City DopeNews

Is Athens Ever Getting a Downtown Grocery Store?

For years, a downtown (non-Walmart) grocery store has been high on the wish lists of many intown Athens residents. But the state legislature passed a bill earlier this month that will make it tougher for us to land one.

House Bill 85—aimed at paving the way for grocery stores in downtown Ocilla and Milledgeville—repeals state bans on retail alcohol sales within 100 yards of school grounds and 200 yards of Central State Hospital, the now-shuttered psychiatric institution in Flannery O’Connor’s hometown.

That’s all well and good, but the legislation also defines a grocery store as being at least 10,000 square feet—which hamstrings developers who are trying to entice a small grocery store to downtown Athens.

In an effort to exclude competition from convenience stores, grocery-store lobbyists wanted a similar provision when state Reps. Spencer Frye (D-Athens), Regina Quick (R-Athens) and Chuck Williams (R-Watkinsville) pushed through a bill lifting restrictions on alcohol sales near college campuses, but Frye, Quick and Williams were able to fight them off. Not this time. Rep. Regina Quick (R-Athens) even yelled out “Go Dawgs!” on the House floor while lawmakers cast their votes, to no avail.

State Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) told Athens-Clarke County commissioners last week that he voted in favor of the bill because Ocilla and Milledgeville had “a bird in the hand.” Legislators might fix the bill if a company submitted a letter of intent to open a grocery store of less than 10,000 square feet in downtown Athens, if the size requirement were to be repealed, Ginn said. “That gives me some urgency I can share with my colleagues,” he said.

Of course, that creates a catch-22. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have a bird in the hand when we have a law that says 10,000 square feet,” Mayor Nancy Denson said.

Last week, The Red & Black reported (without attribution) that the Landmark Properties student housing development on the former Armstrong & Dobbs tract, The Mark, won’t include a grocery store. For some reason, the writer interpreted this to mean that “negotiations to create a grocery store in the area came to a fruitless end.”

Neither one is true. The Mark is “an excellent opportunity for a grocery downtown,” said David S. Dwyer, a local real estate consultant who is involved with that project, as well as Georgia Heights, another mixed-use development under construction at Broad and Lumpkin streets. “We have prospects we’re engaged with, and while confidentiality agreements prevent me from saying who, I think folks would be thrilled if we were able to get them there.” But HB 85 will make his job harder, he said.

Sure, Daily Grocery somewhat fills the niche—especially if it starts selling more meat, as the co-op’s board and shareholders are contentiously considering—but Daily’s success shows that there’s a market for more of a full-service grocer downtown, said Commissioner Kelly Girtz. Hmmm… a small-ish grocery store might be perfect for the St. Joseph’s property, where Publix was rumored to be sniffing around years ago.

More on the Session: Ginn also explained why he voted to water down Senate Bill 169, which would have given a boost to craft breweries by allowing them to sell beer directly to the public, as in most states, but instead merely tweaks the outdated system by allowing them to charge for tours on which limited quantities of beer are given away. “There are no bars I know of where you go in, you drink, and you leave with a 12-pack,” Ginn said. “I wanted to hold the line on what they drink.”

It happens so fast. There’s no chance to even talk about it, other than asking some questions.

Legislators also discussed last-minute additions to the transportation funding bill, specifically a $5 surcharge on hotel and motel rooms—ironic, considering that for years they’ve refused to let Athens-Clarke County raise our local hotel/motel tax by a penny on the dollar.

Representatives were given just 30 minutes to read the final version of the bill before voting, Frye said. “It happens so fast,” said Quick. “There’s no chance to even talk about it, other than asking some questions.”

And the plastic bag ban ban that didn’t make it through? “I didn’t lobby” in favor of it, Denson said. “I shared my opinion with the delegation.”

World of Wonder: The recycled plastic that volunteers used to build the sprawling playground at Southeast Clarke Park in 2004 is rapidly deteriorating and will need to be replaced within three years, before it becomes unsafe, Leisure Services officials told commissioners at last week’s work session. At the same time, the Wiggly Field dog park is barren from overuse. Leisure Services thinks it has a solution to both problems.

Using approximately $600,000 in SPLOST funds earmarked for parks, the department wants to dismantle WoW and rebuild it where the now-closed dog park is located (the original park, not the temporary one). “We want it to have a ‘wow’ factor,” Leisure Services Director Pam Reidy said. “We want it to still be the playground the kids want to go to first.” An added advantage: The new site would be closer to restrooms.

Then, Reidy wants to create three new dog parks where a couple of tennis courts, a parking lot and a multi-use field are located in the southwest corner of the park, off Whit Davis Road. One park would be reserved for small dogs, while the other two would rotate, allowing one to stay open while the grass on the other recovers from paw-trampling.

The tennis courts aren’t needed, since the tennis center on the other side of the park opened a couple years ago, and the current playground site would be converted into parking.

Assuming the commission approves the plan May 5, the new dog parks would be ready no later than July 31, Reidy said. Then, Leisure Services would start work on WoW.