May 2, 2018

Kelly Girtz Aims to Create Opportunities for All

Photo Credit: Nicole Adamson

Girtz speaks at a mayoral forum Mar. 29.

Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Kelly Girtz is telling a story about an experience he had during his first year teaching English at Coile Middle School. He was talking with the mother of one of his students. When she asked him how he could put up with a class full of seventh-graders for so many hours, he laughed and said, “Well, you have them the rest of the day. I get to go home and jog and unwind.”

“And she said, ‘I wish I could feel safe enough in my neighborhood to walk around it.’ That was almost 20 years ago, but that conversation has stuck with me,” Girtz says. “Imagine the stress she carried.”

He thinks about that mother and her child, now grown and gone, as he canvasses Athens, telling people he’s running for mayor. His goal in doing so is to “bring everybody into the fold of opportunity to build social and economic wealth.”

Girtz grew up in Norfolk, VA, where his father was in the U.S. Navy. He attended community college before transferring to Old Dominion, where he studied sociology and criminal justice and focused on child welfare. An internship with Child Protection Services opened his eyes to the abuse and neglect some children endure. A scholarship for a master’s in social work took him to Austin, TX, but when the scholarship was “defunded,” he headed to Athens, where his first wife’s sister lived.

He got a job at the Holiday Inn, bussing tables and working the front desk. He became friends with a local teacher, who told him how much he enjoyed his work and what a positive impact a good teacher can have on a child. So Girtz enrolled in Piedmont College and earned a master’s degree in education. In the fall of that year, Maxine Easom hired him to teach ELA at the newly opened Coile Middle School, where he stayed for 12 years. From there, he became principal of the alternative Classic City High School. He’s now in charge of student services for Foothills Charter High School, making sure students have access to counselors, graduation coaches and mentors, among others.

Girtz has been the District 9 commissioner since 2007. He is proud of initiatives he has championed, including increasing four-fold the amount of ACC funding for the Great Promise Partnership. A public-private initiative, the statewide program was started by the Department of Community Affairs but is now a nonprofit that places into paid jobs teenagers who were at risk of dropping out of high school. Locally, Caterpillar, Power Partners, the Athens Land Trust, UGA and the unified government all hire the students.

“The participants can see Athens-Clarke County institutions up close instead of feeling far removed,” Girtz says. “This makes our community more connected.”

Other initiatives are the inclusion of a pedestrian master plan and the revision of the bike master plan. He’s continuing to work on grouping all aspects of permitting commercial construction projects into a single electronic portal, though there’s more work to do. And he has worked with developers to improve big projects, like the one slated for Prince Avenue on the old St. Joseph property.

As mayor, he would like to see more homeownership in the county in order to help families build wealth. There’s relatively little land in Athens-Clarke County left to develop, but he cites segments along the corridors of Lexington Road and Hawthorne Avenue as possible areas for mixed-use development. The ACC government could “buy down” the cost of housing by installing trees and paving sidewalks. And inclusionary zoning could ensure that at least some of the units are affordable.

“We need to capitalize on all the resources we have and make sure they are extended to everyone,” he says. “I want Athens to be the best it can be for everyone.”