Partial funding for an arena at the Classic Center is back on the list of upcoming sales tax-funded projects after longtime director Paul Cramer convinced commissioners to add it.
The arena would create 600 new jobs, add 100,000 local hotel room-nights and draw larger conventions to the center, Cramer told commissioners at a SPLOST work session last week. Despite Cramer’s successful track record with past Classic Center expansions, commissioners and the SPLOST citizens committee had balked at the $88 million price tag for the proposed arena. They asked him to come back with a lower figure, and he did, proposing a partnership with private investors who would build parking and add senior condos and corporate offices as part of the arena complex, and a $3 million donation from a local resident who wants to support workforce development. The public-private partnership would require only $33 million in SPLOST money (plus borrowing $25 million separately, increasing operating costs slightly but reducing initial expense). Commissioners, who have decided to lengthen the SPLOST to 11 years to include more projects, were interested.
“We are turning a lot of business away right now,” Cramer said, because the Classic Center cannot handle larger conventions like Future Farmers of America or a Baptist youth convention. “If we have the venue, I know the groups will come.”
The arena could double as an exhibit hall supporting conventions, but would be primarily for music, he said. “We want to design this first and foremost for music. We’re a music town.”
The revised arena plan would seat 5,500, rather than 6,000, and have 10 suites—suites help pay the bills, Cramer noted—although more suites and seats could be added if financing later becomes available, making the built-out arena comparable to the original plan. Cramer also offered a secondary plan that would cost even less, but could not be expanded to the size he thinks is needed.
Eighty-five percent of national touring acts would be able to play the arena, he said, and “when the concert’s over, these people are going to walk into downtown Athens” and spend money. The additions would bring in an estimated $7.8 million in county and school taxes, and create hospitality jobs starting at $11.60 an hour, he said, adding that those are not dead-end jobs. “I’ve seen it again and again: people who walked in at a minimum wage, and now they are my managers and department heads.”
Commissioner Tim Denson suggested a child-care facility for employees. Child care is the biggest piece of the commission’s “prosperity package,” he noted, and this would create “jobs that have child care built into them.”
Other projects added to the list include a multi-use path along Tallassee Road ($4 million), Bear Hollow Zoo renovations ($5.3 million), an “art walk” on Jackson Street downtown ($3.5 million), a water trail ($750,000), a mobile health clinic ($500,000) and a mental health recovery facility ($5.3 million). Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the final package of projects on July 18. ACC voters will then accept or reject the entire package in November.
Commissioner Ovita Thornton, while acknowledging that the SPLOST tax is partly paid by out-of-county shoppers, raised a common complaint about the sales tax: It hits poor people proportionately harder than anyone. “The poor people that we are asking [to pay] cannot continue to pay these penny taxes.”