Downtown Athens going greener with electric car charging ports

By Luke Dixon

Athens, Georgia is getting greener both literally and figuratively.

Like many small cities and municipalities in the state, Athens is now in the electric car charging business.

Eight electric car-charging stations have been installed throughout Athens-Clarke County. Similar to the ports installed at the University of Georgia’s North Campus and South Campus parking decks, Green Power Technology’s Signet electric car charging ports are downtown at the West Washington Street Parking Deck, Hotel Indigo and The Classic Center.

The City of Athens, the Classic Center, and car dealerships have been the primary beneficiaries of the new bright green spaces so far. Drivers of electric cars in downtown Athens are able to park at the charging space and plug in while they go about their business downtown. The system works via credit card payment, and is controlled through an interactive touch screen.

Electric motorists are able to recharge to 80 percent within half an hour at the Classic Center station. Because of the expedient fill up, a new social protocol has emerged as a result of the new charging stations, according to Athens-Clarke County Central Services coordinator, Andrew Saunders, and it involves leaving your phone number on your car.

“For instance if you show up and go to a concert, and you’re going to spend the day downtown, you might charge and in an hour you might be done,” Saunders said. “If I can park in the spot next to you, I can either see that you’re done and charge my car, or if I’m in a bind, I can call you if you’ve left your number and coordinate that I can use the charger.”

Much of the benefit comes from tax credits offered by the State of Georgia and the Federal government. Purchasers of the electric vehicles can get $5,000 and $7,500 tax breaks, respectively. In essence this knocks off roughly 38 percent of the approximate $32,769 (Kelly Blue Book) price tag of an all-electric car.

The metropolitan Atlanta area has taken the most advantage of these benefits. Eighty percent of registered electric car users in Georgia live in this area, according to a previous article on OnlineAthens.com

Nissan, Hyundai, General Motors and BMW are the most recognizable car brands that have established a relationship with Green Power and types of vehicles, which can be recharged at the chargers in Athens.

The Athens Nissan dealership is the biggest player and business beneficiary of the new ports and spaces. They’ve sold approximately 10 electric vehicles per month as the electric car trend has grown in Athens, according to Saunders.

With 80 percent of Georgia’s electric car sales and owners in the Atlanta area, that would leave few Athenians among those outside that majority, but businesses like the Classic Center wouldn’t install the spaces if they didn’t see the financial benefit to having the spaces.

“It’s a 50-50 split between us and Athens-Clarke County,” Classic Center Assistant Director Philip Verrastro said of the deal the Classic Center and Athens-Clarke County agreed to.

Verrastro said that the Classic Center did not install the charging port to reap immediate financial benefits from the machine, but to serve their customers and patrons in an additional way.

“If we can get more of these things out there, we can get more electric cars out on the road,” he said. “We just wanted to be apart of that and help promote that to our customers as well. ‘Hey, you have an electric car and you’re coming over from Atlanta for a meeting, you can charge it while you’re here.’ It’s become kind of a win-win thing.”

A specific benefit for those who choose to host and install the electric chargers is Georgia Environmental Finance Authority’s rebate program called Charge Georgia. The rebate is offered to civic centers like the Classic Center and local governments like Athens-Clarke County and can amount up to $40,000, according to the GEFA website.

This incentive is what caused Athens-Clarke County to begin considering hosting the charging ports many years ago, according to Saunders. With the tax breaks and rebates available, there is only one issue that remains for the Athens government when it comes to electric charging stations – monitoring their usage.

According to Green Power’s website, the ports work on a subscriber function and you are billed through your card and plan each time you refill. The issue with this for Athens is they currently cannot get usage data from the ports. This is because there is no monitoring agreement in place between Green Power and Athens-Clarke County at the present date. Saunders said such an agreement is in the works and will be finalized soon.

“We’re still negotiating with them on the monitoring, but we will have them monitored and we will be able to tell the charge events in any given month,” he said.

There are benefits for the citizens of Athens, but it could be awhile before the stations help more than a niche industry right now.

“It’s definitely beneficial if you’ve got an electric car and live in Athens,” University of Georgia senior Nick Carlotto said. “I don’t have one, but if I did it would be nice because then I wouldn’t have to drive to Atlanta just to recharge.”

Downtown Athens Parking System (DAPS) could reap benefits, but only if more Athenians have electric cars, according to DAPS Director, Chuck Horton.

He said that so far he hasn’t seen many drivers plug up at the West Washington Street port.

Green Power estimates that it takes 1.8 chargers per car for every car to have access to a station. With Athens having a population of 120,000 and approximately 100,000 adults. If half the adults owned an electric car in Athens-Clarke County, that would call for approximately 90,000 units to be able to service the electric cars, according to Signet’s data of 1.8 charging units per car. That is an inflated number as many electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf, are sold with plug-in-at-home units. If electric car ownership increased, DAPS could start collect more immediate benefits.

Saunders is more optimistic and thinks despite being a little behind the initial electric car push in Georgia, Athens will continue to move in a greener direction and follow Atlanta’s lead in the electric car department, but on its own terms.

“I think Atlanta very quickly discovered the tax incentives and those vehicles are perfectly designed for Atlanta when you think of something that’s a 70-mile range and really gets the highest efficiency on in town driving,” he said. “They had a much earlier adoption, but that’s not to say we haven’t had people in Athens driving them.”

Even before the electric charging stations, Saunders said Athens was a very green and environmentally aware town.

“Yeah, I would certainly say that downtown Athens has been [green],” he said. “If you look, we’ve got the car chargers of course. The Classic Center is a LEED certified building. The new parking deck is LEED Gold.”

In his time at the Classic Center, Verrastro said he has seen Athens grow greener overall, but cautioned that there’s no way of knowing for certain where the electric car trend is heading. He said the addition of more electric charging ports is dependent on if the initial stations are put to use and if more are needed.

“Our [charging station] is very public accessed easily,” he said. “It’ll all be on demand. We’ll look at it annually and if the demand is there, then we’ll certainly look at others, but that’s way too early to tell.”

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Commission Considering Expansion of Drinking Freedoms in Athens

By Luke Dixon

Drinking alcohol in Athens could become less restrictive in the near future, at least the area where you are permitted to do so.

The Athens-Clarke County Commission is set to consider making consumption of alcohol easier and allowing additional outdoor portable signage at sidewalk cafes in Athens.

The original sidewalk café ordinance was adopted by the City of Athens in 1979 and has been amended three times since then in 1994, 2003 and 2011. There are two types of sidewalk cafes as defined by the Legislative Review Committee’s proposal. One is a common area café on College Square, Walker’s which have open space in front of the bar property.

The proposed amendment to the ordinance also states that “cafés attached to the building which are limited to 50% of the sidewalk width and must allow a minimum of 5 feet for a pedestrian path, alcohol is allowed, and dividers are required” according to the commission report and recommendation.

The current ordinance calls for required physical barriers and railings that are placed outside the cafés to mark the territory where patrons can consume alcohol on the sidewalk and patio area.

There are multiple parts to the proposed amendment of the existing ordinance. The first part would allow an option of a physical barrier to be put up or sidewalk cafés no that are not in downtown Athens proper, but rather outside the downtown district. The Legislative Review Committee has proposed two zones– one in downtown, one for the rest of Athens-Clarke County outside of downtown.

The major difference is bars outside downtown wouldn’t require a physical rail boundary. Instead they could use a non-physical marker throughout the sidewalk that would mark where patrons could and could not drink. This would allow sidewalk cafés like Go Bar, which is located on Prince Avenue outside of downtown, to not have to put up a physical barrier on the sidewalk drinking area of their properties since it would fall under the scope of the outside downtown cafés.

The second part of the amendment would allow a place like Creature Comforts Brewery, which is located at the intersection of two streets and has its property on both streets, to be able to apply for a sidewalk café permit on both streets.

The third part of the proposed amendment states that owners of the establishments will be responsible for enforcing the boundary at their particular establishment. This means that any obstruction of the boundary i.e. a person crossing over the boundary could result in a fine to the owner/permit holder of the café. The fourth part of the amendment would eliminate the required pressure washing of the sidewalk by each sidewalk café.

During their discussion, the commissioners agreed with many of the provisions and amendments to the sidewalk café structure in downtown, but some also had some reservation and concerns.

Commissioner Jerry NeSmith was wary about the new boundary requirements outside of downtown. He questioned who would be held liable for any misteps and making sure patrons would be made aware of the new boundary. NeSmith requested the city manager and others proposing the amendment clarify the exact boundary requirements for those cafés.

“I wonder if we should require a sign that tells [patrons] because otherwise if no one tells them, then they’re just not going to know,” NeSmith said.

Commissioner Andy Herod shared the same concern and asked Athens-Clarke Attorney, William Berryman, about the enforcement of the proposed policy.

“I still believe if the patron steps out on the sidewalk, with an open container, that patron is going to have full responsibility,” Berryman said in response. “The government might be able to take an administrative action against the owner of the establishment for not giving the warning, but it won’t change the responsibility of the person with the actual open container.”

From a business standpoint, Jake Fisher, the manager of The Cabin Room, formerly known as The Bury, thinks the physical barriers are necessary to most bars downtown. He said that more space could allow for a less restricting barrier and that if a café has the space, like Creature Comforts Brewery for example, to allow freer roaming drinking space, they should do so.

“I think it has its pros and cons as far as clearing up some sidewalk space and allow some of these bars to expand out for the people who do like to go outside and drink a beer,” Fisher said.

Customers and in particular University of Georgia students would favor expanded drinking space, especially in the warmer months, according to UGA students Brandon Estroff and Logan Booker.

Estroff, said the idea of having more space is great even though it likely won’t effect him following graduation in May.

Booker on the other hand was ecstatic to hear of the possible expansion.

“I think it would just be a more lively atmosphere,” Booker said. “Just being outside in general is more of a festive drinking, not just drinking, but more of a social setting. In spring and fall in Athens, it’s nice to be outside.”

The proposed change in the sign ordinance calls for wall mounted board signs and additional sign allowance for all Athens sidewalk cafés.

These are signs that include menus and drink specials among other information, according to the Legislative Review Committee’s (LRC) report. The LRC is recommending that sidewalk cafes be permitted to use mounted wall signs to display menus and specials outside that are currently on portable signs that are placed outside during a businesses operating hours.

Presently, the ordinance does not allow for mounted wall signs that do not count against a café’s allowed signage space. If the mayor and commission approved the proposed amendment to signage ordinance, the mounted wall signs would not count against sidewalk cafés allowed signage space. The mounted wall signs would be restricted to one per business, two per property if the businesses are stacked on top of each other like Taco Stand and Blue Sky was the example Girtz described during discussion. Each sign would not be able to exceed six square feet.

During the discussion, three commissioners raised concerns about the proposed sign ordinance proposal. Link wanted to clarify the difference between signs and posters under the sign ordinance citing many of the downtown business owners concern of not wanting to further hinder their business’ signage and display, with more upcoming construction in the downtown area.

“I’m hoping that we can tweak our ordinances or at least clarify what constitutes art and what constitutes a sign in the very near future because we are going to be seeing some big giant retaining walls popping up in our downtown area and I know that it would be nice if we had the opportunity to brighten them up a little bit without jumping through a bunch of hoops,” Link said.

Herod was concerned that the change in the downtown sign ordinance could affect the proposed café boundary or hinder the marking of the boundary and Girtz was concerned about the content neutrality of the signs.

“Legally speaking, if they allow one type of signage, they have to allow all type of signage in the public space because we have to have content neutral approach,” Girtz said.

The additional signage allowance would be welcomed by sidewalk café businesses, according to Fisher.

“Having a hanging sign would alleviate some of the problems because when it does get busy, sometimes those signs can get trampled and get in the way,” Fisher said. “It’s happened before where I’ve been to other places where it happens. I’ve seen it happen at our bar, other bars.”

If the commission approves these measures at their montly April meetin, it will allow sidewalk cafes with the space and ability outside of downtown additional space in the outdoor and patio area of their establishments. All bars will be able to hang additional signage without hindering the walkway. It will also give more freedom for their customers to enjoy an alcoholic beverage outdoors just as spring fully arrives in downtown Athens.

Both amendments to the ordinance were tabled for further discussion at the Mayor and Commission’s March 17 agenda setting meeting. They will continue to discuss the proposal during their April monthly meeting.


Economic Development Department off to a Good Start in Athens

By Luke Dixon

Secret and government rarely mean good things in the same sentence.

For the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department, a “government secret” or a temporary secret brought one of the world’s largest construction companies to the Classic City.

That secret was Caterpillar.

Just over two years ago, in February 2013, the Athens-Clarke County Commission passed a resolution, establishing the Economic Development Department. According to athensbusiness.org, the department’s website, their mission is to encourage and bring large industrial companies to Athens.

Eight and a half months following the commission’s resolution, the Caterpillar factory celebrated it’s grand opening on October 31, 2013.

Caterpillar’s arrival to the Athens community was a great first step with a large company, Alan Reddish,. the Manager of the Athens-Clarke County government, told the Athens Banner-Herald in 2012, but they are still focused jobs, regardless of the size of the company.

“We’re looking to try to build tax base and bring sustainable jobs,” Reddish said to the Athens-Banner Herald in 2012. “But we’d also say to you that there are a lot of good jobs with a lot of smaller companies. So we’re not looking for just Caterpillar-sized companies, but a lot of diversity in smaller type businesses as well.”

Bringing these large industrial businesses to Athens not only adds to the variety of businesses, it adds jobs, one of the major points of emphasis from the commission when they created the department just over two years ago.

That two-year anniversary has come and gone, and through their first two years the department has seen steady and stable growth, according to its director, Ryan Moore. They’ve brought new industry to Athens – Caterpillar and Noramco to name a couple of specifics. In those three companies, they work on excavators and tractors, medical grade products, and automotive motors, respectively.

According to Moore, his department has had success in their first two years, especially getting the word out about Athens and its economic opportunities.

“We’re out seeking for development, looking for ways to improve our quality of life here, add to the jobs base,” Moore said.

Between Caterpillar, and Noramco, they employ 1,110 people, approximately 30 percent of all industrial business jobs in Athens, according to the Economic Development Department’s website.

Through their efforts, the department maintains a strong relationship with the State of Georgia’s economic development department, according to Denise Plemmons, Program Support Analyst in Athens Economic Development Department.

“When a lot of industries are looking to relocate, they’ll contact the department of economic development through the state, and they have their people that they then research what all the industry’s looking for,” Plemmons said. “They’ll go into some very specific details about our region or resources that are available in the community. Then they kind of do a spot analysis and that kind of stuff and decide who they think the best fit is and then they’ll go start asking questions.”

In the process of asking their own questions, the companies will occasionally contact the department directly, a rare occasion, but one the department will handle with the utmost sensitivity.

“A lot of stuff is secretive because they don’t want somebody to know that they’re coming,” Plemmons said.

Although the aforementioned Caterpillar project was given one of those secret names, that did not guarantee their arrival, according to Plemmons. None of the secrecy guarantees anything.

Plemmons compared the waiting an actor will often go through following an audition, or anyone interviewing for a job. If they do not get a call back or hear back, they assume they didn’t get it.

Regardless of secrecy or wooing processes the department will undertake, the department makes sure to maintain a relationship with the State Economic Development Department and use that as their main recruiter.

That relationship and others will help the department reach their long-term goals, one of which is developing more property throughout Athens.

“That’s something we need to continue to keep in mind of, and innovative in our approach, is to setup some avenues to have good developed, pad-ready property,” Moore said.

Moore knows it won’t be all easy, like it appeared to the public when Caterpillar arrived. Regardless of the hurdles, Moore said he and his department are 100 percent committed to the industrial sector.

In addition to more industry, they also plan to add a fourth member to their staff in addition to Moore, Plemmons and Amy Lopp, the business development specialist for the department. That position will be established by the Commission at a later date, according to Plemmons.

The position will focus on facilitating the planning of where the potential new businesses will be as well as looking at small industrial businesses that could setup shop in Athens.

If all goes accordingly, Moore believes Athens will be a booming community in as little as five years.

“I would see Athens having a very vibrant industrial sector that coordinates well with the community,” Moore said when asked about Athens in five years. “A research park of sort in collaboration with the University of Georgia, and also some tie-ins to small business and entrepreneurship and just some good ecosystem of growth.”


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.”