In a work session Tuesday night, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission debated partnering with The Classic Center on the construction of a Hickory Street parking deck. The commission also discussed an access trail for the Rainbow Forest and plans to initiate a disparity study.
Construction along the Oconee River
The meeting opened with a presentation from Paul Cramer, president and CEO of the Classic Center regarding a shared parking deck between the center’s new arena and the ACC government. The proposed plan would provide 300 parking spaces to the Classic Center Authority and 500 spaces to the county, and would cost between $22 million and $24 million.
ACC Manager Blaine Williams explained how the government's portion of the parking deck could be used to accommodate parking for a proposed new judicial center in an adjacent lot. This location on Hickory Street, Williams argued, will cut construction costs and provide for a faster timeline.
The current courthouse building is due for renovation following the completion of a new judicial center.
District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link expressed support for partnering with the Classic Center on the parking deck and for the placement of the judicial center.
“I am in favor of partnering with the Classic Center on this project, if only for the fact that this body would continue to have a say in the project moving forward,” Link said. “And I will say I am wholly in favor of keeping the judicial center downtown.
Mayor Kelly Girtz explained that choosing the location near the proposed parking deck would eliminate the need for a site selection committee for the new judicial center. Many commissioners joined Link in expressing a desire to bypass the committee, but not all commissioners were as enthusiastic about the placement of the judicial center.
District 9 Commissioner Ovita Thornton expressed concern about allocating the property without the use of a citizen-based site selection committee.
“If we have a process, and we are still trying to be transparent, and we are trying to be equitable, I think every opportunity we should use to make sure we get public input the best we can,” Thornton said.
The Classic Center Arena, an entertainment facility connected to the Classic Center, has an expected opening date in fall 2023.
Located further up the Oconee River is the Rainbow Forest, an art installation located adjacent to the North Oconee River Greenway on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.
Although the installation can be seen from the greenway, there is no path to the knoll that the art sits on. Since its dedication in late August 2021, public desire to access the art has grown, said Mel Cochran Davis, the county’s assistant director of administration. Providing access to the artwork for all citizens is integral to the plan.
“What we are looking at is how we can provide access in an inclusive way,” Davis said.
The proposal will be further discussed at a Sept. 20 SPLOST oversight committee meeting.
Examining disparity in ACC budget
Discussion then moved to the implementation of the already-approved disparity study. ACC Director of Finance David Boyd emphasized the timeliness of approving a course of action, citing that the process takes up to 12 months to complete.
MGT Consulting, a firm that has previously conducted studies in Dallas, Texas; Dayton, Ohio and Tallahassee, Florida, provided a pitch during the meeting. This group was chosen by the ACC Finance Department due to “excellent disparity study recommendations” from governments larger than ACC.
According to the MGT website, disparity studies determine if inequities exist in public procurement or contracting policies and their goal is “to assess, quantify, and evaluate the prevalence, significance (degree and weight) and scope of discrimination in the marketplace, if any, against minority- and women-owned business enterprises.”
Proposed Project Manager Vernetta Mitchell explained both what disparity studies are and the importance of investing in such within the context of the proposed Judicial Center building.
“This is the ideal type of project in which a legally-defensible disparity study will help you identify where do we potentially have gaps and how do we impact the economic vitality of the members of your community,” Mitchell said.