downpour was done.
A family-friendly setting
City Attorney Kelly Zier described the trip as “very relevant,” in terms of allowing a comparison between Lake Olmstead Stadium and Fluor Field at the West End (the Greenville facility's full name).
“I was really happy to see that it was much more of a family atmosphere than I had recalled, with all of the activities going on all around the stadium,” he said. “I thought there were a whole lot more young people, from about the ages of 5 to 15, than what I was normally familiar with seeing.
“It just appeared to be a fairly affordable family outing, and it just looked like everybody was having a good time.”
Smith said that “it took a lot of courage” for Greenville's decision-makers to choose to build a stadium in that location. “Their risk paid off.”
City Administrator Todd Glover commented, “If we are able to do something on our riverfront, we would want it to be of a quality similar to what Greenville has done.”
Some of Project Jackson's detractors have said they favor much of the proposal, with the major exception of the baseball facility, due to concerns about such things as congestion and crime.
Some project backers have responded by saying the baseball facility is the overall package's core and that the remainder will not materialize without the field in place.
As proposed, Project Jackson would include a $150 million mixed-use development, with a 225-room, $60 million hotel resort; a 20,000-square-foot conference center, structured parking for 900 and a $28-million City-owned sports and entertainment facility (for baseball games and other events).
The proposal also includes restaurants, 225 luxury apartments, 75 town homes, 40,000 square feet of office space and a retail area of about 30,000 square feet.