James Brown Arena won’t look much different from the outside this week, but Augusta’s largest entertainment venue is undergoing a full overhaul inside as it transitions from an ice hockey venue into the home of the Augusta Futurity.
The tedious but fast-paced process began Saturday night immediately after the Augusta RiverHawks minor league hockey team wrapped up its home game. Arena staff disassembled the boards and glass surrounding the hockey rink and made preparations to protect the ice, which will remain intact and frozen throughout the Futurity’s weeklong stay.
Eleven miles of underground pipe flowing with brine will keep the ice in its solid state even with hundreds of cattle thundering above.
“We have to do a lot of preventative work to make sure to protect the ice,” said Josh Small, the arena’s director of event services. “It’s pretty time consuming.”
The staff spent the weekend putting down the usual plywood that covers the ice when the arena prepares for concerts and other shows. Special plastic sheeting was also used this year to help keep the dirt out. Small said the staff melted down the ice during the Futurity last year because of a monster truck event that followed, but that wasn’t necessary this year.
More than 1,000 cubic yards of clay and sand were brought in and will eventually cover the ice to a depth of up to 12 inches.
“We lay it down at one ramp, all the way through the building and then up the other ramp,” said Charlie Wilson, of W.H. Reeves & Co. “We cover everything.”
Before the dirt could be trucked into the arena, members of the Futurity staff constructed a wooden wall that circles the edges of the arena floor. Nearly 8 feet tall, the wall serves two important purposes.
“It keeps the dirt from going into the bleachers and pullout seats, and it also keeps the animals in,” Futurity operations manager Sherry Fulmer said.
The wall was completed by Tuesday afternoon, which allowed Wilson and a large crew from W.H. Reeves to begin hauling in clay by the truckload early Wednesday morning. The first goal was to prepare the arena for Saturday night’s USC Aiken Benefit Bull Riding Championship. The process included covering a portion of the arena’s back parking lot with bark for the cattle, but the final step of the arena’s transition will have to wait.
“We have three to four inches of sand we have to put down, but we can’t do that till after the bull riding,” Wilson said.
“That means we’ll be here all night Saturday night doing that.”
The sand is required for the cutting events later in the week but is too soft for the bulls. The W.H. Reeves crew must finish the arena’s transformation in time for the Futurity’s first event, the Open Jackpot at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Hundreds of riders and their horses will compete in the Futurity through Jan. 28.
Immediately after the final competition, the same crews that helped change the arena from ice to dirt will undo it all under more time constraints as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey move in.
“The circus literally comes to town that next Wednesday,” Wilson said. “So the bark and dirt come in now, and it’ll go out then. All the dirt has to be out by Saturday night. It’s a lot easier to put it in than it is to take it out.”
Four days of the circus will give way to a Christian music concert at the arena before it transitions back into an ice venue in time for the RiverHawks’ next home game Feb. 10.