Complex not seen as threat

With 5,000 seats, the arena inside Paine College's planned Health Education Activities Learning Complex would become the area's second-largest venue.

It is scheduled for $2.5 million in special purpose local option sales tax money if the tax package passes in June that also includes $5.1 million toward restoring the Miller Theatre, which will have an estimated 1,500 seats.

When Augusta Commission was putting the sales tax list together this year, it did not discuss whether the city's entertainment scene could justify that many more seats or whether a new indoor arena could draw acts away from James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium. The projected size of the learning complex arena wasn't well-known until Brandon Brown, Paine College's vice president of institutional development, disclosed it to The Augusta Chronicle this month.

"We're certainly not building it with competing in mind," Mr. Brown said last week. "When there are needs for a large capacity, we want to make sure we have a venue that can accommodate it."

James Brown Arena has a capacity of about 8,000, and Bell Auditorium seats about 2,700. They are overseen Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority, which would lose millions each year if it didn't receive about $2.3 million in hotel/motel and beer taxes. (The figure is expected to be reduced after the authority finishes paying off a bond in 2010.)

Last year, the authority hired Global Spectrum for $10,000 a month to manage the two facilities, and the company has been working to bring in national acts that have eluded Augusta.

So far, Global Spectrum has managed to increase revenues despite the loss of the Augusta Lynx hockey team, and it hasn't had to worry about competition from the 4,100-seat University of South Carolina Aiken Convocation Center because the company manages it, too.

Monty Jones, the Augusta civic center complex general manager for Global Spectrum, said that unless Paine's new complex is professionally managed, he doesn't see it as a threat.

Mr. Brown said that it will be managed internally and that Paine won't make any push to book acts. The arena could be used for concerts, graduations, banquets, conferences and athletic events, possibly accommodating basketball games now played in its Carter Gym.

If some national act approached the college and wanted to put on a show there, however, Paine wouldn't turn it away, Mr. Brown said. Because it is a faith-based college, the performance would have to be wholesome to some extent, meaning there probably wouldn't be any raunchy rock or rap concerts there.

He said there probably would be some expectation that a percentage of ticket sales be donated to the college.

"I don't think it will have a major impact on us," said Mr. Jones, of Global Spectrum. "I seems it would be more of a competition for the TEE Center than for us."

Gary Bongiovanni, the editor-in-chief of Pollstar , a concert industry trade publication, said college venues usually don't work for touring shows because they tend to be booked up.

"The 8,000 seats is still going to be the driving factor," Mr. Bongiovanni said.

Construction of the $20 million complex is expected to start this fall and take about 18 months to complete. It will go up beside Carter Gym at Mulherin Street and Druid Park Avenue, built over what's now tennis courts and the dean of students' home.

Under rules passed by the commission in February, outside agencies on the sales tax list can't get funds until they raise 25 percent of their allotments and the fundraising can't start until after the package passes. Paine, then, has to raise $625,000.

The Health Education Activities Learning Complex's architectural design includes an 8,200-square-foot multipurpose room, a weight room, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a walking track, in addition to classrooms, teaching labs and a lecture hall.

Paine officials have been touting it as benefiting the greater community, not just students and faculty. Mr. Brown has said the center will have trainers on staff and serve as a wellness center for elderly residents. The college also plans to hold public seminars on childhood obesity and childhood diabetes there.

City Administrator Fred Russell said the complex's educational aspects and the potential for stimulating development near Paine and the Medical College of Georgia were what moved him to include it in the sales tax package. If Paine believes it needs an arena that large, he said, he trusts their numbers.

"I like the total project. That's why it got funded," Mr. Russell said. Augusta Commissioner Joe Bowles said if it had been up to him, neither the complex nor the Miller Theatre would have been in the tax package.

"I think we've got more infrastructure needs than theatrical needs," he said. "But I think they're both viable projects, in the long run."

Carter Gym has about 1,200 seats. Mr. Bowles said that although he questions the need for 5,000, that's the college's prerogative.

"If they want to play basketball in a quarter-filled gym, more power to them," Mr. Bowles said. "Time will tell, I suppose."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

AUGUSTA AREA'S BIGGEST VENUES

VenueSeats
James Brown Arena8,000
Paine College's HEAL Complex (planned)5,000
USC Aiken Convocation Center4,100
ASU's Christenberry Fieldhouse2,800
Bell Auditorium2,700
Jessye Norman Amphitheater1,700
Miller Theatre (planned)1,500
ASU's D. Douglas Barnard Jr. Amphitheatre1,000

Capacities are approximate. Seat numbers vary depending on event formats and floor seating.

Sources: Kayla Ott, Global Spectrum Augusta civic center complex's marketing director; Brandon Brown, Paine College's vice president of institutional development; Kathy Schofe, Augusta State University's public relations director; Peter Knox IV