Classic Center continuing upward trend through expansion

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.”

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