How a City That Was an Afterthought for A-Listers Put Itself Back on the Map

July 19, 2018|

Last August, I sat in the back of the Bell Auditorium and waited for one of my all-time favorite comedians, Brian Regan, to walk onto the stage. At the time, it made sense that my personal bias toward Regan’s work would make the empty seats in the room loom large in my mind. (Doesn’t this town understand what they have here!?). But 10 months later, during a conversation with Chris Bird, general manager of the James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium, I realized that it wasn’t just me.

Bird estimated that there were probably around a thousand empty seats in the auditorium that night, which was honestly more than I would’ve guessed. With around 1,500 people in the building (the venue can shift between 2,500 and 3,000 seats), the show was far from an economic failure. Still, a weekend act featuring a comedian of Regan’s standing topping out at 60 percent capacity definitely won’t be a selling point the next time around.

“When you compare us against another market four years from now…it may be a reason to come back or not come back,” Bird said.

But that’s far better than artists passing over Augusta altogether, which isn’t a problem these days for many major musicians and comedians. The Bell Auditorium is set to host Jerry Seinfeld on Sept. 14. Steve Martin and Martin Short will grace the same stage six weeks later. Gladys Knight will perform at the James Brown Arena at the end of this month. The Lady Antebellum Pavilion in Evans has hosted the likes of Keith Urban, the Avett Brothers and, of course, Lady Antebellum. Kevin Hart played the arena last fall. None of these are performances locals would’ve expected to see in their backyard on a regular basis a decade ago.

“I’ll be very honest,” Bird said. “Ten years ago I think Augusta would get skipped on a tour.”

Then again, 10 years ago, the James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium were in an entirely different situation, one that made it difficult for its managers to attract top talent. From its opening in 1979 through much of the 1990s, the venue was attracting big-time performers like Prince, Van Halen and KISS. But the arena’s novelty faded over the years, and its local management team couldn’t keep up with competition in other cities. In 2009, venue management company Spectra began managing the arena. Bird was hired in 2014.

“They (former management) weren’t pursuing entertainment the way they are now,” said Bruce Balk, an audio engineer who owns Super Sound Augusta and is part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which has a small presence of around 25 members in Augusta. “They were doing what they had to do, but they didn’t have the pull of a management company. Chris has the ability to travel and pursue business, and a local GM just isn’t going to have as many contacts.”

“When Chris Bird came in, he came in swinging, and that was risky as hell,” said George Claussen, co-owner of Sky City and founder of music promotion and production company Friends With Benefits. “Dropping heavy hitter after heavy hitter. That gave me confidence.”

Once Spectra took over, music promoters “knew what they were dealing with” when they booked shows in Augusta, Balk said. From that point, one of Bird’s biggest challenges has been keeping his finger on the pulse of a city whose demographics can be difficult to plan for.

“People only have a certain amount of money,” Bird said. “We can multiply the shows, but we have to be very smart for the artists and the promoters.”

While cost of living in Augusta is lower than it is in cities like Charleston or Greenville, so is median income. One of Bird’s biggest cautions—one that he’s had to learn over the years—is for venues to resist the temptation to target a single demographic with too many shows within the same month, which has been a problem in the past and could continue to be one if local venues get ahead of themselves in a city projected to grow rapidly.

Bird credits a trusting relationship with promoters as the biggest reason for his staff’s ability to bring A-list artists to Augusta in recent years, artists that a decade ago would’ve passed right by Augusta on their way from Atlanta to Charleston. He isn’t afraid to tell promoters that a big show—one that would seem to be a no-brainer success in another market—won’t work in Augusta, whether the date is too close to another concert or hits a single demographic with more shows that its constituents can afford. A bit of false advertising from Bird followed by a bad turnout is all it takes to lose a promoter’s confidence in his or her local ties, which could affect countless potential shows in the future.

“You screw it up one time, and you can screw it up for the entire city,” Claussen said. “I’ve seen shows not happen because of radio stations or poor promoter records.”

Building trust with promoters over the long haul isn’t as exciting as, say, announcing a four-week long, talent-loaded lineup at the arena and the Bell Auditorium. In fact, Bird probably wouldn’t have much trouble doing that. But he’s not playing the short game.

“I have two buildings with 365 days in a year, so I’ve got 700 dates,” Bird said. “To say I’m only doing 100-125 is not because I couldn’t book more. I could do it all day long if I wanted to. But I think that’s a very short-term approach…You have to have a paper trail or a history so you can build upon that and get bigger shows…I always try to emphasize we’re only half the puzzle here. The community buying tickets, the community showing up, the community supporting is the other half.”

But community support is based on multiple demographics that are in flux everywhere from downtown to Grovetown as the Georgia Cyber Center opens and the Army Cyber Command Headquarters relocates to Ft. Gordon soon. Both Bird and Marty Elliott, general manager of the Miller Theater, try to create a balanced schedule spread across multiple genres and demographics.

For Elliott, getting locals in their late 30s to mid-50s in the door with acts like St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Three Dog Night and Jeff Foxworthy hasn’t been too difficult (which is impressive when you consider the fact that Elliot was booking shows when the now revitalized theater was still scaffolded). Some acts, like “Weird Al” Yankovic, have even attracted a significant amount of fans from other cities.

But Elliott doesn’t feel like the Miller Theater is doing enough to attract the millennial crowd. The venue isn’t hitting the urban market either, she said.

On the millennial front, the Miller Theater’s upcoming schedule would seem to suggest that the historic theater is headed in the right direction; comedian Tom Segura, whose three hour-long comedy specials have made the L.A.-based comic a Netflix hit, will play the Miller Theater on Nov. 4. Ten days later, popular folk singer-songwriter Iron & Wine will hit the same stage. Both shows should attract a young audience.

The real challenge, Elliott said, is getting millennials to consistently seek that entertainment out. Elliott’s staff held focus groups with people in their mid-20s to mid-30s in an effort to learn how to better pique the demographic’s interest locally. Individuals expressed a desire to see more ’90s-era music and attend events focused on social interaction. Another popular sentiment caught Elliott by surprise: “There’s nothing to do here.”

“When you look at the things there are to do, they’ve got the blinders on,” she said. “It’s tough to make the time to get out to do stuff. I think we’ve got to meet them where they are. We’ve got to figure out how to connect: group sales, company’s getting involved. But I think the main thing I want to do is change that narrative in their brain that there’s nothing to do. When they think there’s nothing to do, they stop looking. It’s just a shift. We’ve only been here six months. It’s going to be a whole shift that happens about what it means to come downtown. All this has got to happen for people to care enough to get off of Netflix.”

One thing that has served Augusta well is its variety of venues. Over the last several years, the Avett Brothers, for example, have played Stillwater Taproom, the 300-seat Sky City, the 850-seat Imperial Theatre, the Jessye Norman Riverwalk Amphitheater, the 2,500-seat Bell Auditorium and Evans’ Lady Antebellum Pavilion, which can accommodate up to around 7,000 people. It was the perfect progression for a band that has risen from cult favorite to massive commercial success in the last decade.

“That’s a great example of how a band’s popularity has grown in the market,” Bird said. “That’s the progression of the artist that you want to see.”

Add to that a 7,800-seat James Brown Arena, and Augusta can accommodate almost any kind of act. Ironically, the city’s biggest venue is also what’s holding Augusta back.

“It’s not inviting, it’s not colorful,” Bird said. “And I’m proud of Augusta for buying tickets, for showing up, for coming out even though the arena looks like the arena…We have to be honest with ourselves that there’s only so much you can do in a 40-plus year-old venue.”

Even though a maximized James Brown Arena has around 7,800 seats, in reality, a large stage cuts out 2,000 of those seats, Richmond County Coliseum Authority vice chairman Brad Usry told the Metro Spirit in 2016. Many major artists looking to play 10,000-seat arenas simply aren’t going to make a stop in Augusta.

“We don’t have suites,” Bird said. “We’re not new and shiny. We are a little smaller on the arena side than what it takes to get some of these A-level artists. The James Brown Arena can’t be renovated to current industry standards.  It’s cost-prohibitive and unproductive.  It’d be like putting a new motor and paint job into your vehicle from the 70s; it would get you down the road, but the transmission, tires and mechanical equipment would not be able to keep up with today’s shows.”

As discussions about the potential locations of a new arena have gained steam over the last year, both Bird and Balk have been encouraged by a community becoming increasingly educated about a modern arena’s role in a growing city. Bird said the $600,000 that the arena loses every year is a small price to pay for the tens of millions of dollars it’s generating for the economy at hotels, restaurants, bars and gas stations.

“I think most people do not understand the civic center in Augusta was never built to make a profit,” Balk said. “It was built to bring people to downtown Augusta.”

Since Spectra took over management of the arena, the venue has cut it’s annual deficit in half, from about $1.2 million to $600,000. Not only would an arena with premium seating be much more likely to break even or even be profitable, but it would significantly improve the experience of locals and those visiting Augusta for shows.

The lack of infrastructure around the Regency Mall site, the other possible location for a new arena, is Coliseum Authority chairman Cedric Johnson’s primary reason for skepticism about that site being a viable location for a dynamic entertainment experience.

“Downtown is growing, it’s booming,” Johnson said. “Downtown on a Wednesday at 6 o’clock, it’s hard to find a parking place. We do feel like we have had an economic impact on downtown…Right now, (the Regency Mall site) just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support what downtown has.”

Fifty-seven percent of Augustans who voted on the issue in May voted to locate the arena downtown, a decision that Mayor Hardie Davis and the Augusta Commission unanimously agreed should be a priority in choosing a location. After the vote, Davis questioned its conclusiveness by pointing out that the majority of democratic voters voted for an arena at the Regency Mall site.

Usry said in an interview last fall that if there’s anyone who should be choosing what kind of arena should be built, its the city’s young people.

“This arena needs to be built for 18, 25, 30-year-olds,” Usry said. “That’s who it’s going to be for, and they love downtowns. Malls aren’t sexy anymore to Millennials.”

Johnson said the authority will hopefully decide whether to locate the arena downtown or at the former Regency Mall with a vote on July 24. For better or worse, the final decision will shape the future of entertainment in Augusta for years to come.

Bird said that ultimately, he wants to make people’s experiences as friendly and comfortable as possible when they go out in Augusta. Claussen said that same approach is what keeps artists coming back. When Hurricane Matthew hit the east coast in October of 2016, folk band The Wood Brothers had to cancel a show in Wilmington, NC, at the last minute. A day later, the band was playing an impromptu show at Southbound Smokehouse on Central Avenue. Claussen put it simply: in a cutthroat music business, relationships are the only thing you have to go by.

“When they come to these secondary and tertiary market towns, they remember it because they know that you genuinely care, and they know you’re excited that they’re here,” Claussen said. “It’s making them feel special. I think that’s what Augusta does.”

Contact Witt Wells at (901) 319-8877 or at witt.wells@buzzon.biz.

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