Augusta venues back in business

When Global Spectrum took over management of the James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium in August 2008, the company expected two years would pass before things started to turn around at the troubled venues. A little more than a year later, the company considers the Augusta operation one of its great success stories.

Since the takeover, 386,077 tickets to 85 separate events at the facilities have been sold. In the year before Global Spectrum's installation, 207,700 tickets were sold. That number includes tickets for both the Augusta Lynx hockey team and Augusta Colts arena football team, two tenants that ceased operation in 2008.

The management team also succeeded in bringing the first rock shows in nearly 10 years to the arena, cut budgeted expenditures by $200,000 and put Augusta back on the booking map. General Manager Monty Jones said it's only the beginning.

"This last year was about establishing a baseline and relationships," he said. "We had to reach out to promoters, promoters that hadn't come to Augusta in years. We had to prove that shows could do well."

In November 2008, popular rock act Avenged Sevenfold headlined a concert at the James Brown Arena. It sold 5,233 of 6,300 available seats. Two months later, the band headlined a concert at Jobing.com Arena outside Phoenix, selling out the 19,000-seat venue. Mr. Jones said that Augusta can't expect to keep up with large, A-list markets such as Phoenix, but it can be considered successful because acts with that kind of pull are now considering Augusta a viable tour stop.

Other booking success stories include Steve Harvey, who sold 5,029 seats at the James Brown Arena; the touring production of Mamma Mia , which sold 11,000 tickets over the course of eight performances; and Anthony Hamilton, who sold out the Bell Auditorium in June.

"That's one of the things we can do," Mr. Jones said. "We can get those acts. We can utilize those connections we have through Global Spectrum. How it works is if an act is booked in, say, Columbia, they can directly pitch the buildings here."

Kayla Ott, director of marketing at the Augusta Entertainment Complex, said it's the way the recent Lynyrd Skynyrd show was secured.

Mr. Jones said the challenges have included calming nervous promoters put off by Augusta's well earned reputation as a last-minute ticket-buying town and trying to fill the extra nights suddenly available when the Augusta Lynx hockey team folded.

"Initially, even our corporate offices weren't expecting us to do as well as we did," he said. "We have made a tremendous turn, even with losing the hockey and arena football."

THE AUGUSTA ENTERTAINMENT COMPLEX model has proved successful enough that Global Spectrum used it as a case study for similar venues in Stockton, Calif., and outside Chicago. Mr. Jones said the challenge now is capitalizing on established momentum and making smart booking decisions.

"It's important to remember that we are stewards of the public's money," he said. "And we were brought in to increase revenue and ticket sales. We're projecting more shows in the coming year, and more shows can mean more revenue. But it also means more expense."

One roadblock could be a proposal to route $600,000 in beer tax revenue away from the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority in an effort to ease the city's financial burdens.

"Obviously, we hope that doesn't happen," Mr. Jones said. "But if it does we'll just have to get creative in how we do things. We'll readjust, and we'll move forward."

No one is disputing that Global Spectrum has done a fine job. But how much of a reward Global is owed for its first-year performance has become a point of contention between the company and the new Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority.

Global's contract, entered into with the old board that was ousted by an act of the state Legislature last summer, called for an end-of-the-year bonus, termed a "benchmark calculation," based on increased revenues.

Mr. Jones says that by Global's math, the incentive pay should be about $90,000. But coliseum authority accountant J.T. Cosnahan puts the figure at $26,427.

The gap is significant because it's the difference between a 24 percent and an 82 percent boost in Global's Augusta earnings last year. The company earned $110,000 in management fees during the 11 months it managed the two venues in fiscal year 2008-09. (Last year, it earned $10,000 per month, and the fee has since been raised to $11,000 per month.)

Both sides say different interpretations of a contract could have been worded more clearly.

"It's not really specific on how to really do it," authority Chairman Cedric Johnson said.

Both sides also say they're confident the disagreement will be worked out amicably.

Global's representatives and authority members have so far been unable to reach an accord despite exhaustive meetings and pages of calculations. Finance Committee Chairman David Hogg said the goal is to not only agree on a figure but also to establish a concrete formula for determining it in years to come.

THE DISPUTE REPRESENTS another example of how Global Spectrum's turnaround of the entertainment complex has been difficult to measure in numbers.

Bookkeeping under past management left much to be desired, so revenue comparisons have been hard to come by.

Global has made money through different means, too. While the complex operation once relied on income generated by two sports teams, it's now thriving mostly on concerts and other stage shows.

What's more, Global hasn't yet been in place for a full fiscal year, and it has worked under both the old and current boards.

Former authority Chairman Richard Isdell said that after the Lynx and the Colts left, he spoke to Regional Vice President Doug Higgons about altering the benchmark formula.

"We said back then, yes, that we were willing to change the numbers, because it wasn't Global's fault," Mr. Isdell said.

He said he feels terrible that there's a dispute. As his board was being summarily booted, he said, there just wasn't time to tie up all the loose ends.

"That building was in horrible shape, and they turned it around, and they've put in a tremendous amount of effort," Mr. Isdell said. "If there's even the slightest benefit of the doubt, then they ought to give them the benefit of the doubt. They ought to make sure Global is as happy with us as we are with them."

Mr. Jones said altering the formula did come up in a meeting with the old authority, but that's not what's at issue now. Under the terms of the contract as it was originally written, he said, Global would be due $90,000 because it's raised gross revenues.

ACCORDING TO BOTH Mr. Jones and Mr. Cosnahan, the benchmark calculation involves comparing fiscal year 2008-09 revenues to the average of the annual revenues of the two prior fiscal years.

But Mr. Cosnahan said that under the contract it's to be done using net concessions revenues, the commission from concessions sales that goes to the coliseum authority. He said those totals from the past three years are $259,000, $142,000 and $195,000, meaning Global's first-year figure doesn't match the figure two years before when the Colts and the Lynx were going strong. Concessions were handled by Centerplate until its contract expired in early 2008. They're now under Ovations Food Services, which like Global Spectrum, is a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Comcast Spectacor.

Mr. Jones contends that the benchmark is supposed to be calculated with overall gross revenues, factoring in the management fee as well. He said the problem is that the Finance Committee hasn't had all the information it needs to work through the formula, and now that he's submitted more documentation to the authority he hopes the disagreement will be resolved at the next meeting.

In the meantime, Mr. Cosnahan said, an independent audit required under bond stipulations is being held up because he can't yet plug in Global's bonus.

Reach Steven Uhles or Johnny Edwards at (706) 724-0851.