Athens City Council President Harold Wales shared advice Monday that could serve as a clarion call to all those who plan the city’s future.
Council members were discussing whether the city should contribute $25,000 toward architectural drawings that would show how Carter Hall on the Athens State University campus could be turned into a convention center complex.
Wales, the senior member of the council, told fellow council members during a work session that he had asked a friend about the proposal to have the city, county and ASU create a convention center together. The friend told Wales, “Harold, your old ideas about Athens will keep Athens how it has been.”
Wales took this to mean it is up to city leaders to determine what is best for Athens’ future and try to make it happen. That might mean working together to create a convention center.
Although council members seemed amenable Monday to spending the $25,000 toward the $75,000 cost of architectural renderings, Wales said the final vote on the request could wait until the Aug. 26 meeting. The council agreed Monday only to introduce the resolution. The Limestone County Commission and ASU have already agreed to contribute $25,000 each toward the $75,000 cost.
It would take six months to a year for the renderings to be available, said ASU President Bob Glenn, who asked the council for the contribution during Monday’s pre-meeting work session. Glenn said he wants architects to provide various options on how Carter Hall and the surrounding area could be renovated as well as cost estimates for those options. He said it would take six months to a year to complete site work, architectural work and convene a focus group on what would be needed.
Although a $25,000 contribution would not obligate the city to proceed with a renovation project, Glenn said he believed the city, county and ASU would have to work together to make the convention center happen, if it turns out to be feasible.
“ASU is a part of this community and this is a way we could work with the city and county,” he said.
Councilman Joseph Cannon and Councilman Chris Seibert both said they were initially skeptical of the proposal to build a convention center.
“When I first read about it I kind of laughed at it,” Cannon said. “I was closed-minded. I do see this (now) as a possible investment.”
Cannon said he hoped — if the renderings are workable and the city decides this is the way to go — there would be a lot of investors from outside joining the project.
Seibert said, “I do see this as a positive … it is worth the see.”
Cannon added that he is “not committing to a $30 million building, but committing to see what we can do.”
Ashley Swann, a freelance promoter representing country music singer Toby Keith, told council members that musicians need places to rehearse and Nashville’s spaces are filled up. With Athens only about 1 hour and 30 minutes from Nashville, a convention center/arena that would hold no more than 5,000 people would be a great alternative.
“This is a great location — something Nashvillians and my peers would be able to use,” said Swann, who attended the work session with Glenn and Pam Jarrett, assistant director of development for ASU.
Swann said artists, such as Elton John, sometimes use an arena not only to practice but to hold local concerts when they are one their way somewhere.
He said the convention center could make a minimum of $1,000 a day by allowing an artist to practice there.
“What Ashley is proposing is making Nashville a sister city to Athens,” said Jarrett.
She said she met one-on-one over the past few weeks with each council member and county commissioner to discuss the project. (Commissioners and council members violate state law if a simple majority of them meet to discuss business without first scheduling a public meeting in which to do so.)
Mayor Ronnie Marks said he does not know how a proposed convention center would be funded. However, both he and Glenn noted that the Alabama Center for the Arts in Decatur, which ASU built in Decatur, was funded by ASU, the city of Decatur, Morgan County and Calhoun Community College. A convention center could be funded similarly.
Stop the loss
During the pre-meeting work session, the outgoing president of the Athens-Limestone County Tourism Association said the lack of a small civic center with professional theater and arena has already caused Athens to lose annual concerts and other events to Huntsville and Decatur.
Jeanette Dunnavant Jones cited the loss of Athens-Limestone Hospital’s annual Gala, Southside Church of Christ’s revival reunion and Soul Stock to other cities over the past few years.
As tourism director, Jones said she had hoped to someday honor the late Pattie Malone, the world-renounced mezzo-soprano born into slavery in Athens in 1855, by inviting the Fisk University Singer to Athens to perform.
“Our current Event Center cannot accommodate such a group,” she said. “There is not a private entrance for entertainers. There is not professional lighting. There is not a professional, high-performance, sound system and such things as stage curtains and comfortable theater seating. It’s a great facility for lots of events, but not the type for conventions and conferences that we have lost in the past. Let’s stop losing to Huntsville and Decatur and start winning by bringing events, concerts, conferences and conventions to Athens.”