February 20, 2013

The Classic Center Expansion Went Over Well

City Dope

Where's Blane Marable? Belly dancers with FloorSpace Studio and the Gretchen Elsner Troupe of human-sized puppets perform at the Classic Center grand opening Feb. 16.

David Ellison looked up at the sculpture hanging from the ceiling of the new Classic Center atrium. "How much did that cost again?" he asked. About $140,000, I told him—but I might have done it for just $135,000.

"At least it would've gone back into the local economy," Ellison said. "It is what it is. I don't make the decisions."

"Nest" is probably the only even slightly controversial thing left about Classic Center expansion. Once derided as a waste of tax money that would eat up the eastern half of downtown and cut it off from the North Oconee River, the estimated 2,000 people who attended the grand opening seemed quite pleased with the way it turned out.

"I love it. I think it'll be really good for us," said Athens-Clarke Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, who served on the SPLOST committee that initially left the expansion off the sales-tax list in 2010 before the commission added it back.

Opposing the Classic Center expansion was sort of the hip thing to do three years ago, but more than 60 percent of voters favored the nearly $200 million SPLOST package. Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer thanked "each and every one of you who had the courage to vote for this project." 

Melissa Link was one of those who was originally skeptical, but she's since changed her mind. A master plan underway for downtown can address many of the connectivity issues raised by critics of the expansion, she said.

Link is a member of the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission, which selects public art for the local government. "A project like this had to be world-class," she said of Kelly's piece.

Not that Athens is lacking in world-class artists, but Maureen Kelly, of St. Louis, MO, does nothing but make public art for a living, and so she was uniquely qualified. "We could not be happier with the public art selected for the atrium," ACAC Chairwoman Marilyn Wolf-Ragatz said.

Feelings must still be a bit raw about "Nest," because it was talked about more than any other aspect of the expansion on Saturday. The ACAC is soliciting proposals from local artists for upcoming public art projects at the Athens-Clarke County Library and the new Rocksprings Park pool. And Hotel Indigo's Didi Dunphy curated two exhibits now on display at the Classic Center featuring 11 local artists like Michael Lachowski and Art Rosenbaum.

But the big picture isn't the art. It's the money. The expansion will allow the Classic Center to rent out the atrium for events and more than double the number of people who can fit into the Grand Hall for conventions and trade shows. Yeah, maybe the estimates of a $6 million annual economic impact and 200 jobs are a bit inflated, but no one can deny that thousands more people will be spending money in our shops, restaurants and hotels. 

"Tourism is economic development," Mayor Nancy Denson said. "It's good, clean, economic development. And it's our hospitality that keeps people coming back."

Cramer also emphasized that the expansion isn't just for visitors. It's for locals, too. The Classic Center plays host to a number of events open to the general public, like a home-and-garden show this weekend. "We know this will be a space where the entire community will benefit," he said.

Das Boot: The Athens Downtown Development Authority is cracking down on unpaid parking tickets, and Chuck Horton, the ADDA's interim parking director, is booting folks like they owe him money. Because they do.

When Horton, a former UGA police chief, replaced Laura Miller, who quit in December, he was shocked at the number of people with unpaid parking tickets. Over the decades, drivers have accumulated about $3 million in unpaid tickets downtown, according to Executive Director Kathryn Lookofsky. "That's a lot of folks who owe a lot of money and don't want to do right," Horton told the ADDA board last week.

Horton is carrying 30 boots in his car and booted eight cars before lunch that day, he said. "Ideally, if folks see a lot of boots, maybe they'll come in and pay up," he said.

The ADDA is focusing on drivers who've accumulated $50 or more in tickets, but some owe far more than that. One person has gotten more than $300 in tickets on each of his two vehicles, Horton said, but Lookofsky said the record during her seven-year tenure is $2,000—and on a 30-year-old car that probably wasn't even worth that much, to boot.

Happiness Is A Warm Pan: There must be some kind of conservative talking point going around about how more people are killed with hammers and frying pans each year than guns. First state Sen. Bill Jackson (R-Augusta) made that claim to Walter Jones of Morris News Service. Then U.S. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Athens) repeated it after President Obama's State of the Union address.

Slate dug up the FBI statistics and found that 8,583 people were murdered with firearms in 2011, compared to 496 with blunt objects, including hammers, baseball bats, crowbars, rocks and electric guitars. Broun was off by a factor of 17, but to his credit, he was way closer than when he tried to estimate the age of the Earth.

Speaking of things that are made up, the AJC reported that Broun recently sent out a Senate campaign fundraising letter bragging about being the first congressman to call Obama a socialist. He's wrong. That honor goes to U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and George Voinovich (R-OH), according to

Call Your Legislator: Rep. Earnest Smith (D-Augusta) is sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal to paste someone's head onto someone else's body. Flagpole's production director Larry Tenner—the genius behind covers like Mitt Zomney—nearly had a stroke. Pete may have to register as a lobbyist and start handing out free football tickets to nip this thing in the bud. If you love our silly Photoshopped covers, call your legislators today and tell them to stop House Bill 39.