Augusta's Jessye Norman Amphitheater once popular, now barely used



Former president Bill Clinton, guitarist Peter Frampton, rock band Widespread Panic, Easter sunrise services and a free movie series once drew visitors to the Jessye Norman Amphitheater at Riverwalk Augusta.

Today, many local musicians can’t remember the last time they played the amphitheater or organized a concert at the 1,800-seat venue on the Savannah River. The seldom-used outdoor venue needs to be rediscovered, they say.

“It’s a tremendous waste of what should be a beautiful venue,” said local musician Ed Turner.

Turner remembers a host of events during the early years of the $3.3 million amphitheater, which opened in 1990. Frampton’s concert drew a crowd that nearly filled the venue.

Karen Gordon, of Garden City Jazz, said she hears frequent talk from Augusta’s music community about the need to take better advantage of the venue that fell into disuse.

“There is room for more. It takes a concerted effort among private enterprises and with the city,” Gordon said.

From 2006 to 2012, the venue was booked on average 14 times a year, according to statistics provided by the city’s special events manager Yolanda Greenwood.

So far in 2013, nine events have booked the amphitheater.

Numbers prior to 2006 were unavailable because the events manager position has changed hands and records could not be located.

“It’s used more now for weddings and some concerts but not as many as compared to when it opened,” said Greenwood, who books events at the amphitheater, Augusta Common and the riverwalk bulkheads and plazas.

The amphitheater lost steam because of competing venues, design flaws and lack of adequate parking, Greenwood said.

The Augusta Common opened in 2002, attracting annual events once held at the amphitheater such as the opening and closing ceremonies for Arts in the Heart. It also plays host for July Fourth and St. Patrick’s Day festivals as well as several concerts.

The common is often preferred over the amphitheater because it’s on flat ground and better suited for all ages compared to the steep steps at the river venue that also pose accessibility issues, Greenwood said.

The amphitheater also lacked adequate parking before a new city parking deck opened on Reynolds Street. A nearby, gravel lot that was previously used for special events was overtaken for construction staging for the expansion of the Augusta Convention Center and employee parking for the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center, Greenwood said.

Then, there’s the weather that groups must gamble on at an outdoor venue. Turner booked the amphitheater for a benefit concert in May but canceled because of cold, rainy weather.

“If the weather is right, I can’t imagine a nicer venue to see a band,” he said.

Gordon said it’s difficult filling the amphitheater for local music concerts. She prefers the small stage at the Eighth Street bulkhead for the summer Candlelight Jazz Series because it’s a more intimate setting.

Promoting the venue to music groups outside of Augusta that would appeal to a larger crowd is one idea to better use the amphitheater, Gordon said.

Augusta businessman Brad Usry, owner of Fat Man’s Mill Cafe, has proposed to city leaders that a private company such as his manage events at the amphitheater. The venue could be used more frequently if one group focused on promoting events, he said.

Usry wants to see some capital improvements, including lighting and sound upgrades.

The amphitheater, named for internationally known opera singer and Augusta native Jessye Norman in 1996, rents for $800 for a ticketed concert, $700 for a miscellaneous event or fundraiser, $400 to $500 for a church service or school group and $300 for a wedding. There are additional fees for maintenance, the city superintendent, electricians and public safety.

Ashley Solesbee attends riverwalk fundraiser for Wesley Spires
View photos of Riverwalk Augusta, including the construction phase
View the 1982 master plan for the riverwalk