Stealing the Show

By Abbey Remkus

Columbia County fills cultural arts gap with opening of new Performing Arts Center

A new cultural era is entering the spotlight in Columbia County. 

The latest, highly anticipated addition to the center of the county’s new downtown is expected to open its doors for the first time at the beginning of the new year in 2021. 

The Columbia County Performing Arts Center, also known as the PAC, boasts a state of the art sound and lighting system and seating for a little more than 2,000 people, in what county leaders are calling a first-class facility. 

Appropriately situated at the geographical center of the Plaza at Evans Towne Center, the PAC will soon welcome all aspects of the arts, from first-run Broadway plays and musicals and headliner musicians to children’s theater and local music and arts groups performances. 

County Administrator Scott Johnson said the inspiration for the look and feel of the PAC is modeled after The Peace Center in Greenville, S.C., which was part of the city’s revitalization efforts.

In the Augusta area, the new PAC is the only facility of its kind, larger than the Miller and Imperial theaters but smaller than the James Brown Arena, according to Johnson. Locally, the PAC is the largest indoor theater in Columbia County and the single largest vertical capital investment in the county.

Other features of the $35 million facility include a multipurpose room for private events and space for a museum dedicated to the history of Columbia County. 

Johnson said the PAC is filling a cultural gap something that residents have expressed a vested interest in for many years. Columbia County leaders initially began with an idea for a cultural arts center with a museum component.

“We didn’t think we could afford or do anything like the PAC,” Johnson said. So they started small. 

As partnership opportunities and ideas as to what and how a cultural arts center should look and operate came and went, county leaders turned to their constituents in 2017, and voters overwhelmingly voted to approve a general obligation bond package that included the necessary funding for a state-of-the-art PAC. 

Along with the facility, the county has a unique hybrid profit-sharing partnership with Innovation Arts and Entertainment (IAE), which will help the PAC be self-sufficient and not reliant upon the taxpayer dollar. 

“When we first started looking at how we wanted to run the venue, we could either farm it out and let someone else do that, or we could do it ourselves,” Johnson said. “What we found out pretty early on was we don’t have the expertise to go out and book these national acts, especially when it comes to the Broadway scene.”

The partnership with IAE is mutually beneficial, Johnson explained. Profit-sharing means the county will not charge IAE for the acts it brings to the PAC, but it will share a small percentage of the ticket sales. Similarly, a small percentage of ticket sales from acts the county books will go to IAE for managing the booking. 

“They are responsible for booking the acts and marketing us to the Broadway industry,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, Columbia County is not out any money. We are not using any taxpayer dollars whatsoever to either subsidize the operations of the center or to bring acts to the center. It’s going to be totally self-sufficient.”

Overall, Johnson said, ownership of the building remains with the county.

“They are acting as the booking agent but this is the beauty of this. They are not the operator of the facility. We made that clear early on that we would be very much in charge of our own venue,” Johnson said. 

You can have a local group that wants to do musical theater workshops, they would have access to the PAC to book that.”

A separate fee schedule will be created to accommodate smaller, local performances.

In the area, IAE is a familiar face, having brought the Broadway at the Bell series to Augusta for many years. Johnson said that IAE plans to shift that series to the new PAC upon its opening.

The venue is another stepping stone to keeping local tax dollars in Columbia County. 

A schedule of performances has not been set for the opening due to cancellations of tours related to COVID-19. Johnson said IAE is working to get commitments for performances in the new year. 

In the meantime, the PAC is continuing to be transformed into a hub for the cultural arts in Columbia County and provide a first-class experience for patrons and performers alike. 

“We designed this to be a venue that people want to come to,” Johnson said. “We designed it to be a venue that the performers will want to come back to perform at. There’s not a bad seat in the house.”

 Photos by Amy J. Owen

Appears in the August/September 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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