Athens is known for its rich music history, healthy competition, and plenty of new ideas, fueled by the University of Georgia and the Classic City’s creative spirit. One of the major fixtures on the downtown landscape is the Classic Center, a 350,000 square-foot meeting and convention facility, with a 2,000-plus-seat performing arts theater and 22,000-square-foot outdoor pavilion. It’s hosted some top names in music and entertainment and major conferences. This year, it will open the new Classic Center Arena, a venue for up to 8,500 guests with a mixed-use entertainment infrastructure, further bolstering economic growth. Here, we chat with Classic Center President and CEO Paul Cramer, who has been with the organization since it opened in 1995, about new developments and what they mean for Georgia.
The Classic Center is known largely for events, concerts, and conventions. How does the recent construction and expansion project potentially change the game?With the Classic Center Arena slated to open [this year], Athens will become home to one of the largest public arenas in Georgia. This venue will be a place that both residents and guests can enjoy, as it will host up to 8,500 people for a wide variety of events such as conferences, sport tournaments, concerts, and more. What sets this project apart is the idea to develop an entertainment center [similar to the Battery in Atlanta] complete with shops, hotels, condos, and a new parking deck connecting downtown Athens to the Oconee River and the Firefly Trail. The arena’s close location to downtown allows visitors to enjoy a short walk to fantastic shopping, world-renowned restaurants, and nearby hotels. Highlighting our dedication to Athens’ vibrant music scene, the arena will showcase a curated collection of memorabilia from the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and local artists. For true sports fans, the Classic Center Arena can accommodate multiple sports, including hockey, basketball, and volleyball. We are also excited to share that Disney on Ice will be making its way to the Classic Center Arena in spring 2025.
As an economic engine and job creator for the Athens area, how big of an impact does the Classic Center have and what is the potential for the future?
The Classic Center Arena will stimulate substantial economic growth for our community, generating tax revenue, employment opportunities, and serving as a venue for entertainment and sporting events, driving sales and revenue. The arena is anticipated to generate $30 million per year in economic impact for Athens-Clarke County, bringing the Classic Center’s economic impact to a total of $80 million annually. In a groundbreaking partnership, the Classic Center Arena has partnered with Oak View Group, the largest developer of sports and live entertainment venues around the world. This partnership promises to bring larger-than-life entertainment opportunities to Athens and create a huge economic impact within our community. The arena’s influence extends beyond entertainment as it paves the way for tourism opportunities including the Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures. This center will be a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit constructed on the Classic Center campus focusing on engaging and empowering individuals by showcasing artifacts, educational materials, and interactive spaces promoting racial justice.
Why did you start the Classic Centers’ Hospitality Careers Academy? How is it helping serve the career aspirations of next-generation hospitality leaders and offering a skilled workforce to Georgia’s booming hospitality industry?
I started the Hospitality Careers Academy because I wanted students to experience the unique opportunities available in the hospitality industry. HCA has had an almost 40 percent rate of students continuing to a hospitality post-secondary program—and being based in Athens, many of these students enroll in the University of Georgia’s Hospitality Management program, which is ranked No. 1 among public universities and No. 4 among all public and private universities. This week-long program immerses students into the heart of the hospitality industry. Through hands-on learning, interactions with industry leaders, job shadowing, leadership training, and more, students gain a behind-the-scenes look into the inner workings of the hospitality industry. Since it began in 2003, HCA has paved the way for roughly 300 students to be successful across various sections of the industry, from marketing and event planning to stage production and so much more.
The Classic Center administers several scholarships, including some in performing and visual arts and hospitality. Why are those an important part of what you do?
At the Classic Center, we believe art and hospitality are at the center of everything we do. Our commitment extends to scholarships because we understand the potential within our community. Scholarships, including the Paul T. Martin Hospitality Education Fund and the Paul M. Cramer Hospitality Scholarship Fund, were created to offer students and employees at the Classic Center access to a hands-on education that creates a meaningful impact. In a city full of musical and artistic talent, we proudly created the Cultural Foundation Performing Arts and Visual Arts Scholarships. These funds empower high school students across Northeast Georgia to chase their artistic dreams. Meeting these passionate students drawn to the arts or hospitality industry is incredibly rewarding, and it’s a privilege to help contribute to their journey.
Sustainability is top of mind for many leaders, both in private businesses and in government roles. How is the Classic Center innovating for greener events?
At the Classic Center, we’re on a mission to embrace sustainability in every detail. We strive for maximum energy efficiency, carefully selecting eco-friendly products and services. For meeting planners, we proudly carry the Green Meetings Site certification, our Atrium is LEED Silver certified, and the future Arena will be LEED Silver certified. In 2019, we proudly installed a 5.2 kW solar array which provides clean energy to the Classic Center Theatre. Now, we’re thrilled to share that we underwent the first phase of placing 1,600 solar panels on our rooftops in May 2023. This initiative will become Georgia’s largest municipal rooftop solar display and aims to power approximately 36 percent of our center’s annual electricity consumption, marking a leap towards a greener, more sustainable future.