Changing the Tune

By Brad McEwen

As soon as we piled out of the car and could hear the bright shimmer of electric guitar and the steady thump of the bass and drums, my mind was overrun with memories.

Although Tay and I had taken the kids down to the river front to meet up with some friends and enjoy the local stylings of Stephen Harrell and the Dusty Boots, I might as well have been back in middle school, my parents having dropped me off to meet some friends at Veteran’s Park Amphitheater so we could watch my next door neighbor Jonathan Ray’s college rock cover band Legacy bring the songs I used to watch them practice in Jon’s garage to full fruition in front a live audience of local residents.

Like a lot of folks who grew up in the Albany area in the 1980s, I have incredibly fond memories of those old Friday in the Park events that used to regularly draw folks to the downtown amphitheater that overlooks the majestic Flint.

And although many of the band names are lost to time—and my memories of friends and neighbors of all ages, spending time together, listening to good music and enjoying some fellowship now have a sepia toned hue—they remain cherished remembrances of a wonderful and blessed childhood.

But distant memories nonetheless.

So I was a little taken aback, some 30-odd years after those Friday night gatherings stopped, that I was once again standing at the edge of the venerable old open air venue listening to a local band, enjoying good company and watching my kids run around with their friends on a beautiful summer night at the river’s edge.

But that’s exactly what happened when the McEwen family spent a recent weekend evening attending the August date of the new Fridays of the Flint event that now takes place monthly at the downtown venue.

And we could not have had a better time.

Even though we debated whether we would attend right up until we loaded the kids in the family truckster, within a few minutes of arrival we were glad we’d made the trip downtown to support the newly revived event.

Not only did we thoroughly enjoy our night on the river’s edge listening to Stephen and his band roll through a catalogue of impressive hits, we left the amphitheater excited about the future of entertainment in our community—entertainment that I don’t think would be possible if not for the city’s forward-thinking decision to partner with venue management firm Spectra.

Back in 2018, when the city first entered into a contract with Spectra to manage events at Veteran’s Amphitheater, the Albany Municipal Auditorium and the Albany Civic Center, it seemed as if Albany’s days as an event hub were long passed.

In many the years proceeding that partnership, events at the amphitheater were few and far between, the auditorium was revived but seemingly only used to host a handful of events throughout the year (mostly local symphony performances or dance recitals) and the massive civic center, which had formerly hosted nationally recognized entertainment on a regular basis, was a shell of its former self, with years of neglect and a bad reputation turning it into nothing more than a stain on the community and a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars.

In fact, when that Spectra deal was inked just over a year ago, I think most of the folks in this city had come to the same realization that I had—let’s just tear that money pit down and turn it into a park in hopes of stopping the bleeding.

So to say it was a surprise when that news of the arrangement broke was an understatement.

Like many in this community, I’d be lying if I told you I thought the deal was a good move for the city. On the contrary, while I was glad something was happening, I was convinced it was simply a political move to kick the failing civic center can down the road so a future group of officials would be the ones who’d finally have to make the bold move to cut bait.

How wrong my assumption has turned out to be.

Turning the Tide

By all accounts, the city’s partnership with Spectra has been a wise one, the fruits of which are already tangible in several ways.

One need only take a tour through the old civic center to see the beginning of an impressive transformation to update and modernize a facility that hadn’t seen much improvement for going on 20 years.

But what’s happening really goes beyond cosmetic improvements and beautification.

In Spectra’s first year of management we’ve seen nearly double the number of events held at the three venues than in the prior year and those events saw overall attendance rise from 86,387 attendees at the three venues the year prior to the Spectra deal to 106,767 attendees in the company’s first year.

Additionally, the venues more than doubled paid attendance in that time period, while bringing in nearly $120,000 in sponsorship revenue in the past year, compared with none in the year prior to the agreement—all of which has immediately impacted the city’s bottom line.

Under the Spectra partnership, the more income the venues can generate, the more it reduces the city’s overall burden to maintain the facilities, a fact not lost on taxpayers or local officials.

“The city’s partnership with Spectra to manage our three entertainment venues in 2018 was right on time,” Albany City Manager Sharon Subadan told me recently. “For years the civic center, Albany Municipal Auditorium and the Veteran’s Park Amphitheatre were managed in-house by city staff.

“While city employees do a great job with many municipal tasks, competitively managing venues is outside of our core competency.

“It is no secret that operating these facilities is expensive. In the years leading up to the Spectra agreement, the city regularly transferred over $1.8 million annually. In the first year under Spectra’s management (the period ending June 30, 2019), the city reduced our transfer to $961,000, an annual savings of over $845,000.

“And this trend is expected to continue.”

Given some of the fits and starts the city has experienced in the past when it’s tried to get something happening at the civic center, it would be easy to dismiss the city manager’s assertion that things are on the right track. But in truth, it doesn’t take too long spending time with the Spectra team charged with righting the ship, to see the basis for her current level of confidence.

When Sharon makes reference to competitive venue management she’s really touching on the lynchpin of the Spectra deal—bringing in professionals who know the industry and let them use their experience and talents to help turn the tide for the community’s entertainment venues.

But while Spectra’s model of using its global network of venues and contacts to help steer events to Albany is certainly a solid plan, I would argue that the success we’ve seen in this community, also has a lot to do with the team Spectra has put in place to manage the city’s venues—namely General Manager Josh Small and Director of Partnerships Harry Day.

Having noticed the palpable excitement that seems to be shared throughout the city lately in regard to the Spectra deal, I sat down with the two recent transplants to discuss the past year’s success and learn more about why Spectra and Albany make such a good fit.

I’d had some opportunity to spend a little time with Harry prior to our recent meeting, so I knew a little bit about the Spectra model and had ascertained pretty quickly that he was fully committed to seeing this partnership yield success.

I had not, however, had the pleasure of meeting Josh before we sat down to chat. But just as I had with Harry, I could see immediately why his influence has helped spur this recent success.

In fact, while he had already found success within Spectra, Josh said he knew there was a great opportunity in Albany and began lobbying for the assignment long before the current partnership was formalized.

Seizing an Opportunity

“It actually started back in 2015,” Josh explained. “The city had been kicking back and forth the idea of private management basically since then. I know Spectra, over the course of that time, in probably three different situations, had put bids in to try to privatize the management of those venues. It was just this last time where it finally got pushed through.

“Personally, I got involved in March, just prior to getting the contract, because we knew we were getting down toward the end and we wanted to find somebody that could run the show here for Spectra and I ended up being that person.”

Josh explained that Spectra is committed to developing its employees and giving them an opportunity to guide the direction of their careers, so when he saw what was about to happen in Albany, he said he began actively pursuing the opportunity.

“It’s all about opportunity,” he said. “It’s whatever opportunity is available. This one came up, I researched it a little bit and it seemed like a good opportunity, so I put my name in the hat and it ended up working out.”

Josh said he was able to see the business potential in Albany thanks to his involvement with a similar partnership the company has with the city of Augusta—where Spectra’s guidance has brought that community to the point where city officials are now planning construction of a new multi-million dollar facility to replace older venues that the community once viewed much the way we’ve recently viewed ours.

“I’ve kind of been in the same situation before,” Josh continued. “I was part of the original management team that came into Augusta in 2008. And it was a very similar situation.

“The city had been operating the venues and it didn’t look like they were achieving the potential that the venues had.

“In Augusta it took a couple of years, but come around 2012 they said, ‘Okay, you’ve got $5 million dollars, put it back into the building.’ Then another five years later, we put $6 million back into the venues there. We started to prove the events were coming and so everybody said, ‘Okay, this is great.’

“Now, you look back at Augusta, and I’m not saying this is what’s going to happen in Albany, but Augusta is now looking at building a new arena. It takes a little while to get that change, but all the positives, I think, that we’ve seen in the last year and however many months, I think, is contributing to the finger getting lifted off the funds.”

Where Albany is slightly different than Augusta—in that there are three venues to manage rather than two—Josh said the set-up of the deal is the same, which means Albany can potentially see similar success.

“The city contracted with Spectra to manage all the facilities on their behalf,” he said of the Albany partnership. “The city still owns everything. It’s still the city’s money. Basically, the city pays Spectra a management fee to manage all the venues. We’re still operating city funds; it’s still taxpayer dollars. We’re just trying to bring as many events here as we can, be as smart as we can with the city’s money, and really try to start working on reducing that deficit that’s been that trigger point for everybody wondering why they would keep these venues going when nothing’s happening there.

“We want to reverse that. Let’s put some events in. Let’s reduce the loss. It’s kind of the same model that we did in Augusta, same model that’s starting to show success. They’re really starting to make some progress there. Albany is not the same as those markets, it’s a little bit smaller and it’s going to take a little bit more time, but as you’re aware, we’re making some good in-roads.”

Growing Excitement in the Community

Although Josh is quick to point out that Augusta is a different market than Albany, and that there is certainly no guarantee that Albany will see that kind of success with its venues, he also doesn’t shy away from sharing the fact that the potential he first saw in Albany has only intensified over the past year—as has his affection for the community he believes is really driving the partnership’s success.

“It’s incredible, the local support that we’ve gotten,” he said. “It’s been much more than I was expecting. That’s probably the biggest surprise since we’ve gotten here.

“Before coming down here, I heard all the negatives. If you’re going to move to Albany from another place, don’t look at the internet, obviously—any of the comments, anything on Facebook, none of that is helpful. You see all of that and you’re like, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right decision.’

“But then I came down here for the meeting where we got voted in, at the city council meeting. I came down here and I met everybody involved. You meet some people down here, you look at the downtown, you come check the venues out and it’s like, ‘It’s not that bad.’ It’s not the noise you hear outside.

“Even though perception is reality, it’s still not really even what the perception is. Since coming down I’ve seen it’s been well received by everybody. And I think it just comes from the fact of people caring, despite the fact that people might complain about this or that.

“Really, everybody wants to see these venues succeed. Deep down everybody cares about Albany.”

That fierce sense of community spirit was also not lost on Harry, who said even though his motivations for joining Spectra’s Albany team were slightly different than Josh’s, he too has been overwhelmed by the positivity surrounding the Spectra/Albany deal.

And as the one charged with getting private sector support for the venues, that general feeling of positivity has proven to be an important part of the recent success.

“As you mentioned before, the government obviously is supporting the improvements of this town, but you’ve got to get the private sector involved to really have that growth that you want,” said the director of partnerships. “What I’m responsible for with partnerships is bringing in business community partners and the success that we’ve had just within the short year that we have been here—and we’re really just getting started—has really shown that people want to see this change happen.

“We had sponsors that signed on just a few months into us being here and we had not even hosted maybe an event or two. They wanted to invest in this because they heard about our track record, they knew what we could do, and they wanted to put their name and their brand to something to show positive change in the community.

“One thing I’ve realized living here,” Harry continued, “is a lot of the negativity is really the minority. But that’s what gets fed through a lot things you read, through social media. But truthfully, in the grand scheme of it all here, the majority, the good folks, they want to see this thing work. They want to see the community grow.”

That growing feeling of positive excitement about the future of the community’s entertainment venues, and really about the community as a whole, is something Harry in particular is really excited to see, considering his investment in what’s happening with the Spectra/Albany partnership, goes a little deeper than wanting to have professional success.

Harry, as it turns out, has ties to this community that are totally unrelated to his position with Spectra, so he tends to view the partnership with the city much the same way local residents do.

“My wife is a native of Lee County," Harry said. "Her parents, specifically my mother-in-law grew up here. She grew up on North Monroe Street.

“With all the changes and the history that I’ve learned from them, that’s where my passion for wanting to improve the community comes from.”

That perspective and the historical knowledge that Harry has through his personal connections to the community, has not only helped fuel his desire to see this partnership work, it’s also allowed Harry and Josh to see more clearly what can work in Albany.

A Bright Future

Having lived in this city for more than 30 years, I’m well aware of the past level of entertainment that used to pass through Albany, and much like Harry, I believe the community can once again reach those heights.

While it might be some time before Albany is once again welcoming current chart toppers like it did back in the days when acts like Ozzy Osborne, Willie Nelson, Guns N Roses, Reba McIntyre, Alabama, Motley Crue, Elton John and others visited the town at the height of their powers, there’s no denying that with Spectra guiding the fortunes of our three venues, that kind of success is a distinct possibility.

It’s clear, not only from the general feeling sweeping the city, but also from Spectra’s recent track record, that the Albany community can support all kinds of entertainment that appeals to a wide variety of people.

In fact, Harry and Josh spoke at length about how the Spectra model works and illustrated how a strategic approach to managing and growing the venues has been the key element in what’s transpired since March of 2018.

“Obviously we want to have a wide-range of events,” said Harry of the company’s strategy. “And really, there’s a unique situation in Albany with three venues. There are other venues that we manage in the state, like in Augusta and Macon, and they have an auditorium and an arena. But we also have an amphitheater here, so there are many different options we can look at.

“You’ve seen the success we’ve had with the auditorium with our concerts [sold-out performances by Ricky Smiley, Travis Tritt, Three Dog Night and the Marshall Tucker Band, and heavyweights Jamey Johnson and the Charlie Daniels Band already lined up for shows this fall].

“But here in the civic center, we’re looking to be strategic in how we want to book these music events in here. So we’re bringing in more family entertainment right now.

“That’s perfect for this venue. A lot of what we’ve done here so far, looking at Paw Patrol and Sesame Street and the monster truck show, those different events bring out a very wide range of people, a broad demographic.

“When you get into concerts, you limit yourself on specific demographics that you’re trying to reach. But with these family entertainment shows, you’re bringing out the whole entire community. You’ve got kids and their parents and grandparents and different things like that, from all walks of life.

“I think that’s a really big piece to bringing the community back together.

“At the amphitheater, the Fridays in the Flint came up and it was kind of my brainchild, but something where we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It had been done before.

“So it’s just trying to figure out how to effectively put it out there to the community and let them know that this is something great. And again, going off the idea of the family entertainment stuff, all different walks of life can come and appreciate and experience this.”

Industry Cred

In addition to the three venues allowing Spectra to bring in a better variety of events, the varying sizes of the civic center, auditorium and amphitheater also help bolster Spectra’s ability to negotiate with promoters and managers looking to find the best deals for their clients.

With Spectra owning multiple venues, not only around the country, but also in nearby cities like Macon and Tallahassee, the company is able to book deals that take in to account an entertainer’s entire travel route, which can then be steered through a series of Spectra venues to the benefit of all parties.

Add to that the company’s deep connections to the entertainment and venue management industry, and it seems like the perfect recipe for success. And like the city manager pointed out, city employees simply don’t have that depth and breadth of experience.

And that industry cred also helps to mitigate a curious situation that has plagued Albany for years.

“There’s definitely as aspect of Spectra in terms of connections,” Josh said. “It’s definitely an industry where connections are valuable.

“Something we ran up against, for whatever reason, and I don’t know the history as well as probably you and a lot of others in the community do, but for whatever reason Albany had started to get a very negative reputation with agents and promoters, like ‘You can’t go to Albany to make money.’

“It could have been one thing that happened and then it just spread rapidly and it just became, not a blackball, but just a reputation that made people say, ‘I’m going to skip Albany and I’m going to go to Tifton,’ for some reason.

“Putting Spectra into that playing field gives an automatic boost. Just me personally, I’ve already got connections with agents, I’ve already got connections with promoters that I’ve done shows with in other places. They’re now saying, ‘Okay, you’re vouching for this place; you’re telling me they can make money. We’re going to take a flyer.’

“Well, they’re going to come in and then we’re going to make money and they’re going to see it’s not that bad. Now the reputation, the trend, it gets reversed. Now the agents say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to get yelled at by the band I represent when I send them to Albany because they’re not going to have a terrible experience.’”

“And the thing too is, you can’t just raise your hand and say, ‘Hey, here we are, come play here,’” Josh continued. “Because there’s just so many factors that go into it. It goes a little bit back to the reputation part of it too.

“A story I tell people that just happened somewhat recently was, there was a concert that I thought was going to come to the civic center. It would have happened by now, but I thought it was coming from talking to the promoter. And then all of a sudden I get a call randomly, I think I was at Walmart, from the promoter and he said, ‘It’s going down the road.’ I said, ‘Why!? It’s a smaller market; it’s not going to do as well as we’d do here!’

“Well I found out who the agent was and I called them. I had a previous history from doing another show with him and I said, ‘What are you doing!?’ Why did you take it there?’ And he gave me all these reasons and then he said, ‘But you know, Albany’s a terrible market for this.’ It was a country show and he said, it’s a terrible market for that.

“I was like, ‘What are you talking about!? We just sold out a Travis Tritt acoustic show, not even Travis Tritt and his band. Acoustic! We did these numbers. We did the Marshall Tucker Band. We’ve got Charlie Daniels coming up.’

“He was like, ‘Oh. I didn’t know.’

“So there can be strategies to it, but it’s also an education process. That’s what we’re going through now. Those are the steps we’re going up to prove that you can do stuff in Albany.”

And even though that education process is going well, there’s still a lot more that has to happen to reach the kind of success Harry and Josh believe is possible.

“The crazy thing is, it’s not all about the money, not always about dollars and cents because like we talked about, there’s so many different options where people can play,” Josh continued. “You can only play a market so many times. And then how are you going to be treated when you go somewhere? That just comes down to the venue. If you come into a venue and you have a horrible day and everything went wrong, but you walked out with your money—and you maybe even picked up a little bit extra on the back end or something—well you might still not come back if you had a bad experience.

“You’re going to go back to your agent and you’re going to say, ‘Don’t ever put me in Albany again.’ And then that agent represents other artists. So that agent says, ‘Oh I’m not going to send the next guys over even though the last guys made money. I’m going to send them to Columbus.’

“So that’s just another thing we’re fighting against. But it’s getting better, that’s the positive thing.

“But it’s tough because it perpetuates itself. And that’s the thing. Like that example I was talking about with the agent. He doesn’t even remember why Albany was bad. He just knows it’s bad.

“But then you prove him wrong and that’s when he changes his mind.”

Changing the Tune

I found it refreshing to hear Josh talk about changing minds because that’s exactly what I think the city’s partnership has started to do within the community as well.

It seems that for far too long the residents of this community have been convinced that the civic center and the entertainment it was meant to provide to the residents of Southwest Georgia was finished and that our local leadership was too inept to do anything to quell the slow deterioration of the facility.

But the fact of the matter is, that perception isn’t really the reality at all.

In my mind, the Spectra partnership has already shown that Albany can indeed be a viable entertainment hub, but perhaps more importantly, the move has shown that local leadership is committed to making entertainment in this community work without placing further burden on the taxpayers.

“We touched on it before, but the success we’ve seen is really a reflection of the leadership within the city right now,” Harry said. “If we didn’t have their backing and their support, we couldn’t do what we’re doing.”

“I get the question a lot,” added Josh. “’What restrictions are they putting on you?’ Well we talk to them almost on a daily basis. We have the city manager. We have contract administrators. We obviously work with the finance people quite a bit. And they’ve all been great to work with.

“They’ve not put stumbling blocks in front us. They’ve allowed us to come in and do what we know to do. And that’s probably the best thing. Definitely one of the aspects of our success is just the partnership with the city.

“I think that’s a key in this whole positive message. This is not all Spectra. The city absolutely should be sharing in the success. It’s not all Spectra.

“We’ve obviously been able to play our part and help drive the success for the city, but the city made the decision to bring Spectra in. You’ve got to give them credit just on that fact alone—to have the foresight to day, ‘Let’s bring a private management company in that can make some changed.”

“And to your point earlier,” added Harry, “it was a huge risk for the city to do this. But they’re heavily invested and they’re committed.”

The city manager echoed that sentiment when we spoke, reiterating that the city sees the success of the deal as vital to the economic viability of the Albany community.

“Under this agreement the venues will be marketed as The Flint River Entertainment Complex and are expected to excel in hosting events that serve to make Southwest Georgia an entertainment and conference destination, while generating needed economic benefits for downtown businesses and the community,” Sharon said. “Our early results have certainly exceeded expectations.”

But perhaps even more importantly, Sharon sees the Spectra venture critical to the overall health and well-being of the community and region, and a much-needed quality of life factor.

“Civic centers and city-owned entertainment venues are designed to enhance the quality of life for people who live in our community,” Sharon said. “They are where friends and families create lasting memories together and I believe Spectra will help us to successfully do so over and over again.”

Although we still haven’t returned to the halcyon days of the past when there seemed to be a major artist or event rolling through town every couple of months, I truly feel confident that thanks to the hard work of folks like Josh and Harry, that it won’t be long before Milla, Bear and Rhodes are able to make incredible memories like the ones I have of hanging out at Friday in the Park or going with my dad and fellow St. Teresa’s 7th-grader Jeff Janczewski to see Bon Jovi in support of what was at that time the number album in the county, right here in their own backyard.

I can’t wait.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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