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City Auditorium goes dark for three months as renovation begins

Sheridan Construction and the Smallwood design firm will work in two phases and complete the project in 2023

MACON, Ga. — For the first time since the late 70s, the City Auditorium is being renovated.

Although the county initially planned to spend $10 million of 2018 SPLOST proceeds, the final estimate is not yet known due to the rise in the cost of building materials and design modifications to rein in costs. The first design was more than 2.5 times the planned budget.

Sheridan Construction is overseeing the project in partnership with the Smallwood design firm out of Atlanta.

The auditorium’s calendar is clear until early September to allow construction in June, July and August.

“We have a crushed schedule. We’re going to be working 24/7,” said Tom Rogers, Sheridan’s senior project manager.

They halted auditorium bookings so work can be done on the main floor and basement concessions lobby in the first of two phases of construction with the second half finishing next year, hopefully in time to celebrate Macon’s bicentennial.

This week, crews covered the auditorium floor and began erecting a field of scaffolding that will hold a raised platform at the top of the proscenium so workers can remodel the ceiling above the balcony.

“We are eliminating the ceiling that’s there and just going back to what it was originally… black steel,” said Clay Murphey, the SPLOST coordinator for Macon-Bibb County.

In 1977, the Sheridan team embarked on a 20-month, $2.2 million dollar project to help balance the acoustical issues created by the “largest copper dome in the world.”

Ribs of sheetrock and panels of acoustical carpet were added along with spaceship-like tiles near the stage.

However, that fix from about 45 years ago created another problem – excess moisture.

“The building is not able to breathe the way it is,” Murphey said. “You can see all the mildew.”

Most patrons of the auditorium visit during dimly lit events, but the damage is very evident when all the lights are on.

In the last couple of years, more than a million dollars was spent to waterproof and renovate the basement and repair the roof, which had 51 bullet holes in the famed copper dome.

In the $6.9 million Phase 1 of the project, a structural steel network will be erected from the ceiling for a new catwalk and lighting system.

Crews are hermetically sealing the historic mural over the stage to protect it from dust and damage.

There will be new paint, flooring, carpet, and wallpaper with new drapes and seat covers expected next year.

“We’re pretty much touching everything the public sees,” Murphey said of the current renovation. “The common area the people will see will be dramatically different.”

Downstairs, crews will demolish the existing concessions stand and restrooms and create new ones during this first phase.

Smallwood originally designed a glass atrium and major restructuring of the lobby, but the materials were way too expensive for the budget, and not everyone embraced the more modern concept on the century-old building.

In Phase 2 next year, crews are expected to build octagon-shaped additions on each end of the First Street side to house first floor bathrooms and a new ticket area.

The extra year gives contractors time to find a match for the limestone used to build the auditorium to use on the new additions.

“I think we’re going to end up going with something that looks like limestone,” Murphey said. “I’d be surprised if we can quarry limestone at a price that’s reasonable.”

Rogers said he’s looking forward to transforming the auditorium.

“It’s an interesting project because the auditorium is such a historic building and it means so much to so many people who have made memories there,” Rogers said.

Another ‘crown jewel’

Last fall, the global venue development company Oak View Group, or OVG, acquired Spectra Venue Management, the manager of the auditorium, coliseum, convention center and Macon-Bibb’s new amphitheater planned at Macon Mall.

Peyton Jeter, the marketing director for OVG’s local office, said the work on the auditorium coincides with upgrading the Macon Coliseum.

A new video scoreboard was installed in the last year and the facility will have an upgraded fire alarm safety system, which is estimated to cost nearly $500,000.

Crews also are installing a new $1.3 million ice floor system.

“That serves the Mayhem really well, Disney on Ice and public skating,” Jeter said while touring the auditorium Tuesday.

The auditorium renovation also will touch the oval-shaped green room that has hosted performers through the decades. Modern stage enhancements for loading in equipment should make it easier to book acts for the auditorium.

During this three-month downtime, Jeter said she will have ample time to begin marketing the county’s new amphitheater once bookings come in for performances expected to begin next summer.

OVG was the clear choice to manage that new venue, said Urban Development Authority executive director Alex Morrison at last month’s meeting.

“When it came to needing support as we’re building, planning for and ultimately operating a new entertainment venue, the amphitheater, it was logical and a great opportunity to work with them again for that facility,” Morrison told the authority before members accepted the management contract.

OVG’s Regional Vice President Trent Merritt said the company understands the Macon market and the challenges of operating after the global pandemic shut down business.

The Centreplex operation now has multiple venues to book acts and build relationships with entertainers.

“You can bring artists in, performers who are up and coming, in smaller facilities and grow them into larger facilities,” Merritt said. “Now with the amphitheater, it just puts another crown jewel in the arsenal here.”

For Jeter, nothing beats the charm of the old auditorium.

“I just think she’s so pretty,” she said.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government and can be reached at fabian_lj@mercer.edu or 478-301-2976.

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