AUGUSTA — The Augusta Civic Center finally hosted a previously postponed concert by the veteran country band Sawyer Brown on Friday and is booking other events into its auditorium through spring.

But the city-owned facility is still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in a $300,000 financial hole due to the cancellation of mass gathering events, while also having safety precautions in place, including for some events the requirement that event attendees prove they’ve been vaccinated or had a recent negative COVID-19 test.

Things were really looking up there earlier this summer, with so many clients booking major fall events the civic center’s auditorium was booked most of September and every day of October but one. Margaret Noel, director of the center in north Augusta, said if all those bookings had held, the civic center would have been in the black, financially, about $75,000 to the good, which would have been a good financial position to be in for that time of year even in a nonpandemic year.

But then word began to spread about the delta variant of COVID-19. The spread of the virus restarted and the number of cases rose as well, prompting nearly all of those events, about 90% of them, to cancel.

By then, the civic center had already paid to train replacements for the part-time event staff laid off at the start of the pandemic due to a lack of events.

“We were ready, in July and August, we were expecting September and October to be really busy, we had the auditorium booked for every day in October except Indigenous People’s Day, and then 90% of them canceled” when word of the delta variant of the coronavirus spread, Noel said.

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“We were projecting to be out ahead, budgetwise, but it didn’t pan out. That was pretty devastating to us, financially and emotionally even. It can take six months to put together an event. When it’s canceled, I’ve already spent those payroll dollars (to train new staff for events). Last I checked we were at about a $300,000 loss. I’d say about half that is labor, because we were gearing up for all those events and had to start hiring people, training people. So we’re not having the year we wanted, that we were going to have. But we’re also just in the second quarter now, and I do have quite a few events booked for the spring.”

The auditorium hosted a concert by country bands Sawyer Brown and Confederate Railroad on Friday night, and expected to draw about 1,500 fans. The show, postponed multiple times due to the pandemic, originally was scheduled to include Blackhawk, but that act had to be replaced by Confederate Railroad due to a COVID-19-related scheduling conflict.

The civic center staff is recommending event attendees wear masks, but is not requiring them to do so since a statewide mandate is no longer in place. Noel said all staff there wear masks all the time, and the facility is following all state pandemic-related protocols.

“We’re following (Center for Disease Control) protocols and right now those say masks indoors are recommended, so that is our message,” Noel said. “We have them available, at no charge, as people want them. As the director, I recommend people do wear masks, it keeps everyone safe, and allows us to do business and continue on. But there’s not a (statewide) mandate in place so it’s not a requirement at this point.”

However, the civic center is also taking other pandemic-related steps when requested to by clients. That included Friday’s concert, where attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test to get in. Noel said the concert promoter asked for that requirement, which she said the facility was happy to accommodate.

A man makes a call Tuesday inside the Augusta Civic Center. Though the civic center was beginning to rebound earlier this summer from a slew of 2020 cancellations, a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant prompted most bookings for September and October to cancel, leaving the center operating at a loss for now. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

She said an upcoming Dec. 12 UMaine women’s basketball game there (featuring UMaine coach and former Cony standout Amy Vachon’s return to Augusta) will require attendees to also provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative test, at the request of the university.

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Noel said the building’s auditorium has a solar wall that brings fresh air into the building as part of its heating system, and an extensive air filtration system, so she is comfortable having events there, though not an event that would max out its 6,000-person capacity with the pandemic still around.

The civic center is run on a budget as an enterprise fund, so when it loses money, those losses are generally covered by the city’s general fund. Over time, typically the civic center has paid back those losses, and Noel anticipates that happening this time as well. She said bookings for spring events are strong but it remains to be seen what impact the omicron variant will have on mass gathering events.

Last fiscal year, with many events canceled due to the pandemic, the civic center lost somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000, though the city is still awaiting the final audit, according to Augusta City Manager Susan Robertson.

Robertson said the city’s general fund balance had enough in it to cover that loss. However, that leaves less money in that fund which might otherwise be carried forward and used to help cover expenses in future city budgets and avoid potential future tax increases.

“Last year’s losses have not directly impacted taxpayers as we had sufficient fund balance to cover the loss,” Robertson said. “It does mean, however, that there will be less fund balance available as we go into the fiscal year 2023 budget process as a result. It is too soon to say if that will have an impact for taxpayers or not.”

Noel said the city-owned civic center did not qualify for federal COVID-relief funds, including a shuttered venue operator grant, in part because the facility is primarily a conference center and trade show host, versus a performing arts venue. This past week, for example, the civic center hosted the mental health summit “Reimagining Community Services in Maine.”

The civic center was put to some public use during the pandemic, including serving as a major site for COVID vaccinations and as a temporary, more spacious, home for the state Legislature.

The city has applied to Kennebec County, seeking $1.9 million from federal pandemic relief funds, to pay for a new roof for the civic center, but has not yet heard whether it will get that funding.

“I can’t forecast what the end of the (fiscal) year will look like (financially) but our team goal here is to break even,” she said. “We would have done much better than that were it not for the delta variant. Any loss of ours comes from the general fund, then we have to pay it back over time, so we’re not burdening the taxpayers. I think over time the civic center will do fine. But this is so unprecedented and is hanging on way longer than anyone anticipated. Our business is events and this is a virus that transmits with people being together. So our hit was direct and immediate and a hard one.”

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