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Residents and Management Work to Improve Bethel

Despite upgrades coming to Clayton Street, a proposed downtown master plan and new student housing going up, there is one section of downtown that won’t be changing anytime soon, according to its owners.

At a recent meeting, the president of H.J. Russell, the Atlanta-based company that owns Bethel Midtown Village, said he has no plans to make changes to the dated apartment complex off College Avenue. Speaking to the Bethel Stakeholders, a group of community activists, local officials and residents, Jerome Russell said recent debt reorganization on the property made through the federal Housing and Urban Development Department will prevent any changes to the property—not that anything was necessarily planned anyway. H.J. Russell has owned the apartment complex since the 1960s, specifically serving low-income tenants as required by HUD, which funded its construction during the Urban Renewal era.

“Not anything immediate,” Russell said. “We always are looking at assets, but right now we just did a refinancing, so that locked us in for the next three-to-five years.”

The recently completed Downtown Master Plan, recognizing that Bethel is privately owned, does not recommend redeveloping the complex, although it does propose infill development around the Athens Housing Authority’s Denney Tower, redevelopment aimed at seniors at other AHA-owned public housing projects near Bethel and the Athens Council on Aging, as well as mixed income redevelopment at Parkview Homes near campus, similar to what’s underway at Jack R. Wells Homes off Hawthorne Avenue. 

Russell’s appearance at the monthly meeting was unusual, yet welcome, as recent management changes at the apartments have not only helped residents feel more empowered to make changes at the property but also have helped stem crime. Athens-Clarke County police officers attending the March and April meetings also noted a decrease in crime in and around the complex.

Delene Porter, president of the Athens Area Community Foundation, noted that it’s one thing for arrests to be down—there were five at Bethel last month, according to ACCPD officers at the meeting, with the majority of arrests stemming from warrants or trespassing charges for non-residents—but the next step is getting word to to the community. “How can we engage everyone that Bethel is safe?” she said. “Instead, they read in the paper that Bethel is the problem, but there are issues throughout downtown.”

ACCPD officers at the meeting noted that, through regular meetings with ACC Manager Alan Reddish, the city is recognizing the decrease in crime. And members of the residents’ association have formed committees not only to organize events and an official “get out the vote” effort, but also to help publicize the positive things coming out of Bethel.

The residents association has been working with the Fanning Institute at the University of Georgia to develop leadership skills, recruit more members and create more committees. Russell, at the stakeholders meeting, said money was available to support the residents in their efforts.

Russell also asked about early childhood education programs, noting it’s something the company supports from a charitable aspect. As residents head into another summer looking for positive programs for the kids who live there, the next task residents and the management team face is putting together either a summer camp or a structured reading program. Members of the stakeholders group also have been working with the UGA Athletic Department to organize a visit from athletes and mascot Hairy Dawg in conjunction with a summer reading program. The trouble area, several at the meeting noted, was with middle and high school students, who can benefit the most from simply finding a summer job to keep them occupied and out of trouble.

While Russell didn’t have prepared remarks for the meeting, the information from police, schools and the residents association offered a more personal view of what’s been going on at Bethel. While the exterior of the buildings may not change, what’s been going on inside has seen a turnaround, and it’s filtering down to the residents as a better quality of life.

“It’s very pleasing for me to see, as the owner of this property, everyone working together and the incidents [of crime] going down,” Russell said. “I can tell… there is a sense of stability. We recently did a refinancing of our debt; when there is volatility in the financing, there’s volatility in the property.”