Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer made a detailed presentation to commissioners on his proposal for a $75 million, 7,000-capacity arena on county-owned land just north of the Multimodal Center.
The arena, according to an economic impact study, would generate $33 million for the local economy, creating 600 jobs with an average salary of $40,000. It would also support the 600 new hotel rooms in the city; those four new hotels are paying (or will pay) a combined $1.7 million in taxes. Hospitality and tourism is “the one industry that continues to grow, and you can’t export it,” Cramer said.
Many of those jobs, Cramer emphasized, would go to people with little education or career prospects. Because of the Classic Center’s partnerships with the Athens Community Career Academy, Athens Tech and Piedmont College, workers who start at the bottom have a clear pathway to higher education and management positions. Small businesses—local restaurants, electricians, carpenters and others—would benefit as well, he said.
No matter what the numbers say, though, the arena could be a tough sell to voters. A significant portion of residents have always been wary of investing in the Classic Center since its inception. The citizens advisory committee left the Grand Hall expansion to accommodate larger conventions off the initial list of projects in 2010, only for the commission to restore a scaled-back version that still drew criticism for walling off the “river district” from downtown.
The river district, at that time, could have been a government-subsidized tech and entertainment district, but Mayor Nancy Denson nixed it in favor of student apartment buildings. Development has died down in recent years, but Cramer said it could spur further growth near the river. And his proposal does bear a passing resemblance to Blue Heron, as it was called—the arena would replace an amphitheater proposed in the downtown master plan, and it incorporates the Georgia Music Hall of Fame collection, in storage at UGA since the Macon museum closed.
There may no longer be a need for a publicly funded amphitheater at that location, since two privately owned amphitheaters are in the works off Commerce Road and Newton Bridge Road. Cramer said the arena would not compete with them, because amphitheaters tend to focus on music and only host 20–30 events per year. According to the consultants’ study, the arena would be busy 300 days out of the year, hosting about 120 events, ranging from concerts to youth sports tournaments to religious gatherings.
“I know we can hit those numbers,” Cramer said. “I’m not guessing. I’m not wondering.”
Cramer has a strong track record: He was right about the Grand Hall, from a financial perspective, and about the decision to buy removable bleachers, a scoreboard and an ice-making machine. The Ice Dawgs, UGA’s club hockey team, routinely sells out what’s now known as Akins Arena.
The Classic Center sold naming rights were sold to the Ford dealership and plans to do the same for the new arena. Cramer estimated that corporate partnerships could bring in $12 million.
Classic Center board members and others involved in the project said they were skeptical of the arena at first, but are now convinced. “We weren’t sure about this,” retired hotel executive Mike Waldrip said. “It’s been a year. Now, we’re absolute proponents of it.”
The project could take up over a third of what a six-year SPLOST extension would raise, though, making it a big commitment. “I think this is an intriguing possibility,” Herod said, but “$75 million is a lot of money.”
Herod, commissioners Melissa Link, Mike Hamby and Diane Bell and Mayor Nancy Denson attended the meeting. Denson supports the arena, but she won’t be around when a final decision on whether to include it on the SPLOST 2020 list is made—Commissioner Kelly Girtz takes over as mayor in January.
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