Commissioner Melissa Link.
An arena at the Classic Center will create jobs, but are they the kind of jobs Athens needs? A parade of citizens debated the issue before the Athens-Clarke County Commission voted 9–1 on a final list of SPLOST projects that includes the arena.
In lieu of spending $34 million on the arena—a much reduced price tag, thanks to slightly shrinking the project and soliciting private investment—commissioners Melissa Link and Mariah Parker proposed setting aside the money in the more vague category of downtown economic development to allow for further discussion. “I have serious issues with the lack of transparency and the fact that this project has been given multiple bites at the apple, one of which was a closed-door meeting,” Link said at a July 16 agenda-setting meeting.
That closed-door meeting was an executive session to discuss a real-estate transaction, Commissioner Jerry NeSmith clarified.
The arena has been under discussion for 30 years in various forms ranging from an amphitheater to the current proposal, former mayor and Classic Center Authority member Gwen O’Looney told commissioners two days later. “A number of pieces have come together to make the arena most appropriate,” such as the ability to hold more events regardless of weather and a desire not to compete with two planned private amphitheaters, she said.
The arena has been on and off the SPLOST list for months. A citizens advisory committee initially included it, but then cut it in favor of multiple smaller projects when the commission added an $88 million “space modernization” project involving building a new, larger courthouse (most likely downtown) to relieve overcrowding and fix security issues, moving city government offices into the existing courthouse and selling off other city-owned properties scattered all over town. The commission then opted to extend the SPLOST and add another $45 million.
Commissioner Mike Hamby noted that the Blue Heron/River District project—killed in 2012 after a developer bought a key piece of property that later became luxury student housing—included a 6,000-seat amphitheater, as does the downtown master plan. “There’s a lot of similarities there,” he said.
The arena development will also include a hotel, senior living facility and office building. Link said her vision is “a neighborhood where someone like Pink Morton [who built the Morton Theatre] could buy a small lot and build a building for his own tastes and purposes, and that building could change over time and continue to tell the story of this community.”
Commissioner Tim Denson had been one of the arena’s defenders, but he switched gears and supported Parker and Link’s motion. After it failed, Link was the lone holdout against the SPLOST list as a whole. Denson also pushed through a motion that will require child care and elder care facilities at the arena and the new judicial center.
Before the vote, Classic Center Technical Director Mark Woods told the commission that the 5,500-seat arena will put Athens “in the big leagues,” with the ability to host national acts that currently don’t have a venue large enough. According to an economic impact study, the arena will create 600 jobs and generate millions in revenue for the county, the school district and downtown businesses. The Classic Center has agreed to pay arena workers at least $12.50 an hour, pegged to inflation through MIT’s living wage calculator.
That was not enough for some critics. “Everybody is working,” said commission candidate Andrea Farnham, noting that Athens has a 4% unemployment rate. “We don’t need more low-wage jobs.” Labor organizer Joseph Carter said the arena would do nothing to reduce intergenerational poverty or help people living in public housing.
Others, such as Tony Sanchez, said the hospitality industry can be a stepping stone for people with barriers to employment. Sanchez told the commission that he got a job as a dishwasher at the Classic Center after kicking drugs and getting out of prison 18 years ago, worked his way to event manager and bought his first house. Music promoter Knowa Johnson said his mother and mother-in-law, a Jamaican immigrant, were able to buy property and retire thanks to working in hospitality, and his daughter is supporting her child by working in the field.
“I know the economic impact on a city when you put some focus on the entertainment and tourism industry,” the Orlando, FL, native said.
While the arena has drawn the most attention lately, it’s far from the only project on the $300-plus million SPLOST list. It also includes funding for affordable housing, green space, park renovations, renewable energy, an Eastside library, a mobile health clinic, an addiction treatment center, wireless internet service, transportation improvements and public safety, among other projects.
But Link predicted that the arena will kill the sales tax extension at the ballot box in November. “I’ve gotten messages from multiple, multiple constituents who will not vote for SPLOST if this is on the list,” she said. Activist Irami Osei-Frimpong told the commission he would organize a campaign to defeat SPLOST if the arena was included.
On the other hand, “I’ve heard from my constituents who are very excited about the Classic Center… that love the idea, think it’s great,” said Commissioner Russell Edwards. “I think this is a good, transformational SPLOST that is going to do a lot of good for this community,” Hamby added.