Having heard in past weeks from opponents of a planned downtown Walmart, ACC commissioners got the other side of the argument from Walmart supporters at last week’s regular session. About a dozen people spoke during an open public comment period, some against but most in favor of a proposed development by Atlanta’s Selig Enterprises, during a standing-room-only meeting at which both sides appeared to be well represented.
Francisco Perez asked why he should have to take the bus to buy groceries, since there’s no supermarket downtown. “That’s wasting about an hour” both ways, he said, and he works two jobs to support his family. “Money’s time, and time is money,” he said.
“We need jobs in this community,” said James Washington, Jr., representing Concerned Clergy of Metropolitan Athens. “Some folk may not need that type jobs,” he said. “We do. Some folk may not need that type shopping. We doâ€¦ Put something near East Athens community. Give these people a chance to work,” he said.
“I keep hearing about the ‘great’ downtown Athens,” said Charlie Maddox, a two-time candidate for mayor long active in civic affairs. “I’m not knocking it. That’s what people enjoy.” But people can’t “buy local” without jobs, he said. “We also have to think about the least and the left outâ€¦ There is dignity in work.” Maddox said he has “sat through three presentations” on Selig’s projectâ€”the developer has been reaching out to local churches and community groups, sometimes with donationsâ€””and I don’t think this group could have done a finer job of considering Athens.”
Downtown business owner Jackie Unruh begged to differ. The planâ€”and especially the extensive free parking it includesâ€””feels like a slap in the face” to business owners, she said. “Keep in mind that we already have a thriving downtown in Athens. Please don’t mess up a good thing.”
Speakers representing the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce said both organizations support Selig’s proposed mixed-use development. But it was not on the commission’s agenda last week, and commissioners have yet to discuss it publicly (although they may eventually be asked to approve zoning variances for the development). Chamber President “Doc” Eldridge said the “average” wage paid by the existing Walmart on Athens’ Eastside is $11.10 an hour.
Commissioners did say that downtown Athens needs a “master plan”â€”discussed in the past, but never funded (estimates for a detailed, consultant-generated plan have run as high as $400,000). Mayor Nancy Denson, who will prepare a budget for commission approval by May, indicated that money might be found for such a plan. But on a 5-4 vote, the commission nixed a controversial recommendation to fund public art as part of the new jail. An earlier discussion of spending up to 1 percent of the jail budget on artâ€”perhaps in the lobbyâ€”had brought outrage from some citizens, but commissioners will continue to consider budgeting art at that level on other, future county projects.
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