Civic center still struggling to compete

If it seems like a lot of fun and exciting events have been staged at the USC-Aiken Convocation Center lately, you're right.

If you suspect a lot of it has to do with the facility being new, you're probably right about that, too.

But Augusta officials can't leave any stone unturned in determining whether the Aiken facility, and those in other cities in the two-state area, are simply outperforming Augusta's James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium.

If so, price may be one reason: Our sources indicate a Golden Harvest Food Bank fund-raising concert Oct. 9 featuring The Charlie Daniels Band could have been slated for the Bell in Augusta - but the much older facility's price tag was $6,000 higher than that of the brand new convocation center in Aiken.

A new facility - for $6,000 less. What would you do?

You also have to wonder if the Aiken center's well-connected management company, Global Spectrum, is responsible for a lot of the traffic over there, which has included a concert by Kenny Rogers.

In addition, we've compared Web sites for seven entertainment complexes in Georgia and South Carolina - Columbus, Gwinnett, Macon, Aiken, Columbia, Greenville and Augusta - and there's no getting around the fact that Augusta's is just plain ugly (www.augustaciviccenter.com).

It's not just ugly; it's not terribly functional, either. Ticket buying is not at all a prominent feature on the site; and the two small links on the site inviting people to buy tickets through Ticketmaster didn't work when we tried them.

One other glaring omission on the Web site: James Brown. They've named the arena after him, yet Brown's image is nowhere to be found. Not even the name "James Brown Arena" is in evidence; it's still called the civic center on the Web site.

We asked one of our in-house Web site professionals to rank the seven Web sites for appearance, navigability and content. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best, Columbia's Colonial Center got a 9, as did Greenville's Bi-Lo Center and the USC-Aiken Convocation Center. Macon and Columbus received an 8. Gwinnett got a 6.

Augusta's got a 1.

Why "1" as opposed to "0"?

"Because it's up and running. It's there," the expert said.

Talk about damning with faint praise.

You just can't compete like that in this day and age.

Moreover, the suffocating government bureaucracy of the Augusta Richmond County Civic Center is a poor model for today's dynamic entertainment complex management. Indeed, only recently did the Coliseum Authority give civic center manager Robert "Flash" Gordon express authority to book acts without board approval.

It was only in May that the board voted to begin expending money on promotion of concerts and other events. And even then, they only appropriated $125,000.

And just this June, the board decided to advertise the civic center on television.

For his part, Gordon disputes the reported price differential between the Bell and USC-Aiken center for the Golden Harvest benefit. "That's hard to believe," he said. "We gave them a sweetheart deal. (Price) is not the reason. We will do our best. We're promoter-friendly."

As for the Web site, Gordon was eager to compare his to the other six we cited. And he said a new logo and Web site could be expected in the weeks to come.

In fairness to Gordon, he hasn't been on the job all that long. And he inherited a pretty doggone under-performing facility.

But you have to wonder: Why isn't the facility and the oversight authority more in tune with the competition? Shouldn't they have a good idea already what the competition's Web sites look and feel like? And how poorly theirs stacks up?

And why in heaven would you turn on the lights for such a facility and not give the management wide latitude to book events until now?

We realize Gordon's new powers, and the board's newfound interest in marketing, haven't yet had time to bear fruit. And we support these efforts, as well as Gordon.

But the vast disparity in the Web sites, and the Aiken facility's early successes, make it clear Augusta still isn't competitive in the industry.

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