The unemployment rate in Athens is 5.2 percent, down from 8.5 percent three years ago and almost two points lower than Georgia's. Why is that?
"The construction industry is coming back," according to Ryan Moore, director of the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department, who cited downtown construction projects like The Standard and Georgia Heights—in the old SunTrust parking lot—as well as the new Bolton Dining Hall at Lumpkin and Baxter streets and the veterinary hospital being built out on College Station Road.
(Speaking of The Standard, crews are working around the clock to finish the massive luxury student apartment complex at the corner of Thomas Street and North Avenue. "We're still on pace to move residents in Aug. 1," Landmark Properties CEO Wes Rogers said. "The retail space won't be completed until well after the students move in, but that's always been the plan and won't impact residents moving in.")
The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on such projects circulates throughout the local economy. "When you go into restaurants for lunch, you see construction boots again," added Moore's counterpart in Oconee County, Rusty Haygood.
Moore and Haygood spoke to the Athens GOP Monday, July 14 and painted a rosy picture of the area's economy. (Take it with a grain of salt—economic development professionals are paid to be chipper.)
While it's a bit alarming to hear that a construction boom is responsible for Athens' economic uptick, given the events of 2007–2008, Moore is quick to note that the city has a diverse economy. Not everyone is probably aware of this, since our industrial areas are tucked away off Chase Street and Olympic Drive outside the Loop—not to mention Caterpillar off Hwy. 78—but manufacturing employs 6,000 people, 10 percent of the local workforce, and pays 40 percent higher-than-average wages. And the Loop itself is responsible for a lot of that, according to Moore. Once the new interchange at Peter Street and Olympic Drive is finished, Athens will be the smallest city in the country with a ring road, he said.
Athens is already home to Merial, Noramco, Ethicon and other medical-industry manufacturers, with Baxter Pharmaceuticals about to hire 1,500 people down the road in Covington. Haygood hyped the 316 corridor as a future hub for bioscience with the potential to become another Research Triangle (although it won't happen overnight; North Carolina has a 40-year head start). "We have a project opening up in not too long in the life sciences vein," he said. "Hopefully, you'll hear more about that as time goes on."
The development duo also addressed the pervasive fears/gloating about Atlanta Highway retailers fleeing across the county line to the new mall off the Oconee Connector. And the exodus has nothing to do with ACC's perceived "business unfriendliness," as we hear so often. Taxes—higher in Clarke than unincorporated Oconee but lower than many cities—are "one of many considerations," Moore said. Stores "are going to go where the rooftops go," he said. "They're going to go where the demographics make sense."
As for what will happen on Atlanta Highway, "real estate has a life-cycle," Moore said. "We're finding there's a transition happening." But Georgia Square Mall is more than 90 percent full, and owner Hendon Properties obviously thinks its a good investment, or they wouldn't have bought it last year, he said.
Ain't No Party Like a Nonpartisan Party: Is Denson about to pull a McKillip? She received not one, but two rounds of applause from the room full of Republicans—one when her presence was announced, and another when Haygood was discussing Caterpillar. "There's a lady here in blue who deserves a big pat of the back for that," Haygood said.
"You know I'm a Democrat," Denson said after the clapping died down.
"You used to be a Democrat. Let's leave it at that," replied state Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville), who endorsed her.
"I'm a nonpartisan mayor," Denson said.
"Essential" Air Service: Athens is likely to lose commercial air service at the end of September, after the Federal Aviation Administration cancels a $1.6 million annual subsidy.
The current recipient is SeaPort Airlines, which operates daily flights between Athens-Ben Epps Airport and Nashville under the Essential Air Service program, created in 1978 to stop airlines from abandoning smaller, less profitable airports after deregulation. It's just the most recent of several airlines that have tried and failed to turn a profit flying out of Athens.
Airports must see a minimum of 10 commercial passengers per day to qualify for the subsidy; Athens averages only six. In addition, subsidies for airports within 210 miles of a hub (such as Hartsfield-Jackson) can't exceed a subsidy of $200 per passenger, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently informed ACC.
SeaPort will fly you to Nashville for $59. Taxpayers, on the other hand, pay an average of $743 to fly you to Nashville. Even though the ticket price only covers a small fraction of the actual cost of the flight, it's still a service that only about 2,000 passengers took advantage of in 2013. And it's not just SeaPort—previous airlines that flew to Charlotte and Atlanta also struggled, even with the subsidy.
Sorry, anyone who flies SeaPort. For $743, we could rent a limo to take you to Nashville.
The vast majority of Ben Epps' traffic is general-aviation and charter flights, which losing the subsidy will not affect. The airport handles more than 100 general-aviation and charter flights per day, and that is expected to increase after the completion of a runway extension that allows 737s to take off fully fueled.
As the county airport authority works to recruit a new airline that won't be dependent on subsidies, ACC officials intend to continue moving forward with a new $4.7 million commercial terminal funded by SPLOST 2005. A commission vote on a project concept is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 5.
The new commercial terminal could help handle increasing charter-jet traffic, Airport Authority Chairman Bob Wigglesworth wrote in a letter to the mayor and commission. In addition, airport officials believe that a new generation of efficient regional jets, record airline profits, limited gate space at Hartsfield-Jackson and other factors mean that Athens has a "unique window of opportunity" to draw a regional carrier, Wigglesworth wrote.
This column has been updated to correct the owner of Georgia Square Mall.