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.”


Undocumented students in Athens left with few in-state college options

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.”


Tim Denson: working for change from outside the mayor’s office

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 »


Animal shelter expansion aims to reduce euthanasia

By Audrey Milam

Athens-Clarke County Animal Control expects the expansion to the shelter on Buddy Christian Way to be completed in June.

The expansion, one of 33 projects funded by the 2011 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, package, will allow more animals to stay longer, reducing the euthanasia rate of adoptable animals.

According to Animal Control Superintendent Patrick Rives, the expansion includes plans for six kennels added to the existing 30, and an additional five quarantine kennels built in another location for dogs with behavioral problems.

“Right now those quarantine pens are part of our existing kennels,” Rives said, “so moving those dogs to these other pens will open up additional capacity as well.”

The 3500-square feet of new construction will also include a heated puppy care room, administrative offices, an evidence storage room and a larger intake area designed to ease the process for introducing dogs into the shelter.

“The flow of animals through will make a lot more sense,” Rives said, referring to the current layout that requires officers to process new dogs in the back of the shelter and move them around until they are ready for the kennels at the front.

Susan, a volunteer of four years, takes a black lab from one such kennel. A purple wooden sign says, “I’m an owner surrender.” A green sign says, “I’m housebroken.”

The lab, Lottie, plays with Hawkins in a 15 by 15-foot gravel pen. Freezing rain falls, but Susan stays. “I stay until they’re all out,” she says.

Susan is hopeful that the expansion will help save dogs like Lottie. Her owners adopted her from the shelter after Animal Control seized Lottie and several Chihuahuas from a hoarder.

They returned her, Susan said, because she kept getting out of the fence.

An expected efficiency boost will come from the addition of a cat shelter wing to the main shelter. Currently the staff walk the back and forth between the separate cat and dog facilities.

Volunteer Meredith Pierce, 21, said the joint facilities may also lead to “cross-exposure” of adoptable animals, meaning people looking for a dog may take home a cat too.

Pierce, along with friend Jeremy Bullard, 23, also thinks the changes will allow greater capacity for volunteers. On the weekends, she said, there can be one or more volunteers per dog at a time.

According to the Animal Control’s records, nearly 1500 people have volunteered in the last six months alone.

The mayor and county commission regularly review the planning, design and construction at public meetings, like all of the 2011 SPLOST “community improvement projects,” according to the Athens-Clarke County official website.

Although county voters approved the project in November of 2010, ground did not break on the shelter expansion until October of last year. Phillips Brothers Contracting, Inc. won the contract with the county for $1,074,202, although there is a little more than $200,000 extra budgeted for the project.

The Animal Shelter project makes up only two-thirds of one-percent of the total budget for the 2011 SPLOST package. The one-cent sales tax raised nearly $200,000,000 over the course of the tax term.

The shelter modifications cost each of the county’s residents only $10.65 in additional taxes, spread over three years.

That 10 bucks and change, or about two medium lattes, is helping Athens-Clarke County Animal Control ensure that the euthanasia rates that have consistently dropped during Superintendent Rives’ tenure, will continue to fall for another 19 years.

From July 2014 to January 2015, only 115 adoptable animals were euthanized, about 8.8-percent of all animals that came through the shelter. Animal Control Officer Michelle Carrigg said, “We’re not a no-kill shelter, but we’re a low-kill shelter, because our rates are very low for adoptable dogs.”

“We try our best to leave the dogs at home,” Carrigg said, “and then the ones that have to come here, when they are here we work hard with our volunteers to get them out via adoption or rescue.”

Keeping animals out of the shelter is key to keeping euthanasia low. Animal Control is only required to hold strays for five days before they euthanize, although they keep many animals longer if they have the space. When the shelter is crowded, however, officers are forced to euthanize the animals that have been there the longest.

Owner-surrendered animals like Lottie the black lab have no holding period. She would be the first to go.

The increased capacity of the renovated facility, however, will allow Animal Control to humanely serve a greater number of animals like Lottie.


Counties, dealers still adjusting to Title Ad Valorem Tax

By Taylor West

Just over a year into the new Title Ad Valorem Tax system, the technical kinks are being worked out and people are adjusting to the changes, but those changes have created systematic winners and losers.

The TAVT, which officially began March 1, 2013, replaced the 7 percent sales tax and annual ad valorem tax, or Birthday tax — and is going to cost Georgia’s local counties and school systems millions.

“We are starting to see where the money is going to flow,” said Athens-Clarke County Tax Commissioner Mitch Schrader. Read the rest of this entry »


Illegal tire dumping: a problem without a solution

By David Schick

Paul Martin didn’t see the hidden closing costs when he purchased the property where the old Omni Club sits. A quick survey of the ends of his property would reveal an illegal tire dump close to Briarcliff creek. What he soon realized is that the cost of disposing tires properly is exorbitant and often falls on the property owner.

Scrap tire disposal isn’t just an Athens-Clarke County problem.

In the early 1990s, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources created a Scrap Tire Program designed to clean up and recycle about 12 million tires that were housed in illegal stockpiles around Georgia. The landfilling of whole-sized tires has been banned since Dec. 31, 1994.

Read the rest of this entry »


LGBT Community Working Within UGA and Athens-Clarke County

Athens, apart from being recognized as a college town, is known for being a culturally diverse place with a progressive society. The downtown Athens area even has a reputation for having a bar or club for every social “scene.”

But what about the Lesbian, Gay, bi-sexual, and transgender community, commonly known as the LGBT community? Athens has a large and active LGBT community, but has no official place to gather outside of the LGBT Resource Center on the UGA campus.

Athens-Clarke County and the University of Georgia both show support for the LGBT community, but there seems to be some sort of disconnect between the community and the two institutions. Athens-Clarke County offers full domestic partnership benefits for city and county workers, however the University of Georgia does not. The university has an official LGBT resource center, whereas Athens-Clarke County lacks any official center for members of the LGBT community and has not had an official “gay-friendly” establishment in 5 years. Read the rest of this entry »


Downtown Police Substation Brings Reassurance Four Years Later

 By Ashton Adams

When an incompliant man began pounding on the glass windows outside the Smoker’s Den on College Avenue last week, employees didn’t bother calling the authorities.

Instead, manager Tonya Thorne walked next door and the situation was handled in less than two minutes.

The Smoker’s Den shares walls with the downtown police substation, a building whose presence alone has brought security back to downtown.

Read the rest of this entry »


Athens Area Chamber of Commerce makes global connection

By Emily Curl

While located in opposite sides of the globe, Athens-Clarke County and the City of Greater Geelong in Victoria, Australia have much more in common than one would suspect.

In hopes to improve downtown development and bring additional business to Athens, officials are researching and discussing new ways to help Athens’ businesses develop and succeed.

On February 8th, officials from the two cities met to discuss mutual interests in opportunities for economic development and signed a “Memorandum of Understanding to acknowledge the strategic relationship between the two cities,” as stated on the Athens-Clarke County website. Read the rest of this entry »


Last Sign Standing: Athens Restaurant Battles Code Enforcement

By Kyle MacArthur Wingfield

A little sign is catching big attention.

Ryan Myers, owner of Amici Cafe, said for years his restaurant used a sandwich board to market deals to the public.

“We have an A-frame sign we’ve been using for three years to advertise daily specials,” Myers said. “It generates money for not only us but the city in tax dollars. Whatever we put on this sign, it sells. The sidewalks create business for everybody.”

The sign did not become an issue until recently, according to Myers. A code enforcement officer would “come around once a year and tell us not to do it,” Myers said, “and that’s all you’d hear from them. We’d put the sign out, the code enforcer would come by, we’d take it in for a week, then put it out again. It became a battle, and we kept getting warnings.”

The warnings are the result of a sign ordinance passed by the Athens-Clarke County Commission in 2005 due to safety concern and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, Sarah Anne Perry wrote in Flagpole. The ordinance came to fruition due to a visually impaired man who was tripping over signs in the sidewalk and had threatened to sue, according to Perry.

The ACC government established that it is “unlawful for any person to direct, order, or instigate placing of signs in the public right-of-way,” according to Section 7-4-9 of the ACC Code of Ordinances.

A business usually receives two code violation warnings before consequences escalate, according to Mike Spagna, Community Protection Administrator for Athens-Clarke County. If the violation does not improve after the initial warnings, said Spagna, business owners are then brought before a judge.

Myers’ restaurant continued receiving warnings until his business was issued a citation to appear in court. “I get that,” he said. “You can only write so many warnings.” But Myers is determined to seek change in the county’s sign ordinance.

“I feel petty, getting wound up about it because it’s such a silly thing,” Myers said. “But it is such a silly thing. It’s a very grey area […] the code needs to be revised and revisited.”

Local business owners side with Myers. A recent survey conducted by the Athens Downtown Development Authority asked businesses for their thoughts on sidewalk sandwich boards. The ADDA received responses from 16 local businesses saying sidewalk signs have a positive impact on business.

Myers said sidewalk signs add to the Athens experience. “A lot of times, we’d put something funny on it that would make people look at it,” Myers said. The signs “give character to downtown; some people are funny with them. It allows you to see something.”

Athens business owners told the ADDA survey that sandwich boards are “creative and tasteful” and “add a charm downtown area.” Even owners who do not advertise with signs felt strongly that other businesses should be allowed to use them, so long as they are “reasonably sized and do not block pedestrian traffic.”

Amici’s sign sat flush against the building, according to Myers. “In no way does anybody have to change their pathway to get around it,” he said. “What they do have to change their path for is the railing, our café area.”

So Myers looked for ways around the ordinance. “We asked if we could move the sign into the doorway,” he said, “but that was still in the way.” Myers also questioned the code enforcer about removing a table and placing the sandwich board inside the railing of Amici’s dining area. “But they said no,” he said. “There was no way around it.”

A walk down Clayton Street Wednesday afternoon revealed multiple businesses with similar signs. The sandwich boards were placed in doorways, walkways, and inside the railings of restaurants and shops.

Athens local Ross Thomas, a junior at the University of Georgia, walked past a portable sign entering an Athens venue Tuesday. Thomas became heated when informed of the city’s sign ordinances.

“I think the city should spend time fixing broken and uneven sidewalks instead of fining honest businesses,” Thomas said. “A sign is a more visible obstacle than uneven cracks and curbs and presents a less physical danger.”

Amici’s sandwich board is currently in storage. “Part of me wanted to keep putting it out and just take the fines,” Myers said, “but I’m not sure what would happen if the sign were out again when we’ve already been ordered to court.”

Myers is awaiting the verdict of the court before placing the sandwich board on the sidewalk again. “The battle is being fought,” Myers said. “I don’t want to add fuel to the fire. I’ve been pretty vocal about my thoughts on it.”