There never were plans to build a high-profile entertainment venue in Columbia County, nor did officials plan to go into the business of booking, promoting and presenting concerts.
There never were plans for government officials to learn to read riders, the difference between front and back-of-house responsibilities, or the fine art of dealing with entertainers’ egos.
None of those things were intended.
But they all happened.
A little less than a year ago, the Lady Antebellum Pavilion, known as the Lady A, opened to great fanfare when its stage was christened by the popular Nashville-based and Evans-raised country act for which it is named. An estimated 5,000 fans attended, and that set the bar high, admits Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson.
“When the park was built, it was intended to be a park with a stage,” he said. “But it has morphed into something larger. It was never going to be a big event venue. But what it has turned into, in part because of that show, has been a change.”
Buoyed by the positive response to Lady A at the Lady A, a committee of Columbia County senior staff and interested citizens gathered to plan a small series of shows at the pavilion. Johnson said the idea was to call on each member’s area of expertise and put the organizational muscle of the county government behind the venue.
“We would sit around this table and talk about the things that could happen,” he said. “But no, we didn’t have any experience. What we had was the ability to put our best and brightest together to pull together these shows.”
Still, there has been a learning curve – one, officials said, that continues to be explored.
“It was very intimidating,” said Columbia County Director of Construction and Maintenance Matt Schlachter.
Schlachter said he shadowed experienced stage managers who presented shakedown concerts at the venue in the weeks before the official opening, but by the time Lady Antebellum rolled into town, all eyes were on him.
“It was all Matt,” he said with a laugh. “Once I got that behind me though, I started to understand how it worked.”
Because the venue went from being a stage for community performances to an in-demand stop for touring productions, much of the infrastructure had to be developed on the run. Early productions, for example, were paid for out the Community and Leisure Services budget. Evans Towne Center Park was treated – fiscally speaking – like a park. When it became a venue, things became more complicated and more difficult to track.
For that reason, a site-specific Evans Towne Center Park fund was established in February and enacted in April with the Par Tee @ the Park event during Masters Week.
While 9,778 tickets have been sold to county-produced events at the Lady A, officials couldn’t provide an accurate record of ticket revenue. Likewise, while care and upkeep on Evans Towne Center Park has cost $324,045 from the ETCP fund since April, the budget for event-specific prep and clean-up is unclear. Facility Services handles janitorial services for the park and has been paid $13,297 out of the county general fund for the concerts.
Since the establishment of the ETCP fund, $223,800 has been paid in artists’ fees, ranging from less than $20,000 for the Summer Beach Blast to $80,000 for the Charlie Daniels/Travis Tritt show.
Having had a taste of show business, Columbia County would now like to change the way its new venue does business.
Instead of management by committee, Johnson said the county plans to hire a park manager. That position’s duties would include transitioning the venue from a presenting entity to one available to independent promoters.
That shift is already under way. Both the Thunder Over Augusta and Banjo-B-Que events were independently produced, and Friday’s Starship/Eddie Money show was presented by local promoter Joe Mullins, who has been actively involved in the Lady A from the onset.
“I’ve helped and I’ve consulted,” Mullins said. “What I’ve done is help set things up, helped give the county an edge.”
Part of that has been establishing exactly what kind of venue the Lady Antebellum Pavilion is. Although commonly referred to as an amphitheater, it is not one. Missing are the bowl shape, fixed seating and defined boundaries. Because Evans Towne Center was designed as a multi-use facility, building an amphitheater would limit the activities the current facility offers. Nobody plays soccer in an amphitheater.
“I realized what we were dealing with the first day I went out and saw how things were laid out,” Mullins said. “It’s an outdoor venue. You have to market it that way. You have to market it as a place not for concerts but for festivals, for events. I think that’s something they are starting to do very well.”
Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, which covers the touring concert industry, said the growing pains the Lady A has experienced are fairly common. What venues do not do in the first year, he said, is turn a profit.
“There is a huge debt service there,” he said. “Right now, the most important thing is whether people enjoy going to shows there. If the answer is yes, then it will be successful.”
Bongiovanni said there are a few examples of county-run facilities similar to the Lady A becoming profitable. What they share, he said, is an understanding that a county government shouldn’t govern a live- music venue.
“The really important part is that there has to be someone with experience in the concert industry booking the talent and managing the facility,” he said. “It’s just too easy to go wrong.”
In this market, hiring a manager or management team that are county employees, as was done in St. Augustine, Fla., could be effective, he said. He also noted that Global Spectrum, which manages James Brown Arena, the University of South Carolina Aiken Convocation Center and Bell Auditorium, might also be a good fit.
“There’s a lot of power that comes with being bundled with other facilities in town,” he said. “And a company like Global Spectrum has that expertise.”
Ryan Murphy, general manager of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, said part of that venue’s success has been a focused effort to understand what the local audience wants.
He said shows that might not break even at the box office are easier to write off when the community is proud of the acts that have, or will, appear.
“Ringo Starr playing down the street does a lot to quiet criticism,” he said.
Still, he stressed the importance of ensuring the facility runs efficiently. A Winter Wonderland event which, among other things, transforms the facility stage into an operational skating rink, was wildly popular and but prohibitively expensive. He said cutting event costs saved it.
“We made $500 off it last year,” he said. “That’s not a lot, but when you consider it cost us $20,000 the year before, it’s a glowing success.”
It is, Murphy said, a constant learning process.
Columbia County Com-mission Chairman Ron Cross said education has been an important component in defining the Lady A’s place in the community.
“This was always an open book,” he said. “And that’s why I spent a lot of time trying to educate myself on how this might work.”
Cross said he spent time at Chattanooga’s River Bend Festival, backstage at Global Spectrum-produced events at James Brown Arena and, over the course of the past year, at the Lady A events. He said he has learned that Columbia County, as an entity, does not belong in the concert business. He said the commission could approve a small series of modest performances, similar in scale and scope to the $17,500 Beach Blast show.
“That’s really a discussion that happened after the first three concerts,” he said. “When we do something it has to be less than $25,000. I mean, is this just a community park? That’s the question we had to explore.
‘‘What we know we don’t want is to subsidize shows to the tune of $200,000 to $300,000 a year.”
The lessons learned, Cross said, will not only help the county book more responsibly but also aid in dealing with prospective promoters. The commission recently approved a new fee schedule for the facility, which tells promoters exactly what the facility will cost and exactly what is included. Cross said $15,000, for a for-profit concert, will be about average.
As the performance season wraps at the Lady A, the committee overseeing the park is considering next steps. Management is high on the list, as is parking.
The venue currently uses undeveloped land at Marshall Square, valued at approximately $6.5 million, as overflow parking, but Johnson realizes that’s not a permanent solution. He said the Columbia County Commission understands that whatever goes in there must complement the park. A parking garage project, funded from sales taxes and slated to service the Justice Center, could be used for both facilities.
Regardless, he’s looking forward to the day when the venue requires less focus.
“I think people believe we have gone into the concert business,” he said. “There’s nothing further from the truth. We built a park with a stage that has become successful. We wanted to provide a place, an amenity, for our community.
“I think we’ve succeeded.”