The Real Fate of the River District

In the Mar. 26 Pub Notes, “Not Just About Prince,” Pete McCommons asserts that Mayor Nancy Denson “killed the River District initiative to pave the way for Walmart.”

Having spent several months working alongside others on the economic development study that became known as the “River District initiative” and having at least some understanding of the processes by which the project was abandoned, the position that Mayor Denson unilaterally terminated the project may not be accurate.  

In fact, Mayor Denson and many elected officials, alongside our city manager and finance officials, the Economic Development Foundation board and Chamber of Commerce officials all contributed to the debate regarding the project, and the decision to discontinue pursuit of the project was made during the often-discussed and inappropriately closed EDF board discussion. The vote by the EDF board was split, and a majority supported the decision to discontinue. Many of us who are supporters of such an initiative were disappointed, but there were many who contributed to the change in momentum.

Given the range of overt and non-overt influences and priorities held by so many of our community leaders, I’ve come to recognize that projects as complex as this economic development zone initiative are pretty tough to get moving, and subtle misalignments can undermine even the best and most widely supported efforts.  

It’s also important to note that, while the efforts of those championing the initiative resulted in assembly of a variety of purchase options, which would allow for the resultant economic development zone to extend from Dudley Park to North Avenue, the A&D property that was to become a Walmart was not part of those properties where options were established. While the property was clearly part of the overall vision for an economic development district where businesses approved by Athens-Clarke County would have an opportunity to anchor, that property was not on the list of those under option at the time that the project was abandoned. 

The “River District” initiative was never intended as such a geographically limited endeavor. Its colloquial name perpetuates this misunderstanding. Rather, the project was undertaken as a case study to examine feasibility of establishing some new tools for economic development in Athens.  

Having studied initiatives in Columbus, GA; Greenville, SC; Louisville, KY; Austin, TX; and Rome, Italy, the project studied how government-owned land might be used to develop incentives for attracting new businesses to Athens. By providing ground leases, incentives offered at the state level would be supplemented, thereby opening opportunities for specific companies who fit profiles of the types of businesses that we as a community wanted to draw. Targeting biotech companies that would be complimented by UGA research endeavors, entertainment businesses that would be complimented by our local music scene and the Music Business Program at Terry and high-tech organizations that could benefit from the skills of Athens Tech graduates, a focused approach to outreach to specific organizations would be facilitated. During the diligence phase of the study, the project team went so far as to meet with several prospects and received strong support for the initiative. One particular employer responded with an internal analysis that suggested moving 100-plus positions from an urban office facility in the Northeast to the Economic Development Zone under the terms proposed was, in fact, compelling. Unfortunately, the limited field of view with regard to the location of the initiative coupled with a wide variety of other factors undermined the momentum that had been built.

I hope that, at some point, our community will be able to embrace a vision for economic development that leverages underutilized resources and capitalizes on the remarkable potential for development in the river corridor. I hope that the vision is developed in a practical and sustainable manner that takes into account not only the feasibility study that we undertook, but also the work undertaken as far back as Doc Eldridge’s time as mayor, as well as the current initiatives by Jack Crowley and others. And I hope that the initiatives can be recognized by everyone in our community as larger than our immediate fields of view and that the way that we discuss the hurdles that we have to overcome must be at all times constructive.  

Economic development is a marathon. Sprinting doesn’t provide for sustainable return on investment. And division and doubt, depending on how they are addressed, can undermine our ability to finish the race.