November 1, 2017

Amphitheater Proposal Could Clear the Way for Downtown Arena

City Dope

A local developer has filed plans for an 8,000-seat amphitheater off Commerce Road just north of the Loop. And far from obstructing Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer’s plans for a downtown arena, the amphitheater could clear the way.

The amphitheater plans filed last week call for "a large front plaza, terraced turf seating, box seating, covered pavilion seating, concessions, stage, sky suites, office, lodging for performers and service area for performers and vendors," as well as 1,803 parking spaces, according to the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department. It will host acts that are too big to play the Classic Center but too small for a stadium, said James Warnes, the zoning lawyer for the project.

The developer is Clint Larkin, a former University of Georgia football player who lives in nearby Carlton and is also involved in the Hyatt Regency under construction next door to the Classic Center, Warnes said.

Part of the 49-acre parcel is zoned residential, so the project will require a rezoning to commercial-general. The ACC Planning Commission will get its first look at the project Thursday, Nov. 2.

Construction will take about a year from the time permits are approved, Warnes said.

Assuming the amphitheater is successful, a hotel and restaurants could be built on three commercial outparcels along Commerce Road, he added.

Larkin did not return a call seeking comment, but ACC Commissioner Kelly Girtz, who represents that area, said he has spoken with the developer about buffering the amphitheater from the adjacent Creekstone subdivision off Boley Drive. "It's set up to minimize any impact on the neighborhood," he said.

Vehicular access would be off both Commerce Road and Boley Drive, but Warnes said off-duty police will direct traffic, so it should not be an issue. Some concert-goers will also arrive by bus or shuttle, he said, and the plans call for a link to the North Oconee River Greenway across the street.

The Athens Downtown Development Authority has kicked around an idea for an approximately 2,500-seat amphitheater on city-owned land near the Classic Center, but the Commerce Road amphitheater probably reduces the odds that the downtown amphitheater will ever be built, Girtz said. While former ADDA director Pamela Thompson had pushed for the amphitheater, which is included in the downtown master plan, current ADDA co-director David Lynn wasn’t even aware such a discussion had taken place.

At the same time, Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer has been eyeing that adjacent property for an approximately 7,000-seat arena, which he says could host about 125 events a year, rain or shine, including family shows, concerts, large conventions, trade shows and high-school athletic tournaments. “Certainly we want to bring in music acts, but it’s much more than that,” he said.

Warnes said he and Larkin have met with Cramer about their plans. "They really complement each other," Warnes said. "Paul was favorable toward it."

Cramer confirmed his support for the amphitheater. “What I said to [Larkin] was that Athens is such a great music town, we should be able to support an arena and an amphitheater,” he said.

Unlike the privately funded amphitheatre—a type of venue that’s relatively inexpensive to build and maintain—the arena will requiring public funding. The price tag is $70 million, and Cramer said he intends to try to get it on the project list for the next SPLOST coming up in 2018. (Part of the cost will be covered by the private sector, he said.)

A study prepared by ODELL, a Charlotte-based company, found that there is a niche available for a 6,500–7,000-seat arena, with no such facility between Duluth and Clemson, SC. Interviews with people in the entertainment industry revealed that Athens has a need for a venue between the size of the Georgia Theatre (with a capacity of 1,000) and Stegeman Coliseum (10,500). The arena would bring in more than $4 million in revenue annually (including a $2.1 million profit) and have an economic impact of $35 million, according to the study.

Girtz, for one, said he isn't sold on the idea, and it could be a tough sell after a $25 million expansion in 2011 that barely made the list and angered many citizens by creating a wall along Thomas Street cutting off downtown from the Multimodal Center and the river. But as he showed in 2010, Cramer can be very persuasive. “I’m hopeful when [people] see all the data, they’ll support this multi-use facility,” he said.