As the calendar flipped over to 2012, Athens residents had just learned that Atlanta’s Selig Enterprises was planning a massive mixed-use development on the southeast edge of downtown anchored by a 94,000 square-foot Walmart, the low-price leader with a reputation for mistreating employees and putting mom-and-pop shops out of business.
Downtown business owners and community activists rallied to the cause, protesting both the presence of a big box downtown and the flawed design Selig was attempting to foist on the city. On the other side, Mayor Nancy Denson, the Chamber of Commerce and African-American leaders aligned, arguing that the development would bring needed jobs, tax revenue and affordable groceries to downtown and East Athens across the river.
The debate grew heated, to say the least. People for a Better Athens held rallies, Protect Downtown Athens released a Patterson Hood-penned protest song, and Occupy Athens got themselves kicked out of an Athens-Clarke Commission meeting and then off the City Hall property where they were camping. Meanwhile, silence from Selig. The company was meeting quietly with small groups of influential people but declined to hold public meetings or formally file any plans.
What started out as a contentious year improved in February. As the masses rattled their sabers over the Selig proposal and the Walmart issue, unbeknownst to them, the Illinois-based construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar was eyeing the 900-acre Orkin tract on the Clarke-Oconee county line. The company announced in February that it would build a plant there that, when completed, would employ 1,400 people—the largest economic development project in Athens history.
The failed idea for an entertainment district and research park on the banks of the North Oconee River, as well as the bad economy, the Selig proposal and the Caterpillar coup, put the spotlight on economic development like never before. A task force appointed by Mayor Nancy Denson began to meet to come up with recommendations for bringing jobs to the community.
In Atlanta, state legislators seemed to be doing everything they could to screw over Athens. They continued to slash budgets for K-12 and higher education. The cuts forced the Board of Regents to raise tuition, making college less affordable and leaving fewer dollars in students’ pockets that they could spend in local businesses. The Clarke County School District faced a $14 million budget shortfall mostly due to declining state funding; the Board of Education and Superintendent Phil Lanoue responded by eliminating 48 paraprofessionals, in addition to several teachers and other employees.
Lawmakers also took it upon themselves to redraw the Athens-Clarke Commission district map over the objections of commissioners themselves, a citizen committee appointed to draw the post-Census lines and dozens of voters who came to public hearings. The new map, designed to elect a Republican, failed. (The progressive Jerry NeSmith would win in District 6 months later.) But it did fulfill newly minted Republican Rep. Doug McKillip’s campaign promise. While they were at it, the legislature fussed with our congressional and state House districts, splitting Clarke County yet again to ensure McKillip’s re-election by giving him more Republican voters, leaving liberal Athens with just one Democrat in its five-member delegation.
At the same time, McKillip was pushing through one of the country’s strictest anti-abortion bills, establishing his bona fides among social conservatives. The law bans most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, rather than the accepted standard of 26 weeks—the point when a fetus can generally survive outside the womb—set by the Supreme Court. The legislature passed and Gov. Nathan Deal signed the law over the objections of many doctors, who said it would compromise their ability to choose the best course of action for their patients and who took issue with McKillip’s assertion that a 20-week-old fetus can feel pain.
Nevertheless, voters rejected McKillip. Bolstered by about 1,500 Democrats who crossed over to vote in the July GOP primary, Regina Quick ousted McKillip by just 63 votes. The same election saw Spencer Frye, running on a platform of fresh leadership, oust longtime state Rep. Keith Heard, R-Athens, who was dogged by rumors that he didn’t really live in town. NeSmith and Allison Wright won their commission races on the westside and in Five Points, respectively, and stealth conservative Carl Parks won Wright’s open seat on the school board unopposed. Voters in most of the state rejected proposals for regional 1 percent sales taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure.
McKillip’s intransigence aside, the story of the summer was Legion Pool. The University of Georgia announced a plan in July to demolish the beloved 80-year-old pool and replace it with a $2.6 million pool at Lake Herrick that would have been just half the size. UGA faculty and staff fought back. President Michael Adams eventually buckled under the pressure and withdrew the plan.
Meanwhile, the search was on for Adams’ replacement. He’d announced over the summer that he’d be retiring next June, and a Board of Regents committee started vetting replacements. They’ve narrowed the list from 60 down to nine but won’t reveal any names until they winnow it to a single finalist.
Adams’ last days mostly have been spent dealing with budget cuts. Deal asked state agencies for another 2 percent in September—bringing total cuts to 26 percent since 2008—and in response, the university eliminated another 130 positions, mostly in the College of Agriculture.
Election time rolled around again. Fresh off his own re-election in the primary, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun made national headlines (again) when a speech at a Hartwell Baptist church popped up on YouTube. Broun said he believes the Bible tells him that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of Hell.” Chagrined that no Democrat had challenged him, a write-in campaign arose for British naturalist Charles Darwin. The father of evolution won more than 5,000 votes districtwide. Frye easily fended off libertarian Republican Carter Kessler, and voters statewide overwhelmingly approved an amendment making it easier for the state to approve charter schools, even though public school officials and parents in Athens expressed grave misgivings.
Development dominated the last few months of the year. Cobbham and Reese/Hancock residents fought a frat house on North Milledge Avenue, Buena Vista residents and property owners bickered among themselves over a historic district, and developers announced a number of major projects downtown. The Classic Center expansion is nearing completion, and construction is set to start soon on a hotel next door and mixed-use developments on the former Athens Hardware property at Thomas Street and North Avenue and on the SunTrust property at Broad and Hull streets. Down Oconee Street, a new park-and-ride lot and a student apartment complex on Carr’s Hill rose up. All the new development came at the same time the downtown master plan process was finally—finally!—getting underway.
The year ended just like it began—with Selig’s proposal for Armstrong & Dobbs, released Dec. 12. The new plans included a smaller big box, no Walmart and a better connection to the Greenway. Opposition faded, but some still criticized the scale and architecture. Whether it goes through or not, downtown Athens will be a very different place in 2014.
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