Life the Griot says Athens residents in poverty often feel left out.
In 10 years, panelists at a May 2 forum, “Shaping the Future of Downtown Athens,” said they hoped to see downtown Athens marked by clean, pedestrian-friendly wide walkways, open green spaces and much more diversity in residents, businesses, business owners and visitors.
Hosted by the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and held in a conference room at Roundsphere, a co-working space and business incubator now occupying much of the second floor at One Press Place, the panel included Pamela Thompson, executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority; Jennifer Zwirn, president of the Downtown Athens Business Association; Athens-Clarke County Manager Blaine Williams; and ACC Commissioner Mike Hamby.
Audience members and panelists agreed that diversity in the types of businesses—law, insurance and banking offices, yes, but also tech start-ups and shared creative spaces like Four Athens, but more of them—is key to a successful downtown. So is diversity in retail—some local, some national, some international. One couple in the audience wanted to see more businesses with a mission dedicated to something beyond money, like TOMS, the shoe company that donates a pair for each one purchased. Panelists all agreed that developing areas to attract families is another important aspect of a successful downtown.
Jim Thrasher, a retiree now living in Athens, asked how the city could be made more welcoming to people of color. “I have tried to get my friends and family to move to Athens, but they’ve chosen to live in Atlanta instead because they think Athens is just too white,” Thrasher said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”
Local artist Broderick Flanigan said he goes to meetings like this to try to make sure information gets out to everyone in the community. Life the Griot, poet and founder and director of Chess and Community, described the room of around 50 as a picture and challenged everyone to find themselves in the picture. “For many, they don’t see themselves in the picture, so why would they look?” As long as Athens has a high poverty level, many will continue to feel left out of this community, he said.
Williams acknowledged that a poverty rate above 30 percent is a difficult problem to solve. “We have tremendous promise, but we have challenges as well, a lot of student housing for example,” he said. The concept of an innovation district is one that needs to be explored, Williams stressed, adding that the ACC Economic Development Department is working to make these kinds of achievements doable. “Life brings up good points about the poverty in Athens, but these are all related. Let’s get people we haven’t met around the table,” he said.
Williams mentioned a partnership program with the Clarke County School District and local large manufacturing businesses, including Caterpillar and Power Partners, that offers students real jobs and lets them learn new skills and earn wages in the process.
Other suggestions were simpler. Brandon Checketts, founder and head of Roundsphere, suggested better signage would help newcomers more easily find the existing parking decks. Thompson and Hamby said changes in the parking fee structures to equalize the rates between on-street and deck parking at $1 an hour and increasing visibility of the decks is a priority for ACC and ADDA. Interactive parking, available in other cities as a smartphone app that shows when spaces are available and where, is being investigated.
The lack of “Class A” office space was cited as an ongoing challenge facing businesses currently operating in or wishing to locate in downtown. “There’s a certain size of office space that we don’t have enough of,” Thompson said. She also raised the question of whether or not “we are pricing locals out of downtown.”
Panelists and audience members said they thought Athens needs more minority-owned businesses, not only downtown, but county-wide. The ACC Finance Department doesn’t ask for race or gender on business license forms, according to department director Chuck Moore.
All the panelists said they would support any measures to increase diversity in the downtown area. Thompson said the ADDA will be rolling out a new microloan program that she hopes will help all small businesses, including minority-owned, be sustainable, especially through the summer months when students are absent from retail shops and restaurants.