Georgia Theatre’s influence felt throughout downtownPosted: March 6, 2012
It’s a Saturday night in Athens, and downtown businesses are preparing for a long and busy night.
The Holiday Inn located downtown is nearly full for the night, and Scott Norris, the hotel’s vice president of sales and marketing, says that he expects more walk-ins to arrive in the next few hours.
A few blocks away, at the new downtown Waffle House, employee Nikki Bush is preparing for the oncoming rush of people; she says she probably won’t get a break until early morning.
Bush and Norris work in two completely different places, but tonight they may serve some of the same customers; the success of their respective workplaces often is directly tied to another business, the Georgia Theatre.
Bush and Norris are among two dozen business owners who said in interviews that their businesses are affected by the Georgia Theatre. Indeed, it is difficult to find a store—be it a bar, restaurant, hotel, or small specialty store—that hasn’t noticed the theater’s presence, even if the effects are only minimal.
After an accidental fire destroyed the historic Georgia Theatre in August 2009, owner Wilmot Greene put all the money he had toward the rebuilding efforts. The money he received from the building’s insurance policy, however, was barely enough to clear the music venue’s charred remains. But Greene wasn’t fazed, and certainly had no plans of abandoning the business he first bought in 2004. Donations from musical artists, members of the community, and other friends totaled 7 percent of the cost it would take to bring the theater back to life, but even with these contributions, Greene said he basically had to “start from scratch” in order to finance his plans for the new building, which had a price tag of over $4 million, requiring the 41-year-old to borrow a substantial amount of money.
Since it reopened last August, the Georgia Theatre has held 120 concerts, said Greene, and 70 of them have packed the venue above 80 percent capacity, which is no small number given the estimated capacity of 1028.
“We’ve done really well since opening,” Greene said. There was a dramatic spike in the early months’ attendance numbers, as 16 out of 22 shows in August sold out. “Business is good; August and September were great, but it’s leveled back and now it’s sustainable,” he said. Greene now controls a much larger operation than before, one that requires more than twice the maintenance and staff of the old theater; 85 employees now work at the venue, 20 of which are full-time.
“We can’t get comfortable facing an insane amount of debt, and summer is always terrible,” he said. When he was working in the old theater, Greene said he was comfortable going into the summer with $50,000 in the bank, but now he’s not sure—he could need more.
Some businesses only notice an impact when well-known artists, such as Widespread Panic, come to town, because they attract a large, diverse crowd.
Sophia Templeton, an assistant manager at the boutique Encore, experienced this firsthand, and now finds it easier to point out people who are in town for a show at the Theatre. “[Widespread] Panic coming to town brought a surplus of shoppers,” she said. “They brought so many different people to town; now we definitely notice people in town if there’s a big act playing.”
Derek Williams, an employee at the restaurant Transmetropolitan, said that he has seen a “definite increase in business before shows, especially big ones.”
Employees at some stores have found that certain crowds visiting the theater are drawn to their stores.
“Widespread Panic brought in more customers, and we’re just happy to have the theater open again because the crowd is partial to our merchandise,” said Natalya Haas, sales associate at Native America Gallery, a small boutique.
Some stores have even extended their hours to accommodate visitors, who have given them business in return.
“Shows bring in money from out of town, and out-of-towners have bought lots of vinyl [records],” said Nate Mitchell, a clerk at Wuxtry, a music store. “There have been a few shows where we’ve stayed open later for out-of-towners—business picks up.”
One business that the Georgia Theatre’s reopening has undoubtedly benefited is the Holiday Inn downtown, as mentioned previously.
“Holiday Inn has always had a very strong relationship with the Theatre, and keeps in constant contact with the people there,” said Norris. “We continuously kept in contact with them while the Theatre was closed.”
Since the theater’s reopening, the downtown Holiday Inn has had “a significant pickup,” according to Norris. “I have seen a spike in weekend and leisure guests, and a good portion of that is artists and out-of-town guests,” he said.
Norris also said that Holiday Inn has an agreement with the Georgia Theatre to keep a link to the hotel on its website, and in return the hotel gives discounts ranging from 10 to 25 percent to patrons of the venue. Since the reopening, Norris said he has seen an increase in room rentals in the range of 10 to 15 percent when “sizeable events” take place, filling vacant rooms. He also said the number of walk-in customers, especially later at night, increases when there’s a show at the theater. Like many business owners, Norris welcomes the return of business that was gone for the two years the theater was closed.
“When the Georgia Theatre was closed, we saw a downturn or reduction in occupancy,” said Norris.
The Georgia Theatre’s relationship with Holiday Inn is particularly symbiotic, but the theater’s management also keeps in constant contact with one of its biggest competitors, the 40 Watt Club. In fact, when the theater burned down, the management at the 40 Watt, specifically booking agent Velena Vego, helped to communicate with several bands that had been scheduled to play at the Georgia Theatre, and even took on some of the shows.
Vego has been the booking agent at the 40 Watt Club for 21 years. She is friends with Greene and the rest of management at the Georgia Theatre, and said she “definitely wanted it to reopen.” She estimates the two venues only compete for three to seven shows a year.
“There are 70,000 people here—there’s plenty of room,” she said. “We’re friendly competitors.”
It’s difficult to trace every dollar spent in Athens by people who come to visit the theater, but one thing is for sure: they spend money. Cameron Pratt graduated from the University last year and now works in Atlanta. He, along with his friends, “flock back for shows.”
“If there was no show, we wouldn’t be coming back,” Pratt said. “We don’t come back for the bars.” He said he has come back to Athens somewhere between six and eight times since he graduated—all for concerts—and that he spends between $60 and $80 every time at various places. He believes there is a “huge trickle-down effect” because he buys food, goes to the bars, and shops for his girlfriend at the boutiques downtown. “When people come from out of town,” he said, “the pie gets bigger—there’s more money to go around.”
As for the future of the theater, Greene is paying off the loans over a period of approximately 240 months, and as of now, he has 237 payments left.
“Nineteen years and 10 months to go—if we’re lucky,” said Greene. “I’m 41 now, so I figure by the time I’m 61, I’ll be about ready to do something else. Someone else can take care of this place.”