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Former NFL player plans new Athens community center | City News

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Easily accessible community centers are hard to come by for residents in Athens’ West Side. Those wanting to play basketball, pickleball or soccer in an open gym environment have to turn five miles away to Bishop Park, the closest facility that offers courts for some of these and many other sports.

Willie Green, an Athens native and two-time NFL Super Bowl champion, hopes to change this reality with his new Athens Sports Arena.

Jamie Scott, executive director of the Sparrow’s Nest, expressed his support of Green’s project.

“I am extremely grateful for what he’s doing,” Scott said. “We’re from the same housing authority projects called Pauldoe. His mother, Miss Corene Green, was the person that ran our recreational center in the side of the projects, and it’s very dear to me when I talk about that, because it gave me an outlet of going somewhere to be in a recreational center to have different activities to play from ping pong, pool table, ice hockey and also get a balanced meal.”

Willie Green said Corene Green was seen as a mother figure to the community he grew up in, and received a key to the city of Athens for her work in the community. This was the legacy she created and the legacy he wants to continue.

Creating the Athens Sports Arena

Located at 280 Commerce Blvd. near Atlanta Highway, the property is in phase one of the construction process, which Green explained is the renovation to provide two courts for playing basketball, pickleball and volleyball. It is projected to open in October, ahead of schedule.

The inside of phase one of the new Athens Sports Arena on the West Side (Photo/Katie Beth Williams).

Phase two includes building up his property, adding four more courts and an indoor turf field, Green said.

Green said he plans to have the space open to people of all ages on Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“I’m opening up to a very diverse group, I’m saying everyone is welcome. And there will be enough room…where all of these things can be going on simultaneously. So that’s the weekday open gym concept,” Green said.

Valerie Fagan, a member of the Citizens Advocacy for Pickleball, met Green at a Clarke Central High School event. According to Fagan, Green heard about the adults advocating for pickleball and worked to implement room for them in his arena. For Fagan, this arena offers more than just space for playing sports.

“So, it is about the sport, but it’s also about building community. And I think that’s what his center offers us: a window of time. COVID changed a lot of things. And one of the things I think it has made is people are a little bit shyer about building relationships now. And I think his center offers us a very clear way to do that,” Fagan said.

Green also explained the overall concept of this space.

“I call this a sports mall. That’s what separates my facility from all the other sports facilities in Athens because it’s a sports mall that’s welcomed by all,” Green said.

In addition to this space serving the citizens of Athens-Clarke County, Green also plans to make the space available on the weekends for travel sports games like basketball, volleyball, pickleball, wrestling and gymnastics. Green said because of his efforts on this project, the Amateur Athletic Union has offered to make the space an AAU-sanctioned facility.

Green submitted an unsolicited proposal to the ACC Commission in May, asking for their support in creating the space.

While Green purchased the property with his own money, the proposal was submitted in order to receive funding to offer above-average wages for employees qualified in CPR and with active shooter training, as well as those qualified to work with children and older adults. Funding would also go to construction of phase two of his project, Green said.

Georgia’s Public-Private Partnership Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2015 allows for Green to submit this proposal because his private facility is open to the public.

Additionally, Green said he believes his facility will have a “tremendous economic impact” on Athens.

“I want to make this sports facility, in a nutshell, I want to make it a tournament travel destination, as well as Athens, a sports travel destination, much like you’re doing at The Classic Center and the University of Georgia. The goal of accomplishing for this Athens-Clarke County, again, is that economic impact,” Green said.

For the community

According to a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published in 2019, researchers found that recreation programs that offer spaces to play sports help youth learn life skills and expose them to positive role models. The study also said these recreation programs can help address youth gang involvement.

“What I want to accomplish there [is for] our youth. We’ve got a lot of our youth that is going to gangs and violence because they don’t have anything to do. They have a very limited number of facilities that they can go to, especially the group between 14 and 18 years old. They have very, very little places to go so that’s when they get in trouble,” Green said. “So they’re sitting around doing things, and that’s when they get bored and start doing things that gets them in trouble.”

Charlie Maddox, lifelong Athenian and current pastor of White Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Rayle, Georgia, said he believes this new project can benefit the community, specifically, the youth.

Maddox, who knows Green and his family from living in Athens for 75 years, said throughout his experience, there’s never been a constant effort to provide these types of services and facilities for children in the community.

“When I was growing up, they would tell us the idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” Maddox said. “And that proves true. When you see when children have very few alternatives, sometimes they make the worst warrants. So we need to give them more opportunities to succeed than they have opportunities to fail.”

Denise Ricks helped create an organization called the Athens West Corridor after realizing the West Side hadn’t developed much since she moved to the area in 2006. This organization, now defunct, advocated for creating family-friendly destinations like community centers for people to visit in the West Side.

“I think that [youth gang violence] can be addressed if we have them doing

activities like basketball or football or whatever the efforts are is going to keep children from being bored to death, and possibly getting into a gang in the first place,” Ricks said.

Green hopes with the Athens Sports Arena, he can serve the community the way he was always taught, by his mother.

“[The] only thing I’m doing is trying to fulfill her legacy and continue it. And hopefully, my kids will come and take over and do the same thing and continue the Green family legacy.”

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