“In fact, we were self-sustaining in year one,” Swann said. “That’s something you don’t typically see in a venue, whether it’s a convention center or a performing arts center.”
The performing arts center posted profits of $1.6 million on income of $8.6 million and expenses of $7 million in fiscal year 2011. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Cobb County is still using a portion of the county’s hotel-motel taxes to pay down $57 million in 25-year bonds to finance construction of the performing arts center, which cost a total of $145 million.
Since the center’s Sept. 15, 2007, opening night gala featuring Broadway stars Michael Feinstein and Linda Eder, the Cobb Energy center has brought in a number of stars of theater, music and comedy. Among the performers to grace the stage — which is no farther than 160 feet from any of its seats — are Justin Bieber, Lady Antebellum, Alice Cooper, Melissa Etheridge, Harry Connick Jr., Norah Jones, Bill Maher and Billy Crystal.
“Obviously we’re a major performing arts center in the Southeast,” said performing arts center managing director Michael Taormina, who started in June 2006 when the building was being finished and staffed. “The region is very important, we have contributed widely not only to metropolitan Atlanta and Cobb County, but we’ve made a major difference nationally with this venue for the last five years.”
Taormina shows off statistics gathered by Pollstar that have the Cobb Energy center selling 157,835 tickets in 2011, ranking it 27th in the country among indoor theaters of all sizes. In Georgia, it ranks only behind Midtown Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, which seats a much higher 4,600 people.
Taormina said his venue doesn’t have an adversarial relationship with the Fox; instead, the theaters complement each other.
“I feel that if not for this venue, Atlanta would see talent come through that otherwise would pass it up because the Fox was busy with Broadway or something else,” he said.
The Cobb Energy center featured 147 shows in 2011, with 13 of them selling out. So far this year, he said the theater is “holding our own.”
“Everybody wants more, but that’s a major equation,” he said. “That equation works with routing the artist and date availability. We call that, ‘When the stars line up.’ ”
The fall has some well-known artists coming to the Cobb Energy center, starting with Al Jarreau and Ramsey Lewis, who performed at Friday’s fifth anniversary Overture Gala. In the coming months, the center will feature shows by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, former Talking Heads singer David Byrne with St. Vincent, Esperanza Spalding, Dave Koz, Morrissey and indie rock band The Shins. Also coming up are several performances of the Broadway hit “Chicago” and the Atlanta Opera’s “Carmen.”
Taormina said there is a balance between the venue trying to make sure it brings artists who fill seats and performers who want to make sure they are playing the right sized facility.
“The whole idea is you have to sell tickets,” he said. “There is a cost involved in producing the shows. You want each show to be a sellout, and as a consequence to that, you want to prepare.”
Taormina acknowledges that there can be many empty dates for the center in the summer months. But he said that is typical of the theater industry, since a number of artists don’t tour in the summer and those that do prefer outdoor amphitheaters.
But even when shows aren’t being booked, the Cobb Energy center still gets business because of its ballroom. Taormina said the building, and its 254 total events had a $21.5 million economic impact on the state in fiscal year 2011, and sometime in the next year could cross a $100 million economic impact since it opened.
The facility has also been the site for the filming of several movies and television shows. Taormina even has a picture of the Cobb Energy center (posing as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters) being blown to smithereens in a first season episode of “The Walking Dead,” a scene that has reached legendary proportions in Cobb.
Just this weekend, he said filmmakers were planning to set a “Black Swan” spoof in the theater as part of the upcoming “Scary Movie 5,” which stars the troubled Lindsay Lohan.
“When I come to work Monday, there’ll be extras everywhere,” Taormina said. “They’ll be wearing tutus I’m sure.”
Other movies are in the works, though officials won’t yet say what they are.
Cobb Energy center is helping give back to the community through its ArtsBridge educational initiative. Before Friday’s concert, 100 music students from McEachern High School and Lovinggood Middle School, both in Powder Springs, along with two Atlanta schools, got to sit in on Jarreau and Lewis’s sound checks and ask the performers questions afterward. Since the program started in 2007, ArtsBridge has offered field trips, classes and workshops, as well as bringing musicians to schools, to more than 185,000 students, according to the Cobb Energy center website. It also puts on the Shuler Hensley Awards, considered the Tony Awards for Georgia High School musical theater.
Taormina said changing the venue’s name, which a for-profit subsidiary of non-profit Cobb EMC agreed to a $20 million naming rights deal though 2015, hasn’t been discussed. That’s even though there is little of Cobb Energy left following a scandal that led to the indictment of former CEO Dwight Brown and the replacement of the former Cobb EMC board.
“It was strictly naming rights,” Taormina said.
Cobb EMC’s new logo, introduced by its new board in April, is based on the Cobb Energy center’s logo that features sun rays above its curved, sloped roof.
“We were thrilled to let them do it,” Taormina said. “I think this building has been successful for everyone.”
Swann, who has been with the coliseum and exhibit authority since 1995, said a performing arts center was discussed as far back as the original building of the Galleria convention hall in the late 1980s. But an initial study said that it should be incorporated into plans at a later time.
Another study in 2000 determined that the time was right for a theater at the Galleria, and the long process of fundraising and bringing it to fruition started, Swann said. She credits the ballroom, as well as the fact that the performing arts center has its own chef and does its own catering, with making it while other venues struggle.
“I have seen it since it was just a concept,” she said. “It’s great to reach our five-year anniversary.”