An artist’s rendering of the Classic Center arena.
The buzz surrounding three new entertainment facilities in town—the Athens Amphitheater, the mixed-use General Time development and the Classic Center Arena—has waxed and waned with the news cycle for the past couple of years. Athens has become well accustomed to projects being proposed, debated and abandoned. These three each appear to have relatively solid legs and—at least in one case—some very deep pockets and a huge amount of ambition.
Athens has been in need, to varying degrees at varying times, for live event venues that aren’t centered on the downtown bar scene. Indeed, before there even was a downtown scene the likes of which we know now, the go-to space for large capacity concerts was Stegeman Coliseum. Further, the concept of fairly large, regional venues isn’t at all new. At least through the 1970s, the J&J Center played host to a number of sizeable acts. including Jerry Lee Lewis, Wet Willie and Waylon Jennings. It was also known for its Thursday night wrestling spectaculars. The center wasn’t huge, though, and barely topped the capacity of the current incarnation of the Georgia Theatre. Similarly, up in Lavonia, Clem’s Shoal Creek Country Music Park—now home to Gypsy Farm Records and Studio—ran at a steady clip for years as a touchstone regional stopping place for George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Marty Robbins. It also played host to the Georgia State Bluegrass Festival.
Sea changes in the concert industry between the 1970s and now notwithstanding—and also not discounting the intrinsic charm of the old Shoal Creek Park—it’s not as if the music gods dropped their acts into these places based on good taste and personality. Fact is, with all due respect to booking savvy and industry longevity, they got killer shows because they were available.
Let’s back up for a minute, though. It’s true that these developments have caused some to think that three new venues proposed at roughly the same time, each at a scale several times larger than even the most sizeable existing concert venues in Athens, is wildly disproportionate for a town our size. The thing is, though, these are projects so distinct in nature that if they weren’t occurring at roughly the same time, there’d likely be very little discussion.
General Time is planned as a mixed use facility with already-secured anchor tenants, and the Classic Center Arena is charting plans for events appropriate for a municipal convention center (sports, ice shows, etc.) that fall well outside the realm of concert booking. The only one of these three that appears to rely heavily, at least initially, on major entertainment bookings for an income stream is the Athens Amphitheater. There is room in the facility’s submitted plans, though, for future commercial development along the Commerce Road section of its property.
Dependent upon sales tax revenue to come to fruition, the arena is the one that necessarily must be most crystalline in its planning, research and pitch. A Nov. 5 referendum on the $314 million SPLOST list includes $34 million for the 6,500-seat arena, with the other half of the funding coming from private sources. A parking deck and a privately funded hotel and senior living center adjacent to the arena on the eastern edge of downtown are also part of the plans.
Paul Cramer has been the executive director of the Classic Center since its opening 24 years ago. “The Classic Center Authority was created to be the civic, cultural and social center in this region while driving the maximum economic impact to our community,” he told Flagpole. “We have already lost several [bookings] to Atlanta due to the smaller size of our facility. Our facility is also exceedingly busy. Most facilities book, on average, 300 events per year. We are currently hosting nearly 700 per year overall.”
One aspect of the Classic Center that may not be terribly well known is its open booking policy. Meaning, anyone can rent it. “We do book our own shows directly and allow other outside promoters to book into our facility, as well, so no one entity has exclusive access to our dates,” Cramer says. He envisions the new arena operating under the same policy and guidelines.
Jennifer Davidson is one half of the team behind General Time, which is redeveloping the long-dormant Westclox factory and land on Newton Bridge Road. Although there is still loads of work to be done, the project appears to be sitting in the proverbial catbird seat now that it’s landed two major anchor tenants, Wayfair and Terrapin. The planned amphitheater-type section of the development will be available for the public to rent and will host everything from concerts to beer festivals to weddings, Davidson says. At this stage, it appears to be much closer to a community park than a hard-ticketed, constantly competitive performance space.
“With our mix of uses, we always felt like it would be a mistake to create an overly hardscaped space that would be under lock and key when there wasn't an event happening,” Davidson says. “Instead, we chose a more welcoming setting to serve as an asset to our tenants, as well as the greater Athens community. There is plenty of green space and an additional mix of office, restaurants, retail and recreation, and we'll be adding new construction for residential one- and two-bedroom apartments that will house local Athenians to create a place where they can live, work and play.”
Economic impact is difficult to predict for any project, much less three at a time, but Cramer has done his due diligence. “Much of the economic impact happens when hotel rooms are full,” he says. “Significant events tend to fill hotel rooms, and when visitors stay in our community, that certainly increases visitor spending.” Two studies Cramer commissioned found that an arena would draw 15 new three-day conventions, 25 concerts and 55 sporting events a year.
Cramer also says the two studies specifically recommended an arena instead of an outdoor amphitheater because an indoor space is able to accommodate a wider range of events, remains operational no matter the weather and can quickly be converted from one use to another. The reports revealed a new arena would have the ability to host 80% of national touring acts. This is, of course, a statement concerning the size rooms that 80% of national touring acts are currently playing, not necessarily a statement regarding industry heft. That said, Cramer's never really had a problem keeping the existing Classic Center facilities booked.
For her part, Davidson didn’t explore the concept of economic impact in an extensive way, but her team, similarly, has done its research. “We hired a third-party real estate consulting firm to dig deep into the market,” she says. “We quickly realized the old Westclox property had everything an adaptive reuse project would need to succeed: proximity to downtown, the Loop, Holland Creek Youth Sports Complex, Chase and Barber streets, and 85 and 441 for a regional tourism draw.”
Of all three projects, the most contentious—and mysterious—is the Athens Amphitheater situated at Highway 441 (Commerce Road) and Boley Drive. A mere stone’s throw from the Loop, construction has already started on the huge facility. While developer Clint Larkin has not presented much of a public face for the project, local firm Williams & Associates Engineering drew the plans. Flagpole reached out to W&A but did not hear back in time.
The 10,000-seat venue is not necessarily out of scope for Athens, though, and the plans clearly show its accommodation of auto and bicycle parking at levels that far exceed those required by the city. While nothing is announced yet, the plans also show room for commercial development along the Commerce Road section of the 93-acre project.
Some have been shocked at the scope of the development, and have concerns about traffic at a pair of Loop exits that are already known for daily congestion and the impact on the adjacent neighborhood. (The developer has agreed to install sound barriers and orient the stage away from nearby houses.)
Less reasonable, however, has been grumbling about how this type of venue isn’t something needed by the Athens music scene. It’s not that this view is untrue as much as it’s largely irrelevant. There’s simply no way that a 10,000-seat venue, ostensibly diving head first into competition with regional facilities of similar size in other cities, is going to drain off bookings or squeeze out bids from the 40 Watt or Caledonia Lounge, much less Flicker, The World Famous or Hendershot’s.
The music scene is also largely buoyed and populated by service industry workers and those with technical creative skills. Whether or not any of these three projects will contribute to this employment pool is still in the air. There are some, though, who have fervently defended the idea of the new venues drawing thousands of people year-round who would, either by default or best case scenario, wind up eating in our restaurants, drinking in our bars, seeing our local bands after the big show is over, etc.
As far as General Time and the Athens Amphitheater are concerned, that’s private money taking the risk. The Classic City Arena, though, is your money. So vote.