20th Anniversary of the Classic Center Brings Reflection on Community Impact

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.”

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