Sometimes when you need to make a change the best thing you can do is look for answers somewhere else, and when it comes to Augusta’s underused Riverwalk amphitheater, just about everyone agrees the city needs answers. Luckily, there are plenty of people willing to give advice.
The 1,800-seat Jessye Norman Amphitheatre at Riverwalk Augusta opened in 1990 as part of Phase IV of the Riverwalk project, and it quickly became a cornerstone of the new Augusta riverfront, hosting big name concerts and bringing people and attention the banks of the Savannah River. As other venues opened up — the Augusta Common opened in 2002 and most recently the Lady Antebellum Amphitheatre joined the smaller library amphitheater in Columbia County — musicians and promoters seemed to lose interest in the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre.
Last year, local restaurateur and promoter Brad Usry asked the city to consider outside management of the venue.
“Some private entity should take it and run with it for at least a year,” Usry told the Metro Spirit. “Somebody that has the knowledge of the business and has a vested interest in the downtown.”
A member of the Coliseum Authority, Usry has seen first hand how outside promoters have found success where city employees have failed. Global Spectrum’s management of the James Brown Arena and the Bell Auditorium has been a success by all accounts.
At the time, even Administrator Fred Russell saw value in the idea.
“Obviously, if we had somebody that was specifically marketing that venue, you might get more use out of it than doing it the way we do,” he said at the time.
And with many people, that’s the rub. The city has this beautiful venue with this magnificent river view, and it’s not really doing anything to fill it up.
“We don’t really promote it,” Robert Levine told commissioners when Usry raised the issue a year ago. “It’s just kind of word of mouth.”
That strategy has resulted in an average of less than 20 bookings a year.
“It’s a great place,” Usry says today. Despite the elapsed time and the continued inaction, he still wants a chance at running the venue. He admits nothing much has changed in the last year, but he’s ready to give it a serious look should the city decide that bringing in an outside promoter is a good idea.
“I’ve had a lot of successes and a couple of boo boos,” he says. “But for the most part, it’s been very successful.”
The increased attention directed toward the amphitheater and the Riverwalk has resulted in a bit more interest in the venue, he says.
“It’s getting used a little bit more, which tickles me,” he says. “There’s a concert coming up this Saturday that we’re a part of — it’s the after party of the beerfest. There is some positive action, and that’s a good thing.”
On October 23, the amphitheater will play host to the Riverwalk Revival, a Friends with Benefits concert.
Someone who knows how to turn a riverfront amphitheater around is Rebecca Harris. She’s the special events coordinator for Phenix City, Alabama, which is right across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia. She books a 20-year-old, 3,000 seat riverfront amphitheater anywhere between 30 and 40 times a year.
“Occasionally, we have an outside agency that will book the amphitheater and they pay to rent it and then they book it, but most of the time we do it,” she says.
Brought in as a music consultant for a civic anniversary, Harris assumed the role of special events coordinator 11 years ago, bringing with her years of experience in the music industry.
“Before I came they weren’t really doing anything there very much,” she says. “I think part of it is having someone there that knows how to book shows. I’ve been around show business all my life, so being a performer and also being in the booking business, I knew how to do it.”
That knowledge directed her into developing a website that lists the venue’s policies and important information, which is an important first step when people are considering a venue for anything.
Built on a Riverwalk park similar to Augusta’s, the amphitheater suffers from nearly identical problems to the ones Usry and other promoters deal with here: poor access for band equipment, inadequate restrooms, accessibility issues for those with disabilities.
“It’s difficult for traveling groups,” she admits. “We have a concrete service driveway that goes down to the stage, but it’s curved so much that the big trucks can’t get down into it, so what we have to do is have them park at the top in the parking lot and then we have to get the city trucks and put their stuff in it and take the city trucks down to the stage. So it has its challenges.”
No dressing rooms means the brides have to get ready at a nearby hotel, and of course bathrooms are always a problem.
And, like Augusta, there is the perception of poor safety along the river.
“I think every city that has a Riverwalk confronts the problem of people thinking it’s not safe,” she says. “So when we do a concert, we will have police officers in full force. We seldom have anything happen on the Riverwalk, but people are afraid that something’s going to happen, so they’re afraid to come down.”
Her answer to the safety issue was simple: use the venue to bring more people to the Riverwalk and let the foot traffic tip the scales of perception. Even if it’s just a perception, there is safety in numbers.
The real challenge was getting people to use book the amphitheater, and she started that by looking to the community to create a series of free concerts.
“If you can pinpoint the music societies or even music schools that want to do recitals and things like that, it’s good,” she says. “I think consistency is really important, starting doing something every Friday down there so people would think, ‘Hey — let’s go down to the Riverwalk and see what’s going on.’”
That strategy was employed by Stacey Atkins, events manager in Columbia County. To get people familiar with the county’s newest venue, the Exhibition Center in Grovetown. She booked the Columbia County Amateur Series there.
“That’s exactly what that was for,” she says. “Before, that event was actually held outside at the library amphitheater and when that facility opened up it was moved out there for that reason.”
And she’s not stopping there.
“I’m moving my charity gala there for that same reason, so we can show people that we can have upscale, black tie functions that that place.”
And before the Columbia County Amateur Series there was Blues, Brews and BBQ, a county-sponsored event that has been bringing people to the library amphitheater for two or three consecutive weekends for the last eight or nine years.
It was the same thing when the county opened Evans Towne Center Park. Several county sponsored events got people used to the venue and allowed the county to work out some of the kinks before having to answer to other people.
“We don’t do as many as we did that first year because other people are doing them for us,” Atkins says. “And that’s a good thing.”
Unlike Harris in Phenix City, who says she has an advertising budget of $10,000 a year, Columbia County’s budget is split up by events, so it’s not as easy to track per-venue, but Atkins says much of success enjoyed by county rental facilities comes from referrals, though Evans Towne Center Park does have its own website and they do get additional marketing through campaigns run by the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Sometimes, Savannah Rapids may advertise for weddings and all kinds of stuff in publications we would never think about advertising in,” she says. “And if those people call Savannah Rapids and what they have out there doesn’t quite fit the client’s needs, they’ll refer them over to me.”
Another thing that works to Columbia County’s advantage is the fact that most of their facilities are new.
In Phenix City, Columbus State University sits directly across the river, and sometimes the school uses the grassy bank for concerts of its own, which only rarely cause competition.
“We try to plan things to our advantage because the sound bleeds over and we’ll have meetings with Uptown Columbus and try to promote all our stuff at the same time,” Harris says. “We don’t want to compete with each other, we want to work together.”
Occasionally, however, problems arise, like the time Columbus had a concert and the amphitheater hosted a graduation. In the overlap, people at the graduation couldn’t hear the speaker, so Harris had to cross the river and ask the band if they could take a 15-minute break so they could finish the graduation.
Harris says that the amphitheater brings in some money for the city, and while that’s good, it’s not really the point.
“We’re not as concerned about that as we are about giving quality entertainment to the families so they can afford to come,” she says. “Most of our shows are $10 a ticket. We want the whole family to be able to come and we try to make it very user friendly so that when the acts come, they get to spend time with the kids and with the adults. We really emphasize that we want them to spend time with the kids.”
Usry, who remembers fondly the time he stumbled into bringing Widespread Panic to the amphitheater — and not only sold out the venue, but had to go back to the warehouse for more beer — says he’s eager to try to help bring it back to what those people who attended the Widespread Panic concert remember.
“It’s such a cool venue,” he says. “It’s still something that can be a great asset for the city, we’ve just got to keep pushing to make it happen.”