There was a time back around the turn of the present century when we worried that Atlanta’s expansion would eventually overrun Athens, turning us into a suburb indistinguishable from the other towns such as Vinings and Tucker and Austell that once had their own flavor but are now only atolls in the suburban sea surrounding ATL. Back then, Atlanta planners were pushing for what they called the Outer Loop, a second circumferential highway outside 285. That looming loop on this side of Atlanta would have run fairly near Athens and was predicted to bring Atlanta along with it.
That was the period during which our local government, amid much controversy, made the decision to throw up a barrier around Athens to prevent our town from sprawling out into the surrounding countryside and to keep Oconee County and Atlanta at bay. We created a greenbelt around Athens, making the conscious decision, rightly or wrongly, to contain the growth of Athens and turn it inward, to grow the city where the infrastructure of water, sewer, streets and the electrical grid already existed.
Our present government faced a similar decision-point when it became evident that the university’s strictly limited on-campus parking and lessened interest in building dorms, tougher DUI laws and other factors created the demand for upscale, close-in student apartments. Our mayor and commission knew that if they didn’t act to control and direct development contiguous to downtown we would be overrun at our very core by student housing complexes. There was a desultory effort to spark interest in using the available land to develop a mixed housing and office complex to attract the sort of high-tech jobs that have invigorated other communities not far from Athens. That idea was smothered by the lethargy of the commission and the activity of the mayor, who held the pillow to the face of the somnolent initiative.
So now we have what we knew we would have: hordes of rich kids using Athens as a temporary base but wanting it to be more like home. Home is basically an Atlanta suburb, and so, while we guarded the ramparts and peered down the highway to see if the city was coming closer, the Trojan horse was built within our own walls, and Atlanta has overrun us from the inside.
Last week a writer in The Red & Black student newspaper published “The student argument for big business in Athens,” a manifesto of the conquerors so outrageous that it even offended some students. She basically said that students are simply not interested in whether a business is local, they want what they want, and that means Starbucks rather than something called Jittery Joe’s, Urban Outfitters instead of one of the clothing stores that used to be downtown, and it’s just too bad if their getting what they want puts some dinky little local store or restaurant or coffee shop out of business. That’s progress, so get used to it, because that’s what students want.
Local business is such a shibboleth here that nobody has ever stated so baldly and naively what every student knows, and it brought forth an online outcry from those among us who love Athens the way it is and not for the way it is becoming. Flagpole‘s Blake Aued effectively used the student writer’s own words to show just how clueless she is about the goose that laid the golden egg.
But there is no need to kill the young messenger. Our own local government opened the gates to the forces that are destroying our local businesses and the character of our town. If you like what they’ve done, buy ’em a cuppa Starbucks.
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