On Feb. 4, Mayor Denson appears before the Athens Rotary Club to give her annual State of the City address. She is excited to stand before her peers, colleagues, and opponents to report encouraging statistics about the city she loves.
Walk into her office the next week, and you’ll see the different folders with papers she has to go through before past Tuesday’s meeting arrives. She also shows me the folder of the data she presented in her State of the City address.
“Athens has an unemployment rate of 4.9% the lowest in the state.” she says. “The city is finally getting back to where we were before the recession, but there is still much room for improvement.”
Mayor Denson cites the poverty rate being 38% in Athens as a reason for her concerns.
“We offer a lot of ways to help those in need, many of which isn’t seen in others places in North East Georgia,” Mayor Denson. “Yet, it is not a problem that can be fixed fast.”
According to Online Athens, Athens also saw an 8.5 percent increase in sales tax revenue totaling approximately $900,000. Mayor Denson is also quick to point out that the business proposals coming through her office also totaled well over a million dollars.
“One of the reasons why I ran for mayor in 2010 was because of what I was hearing on my radio,” she says. “Athens once had the highest unemployment rate in the state and was constantly deemed business unfriendly.”
One of the ways Mayor Denson has chosen to change the views of Athens is by starting an Economic Development campaign when she first took office in 2010.
“When I first came into office, I appointed 29 people to a task force to examine the businesses in Athens to see what needed to be improved,” Mayor Denson continued. “It took them nine months to present me with a document that I then appointed a committee of five commissioners to begin to examine along with myself.”
Mayor Denson recalls how Athens has changed since the start of the campaign.
“Since beginning this campaign, I have had people come up to me and comment how Athens has changed,” Mayor Denson said. “I had a builder come up to me while I was at lunch with a friend of mine and say, “Mayor Denson, you are doing a great job for businesses. The departments are much easier to work with,”” Mayor Denson recalled. “I told him that I hadn’t done anything, and he replied that just by starting the philosophy, things were getting better.”
Being the mayor also means Mayor Denson is involved in key negotiations with businesses planning on coming to Athens. A job she describes as no easy task.
This was seen in 2012 in talks between Oconee and Athens-Clarke counties began to see who would gain a new Caterpillar Plant desiring to open in one of the two counties.
“I always have said if I didn’t get an ulcer from that, I never would get one.” Mayor Denson laughs.” She paints the day very clearly.
“I was on the phone with the company and Oconee County,” Mayor Denson recalls. “Their negotiator said that they wanted Athens to bring more to the table then what we were.”
What she describes happening next is nothing but “a gut feeling” taking over.
“I told the negotiator that Athens had offered all that it could,” she continued. “All sides were astonished, and my team was as well. I knew it could cost us the company, but I was hoping not.”
A few days later, Mayor Denson received the call that the Caterpillar Plant would be coming to Athens.
“It’s a very secretive process,” Mayor Denson remembers. “We couldn’t tell anyone what was going on until it was said, done, and over with. When the community received word of what had happened, Athens was all smiles.”
As they should be, an Online Athens article from 2012 stated that the plant would bring 4,200 jobs, $2.4 billion to Athens.
“It was amazing,” Mayor Denson said. “It still is and comes up a lot.”
When Denson talks about the 2014 campaign, she is not hesitant to admit it was full of nasty politics that was not there in her 2010 run for mayor.
“It was just two people running opposed to their being five of us last time,” Denson said. “There were a lot of personal attacks.”
Some of those attacks came from the mention of the Caterpillar project. According to Flagpole.com, in an article complied before the election, writer Blake Aued says that Mayor Denson eventually winning the mayoral race against opponent Tim Denson would be no surprise.
He states, “Yet the conventional wisdom in political circles is that Nancy is unbeatable, that all she has to do is stand up and say “Caterpillar” and bulldoze the opposition.”
Mayor Denson has a different opinion about her winning the mayoral race.
“It was much more exciting since it was a validation not only for myself, but that this was the right thing for community,” Denson said. “It was very intense.”
Mayor Denson’s life is now revolving around the possibility of her daughter Georgia District 59 Representative Margaret Kaiser running for Mayor of Atlanta in 2017.
“She is about 95% sure she is going to run,” Mayor Denson said. “I couldn’t be happier for her. She is someone Atlanta needs.”
Mayor Denson smiles as she talks about the possibility of having another mayor in the family.
“She is willing to listen to all sides of an issue and is willing to put her money where her mouth is,” she continued. “Atlanta would be lucky to have her.”
When Mayor Denson is not behind her desk, she enjoys many leisurely actives such as watching Law and Order.
“I believe I have seen every Law and Order there is,” she laughs. “That’s why it is ok when I fall asleep watching it, because I am sure I have seen the episode before some time or another.”
She also enjoys spending time with her friends and family. Nine years ago, her husband, Bob, died suddenly.
“When I won the Mayoral Election in 2010,” she said. “I looked up to God and said, “I hope you didn’t take Bob away from me for this.” I hadn’t ran for mayor before because it had been something I would have never did if he was still here, but later on he became very active in Margaret’s campaign for Representative. I missed having him helping out in my election.”
Despite the day drawing to a close and the sun beginning to set, Mayor Denson decides to stay in her office before going to an engagement later that night. She laughs and says that some days she forgets what her house looks like in the daylight.
“Being mayor is a tough job, but I love it.” Mayor Denson said.
By Evelyn Andrews
Many people visiting breweries come in expecting to buy beer or bottles to take home. Laws restricting brewery sales make that impossible in Georgia, a fact Erin Moschak, a manager at Creature Comforts Brewing Company, says causes confusion for customers and ultimately, lost profits for breweries.
“At least 10 people a day will just not understand. They want to walk in and buy a beer,” Moschak said. “They don’t understand that they cannot buy a beer directly and sometimes they will get extremely confused and even leave.”
Instead of selling beer, Creature Comforts and similar breweries sell a glass that the beer is distributed in along with a wristband that allows a customer six samples of free beer since they are not allowed to sell beer to consumers. Moschak said this system “essentially the same” as selling beer directly.
The laws in Georgia restricting breweries that cause these situations were enacted during the post-Prohibition era and have remained largely unaltered since then. These laws restrict breweries ability to sell alcohol directly to consumers, force them to be open to the public for a certain number of hours and do not allow them to sell beer that consumers can take home. Georgia beer brewers and state legislators are hoping to change that.
Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna) introduced last week the Georgia Beer Jobs Act, Senate Bill 63. The bill would allow breweries, such as Creature Comforts or Terrapin, to sell up to 72 ounces of beer per person. Copper Creek Brewery and other brewpubs, breweries sell food in addition to beer, like it would be able to 144 ounces per person. Both breweries and brewpubs would be allowed to sell a 12-pack of beer that a customer could take off the premises of the business.
Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Athens), one of five co-sponsors of the bill, said Georgia is losing revenue and tourism because of the restrictions.
“I think we are missing some opportunities on growing our industries and, more particularly, a lot of tourism capabilities,” said Sen. Ginn, the chairman of the Economic Development and Tourism Committee.
However, the amount of revenue that Georgia would gain if the laws were repealed is unclear, Sen. Ginn.
Many local brewery owners agree that the laws hurt their businesses’ growth and stifle the creation of new breweries.
Data from the Brewer’s Association shows Georgia is No. 44 in the nation for breweries per capita, a fact many hypothesize as a result of the restrictions placed on the businesses. The state is No. 29 in the nation for total breweries with a total of No. 22, according to data by the New Yorker.
Only five states in the U.S., including Georgia, do not allow breweries to sell alcohol directly to customers, according to statistics from the Brewer’s Association. The last in the Southeast to continue enforcing these laws is Georgia.
Repealing the three-tier system comprises a core part of the bill, which has to be done in order to for breweries to sell alcohol to consumers. The three-tier system divides the groups involved in selling beer into three sections that define their limitations on selling beer.
“The three-tier system keeps a strict line between the people that manufacture alcohol, distribute alcohol and retail alcohol,” Sen. Gill said.
Breweries manufacture the beer that is sold to distributors who then sell the beer to retailers which consumers buy the beer from. This system was created to stifle the creation of monopolies and protect consumers.
Distributors of alcohol comprise the majority of the support base for the current laws, contending that the laws protect concerns, according to a Flagpole Magazine article. However, Sen. Ginn said that while that was a concern during the Prohibition era when the laws were created, enough consumer protection laws now exist to eliminate that issue.
“There were not as many consumer protection laws during the Prohibition era that there are today,” Sen. Gill said. “That is one of the arguments against the three-tier system, that there is more opportunity to protect the public today.”
The three-tier system still in effect, in part, because of the effect religion has on people’s perceptions of alcohol, Sen. Ginn said.
“The way that we treat breweries in Georgia has a lot to do with our history and people’s upbringings and beliefs, such as people look at like alcohol is a sin,” he said.
Passing the bill could be a formidable task due to the power of distributors’ lobbying efforts, according to a Flagpole Magazine article, and could amount to a two-year process. However, Sen. Ginn said the bill has been assigned to a committee and will vote on the bill in the coming weeks.
The supporters of the bill hope that the bill will also define brewpubs restrictions, allow breweries to set their own hours and change tasting room restrictions.
Creature Comforts will still likely have a wristband system to limit consumers’ beer consumption to the legal amount, but the law will still help their business, Moschak said.
“We do not even know yet what we will do if the bill passes, but it definitely will help stop how confused our customers are,” Moschak said.
By Luke Dixon
Starting in 2012, the Classic Center began a series of drastic changes, some of the largest amount of growth during its 20-year history in Athens.
That year, the Athens-Clarke County commission approved the initial expansion of Athens’ downtown Civic Center, the Classic Center to add a Grand Hall and Atrium. The initial project was funded through a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), which was a penny tax added locally in Athens.
Since the completion of its $24 million expansion, the Classic Center has added to the diversity of its 700 events it hosts each day of the year, generating $65 million in revenue during the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the Classic Center’s Economic report and brochure.
Following the initial expansion, Athens Mayor Nancy Denson called the Classic Center the city’s “crown jewel,” according to a 2013 report from the Athens Banner-Herald.
A year following the expansion start, the Classic Center polished its crown jewel through a $5.4 million bond purchased a portable ice hockey system that could be used to host hockey games and public skating at any point throughout the year. Two of the primary beneficiaries of the Classic Center’s expansion have been the University of Georgia’s club hockey team and the Classic City Roller Girls roller derby team.
Although they’ve grown financially, the Classic Center’s main mission, according to Director Paul Cramer, remains serving the community of Athens. This is done through large events like conventions, which bring over 300,000 people to visit Athens each year that otherwise, would not visit the Classic City, according to the Classic Center’s 2012-13 Economic report submitted to the City of Athens.
“Oh, absolutely,” Cramer said of the Classic Center being impactful to the downtown Athens area. “I think that’s the best thing the mayor and commission did, and my board did when they articulated the mission. They made it clear that it was our job to balance those things out.”
Make no mistake, the Classic Center is a business first and foremost, but as Cramer puts it, they exist to serve Athens and bring business to local Athenians throughout the year.
“What I had pledged to the mayor and commission if they would allow those things, I think I could bring in 10 more groups of larger size that could have a profound economic impact on the community,” Cramer said. “I think we’re now up to 29 of those groups that have confirmed.”
Those groups and visitors attending the larger events, like conventions, accounted for 9 percent of all hotel room nights, according to the 2012-13 Classic Center economic report.
In addition to the building itself, the Classic Center staff underwent some major renovation since the expansion.
They have learned new skills to prepare for new events that arrived after 2012. For example, they now install and remove an ice rink and telescopic portable seating in and out of the grand hall, according to Kurt Kozlozki, the Director of Building Operations and Information Technology at the Classic Center.
“This rink was new to everybody in my department,” Kozlozki said. “Obviously, it took up a lot of our time to get everybody to learn how to properly staff it and do the installation and when it’s in for a longer time, learn how to manage the quality of the ice and all of the equipment that goes with it.”
Kozolzki also decided, along with Cramer, what additional equipment the Classic Center would purchase as part of their expansion for new events in their facilities. His role and his department’s role have increased dramatically. Now they often work around the clock multiple days in a row, preparing the Grand Hall and Atrium for the next big event.
Despite the additional equipment and man hours, Kozolzki said he’s enjoyed this new chapter, especially because it means his workday is rarely the same.
“It’s growth is what I’d say,” Kozolzki said about the Classic Center’s recent changes. “Everything about it has been good. I like working here because it’s constantly changing. What I love is taking on new things like this.”
Immediately after a hockey game ends, Kozlozki and his crew start unhinging and unscrewing the parts to the rink as the sound of screws and hammering ring throughout the Grand Hall. Workers move diligently, similar to ants building a mound to get ready for the next storm.
In the two, now almost three years since this undertaking began, the Classic Center has gotten direct feedback on the fruits of their labor both from the community and financial books.
In 2012-13, the Classic Center hosted 1,275 event days bringing $65 million of revenue to the city of Athens, according to their economic report and brochure.
“We’re up 36% year after year,” Cramer said. “Our number of events today is around 700 events. It’s remarkable. Throughout the month of December and into April sometimes we’ll have nine events going on simultaneously.”
An example of the simultaneous events going on would be a roller derby match in the Grand Hall where there are 1000-2100 fans cheering the Classic City Roller Girls on while in the theatre, a comedian or musician hosts a concert to a more subdued and relaxed audience.
From the community standpoint, they’ve gone from filling 30,000 per night hotels to eclipsing the 60,000 per night hotels, a measure approximated by the average number of people staying in hotels in and around Athens. Within Athens proper, there are 2,431 hotel rooms, according to visitathensga.com, meaning if all the hotel rooms are filled on a given night, that’s 10,000 visitors in the city of Athens. According to Arena and Pavilion Services Manager, Danny Bryant, these numbers includes people who’ve returned to Athens multiple times because of their initial experience.
“I think people, to use a bad pun, always come away impressed,” Bryant said referring to the Classic Center’s motto. “I think a lot of people don’t expect this out of what you would call a civic center. We don’t really refer to ourselves as that, but that’s what we are. Most places you walk in, it’s big boxy ballrooms and concrete floors. Even our exhibit hall is carpeted. Groups that come in here for the first time because they were too big for us before, we’re noticing they’re really enjoying it because they’re coming back more and enjoying themselves more.”
Now that the expansion is complete, the Classic Center is an all-day, everyday operation. The building and its staff believe they have truly performed their civic duty.
“I like to think that [the city of Athens] loves us because I think that we’re the third largest revenue generator in the city, and that’s behind UGA,” Bryant said. “That’s a really good moniker to have. One of our jobs is to fill these hotel rooms and to maximize the economic impact of the city. We try our best to do that.”
By Lauren McDonald
As a senior in high school, Alejandro Galeana-Salinas had the grades and the ambitions to go to a top university in Georgia. But because of his legal residency status, he didn’t have the option to apply.
“It was senior year – my final year – and next year I would be out in the real world, paying bills,” said the recent Cedar Shoals High School graduate. “It was either college or bust.”
Of the approximately 3,000 undocumented students who graduate from Georgia high schools every year, none may receive in-state tuition rates or federal aid to attend college, per state policy.
The University System of Georgia also bans undocumented students from attending five of the top public schools in the state of Georgia, including the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University.
For undocumented students who would otherwise possess the credentials to attend one of the top five schools and who cannot afford to attend college without federal aid or in-state tuition, the ban restricts their access to most options of higher education in Georgia.
These state policies left Galeana-Salinas feeling apathetic about his future for the first half of his high school career.
Galeana-Salinas said his plans at that time did not extend further than receiving a high school diploma and applying for a position to work in a factory with his parents.
“I thought, ‘There’s no point in me going to college, I’m not going to make it,’” he said. “That was just what I thought. My parents work in factories, and I don’t know anyone who goes to big colleges. The people that I do know go to Athens Tech, so I didn’t see the point.”
In 2010, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents implemented these policies due to the concern that undocumented students would take college seats away from natural-born citizens.
“The purpose of the policy was to mirror state law as passed by the Georgia General Assembly,” said Charlie Sutlive, USG vice chancellor for communications.
In 2010, a USG report also found that, of the 310,000 students enrolled in University System of Georgia institutions, 501 were undocumented.
Federal law entitles unauthorized immigrant children to free kindergarten through twelfth grade education, following the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court Plyler v. Doe decision that struck down a state statute that denied funding.
“The Georgia Constitution creates a clear right to public K-12 education, and the U.S. Constitution requires that this right be afforded to Georgia residents equally, regardless of immigration status,” Sutlive said. “However, that requirement does not extend to public higher education.”
For undocumented students with aspirations to attend college, the ban takes a toll on their self-motivation, according to Lauren Emiko Soltis, an activist who has worked with undocumented students for the last four years.
“So many of my students, if you look at their grades from freshman and sophomore year, they’re taking AP classes, and they’re getting 4.0s,” Soltis said. “Then junior year, their grades start to decline. And that’s a reflection of the fact that they realize that they don’t have any options for college.”
The students give up hope, Soltis said.
“By the time that they’re senior or that they graduate, they have internalized failure in order to protect themselves,” Soltis said. “That’s a terrible thing to do to young people, to essentially close off their options for the rest of their lives, in a society where higher education is absolutely essential to economic mobility.”
Georgia’s policies do not match those of most states, Soltis said.
Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina maintain admissions bans on undocumented students, and Georgia, Arizona and Colorado ban undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition. Georgia maintains both policies – the only state to do so.
Galeana-Salinas didn’t realize he had any possible chance to receive an education beyond high school, until he got involved in the undocumented immigrant activist movement.
Attending marches and protests, as well as getting heavily involved with organizations such as the Ambitious for Equal Rights group and the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance, Galeana-Salinas took part in the earliest conversations to found Freedom University.
Founded in Athens in 2011, FU provides an option for undocumented students to continue their education. FU students also take part in the activist movement to lift the bans and increase access to higher education.
“I would go to my high school classes, and I would be like ‘I don’t feel like bubbling in this answer sheet, I do not want to do this homework, I’m sorry but I just don’t care,’” Galeana-Salinas said. “And then I would go to Freedom University, and I was learning about Jim Crow, I was learning about stuff I really loved. These were college-level courses, so we would debate and discuss – things we didn’t do in my high school classes.”
His experience as a student activist at FU altered Galeana-Salinas’ plan.
“In junior year, I started getting focused,” he said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I need to go to college. I can’t work at a factory for the rest of my life, I have more potential than that.’”
But the USG ban left him with few options in-state.
Galeana-Salinas said he knew several undocumented students at Cedar Shoals hindered by the state policy.
“There’s different ways students handle this,” he said. “Some students went and applied to other colleges outside of that spectrum, like to private colleges. A lot of private colleges seem like the answer right now for a lot of us.”
Despite Georgia’s ban, Galeana-Salinas planned to go to college. So he took action, applying to schools out-of-state.
This past year, Galeana-Salinas received a full scholarship to Berea College in Kentucky, where he will begin classes as a psychology major in the fall.
One out of five Freedom University students leave with a full-ride scholarship to an out-of-state school, Soltis said.
“It shows that they are academically qualified, but they have to leave the state of Georgia in order to continue their education,” Soltis said.
But right now, Sutlive said, the Board of Regents does not plan to change the policy. He said the policy continues to achieve its purposes, and USG institutions are adhering to it, including the 25 of the 30 schools that allow undocumented students to attend, if they meet the admissions criteria.
“Given that our policy mirrors state law, until state law changes, the Board is not discussing a change in policy,” Sutlive said.
Even though Galeana-Salinas achieved his goal, he plans to continue with the student activist movement, because he said the fight for education equality for undocumented immigrants has far to go.
“There’s such gray areas when it comes to access to higher education, access to funds, grants and scholarships,” he said. “You just have to keep asking questions.”
By Esther Shim
Residents and businesses in the community of Athens have been limited when it comes to recycling or disposing of broken equipment around the home or workplace. During fall of 2015, the city of Athens, Ga., in response to the lack of proper trash handling, will finally bring in a one-stop-drop facility for those inconvenient, large or dangerous objects that are difficult to recycle.
The 2011 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) is funding the Athens-Clarke County Center for Hard to Recycle Materials facility (ACC CHaRM) or Project #25, which will replace the former Solid Waste Department site at 1005 College Avenue. According to the SPLOST Project Concept, the 11,217 square feet facility will be able to house all necessary equipment and will cost $187,000 to renovate and equip.
On Feb. 2, 2012, the members of the Mayor and Commission meeting approved the Center for Hard to Recycle Material’s concept, designed to accommodate the community’s need for convenient trash management, according to the Athens Banner-Herald. The purpose of the facility is to provide a location that people can bring their large or dangerous items, such as vacuums, mattresses, refrigerators, or even chemically composed objects. This will prevent residents or businesses from having to leave potentially hazardous items on their curbs or in front of their homes, according to the project concept.
Additionally, the concept proposes that it will provide opportunities for the community to learn how to efficiently recycle and use the resources that they have available. There will also be educational programs available to teach the younger generation about the importance of conservation and recycling.
A large area that the facility will affect is the main downtown region of Athens. Suki Janssen, the interim director of the Solid Waste Department, says that downtown is always a challenging area for trash and recycling management due to the lack of alleys to hold disposed or recycled items.
“So many business owners can’t put their trash and recyclables in a less visual location, and they can’t keep it in their facility due to health code violations,” said Janssen.
Business owners and residents will be able to bring in their broken equipment or large objects to an area that is close by and easy to access. Janssen said the facility will also play a large role in raising the waste diversion rates from 47% to 60% by the year of 2018 due to the efficiency that should come from the center’s operational nature.
Items that are dropped off will be sorted and labeled as recyclable or disposable. Large items that are recyclable will be taken apart so that conservable pieces can be reused. Hazardous or chemically composed items that can’t be recycled will be disposed of in landfills. The Solid Waste Department’s goal is to recycle as much of the dropped-off material as possible.
Although the facility is conveniently located and easy to use, the project plan suggests that there will be a small handling and shipping fee for certain items such as electronics, tires, and other reusable objects. The Athens-Clarke County’s concept for the center originated from facilities in Colorado.
The first Center for Hard to Recycle Materials facility was established in Boulder, Colo., and opened in 2001, according to the Eco-Cycle, an organization which helps provide services to help build zero-waste communities. The organization designed the facility with hopes to recycle more objects instead of throwing them away. This not only reduces the amount of trash building up in landfills, but it also provides ways for communities to conserve natural resources by reusing items that have already been used.
The Center for Hard to Recycle Materials has swept through Colorado, and is making its way into Georgia’s communities. The morning of Nov. 15, the Atlanta City Council held a groundbreaking ceremony for its own recycling facility, and the site became operational at the beginning of the year.
Other states have also constructed facilities to hold hazardous or hard to recycle materials, while others have specifically targeted electronics due to their mixed compositions of reusable parts. The Environmental Protection Agency states that many of these facilities have been designed to not only reduce waste, but also to produce economic development opportunities.
In charging a small fee for handling, the facilities provide employment opportunities and generate tax revenues from the operations. Frank Hefner and Calvin Blackwell, professors of the Department of Economics and Finance at the College of Charleston, say that recycling contributes to the economic health of a state just as much as it benefits the environment.
Due to the benefits that recycling and conservation have on the environment as well as the economy, many states in the nation have either adopted the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials facility design, or have chosen to build facilities that are specific to hazardous or reusable items such as electronics or vehicle parts.
The Athens-Clarke County facility will provide many benefits and job opportunities for members of the community. It will be an efficient way for the city to become a more eco-friendly community and a more economically sustainable one as well.
To find out more information about the Athens-Clarke County Center for Hard to Recycle Materials or the origin of the facility, take a look at the following sites:
Origin of CHaRM Facility: www.ecocycle.org/charm
ACC CHaRM Facility: www.athensclarkecounty.com/5849/CHaRM
By: Aaron Conley
The information desk at a local bookstore is not the first place that anyone would expect to find one of the most polarizing political figures in a community, but that is exactly where you will find Tim Denson, and that is exactly how he likes it.
Standing behind the information desk at the Barnes and Noble, his signature beard makes him instantly recognizable, more so than by the simple “Tim” emblazoned on his nametag. His job further exemplifies his status as a political outsider, a central role in his 2014 mayoral campaign.
That campaign failed, and left Tim Denson with a lot of ideas, and a lot of questions, but no answers. Those answers are exactly what Tim is still trying to provide to his supporters today, nine months after the election. Read the rest of this entry »
By: Patrick Adcock
Downtown Athens would not be the same place it is today without the Classic Center.
This year, the center celebrates its 20th anniversary of serving the community. For the past two decades, the center put on events and shows for all ages and became the nucleus for large-scale entertainment in Athens and northeast Georgia.
According to a 2012-2013 economic impact report carried out by IMPLAN, a group that provides economic impact modeling data, the center brought in 360,000 attendees for 1,275 event days that year. This activity resulted in $65 million in economic impact for Athens.
Overnight visitors to the town spend, on average, $277. 19 per day and 9% of the hotel rooms in the surrounding area are related to convention business.
Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols came to the center in 2013 as part of his Clean Fuel Roadshow. The spacious halls allowed for many people to come, and the driveway in the front displayed several eco-cars.
The Classic Center is a big deal for the economy of Athens and the visitors who use the center’s rooms, but the center has not always operated at the same level it does today.
According to the official website of the center, the oldest portion of the center dates back to 1912 and was originally known as Fire Hall No. 1. Several decades ago, it was the town’s fire station.
In 1987, the local government created the Civic Center Study Committee to decide what type of public assembly area would best serve the interests of the citizens. The end result became the Classic Center, and construction began in 1994.
The original building plan would have demolished Fire Hall, but the community spoke up for its preservation.
In 1995, Paul Cramer, the executive director of the center, opened the doors to the public. The first production put on by the theatre was the musical “Cats.”
“The Classic Center has grown tremendously in the past 20 years,” said Cramer, “from one event on the books in 1995 to now 700 events per year.”
During that time, the Classic Center grew with the community of Athens.
Several expansions over the years, most recently in 2013, allowed even more events to be put on for even more attendees. The area of the many rooms and halls now totals 500,000 square feet.
The expansions were the solutions to trouble brewing for the center. If they didn’t expand, the community would outgrow them and the center would gradually lose significance. At the same time, the town of Athens eyes any grand developments suspiciously, hoping to retain its small town origins.
Marketing Manager Elizabeth Austin is pleased with the way things have turned out.
“It was really important to expand when we did,” said Austin. “Certain groups that we serve, such as the North Georgia United Methodists, were beginning to outgrow us.”
“Another one of the great benefits of expanding has been our newfound ability to put on sporting events,” said Austin.
In the end, the people decided to continue funding Classic Center expansions because of what the center was able to give back to the town.
The Classic Center also enjoys a close relationship with the University of Georgia. Sporting teams such as UGA’s club ice hockey team, the Ice Dogs, use the center for tournaments. The Classic City Rollergirls also frequently make use to the center’s arena.
In addition to sporting events, the center’s partnership with UGA allows Broadway shows to come to Athens that would be too costly for either to hire alone.
Thinking forward to 2015, Austin sees a shift in the kinds of events on offer.
“With the expansions, the sheer size of the Classic Center has become an asset for us to put on bigger events while still serving the core Athens community.”
SPLOST, the special-purpose local-option sales tax, funded the 2013 expansion as well as all previous expansions. In Georgia, counties have the ability to levy a sales tax specifically for the development of parks, roads and buildings such as the Classic Center. SPLOST matters to the center, because the retained earnings from the events are relatively small.
In the same IMPLAN study, the projected earnings for fiscal year 2014 are $6.6 million in revenue. Projected expenses of $6.3 million closely match that number. The remaining $300,000 in retained earnings goes toward maintaining the facilities. The Classic Center must continually reinvest in itself in order to continue putting on events.
Looking forward into 2015, there are no more expansions coming down the pipeline for now. For the center’s 20th anniversary, the team plans to put on an event in the spring to make the most of the outdoor pavilion.
Announcements of the time and date for that event will be revealed in the next few months.
Cramer looks back on his time with the center with fondness and sees a positive future ahead.
“I believe we will continue to invest in tourism, expand our entertainment offerings in a way that exceeds expectations of our guest, benefitting the local and regional communities and reap those benefits for years to come.”