For years, music lovers Dani Haggard and Beth Lucas, of Barnwell, S.C., have traveled to Columbia, Greenville, Florence and Savannah for concerts.
Last weekend, the friends were able to stay close to home for the Loretta Lynn concert at Bell Auditorium.
Haggard, who is country music singer Merle Haggard's granddaughter, is excited that more entertainment acts have been coming to Augusta in recent years, especially as gas prices have skyrocketed.
"I was very excited about Loretta Lynn. I love Loretta. We'll be seeing Merle in August when he comes to Bell Auditorium," Haggard said.
"They're getting a lot better groups into Augusta," Lucas said.
In the three years since Global Spectrum was hired by the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority to manage James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium, Augusta's entertainment industry has evolved, offering bigger acts for residents.
Augustans have had their pick of country music and urban artists, such as Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Anthony Hamilton and R. Kelly, along with family shows and Broadway plays.
Before 2008, Gail Shafer, of Appling, said she always had to travel out of town for concerts. She since has seen Lady Antebellum and the Broadway musical Mamma Mia! in Augusta.
"I think it's improving. The bigger acts are coming. We have tickets for the upcoming concerts. The plays are wonderful here. Mamma Mia! was outstanding. You used to couldn't fill up the arena," Shafer said.
It's safer and cheaper for residents to stay in Augusta for shows, she said.
"I think if word gets out that people are coming here, Augusta will be a place that they'll add to their concerts," said her sister, Gloria Shell, of Hephzibah.
Global Spectrum, a Philadelphia-based management company, didn't expect to do so well so quickly, said Monty Jones, the general manager of the Augusta Entertainment Complex.
From August 2008 through June 2009, 386,077 tickets to 85 events were sold; from July 1, 2009, through the following June, 323,678 tickets to 142 events were sold. Since July 1, 2010, 276,605 tickets to 105 events have been sold. During this time, Global Spectrum has sold out more than a dozen shows.
In 2007, the last year the former authority board managed the venues, only 207,700 tickets were sold, including those to Augusta Lynx hockey and Augusta Colts indoor football games.
"We felt that this market would have been roughly a three-year project to get some of the shows that we've gotten. But it was a tremendous turnaround after the first year. From there, we just kept on moving. Things are only getting better as we go forward," Jones said. "One of our first concerts that we brought here was a rock show. Rock hadn't been here in eight to 10 years. It was close to being sold out, and that kind of started the buzz."
SINCE THEN, there have been other firsts in Augusta, including Cirque du Soleil and Earth, Wind & Fire. Ticket sales for the Harlem Globetrotters have topped each previous year, with Augusta becoming one of four cities to increase gross sales on the team's nationwide tour.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had its highest attendance ever in Augusta, and the market had its highest gross sales for WWE tickets in 2009, Jones said.
He attributes the success to support from the community and Global Spectrum's emphasis on marketing.
Katie Wells, the marketing director for the Augusta Entertainment Complex, said Global Spectrum's backing and reputation have also been beneficial. The company manages more than 90 venues throughout the U.S. and Canada and has started to branch out internationally. Its staff focuses on customer service to give promoters a good experience, she said.
"Promoters come in, they bring one show, they have a great experience and then they'll turn around and bring another one. A lot of these larger concerts, it's the same promoter that brings them in," Wells said.
ADAM TROY EPSTEIN, the president of Chicago-based Theatre Council Productions, has been promoting shows in Augusta since 2002, when his company started the Broadway in Augusta series. He said he almost pulled out of the market several times. In 2005, he took a year off because the venues had been through three changes in managers. His complaints ranged from the box office hours to how tickets were sold, he said.
"During the early 2000s, you couldn't call the box office and order tickets," Epstein said. "You could buy them in person or go to a Ticketmaster outlet. There was an enormous service charge on them, and it was a voice-activated phone system. It was complicated for the most technologically adept person. So nobody was buying tickets."
Now that Global Spectrum is managing the facilities, he has found success, he said.
"From 2002 to 2008, it was a challenge. We were running in the red. It was very difficult to budget and predict how things were going to do. People didn't enjoy going to the Bell," Epstein said. "There was a lot of public conflict with the Coliseum Authority, and it was well-documented that there was a tremendous amount of conflict and anguish about the auditorium and arena. As a result, we think that those negative feelings reflected on what people thought about facilities themselves. Our shows struggled quite a bit. We had some successes, but we had a lot of failure."
Even if the same show was playing in Augusta, people would travel to Columbia, he said.
His company lobbied for Global Spectrum to come to Augusta because it understood Global's management style and work ethic, Epstein said.
In his first year of working with Global Spectrum, Epstein brought in Mamma Mia! for a weeklong run with eight shows. It drew a crowd of 10,000, he said.
"Our series has become more successful every year. The number of season ticket holders that we have has gone up," Epstein said. "We had 1,200 season ticket holders last year, up from 750 the year before that. That's a pretty dramatic upswing."
This past Broadway season, Blue Man Group and The Color Purple broke records. Epstein added a second performance for each show. Both Blue Man Group shows sold out, and The Color Purple sold out its first show and almost the second one, he said.
"Five years ago, we would have never done that in Augusta," he said. "It's not because the theaters changed; it's not because the shows have changed. It's because people have faith that when they walk in the door, they're going to get something of quality. That's something that Global had a lot to do with."
The overall goal is for Augusta to become an entertainment destination, Wells said.
"More and more, I feel that people aren't having to drive to Columbia or Atlanta. We are bringing acts in, but it's because of the support of the community that we're able to do that," Wells said.