City DopeNews

Could Food Trucks Bring the Funk Back to Downtown?

Bemoaning the downfall of downtown is an Athens tradition at least as old as showing up at a commission meeting at the last possible minute to complain about something after all the work’s been done (but more on that later). It goes back at least to the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when department stores fled to the newly opened mall on Atlanta Highway. Downtown didn’t die then—bars, restaurants and music venues filled up all those empty spaces—and it’s still thriving today, even if many of us don’t like the direction it’s headed.

Everyone can tell that downtown is changing, and in many ways, it’s been a victim of its own success. The bars that saved downtown 30 years ago, along with proximity to the university, drew students, who as a group seem to grow richer by the year as UGA becomes harder and harder to get into. “Students have more disposable income than they did 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” Mayor Nancy Denson said. “It’s a much more affluent group of students at the university.”

Those students want to be downtown so they can walk to the bar and to class, and their families have money, so developers built them tower after tower of luxury housing with amenities like rooftop pools. Chains that cater to students, such as Urban Outfitters, followed suit. With rents rising, the local DIY quirky-industrial complex, while maintaining a minor outpost on the western edge of downtown, has largely decamped to West Broad Street, Chase Street and Prince Avenue—a fact that’s often lost when people start wringing their hands about how downtown’s gone downhill since (insert year they graduated). Athens’ creative culture hasn’t gone away; it’s just gone down the street.

This topic came up again and again during a recent Federation of Neighborhoods discussion on downtown. “It’s less funky,” Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link said.

“We rolled out the red carpet for student housing, and we’re getting the retail and bars that follow that,” Link said. “Rents are going through the roof because bars can come in and pay $6,000 a month rent. Stores selling local baubles can’t pay that… The culture that put Athens on the map has pretty much exited—that arts and music culture.”

As The Grill owner Mike Bradshaw noted, the Lamar Dodd School of Art—which spawned the local music scene—moving from North Campus to East Campus accelerated those changes. “The loss of the art school was a big loss to downtown,” he said. “Downtown is not for those kids” anymore.

In contrast to students in the past who came downtown to hear bands and drank while they listened, students now are only interested in “hardcore binge drinking,” according to Link.

Of course, downtown becoming essentially an extension of UGA also has its advantages. “Be glad the students aren’t living in your neighborhoods, because they’d be destroying your property on their way to and from the bars,” said Erica Cascio, who owns Square One Fish Co. and serves on the Athens Downtown Development Authority board.

Fighting Off Food Trucks: Could food trucks be the answer? They’re #unique and #quirky, albeit in the same way as lots of other places all over the country, which makes them perfect for Athens, which isn’t nearly as unique and quirky as we like to think it is, which is why we’re still debating food trucks when they’re already everywhere else. Maybe bringing in food trucks can re-funkdafy downtown. “It’s got an energy, but it’s also got a face we haven’t seen in downtown Athens yet,” Commissioner Diane Bell said.

However, as they did the last time commissioners tried to ease restrictions on food trucks a few years ago, brick-and-mortar restaurants are fighting back. They fear competition from businesses with less overhead, and in spite of numerous committee and ADDA discussions and extensive media coverage over the past eight months, many of them “weren’t necessarily aware of the ordinance,” Porterhouse Grill general manager Shawn Butcher, speaking on behalf of the Downtown Athens Business Association, told commissioners at their Oct. 6 voting meeting.

“I feel like it’s been hashed out very publicly and in the press,” Link said. “I’m sorry folks haven’t kept up with it.”

The commission voted 6-5 Tuesday, Oct. 6 to hold the ordinance for 30 days while they hear concerns from restaurant owners. Commissioners Jared Bailey, Sharyn Dickerson, Harry Sims, Allison Wright and Bell voted for the delay, with Denson breaking the tie; commissioners Andy Herod, Mike Hamby, Jerry NeSmith, Kelly Girtz and Link voted against it because they wanted to pass the ordinance immediately.

The ordinance would allow six food trucks to park around City Hall on a first-come, first-serve basis on Thursdays for a $200 fee. “All we want is a small spot to try to sell our wares one day a week,” said Ted Thompson, who owns the Kona Ice truck.

Herod, for one, was skeptical of the idea that food trucks will cut into sit-down restaurants’ profits. But we do know food trucks are popular: A food truck festival last month organized by the ADDA drew 6,000 people—and it also benefited restaurants.

“Not everybody who came to the food truck festival ate at the food trucks,” Hamby said. (I can confirm this: I took one look at the lines and went to a nearby wheel-less burger joint.)

Hamby also noted that brick-and-mortar restaurants may want to start their own food trucks. In fact, the current debate was sparked by the owners of the now-closed Farm 255, who had also started Farm Cart (now under new ownership) and wanted to park it downtown. “I hope restaurants aren’t stepping on their own toes when they perhaps want to open a food truck in the future,” Thompson said.

Denson instructed Herod, who chairs the commission’s Government Operations Committee, to meet with restaurant owners and hear their concerns. “I think it never hurts to hear more from our citizens,” Denson said.

Village on Prince: Finally, a downtown development that’s not luxury student housing. Greenville, SC-based Davis Property Group has filed plans for The Village on Prince, a mixed-use cluster of three-story buildings—plus the historic St. Joseph sanctuary, converted into a restaurant—at the corner of Prince Avenue and Pulaski Street. A building fronting Prince will include space for a grocery store, with 146 one- and two-bedroom apartments above and behind it, as well as a parking deck. Although the density is far less than what’s ordinarily allowed downtown, it needs a rezoning to move forward, and it’s headed to the ACC Planning Commission Nov. 5. So far, it’s gotten positive reviews from everyone who’s seen the plans.

Broun Going Doun?: A federal grand jury in Macon is looking into whether former Rep. Paul Broun and his successor, Rep. Jody Hice, misused taxpayer funds by mixing official business with their campaigns.

Consultant Brett O’Donnell is facing five years in prison for lying to investigators. Broun’s office paid O’Donnell $43,000 in taxpayer money to prepare Broun for debates when he ran for Senate last year. At the urging of Broun’s chief of staff, David Bowser, O’Donnell initially told investigators that he was a volunteer on Broun’s campaign, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The close ties between Broun’s congressional office, his campaign and Hice’s campaign may have violated federal election regulations in other ways. Longtime Broun aide Jordan Chinouth—who also ran Broun’s successful re-election campaigns in 2008, 2010 and 2012—left Broun’s office last year to start a consulting firm and served as Hice’s campaign manager. Bowser was also on Hice’s payroll during the campaign and was paid by Broun’s Senate campaign as well, the AJC reported. That’s not illegal in and of itself—as long as Chinouth and Bowser only did campaign work on their own time.

A DREAM Deferred: The Georgia Supreme Court will hear arguments Friday, Oct. 16 in a lawsuit filed by 39 undocumented students seeking to force the Board of Regents to admit them to UGA and other top public universities, where they are barred from attending regardless of grades or test scores. Two lower courts have ruled that the Board of Regents can’t be sued but haven’t ruled on the merits of the case.

The policy remains in place in spite of the Obama administration allowing young, previously undocumented immigrants who grew up in the U.S. to continue working and studying here without fear of deportation. The state spends $200 million a year on K-12 for these students, yet essentially forces even valedictorians to go out of state to continue their education. (Before anyone asks why we’re wasting money on those who are HERE ILLEGALLY!!!11!BENGHAZI, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that everyone is entitled to a K-12 education regardless of immigration status.)

Meanwhile, a Georgia Budget and Policy Institute report released earlier this month says Georgia is shooting itself in the foot by banning undocumented immigrants from competitive-admission schools and forcing them to pay out-of-state tuition at open-enrollment colleges. Georgia is falling behind 27 other states with more inclusive policies and losing out on $10 million in annual tax revenue due to the policy, the report says.