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ACC Commission Eyes Downtown Site for New Courthouse

It appears a new judicial center will share a parking deck with the Classic Center arena, pictured above.

Athens-Clarke County officials may decide to put a planned new courthouse between the Multimodal Transportation Center and the Classic Center to take advantage of a parking deck for the new Classic Center arena.

Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer offered to partner with ACC on an 800-space parking deck. The deck could be used by the courthouse during the day and the arena at night, he and ACC Manager Blaine Williams said at a Sept. 14 work session.

“I think there’s an opportunity for us to come together and do something great on this site, and hopefully we’ll all save some money while doing it,” Cramer said. The approximately $24 million project would be financed by parking revenue, upper-story office leases and possibly revenue from a tax allocation district on the property.

Commissioner Melissa Link called the eastern side of downtown a “student ghetto” and said that “grown-up activity” would diversify the area. The arena and a new courthouse could unlock the potential of what’s known as the “River District,” Commissioner Tim Denson said. “If the law offices leave downtown, those law offices will become bars, guaranteed,” Denson said.

But not all commissioners agree. Commissioner Mike Hamby said the Classic Center should build its own deck or find a corporate partner. And Commissioner Ovita Thornton opposed tossing out the usual site selection process and wanted to look outside of downtown.

One reason to move forward quickly, though, is that construction costs are going up, Williams said. Another advantage of the Hickory Street property is that ACC already owns it, so there would be no land acquisition costs, he said. 

As several commissioners noted, the central location is convenient to transit. “I don’t want a courthouse everyone drives their cars to,” Commissioner Carol Myers said.

Commissioner Russell Edwards compared it to Jackson County moving its courthouse away from Jefferson. “They made a big mistake, moving it out to where some cheap land was,” Edwards said. “It detrimentally affected the businesses downtown, and it’s just inconvenient for everybody.”

The $77 million judicial center was approved by voters as part of SPLOST 2020, a slate of projects funded by a 1% sales tax, to relieve overcrowding at the existing courthouse. Once completed, ACC will consolidate city offices in the current courthouse and sell off far-flung properties like buildings on Dougherty Street and Satula Avenue. 

At the work session, commissioners also received an update on public restrooms downtown and discussed hiring a consulting firm for a study on racial disparities, the process for choosing sales tax-funded transportation projects to put on the ballot next May and a trail providing access to the Rainbow Forest public art installation off the greenway near MLK Jr. Drive.

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