June 17, 2013

Meet New ADDA Director Pamela Thompson

pamela thompson.jpg

Pamela Thompson is the new executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority.

The ADDA board voted unanimously to hire Thompson, a former Georgia city planner and Virginia county manager, after meeting for half an hour in closed session this afternoon. She was competing with Shannon Bell-Logan, an assistant city manager in Murfreesboro, TN.

Thompson's resume features degrees in communications, theater arts and public administration from Mercer University and Georgia Southern University and stints as an economic development assistant in Roswell; assistant to the city manager in Powder Springs; planner, planning director and assistant county administrator in Lee County; and real estate assessor, director of planning, economic development director, director of community development and deputy county administrator in Prince George County, VA.

About a year ago, the Southwest Georgia native's father was diagnosed with cancer (he has since recovered), and she decided to leave her job in Virginia and come back home.

"I kind of had that epiphany: 'Hey, instead of picking jobs, you can pick where you live,'" she told Flagpole earlier this month. "I decided I need to get back to Georgia and reconnect."

Thompson had been to Athens before and was struck by the city's combination of big-city culture and small-town hospitality, so she chose to live here when she came back to Georgia. Since moving here, she said she's attended events like the Parade of Lights and the Twilight Criterium and often takes her dog, Cowboy, for walks downtown.

"There will be a short learning curve," she said Monday. "I love Athens. I chose to move here prior to my job opportunity."

The ADDA board was looking for someone with a combination of planning and economic development experience, and Thompson fits the bill. During her career, she's helped lure a Rolls-Royce plant to Prince George County and oversaw infrastructure for it; started that county's first farmer's market; and wrote a comprehensive plan, zoning ordinances and grant applications for Lee County. She's even judged parades, she said.

I asked ADDA Chairman Bill Overend about speculation that the board hired Thompson to focus on drawing more development to downtown. He said it's always been, in part, an economic development position. 

"Don't think there's some new focus on attracting big new developments or developers," he said. "That's a misunderstanding of what we mean by 'big D' development."

Part of Thompson's job, in conjunction with the downtown master plan, will be to create a vision of what downtown should be like five or 10 years from now, Overend said, and that will include looking at the mix of businesses downtown.

For example, there may be too many student apartments, too much retail and not enough offices downtown, he said, noting that a major downtown law firm, Fortson & Bentley, moved to Oconee County a few years ago.

"I think that's part of the downtown neighborhood fabric, having folks coming downtown to work every day and eat lunch every day and bringing clients downtown every day," he said.

For Thompson's part, she said she will seek a balance between helping and promoting existing businesses and recruiting new ones. The majority of growth downtown will come from existing businesses expanding, she said, but there may be goods and services that are missing from downtown, like a corner market or a general store. She said she plans to "ask people what they want, ask people what they need."

She said in an interview two weeks ago that she attended one downtown master plan meeting but is not fully up to speed on it. She did, however, like the idea of a linear park along Jackson Street, which she compared to Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA.

"Maybe it's the history of (Athens)," she said. "Maybe it's the history of the music and arts scene."

Thompson will work with current ADDA Executive Director Kathryn Lookofsky on a transition until Lookofsky's contract expires June 30, Overend said. Thompson's officials start date is July 8. She will make $77,500 a year, about in the middle of the range the ADDA was offering.