athens risingNews

Athens Rising

Is Growth a Given?: Last week, we talked about creating a new narrative for Athens, built on several significant changes to our economic landscape over the last few years, most recently the announcement of a large Caterpillar plant. That factory will directly employ 1,400 and indirectly create thousands more jobs in the region. In the moment of that announcement, the whole notion of what growth will mean for Athens changed. Up until that point, our attitude had been heavily influenced by the recession, and many conversations were tinged with an air of economic desperation. Now, though, we’re optimistic: Caterpillar’s here!

The first public input session for Athens-Clarke County’s newly formed Economic Development Task Force was held last week, and it kicked off with the following question: “How important is it to you that the economy of this community grows?†The handful of citizens and large number of task force members and other usual suspects all seemed unanimous in their enthusiasm for growth, the apparently intended response to the question. Of course, only a few weeks ago, Athens was, like most of the country, really wrestling with what growth really means, specifically waging a heated and divisive battle over Selig Enterprises’ plans for a downtown Walmart.

There’s an emerging literature that has come out of the Great Recession about whether “growth” is the right metric at all by which to calculate how well our society is doing. What does growth really mean in terms of employment and standard of living, income and productivity? “What would a ‘no-growth’ economy look like?†many are asking. Must GDP increase at a minimum percentage annually in order to improve people’s lives, and can that exponential rate go on forever? Economies can apparently grow while retaining huge unemployment figures, as current events attest.

In this light, growth is an interesting place for the task force to begin. I’d imagine that most folks, if they were gainfully employed with a decent standard of living, affordable health care and decent education for their children, wouldn’t really care whether the economy grows at 2 percent or 2.5 percent. A semantic digression, maybe, but in asking first and foremost how important growth is, it seems this task force may have already locked the conversation into old, pre-recession modes of thinking. Hopefully, that won’t preclude broader conversations about what Athens’ economy really is about, and what it really represents as an aggregation of the livelihoods of all its citizens.

Not So Simple: Another big question I have is whether or not we’ve properly prepared for the new development (also known as growth) that may soon come. Atlanta Highway, busy as it is, has been flagging for a long time as retail has developed on Epps Bridge Parkway in Oconee County. When Caterpillar and its network of suppliers locate to the area, what will that new growth mean directly, and how will it change the character of the greater area? Can we expect a reinvigoration of the retail strip there? Will housing pick up in the area, with some of the stalled subdivisions starting again? Will new subdivisions follow, putting pressure on the Cleveland Road area? What will the hundreds of acres of forest converted to hardscape do for local air and water quality? Clearly, growth isn’t so simple.

Likewise, we’ve only begun to consider the possibilities for our growing medical industry. New medical buildings are sprouting up along West Broad Street; the Health Sciences Campus is off and running.

Tensions have already been revealed in that part of town, with ACC planners proposing a cap on medical office space along corridors like Prince—a crude tool that showcases the trickiness of managing a supposedly positive but somewhat nebulous economic development agenda with the actualities of people’s lives. Some claim that the medical industry requires those larger spaces; could such a cap cut this nascent economic development opportunity down before it even gets started? But conversely, might the effects of such growth be unbearable for the families already invested in the area?

Ultimately, this issue is a little more familiar than something as foreign as a Caterpillar factory with 20 acres of rooftop, but it raises similar questions. There are likely many elegant ways to weave in large medical uses with historic single-family neighborhoods. Southern Mills comes to mind as a site near the Health Sciences Campus that could easily handle that kind of use without disrupting the fabric of Prince Avenue and Boulevard. What makes that idea any more crazy than building 180,000 square feet of new space adjacent to the hospital?

Is it because that sort of an idea exists outside of the false choice we’ve set up between growth and quality of life, and instead focuses on creating mutually supporting relationships? Much of the material covered at the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation’s Southern Mills Symposium focused on how economic redevelopments incorporating historic properties accomplished many other, more intangible goals. Perhaps we should be more explicit in talking about what specifically we want a given economic project to accomplish for the community.

And of course there’s downtown, which, in conversations about its growth and development, most directly showcases the confusion we have about what economic changes mean. By most accounts, downtown works. The mix of local and national, the scale of it, its longevity and its vibrancy are things most of us value. We also recognize the potential downsides to growth most evidently here, with the impacts on transportation, infrastructure, environment and the local economy getting serious scrutiny due to projects like the Selig Walmart proposal, student housing and others. Here, we see economic growth as a detriment to something else, some other way of measuring a productive community. What are the metrics by which we define downtown’s success, and what happens when we apply those to somewhere like the Caterpillar area, or the emerging medical corridor?

If the folks on the Economic Development Task Force really want to talk about this issue in a new way, perhaps the first thing to do is move past the notion of an ineffably quaint downtown and really understand what about that kind of place matters. Perhaps they should let those discoveries be the criteria we apply to our broader economic development conversation, rather than merely focusing on growth. The concept of growth, it seems, is an oversimplification of many other issues, and not an end unto itself.