As several annual events leave Augusta for its suburban neighbor, Commissioner Joe Jackson worries about what’s left in the dust.
The city loses sales tax revenue, hotel fees and restaurant business while Columbia County counts its gains, Jackson said.
“We’re losing out all around,” he said.
Organizers of the popular Masters Week concert Rock Fore! Dough announced in February that the event would leave First Tee of Augusta, its home for eight years, for Lady Antebellum Pavilion in Evans Towne Center Park.
Columbia County has also picked up Thunder Over Augusta, a military tribute event originally held in downtown Augusta, and Banjo-B-Que, which relocated from North Augusta. Promoters of Christmas Made in the South, a trade show held at James Brown Arena for more than two decades, are also looking at a move to Columbia County in 2014.
Other Augusta leaders said they aren’t concerned about losing out. Single-day events aren’t big economic drivers, they say, and Augusta piggybacks on nearby events.
“Things that benefit Augusta also benefit Columbia County, and vice versa.” Mayor Deke Copenhaver said. “I don’t think we could be doing anything differently.”
He said the city isn’t hurt by location changes as long as events stay in the metro area. Economic development must be viewed regionally, he said.
Barry White, the president and CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the economic impact to Augusta-Richmond County is negligible. Facilities lose revenue but people still eat at Augusta restaurants and stay in its hotels, White said.
“People don’t pay attention to county lines or state lines,” he said.
The bureau does not conduct an economic analysis on Rock Fore! Dough, Christmas Made in the South or Thunder Over Augusta.
Jackson’s not convinced White and Copenhaver are right. He says Augusta needs to focus on building a reputation for hosting tourism events.
“Augusta can do a lot more to really promote – through the convention and visitors bureau and the chamber – to help bring and retain these people coming in,” he said.
Commissioner Donnie Smith said events at the new Augusta Convention Center will make up for the few events moving to Columbia County.
“Whatever we lose, we will probably make up with the opening of the TEE Center,” Smith said.
Columbia County is creating a niche for outdoor concerts but Augusta is succeeding in special sporting events such as the ESi Ironman 70.3, Copenhaver said.
Event organizers said moving to Columbia County is a business decision meant to help increase profits.
Rock Fore! Dough promoter Joe Stevenson, the owner of GlueStick Music, said Augusta lacks an outdoor music venue. He saved costs by moving to Lady Antebellum Pavilion instead of setting up a stage at First Tee of Augusta.
“I don’t think this is a mass exodus to Columbia County,” he said. “It might look that way, but great things come to James Brown Arena.”
The concert was a big draw for Columbia County residents, Stevenson said, with a large amount of tickets sold at Kroger in Evans.
Bob Hunt, the president of Carolina Shows Inc., which produces Christmas Made in the South, said moving to a new venue could help ticket sales. Attendance has steadily dropped in recent years, especially from Columbia County ticket buyers.
Parking costs have increased at James Brown Arena, and the show pays additional fees for laying a floor over the arena’s ice rink, he said. It will return to the arena this fall.
Hunt said the Augusta Convention Center offers the ideal square footage, but not enough parking spots. Columbia County’s under-construction exhibit hall at the Gateway center might be too small without adequate parking.
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said county leaders have not recruited any of the events that have left Augusta.
“We’re considerate of the value of our partnership with Augusta-Richmond County,” Cross said. “We don’t look at it as a competitive thing.”
He said the county has offered financial sponsorship for some events that a committee determines are build the community. A contribution of up to $8,000 will go toward the organizer of Masters Week activities.
Columbia County has not measured the economic impact of the Evans Town Center events. Cross said it’s likely small because the events do not attract out-of-town visitors staying in hotels.