Council votes to authorize $45 million in bonds to go toward over-budgeted arena project

Published: May. 9, 2019 at 9:33 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - A new plan is needed to finish paying for the arena project in Savannah.

The new arena will be built just west of the historic downtown area. It will sit near Stiles Avenue and West Gwinnett Street, not far from I-16.

It has a price tag of $165 million. SPLOST money was slated to pay for the project, but it now only covers $120 million of it. Where will so money come from? A tax, but not a new one.

$120 million in SPLOST 6 dollars is a conservative estimate set aside for the arena. It will get project funding closer to where it needs to be, but they are still about $45 million short. To help fill the gap, city staff presented council with a solution: using auto rental tax dollars. That’s money generated anytime a vehicle is rented within city limits, like at the airport.

Auto rental tax is existing funding, already used for a variety of things around town, but a good chunk goes to help run the current Civic Center. At Thursday’s work session, City Manager Rob Hernandez pointed out that once the new arena is built, the city can’t have both the new arena and the Civic Center.

“I’ve been saying this for a while. As a community, we cannot afford a new arena plus the existing Civic Center,” Hernandez said. “The new arena will be designed to accommodate Broadway-type productions, so the types of events that are being held at the Johnny Mercer, I would argue that the majority of those events will be accommodated in the new arena.”

In the coming weeks, city leaders are expected to get recommendations on what to do with the Civic Center. Council has heard several options for the site, including restoring the old squares impacted by the Civic Center’s construction, going back to the Oglethorpe plan. Council also learned about the profess of the Canal District Development, where the new arena will sit, along with the status of road improvements. Gwinnett Street is set to be widened, but not before some property is acquired.

“The challenge that we have...the design is complete; we are ready to go, ready to put it out to bid. We currently don’t have all the property. Once we get the property, we will move forward,” said Heath Lloyd, Chief Infrastructure and Development Officer.

The city anticipates the acquisitions to be complete by June.

“If we don’t move forward with this today, then I have no choice but to advise our design team that we’re going to have to put things on hold, because the reality is, you’re asking, you want to buy a car, but you’re not willing to sign the loan for the car, so we can’t buy one-third of the car,” Hernandez said. “We’re either in for it, 100 percent, or we’re not.”

In a majority vote - with only two against - council did decide to authorize the city manager issuing $45 million in bonds, which will be paid off over time by the auto rental tax.

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