Tonight the Mayor and Commission approved a concept plan allowing the Classic Center to take on debt in order to expand parking and purchase arena-style equipment. I try to avoid talking about issues unrelated to land use and urban planning, but I am a fan of ice hockey and an active member of the Atlanta hockey community so I couldn’t resist. Though this may not be as related to land use and urban planning as I would like, deciding how a major government building is used does go to the heart of community and urban development. In addition to ice hockey, the Commission took on the more narrowly-focused urban planning issue of a downtown shuttle.
By a vote of 6-3 the Commission approved the use of $1 million to buy the equipment necessary to build an ice rink in the downtown convention center known as the Classic Center. A core component of the project is the use of the facility by the University of Georgia Ice Hockey Club for games and possibly practices. For those of you who are unaware, UGA has had a club-level ice hockey team since 1987. They are part of the Southeastern Collegiate Hockey Conference and play against many of our favorite SEC teams like Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, and South Carolina. They even play against Emory and Georgia Tech! Currently home games are played in Gwinnett County at the Atlanta Ice Forum.
As a fan of hockey I am obviously glad to see that our mayor and six of our commissioners thought it was a great idea to bring ice hockey to downtown Athens. I’m also happy to see that these same individuals thought it was important to provide our community with new and exciting forms of entertainment. Mayor Denson hailed this as a great opportunity to open the Classic Center and downtown Athens to many people who would not ordinarily use the Center or come to downtown Athens. It’s not just hockey either. The Center will be used for regular public skating sessions and other ice-related shows. I’m sure many kids and maybe many adults in Athens have never once been ice-skating, observed an ice hockey game, or been to an ice-related show. In addition to this, the ice can be covered and the arena-style equipment can be used to stage many other events.
Though the concept passed, several commissioners questioned the use of funds for such a “risky” proposal. Despite overwhelming evidence from the Classic Center Authority Executive Director Paul Cramer that the plan would allow the Center to operate with a nearly $250,000 surplus, several commissioners questioned spending $1 million on ice hockey. Mayor Denson and many other commissioners mentioned several times that the Classic Center Authority has an excellent track record, achieves all its goals, and has always done exactly what it said it was going to do. These same people pointed to the fact that the concept plan was put together by accomplished business people, bankers, and financial analysts and the data was double and triple-checked. Not one commissioner questioned the track record or the professionalism of the people who put the plan together. Yet 3 commissioners voted against the project because evidence that ice hockey and ice-related events would be successful just “didn’t sound right.”
It’s irresponsible to quickly dismiss data and plans put together by professional, commissioned people because it just doesn’t sound right. These commissioners should ask Tucson, Arizona if college ice hockey could be successful in a non-traditional market. The Tucson Convention Center has been home to the University of Arizona Ice Hockey team since 1981 and attendance regularly varies between 2,000 and 6,000 depending on the opponent. That’s with some tickets priced close to $20. At a university where the average summer temperature is 105 degrees, the hockey team is often the third most attended sport. Granted Tucson is much larger than Athens, but it shows that college hockey can be very popular in a city located in a non-traditional hockey market with a large state school dominated by either basketball or football. I ask the commissioners that voted against the plan due to the inclusion of ice-related events to please trust the professional people you commissioned and be open-minded.
Evidence was presented to them that interest already exists. A representative from the UGA Ice Hockey Club highlighted the ample support for ice hockey throughout the Athens community. During public comment, he stated that the Club had a list of 15 businesses ready to spend at least $3,000 each on advertisements during UGA hockey games. They also have a list of over 2,000 people who have stated they would either purchase season tickets or individual game tickets to UGA hockey games. Obviously none of these agreements are binding in any way, but they do suggest there is a lot of interest in bringing ice hockey to downtown Athens.
Besides the ice hockey concerns, some commissioners disagreed with the Classic Center’s plan to run a downtown shuttle. I agree with their disagreement. The plan asks for money to run a shuttle operated by the Classic Center Authority throughout downtown Athens. As some commissioners pointed out, we already fund a bus system that runs throughout the entire city so there is no need to for this additional shuttle service. However, the bus system does have a hole in that it doesn’t run on the streets in the core of downtown, so maybe the shuttle system would be a good supplement.
Though it sounds like a good addition, it would potentially undermine the atmosphere we want to create. Downtown Athens is an exciting, safe, compact, and walkable area. We want to encourage more pedestrian traffic. Businesses want more people casually strolling by their storefronts and possibly making impulsive purchases or just simply discovering their existence. People make the area exciting and safe. A shuttle would allow people to bypass what they think they don’t want to see in downtown and go to their exact point of interest. This is great for long distances, but you can easily walk across downtown in 5 or 10 minutes. The Classic Center expansion will presumably draw people from areas far outside downtown and we want these people to explore the area, enjoy themselves, and enhance the economy by making purchases. A shuttle too easily allows people to skip an area of downtown that we want them to see or that they never knew they wanted to see.