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Finding resources to help grow your business in Athens is a bit like trying to untangle spaghetti. There are about a dozen foundations, boards, authorities and organizations in Clarke County that are ready and willing to help a business, no matter its size—whether it wants to hire another employee or bring its entire operation to Northeast Georgia. But the problem is, without one central voice guiding businesses to help find the right resource, it’s as if you’re eating that bowl of spaghetti without a fork. And that can get pretty messy.

That topic came up at last week’s meeting of Mayor Nancy Denson’s Economic Development Task Force, which has been charged with developing a strategic economic development plan for Athens-Clarke County. Through monthly meetings and a series of public forums, the group, made up of members of the local business community, has until October to put together a strategic plan for approval by the Mayor and Commission. The task force’s first public forum is 7–9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22 at the Classic Center Fire Hall. Anyone with ideas about how Athens’ economy should look in the next 20 years—and with ideas on how to get there—is welcome to attend and add their input.

There are plenty of impediments to economic growth in ACC (infrastructure and education challenges or the perception of the county as “anti-business,” for example). But while there also are engines for economic growth, because they lack a centralized contact point, it can be very difficult to navigate the sea of services available.

“Right now, if a business wants to come to Athens, who do you call?” asked local attorney Mike Morris, a member of the task force. “If I’m coming to Athens to start a business, what do I do?… I think right now, people coming to Athens don’t know who’s speaking for Athens.”

If you’re looking for capital to hire more employees or expand your building, there are grants you can apply for through the county’s Department of Human and Economic Development. Looking to relocate to downtown Athens? Talk to the Downtown Development Authority. If you are a larger business looking to relocate, you can turn to bonds issued through the ACC Industrial Development Authority and the Economic Development Authority. Or, you can contact the Economic Development Foundation (a nonprofit supported by various public entities) or the recently formed Metro Athens Growth Federation (an organization of community leaders). Then there are smaller neighborhood-centric organizations that focus on microloans and grants for businesses, construction and general economic improvements to specific areas within Athens; these include the East Athens Development Corporation and the Hancock Community Development Corporation.

And then, there are the resources offered through the University of Georgia. Looking to craft a business plan? Talk to the Small Business Development Center. Looking for studies in specific areas? The Selig Center for Economic Growth or the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development can help set you on the right path. And, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, the Office of Economic Development will help companies, governments and nonprofits work out the right plan. Even Georgia Tech has offices in Athens to help economic growth—one helps businesses looking to work with federal agencies, and another helps businesses evaluate their efficiency, whether it’s using less energy or managing a manufacturer’s production.

Teri Evans, community economic development coordinator with the county’s Department of Human and Economic Development, broke the need for resources into two sectors: big businesses looking to relocate, and small, local businesses looking to start up or grow. While the Economic Development Foundation focuses on recruiting large businesses to the area, Evans’ department focuses on “the smaller businesses, your locally grown type of things,” she said. “It could be a restaurant; it could be a beauty salon.” She said her office will partner with the EDF on some projects, or will serve as a guide to help companies find the best resources.

Marketing is one of the specific jobs the EDF does, said Dr. Virginia Patel, who chairs its board. The EDF reaches out on a state and national level to market Athens and attract larger businesses willing to relocate, she said, adding that there are 11 projects in the works for Athens.

One of those is the recently announced Caterpillar manufacturing plant relocating to a large tract of land on the Clarke-Oconee county line, bringing 1,400 jobs to the area. “This is fantastic, because the two counties have worked together,” Patel told Flagpole. “Mac Brown, who is the acting vice president and CEO for the EDF, has worked very hard on this project, as well as [Oconee County Economic Development Director] Rusty Haygood.” The project, which came onto the EDF’s radar in December, had everyone at the EDF, as well as the mayor and county commissioners, sworn to secrecy. “That was something the company was so firm about,” said Patel, “and if a leak happened, that could have killed it.”

This is one example of how the EDF works specifically with the state Economic Development Office to attract large employers to the area, said Patel. “In Georgia, there is a state level of economic development,” she told the task force. “So, a lot of these large organizations contact the state.”

Patel said she thinks the process followed by the EDF is working—but she did acknowledge there is overlap between various economic development groups. “All of these interplay with each other,” she said. “It would be nice for these to be all together in one location.”

As a nonprofit organization, the EDF receives support from several sources—about $150,000 from the county and another $100,000 from the Economic Development Authority, the Industrial Development Authority and UGA’s Research Foundation, plus office space from the Chamber of Commerce. The Economic Development Authority and the Industrial Authority are volunteer boards, made up of members of the community, that administer community development block grants. Other organizations fall under the umbrella of the ACC government, UGA or private funding through community groups.

Many of the ideas for economic development—and impediments to it in Athens—discussed by the task force echoed a 2011 report by Janus Economics, funded by Georgia Power for the EDF. The report noted there was no shared vision or long-term plan for economic development in the county, and suggested coming up with a strategic plan for economic development—something the task force is now working on.

On the task force, members discussed the relationships ACC, as well as private entities, have with UGA, and also how services might be combined by an “ombudsman” to advocate for businesses within the government. Just having someone to help with permitting or deciphering local ordinances would be a valuable asset, they said.

And while each entity serving businesses does have a specific role, a well-defined partnership between them all would help, added Janice Mathis, founder of the Metro Athens Growth Federation. The organization’s goal is to “bring good jobs to Athens and the surrounding region,” according to its website.

“It’s a very specialized kind of partnership,” Mathis said. “Everyone who works on economic development knows what their role is.”