Originally created 06/28/99

Augusta civic center draws more people



During one of several telephone calls flowing into Reggie Williams' office, a promoter asks about bringing a comedy show or modern rhythm-and-blues promotion to Augusta.

The salesman in Mr. Williams, general manager of the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center, kicks into high gear.

"We're giving the best deals in the universe here," he tells promoter Antonio Tate of Prime Time Entertainment.

He offers Mr. Tate a deal: The promoter doesn't have to pay any rent unless his show breaks even.

"That sounds like a winner," said Mr. Tate, who decided he wants to promote a modern R&B show July 31 at Augusta's Bell Auditorium, part of the civic center complex.

Nearing the end of 12 months where attendance at the historically embattled civic-center complex increased more than 70 percent, Mr. Williams is trying to build on the momentum and line up a slate of diverse, quality entertainment for the next year that will attract Augustans.

Fueled by Augusta Lynx hockey, Broadway shows, Champions on Ice and high-profile concerts like gospel hip-hop star Kirk Franklin, attendance at the civic-center complex is up 74 percent in the past year.

According to figures provided by the civic center's management firm, Houston-based Leisure Management International, attendance rose from 193,576 in 1997-98 to 337,525 in 1998-99. It is an industry standard to calculate attendance figures with fiscal years instead of calendar years.

Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority member Austin Rhodes is pleased more people came through the turnstiles than in recent years, but he feels hockey's success paints a distorted picture.

"I guarantee you, take hockey out (of the attendance figures), and it's down. Hockey is everything," he said.

When 36 hockey games -- with an average of about 5,000 people attending each game -- are taken out of the mix, total attendance for 1998-99 was 156,967.

Despite business increases created by hockey and other events in the past year, the civic-center complex has hit its typical summer meltdown.

There's not much going on aside from a Millie Jackson concert Saturday at Bell Auditorium, Georgia Games Championships events in July, Summer Jam '99, a multi-act contemporary Christian concert Aug. 6 at the civic center and Augusta native Vernon Forrest's televised boxing match Aug. 27 at Bell Auditorium.

Because they compete for disposable income people spend on vacations and outdoor activities -- and because performers typically gravitate to outdoor amphitheaters -- summer months are slow for indoor venues, said Jack Zimmer of the International Association of Assembly Managers. Augusta is no exception.

That's why officials decided to install the civic center's $1 million ice floor last summer, said authority member Billy Holden.

That ice floor is the key to increasing revenue at the center.

Mr. Williams wants to make public ice-skating -- done on an experimental basis last hockey season -- a more permanent proposition. He is studying the cost of investing in about 300 pairs of skates and installing personal lockers for skating patrons to use.

"The big issue here is the purchase of these skates. We're getting prices from different vendors and manufacturers," he said. "That's an investment we just have to make. There's no way to market ice-skating when you don't have skates."

The civic center in Florence, S.C., also run by Leisure Management, made $75,000 last year on public skating.

Paul Dangel, marketing and ales director at the Florence Civic Center, noted the investment in skates was paid for with skating revenue within six months.

Another ice-borne event -- Speedway on Ice, which essentially is a motocross event on ice -- is probably coming. "It could be November, it could be right after the holidays, or it could be on down in the latter part of February," Mr. Williams said.

And Champions on Ice, a skating exhibition featuring former Olympic stars that sold out Feb. 15, is coming back, Mr. Williams said.

There will also be 35 home Lynx games beginning with the season opener tentatively set for Oct. 14. The B.B. King Blues Festival returns Sept. 23.

In sports and entertainment, Mr. Williams said RollerJam, the 1990s update of roller derby, and the World Wrestling Federation are interested in coming -- also in November and February.

A series of touring Broadway shows at Bell Auditorium also will return. Shows holding slots are The Sound of Music, Victor/Victoria and Annie, Mr. Williams said. Other possible events include a patriotic play, Road to Victory, and a Lipizzaner Stallions horse show.

"As far as contracts go, we do not have contracts for the circus or Disney or Champions on Ice. But I know they're coming because I've talked to the people," Mr. Williams said.

While various events are penciled in, many open dates remain. Thus the financial incentive to promoters is being offered like a dangling carrot.

For instance, to keep A.C. Entertainment from canceling singer Willie Nelson's poorly attended show May 5 at Bell Auditorium, the terms were renegotiated to eliminate rent. The coliseum authority turned a profit of more than $5,000 -- even after waiving $2,500 in rent.

Rental fees at the civic-center complex are not fixed and usually are based on costs associated with putting on a show. Promoters are required to post a deposit of $1,200 at the arena and $800 at the auditorium, Mr. Williams said.

Another plan recently discussed is the civic center acting as co-promoter, which involves putting money into marketing and promoting a show, giving it a stake in the show's financial outcome.

But this plan and other ideas -- like expanding the civic center's food court and other physical improvements -- aren't likely as Mr. Williams deals with a directive from Leisure Management's corporate office and the coliseum authority to keep expenses down.

The complex is not a money-making venture and stays afloat with about $2 million annually from beer-wine and hotel-motel sales taxes.

Last fiscal year, the first full year under Leisure Management's control, the complex lost $912,000. For the current fiscal year, the deficit is projected at $658,000, and the new budget -- which the coliseum authority is expected to approve at a special meeting after the Fourth of July holiday -- calls for an operating loss of $570,889 in 1999-2000.

"My goal right now is to try and make the finances work without the name artists or what have you. If the name artists come along -- fine," Mr. Williams said. "Everybody in this business talks. They know when you make money. They know when you didn't make money. We're going to let the whole wide world know that we are interested in trying to help promoters make a profit when they come to Augusta. There are no bad shows, just bad deals."

Kent Kimes covers arts and entertainment for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3626 or feature@augustachronicle.com.