It’s no secret that downtown has grown since the Athens Downtown Development Authority was created in 1977, pushing well past boundaries set 40 years ago. So Athens-Clarke officials want to expand those boundaries, north of Dougherty Street and along Prince Avenue, North Avenue and Oconee Street. Almost every downtown property owner is on board—but not downtown’s largest development.
Several commissioners criticized the developers of The Mark—the massive luxury student apartment complex under construction on Oconee Street—for being the only major development downtown to opt out of the expanded downtown boundaries the commission approved Tuesday.
The authority gave property owners the choice of opting out of the district. Despite paying an additional one mill in property taxes ($1 per $2,500 of property value), only the owners of two townhouses and two small businesses did not want to be a part of the ADDA, in addition to The Mark. The owner of Athens-based Landmark Properties opted out because of the cost involved, the ADDA’s attorney, Jim Warnes, said when the authority board approved the new boundaries Feb. 10. “The one-mill tax for them is sizable bucks,” Warnes said. “They didn’t feel like the benefits available would be a benefit to them.”
Those benefits include grants to improve building facades, revolving loans for small businesses, support for special events like AthFest, advocacy, marketing and help navigating the local government bureaucracy, said Commissioner Mike Hamby, who serves on the ADDA board. In addition, the authority recently hired two new executive directors to share duties, with the goal of taking on more of a forward-looking planning and economic development role in addition to overseeing parking, marketing downtown and serving as a sort of clearinghouse for complaints (dirty sidewalks, panhandling, etc.).
Commissioner Jerry NeSmith noted that The Mark’s approximately 1,000 residents will be using downtown infrastructure without paying what others are paying. Yet the development is using its location as a marketing tool, Commissioner Melissa Link said.
“I picked up their brochure, and the first thing they tout is the ultimate downtown location, so they are certainly marketing themselves based on being downtown, and their zoning is commercial-downtown,” Link said. “I just want to express my disappointment at this development not being a part of downtown officially, yet they’ll definitely be enjoying all the amenities of being downtown.”
Mayor Nancy Denson came to The Mark’s defense, and warned commissioners not to second-guess Landmark.
“I really think we need to be careful about publicly criticizing one of the people in our business community who makes a business decision that we don’t know all the details behind. And perhaps we didn’t do a good enough job of giving them the benefits of being in downtown, or they might have decided to do something sooner,” Denson said. “It was disturbing to me to hear criticism of a business that’s increasing our tax base significantly, and I believe they’re doing a good job on their product because of the business decision they made.”
Although The Mark opted out, other major property owners—including the owners of the Bottleworks, the mixed-use development planned for the St. Joe property, Hotel Indigo and the apartment complexes along Dougherty, East Broad Street and North Avenue—did not.
Although the ADDA could have forced the issue, The Mark was allowed to opt out because Athens’ state legislators said they did not want to carry a bill that included borders with unwilling properties inside. Those legislators are now expected to introduce a bill in the General Assembly to expand the boundaries.
More Commission News
The commission also voted to delay a requirement that large special events such as AthFest and Twilight purchase $10 million worth of insurance coverage, up from the current $2 million. The requirement would have cost those events nearly $10,000 each, jeopardizing them in the future and, in AthFest’s case, taking arts and music funding away from local schoolchildren. The issue will go back to the commission’s Government Operations Committee for further review.
The insurance requirement grew out of an initial assignment to streamline the event-permitting process (which was also approved last Tuesday) in the wake of the ADDA’s struggles to put on a last-minute Fourth of July fireworks show last year. The ADDA won’t be doing it again this year, but Agora co-owner Russell Edwards brought several other downtown business owners to the meeting to urge the Mayor and Commission to keep the fireworks downtown.
In addition, the commission voted to scale back funding for Leisure Services scholarships for children from low-income families, which the department hopes will cut down on the number of no-shows at popular programs like summer camps. Instead of covering the full cost, the new scholarship program will only cover 25, 50 or 75 percent. But commissioners worried that some families may not be able to afford even a quarter of the full fee, so they passed a motion by Link requiring county staff to create a private sponsorship program by July 2018.
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