By Mitch Blomert
The Georgia Theatre is beginning to take life again.
After nearly two years of reconstruction to repair interior destruction from a fire, the historic music venue on the corner of Clayton and Lumpkin St. is closing in on completion—and many Athens residents are excited for its reopening.
“The Georgia Theatre is to Athens what Radio City is to New York,” said University of Georgia junior and Athens music enthusiast Wil Petty. “Without it, you lose a lot of the city’s essence.”
The theater has been closed and barricaded by chain-link fences since the fire completely destroyed the interior of the building on June 19, 2009, leaving an eyesore in Athens’ historic downtown district, as well as a cultural hole in the city’s now-famous music scene.
The building, which was erected in 1889, has remained in the same state for 21 months with little knowledge of what progress was being made inside. The only on-site information was one four-letter word left on marquee above the main entrance—“ouch.”
But the marquee has since changed to “Back in 2011,” and Georgia Theatre owner Wilmot Greene has set a target reopening date for June.
“We are getting really close,” Green said. “I would estimate being complete by mid June, although it may take another few weeks of managerial organization after the building is complete for us to actually reopen. We will probably have soft openings until August.”
Greene said the theater’s steel and concrete rebuilding is 95 percent complete, while mechanical systems are 75 percent complete.
The carpentry and finish work have just begun, but won’t be much work, since Green wants to restore the theater’s rustic look to match the buildings 122-year-old age.
“The building will remain fairly bare with a good bit of exposed surfaces and mechanics,” Greene said.
Once the construction is complete and the theater is ready for reopening, it will host a two-week “grand opening” period in early August, hosting a wide variety of artists—both local and out-of-town—from varying genres of music.
With it comes a triumphant return of a major catalyst in the Athens music scene, brought back to life by numerous donors.
The theater paired with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, an Atlanta-based organization that collects tax-free donations to help restore historic landmarks across the state.
The group has helped fund restoration for several Civil War sites in Georgia, as well as important Civil Rights Act landmarks in Atlanta, former plantation homes and Native American territorial establishments.
The Trust collected just over $200,000 to rebuild the Georgia Theatre, which equates to about five percent of the total reconstruction cost.
“Although five percent may seem like a low number, the budget was so tight on this project that we could not have gotten to this point without that help,” Greene said. “The Athens-Clarke County government has not been able to do us any special favors—which would be preferential treatment—but they have been cooperative and as supportive as possible.”
The rest of the donations have come from various sources, including Athens residents, UGA students and musicians that used the Georgia Theatre as a starting place for their careers.
The largest single donation from an artist came from Grammy Award-nominated country group Zac Brown Band, which gave $75,000 to the theater that hosted them before their mainstream success.
“Students and residents have done some amazing things for us,” Greene said. “There have been countless benefit shows, percentage nights at local bars and restaurants and ‘in kind’ donations from printers, lawyers, smoothie makers, and more.”
The theater received more donations than expected, which helped cushion the rebuilding process—something that could have been axed completely.
Greene said that the Georgia Theatre’s lofty rebuilding cost of roughly $4.4 million dollars almost made the decision to keep the theater alive “hard to justify,” and that without such passionate community support, the building may have simply been torn down.
Instead, the theater is now in a better financial situation than it was prior to the fire.
“We have certainly felt loved by our community,” Greene said. We hope that people continue to support us by donating money and patronizing the venue once we are completed. We will certainly be in a precarious financial position for years—and decades—to come.”
All the more reason for residents and fans of Athens-based music to be excited for a reopening—especially Petty, who holds fond memories of the theater.
Petty first visited the theater on Sept. 23, 2003 to attend a performance by Atlanta-based metal band Sevendust. The show he attended eventually became the first live album released by the band.
“That will forever be my favorite personal music memory,” Petty said. “Without the theatre I would have never gotten to experience that.”
Petty said he will be a regular at the theater upon its reopening, and expects most of Athens’ music enthusiasts to do the same.
“I don’t want to say it would never be the same since it’s so cliché,” Petty said. “But the night it reopens, Athens will be turned up to 11.”
For the non-music enthusiast that still frequents the downtown area, the theater’s reopening is still a sigh of relief.
Brent Ball, a UGA senior, has never attended the theater, but has anticipated its reopening since it will alleviate the construction in the area.
In the months following the fire, the Lumpkin St. lanes in front of the theater were closed completely, forcing traffic to turn right at Clayton and return to Lumpkin via Washington St. one block to the north.
Lumpkin St. access past the theater has since reopened, but the fences containing the construction zone for the theater and an adjacent new parking deck has remained intact, eliminating surrounding parking spots and a portion of the left lane on Clayton St.
“I just want it to be done so that the area looks better,” Ball said. “Downtown Athens has a serene, classic look to it—especially at night—and all the construction takes away from it.”
Luckily for Ball, the process won’t take much longer—something Green thanks the entire city of Athens for.
“Everyone has been extremely emotionally supportive,” Greene said. “This has made our monumental challenges easier to face without pulling out too much hair, although I have personally gone grey since the fire.”
It’s 2 a.m. and the ice cream is melting – Kathryn Lookofsky is at Kroger wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt, red hair spilling out of a baseball cap, no makeup on and ready to check out. Then, a downtown merchant who just happens to be there walks up and asks her a question.
“I’m really never off work, which is irritating,” Lookofsky said. “But I’m not complaining. I love what I do.”
Lookofsky plays a key role as director and CEO of the Athens Downtown Development Authority in all things concerning economic development downtown, and part of her job is that she’s always on the job.
She explains her job this way:
“I walk that bridge between the downtown business community and local government,” she says. “I help get information back and forth, and help make sure both pieces work well together.”
The latest example of her work is the oversight of a seven-story parking deck being built on the corner of Lumpkin and Washington next to the Georgia Theatre, which will be using $6,768,205 in SPLOST funds appropriated in 2005 as a part of Project 28 of that year’s SPLOST referendum.
“We have the ability to issue bonds, and that’s what we did to finance the parking deck for the ADDA part of it,” Lookofsky said. “It was a bond issuance of just right over $6 million. They’re revenue bonds, so they’ll be paid back over time with revenue from the parking deck.”
The new deck is a three-way venture between the ADDA, Athens-Clarke County and a development company called Batson-Cook.
“The easiest way to think about that, to wrap your head around that is to kind of think of it like a condominium development, where you buy an apartment in the condominium, or a unit,” Lookofsky said. “You don’t own the whole building. So the way it’s set up now, the county owns the actual land that the building sits on. Batson-Cook owns the retail and the office parts of the building, and then the county, or the parking services, owns the parking aspects of it. It’s a lot more complicated and detailed than that, but that’s the crux of it.”
And the goal of the deck?
“The goal would be to provide more parking downtown,” Lookofsky said. “That’s not a smartass answer, that’s really the goal. We’re building it for more parking. I think last count was 520 or 540. I don’t remember exactly.”
Last year, the total operating budget for downtown Athens collected as revenue was $281,000.
“We have a downtown tax district, that’s the ADDA district, and there’s a millage rate for all the property in that district,” Lookofsky said. “We get part of the money for the property taxes in that district, and last year it was about $150,000. So that’s one way we get money. We also manage the downtown parking system, and we get paid a fee by the county to manage the system, and that’s $100,000 a year. Plus, we get a bonus if the revenues are beyond what was projected, so that just encourages us to do the job better. The bonus is part of our operating budget.”
Lookofsky, a Georgia native, came to this work after returning from a position in another state.
“I managed a small town in New Hampshire,” Lookofsky said. “I worked for the city of Decatur, worked for the city of Jonesboro, and eventually wound up in Athens. I actually love Athens. I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be. It’s a great town.”
Lookofsky makes the most of her job by working with others holding her position around the state.
“I know the woman that does my job in Augusta,” Lookofsky said. “I talk to the people in Savannah and Decatur more than anybody because they’re the most similar – we have more in common with the issues we face and the problems we face. We definitely compare notes and steal ideas and copy each other.”
She’s really never off the clock outside of the professional world.
“Even when I go on vacation out of town, I’ll be taking pictures of manhole covers or street lamps and thinking of things we could try out here,” Lookofsky said in an Athens Banner-Herald article on Oct. 31, 2008.
Being close to home is not much different when it comes to being off the clock.
“The rare opportunity I do get to go on a date, I hardly ever come downtown,” Lookofsky said. “I’ll be on the date and somebody will come to the [restaurant] table and speak for 30 minutes.”
Regardless of working day and night to appropriate millions of dollars or just to make sure all the streetlights are working, Lookofsky’s personal life, when she gets to enjoy it, looks a lot like the girl’s next door or the guy’s across the street.
“I enjoy cooking, hanging out with friends,” Lookofsky said. “I like to go see live music, host dinner parties. I’m a runner. I hang out with my dog, Rufus – he’s a basset hound, pit bull mix. He’s really cute.”
Jared Bailey has a lot on his plate, which is why he starts every morning around 6 a.m. with a double cappuccino to start sifting through the 50 to 100 emails he might receive on any given day.
These emails could be of political, musical, civic or philanthropic nature—all different areas that Bailey is involved in.
Its 6:15 a.m. Tuesday morning and Bailey reads, “a very long email,” from the Director of the Athens Clarke-County Economic Development Foundation.
Next, he reads an email from the Director of the Chamber of Commerce that explains some errors in an editorial that was published in the Athens Banner Herald.
Needing a break from email, Bailey reads the paper and checks his to-do list and reflects on the challenges ahead for the day.
Time for another double cappuccino, he thinks to himself.
By the time 8 a.m. rolls around, Bailey can start returning phone calls.
Each phone call could be relating to his full time job, directing Athfest, his volunteer work with various organizations in the city, or his new part-time job, representing District 5 of Athens-Clarke County as the newly-elected commissioner.
Bailey was elected District 5 Commissioner after a run-off against Dave Hudgins in November.
Although his new role is labeled a “part-time job,” Bailey explained that the responsibilities equal those of a full-time job.
“It’s pretty tough,” Bailey said. “Especially when you are still learning.”
Bailey, who had observed many of the commission meetings as a citizen in the past, said it is much more complicated than it looks.
“It seems easy, obvious from one side of the rail,” he said. “Behind the rail, it is a different story.”
Since his swearing in ceremony on Jan. 4, Bailey said, he has thrown himself into learning the job, which has been more time consuming than he anticipated.
“In the beginning,” he said, “It was almost overwhelming.”
Learning how to be a commissioner involves understanding how the system works, what each department does, parliamentary procedure and more.
Although Bailey had attended a state-required, three-day training program and another daylong training session for Athens-Clarke County, he also sought help from seasoned professionals.
“He has been spending a lot of time since getting elected just listening and asking questions,” District 4 Commissioner Alice Kinman said.
One of the mentors Bailey relies on for advice is Planning Commission Chair Lucy Rowland, who served as Bailey’s campaign manager during the election.
“He is a very quick study,” Rowland said. “He asks for advice, which is unusual, because one of the things you will find in politicians is that they are egomaniacs—he is not an egomaniac.”
Rowland, who had served as a campaign operative for 30 years, had actually retired from the work but came out of retirement to help Bailey with his campaign.
“I never work for a candidate that I don’t believe in,” Rowland said.
Bailey demonstrated a number of qualities that led Rowland to believe he would be a strong political candidate.
“He is one of the smartest people I know,” she said. “He is very analytical.”
Strong work ethic was another quality that Rowland saw in Bailey.
“I have never seen anybody work harder than he does,” she said. “He works day and night.”
This particular trait was especially crucial during his first few weeks on the job.
Not only did Bailey have to learn a complicated political system very quickly, the new commissioner was jolted into official duties only days after his swearing-in ceremony with the snowstorm in early January.
With barely a week on the job, Bailey was receiving angry phone calls from citizens who needed assistance after the storm.
“It hit him like a bag of rocks,” Rowland said. “He was getting calls from people who weren’t even in his district.”
After the initial shocks of the snowstorm passed, Bailey could start addressing the issues he discussed during his campaign: empowered neighborhoods, effective economic development, sustainable land use and transportation, environmental stewardship, public safety and fiscal responsibility.
Instead of addressing each of these issues individually, Bailey relies on these concerns when making decisions of every variety as commissioner of District 5.
“The issues that I put on my platform,” Bailey said, “are what guide my actions and my thoughts.”
However, sometimes these issues conflict with each other in a particular scenario and Bailey must find a balance.
When he worked with a neighborhood that was opposed to building a medical center in District 5, Bailey was faced with clashing concerns of “good land use” and “empowering the neighborhood.”
“It was a good use of land, but at the same time the neighborhood had rights,” he said, “so I had to work with both of them and iron out the differences.”
In the end, the commission approved the zoning request with conditions that represented the neighborhood’s concerns.
Bailey considers these issues as he takes on current projects such as the Classic Center expansion proposal as a result of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax vote.
Now 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Bailey sits on the stage of a packed City Hall with the Mayor and Commission to discuss the various design options of the Classic Center expansion during an Athens-Clarke Commission work session.
Members of the local business community push a design which will close a portion of East Hancock Ave and petition not to delay the project any longer.
Bailey listens to the arguments before him, while also considering the other sides to the debate.
“There are people who don’t think the Classic Center needs to expand at all,” Bailey said.
Others think that the Classic Center staff is pushing to have it done in a time frame that is too short to make a quality plan, he added.
The meeting finally wraps up at 9:30 p.m. allowing Bailey to be home by 10 p.m., but Bailey is not able to simply turn his brain off with the flip of a switch.
“I ran the events of the meeting through my head a thousand times,” Bailey said. “I finally fell asleep about 1 a.m.”
It’s 6 a.m. Wednesday morning and Bailey is up again, with a double cappuccino, ready for another busy day.
“It is a little more work than I thought it would be, but I am glad I did it,” he said. “Although I am only one vote in 10, I think I have a positive effect.”
By Briana Gerdeman
“At 1 p.m. on Wednesday July 1st, 2020,” the goal reads, “every child in Athens will be on course to graduate from a post-secondary education.”
It’s an ambitious goal, but Whatever It Takes Athens has made it their mission. WIT Athens is based off the Harlem Children’s Zone program, which has helped children living in a 97-city-block area in Harlem, New York further their education and escape poverty. A federal grant is enabling community organizations in 21 cities and towns throughout the country, including Athens, to do the same.
The Harlem Children’s Zone, according to its website, offers support to children and families from the child’s conception through college. Its services try to address all the problems of poverty, beginning with parenting workshops for expectant parents and continuing to college success workshops to help high school graduates adjust to the new environment of college. In between, there are preschools, charter schools, and summer and after-school programs.
Although the HCZ has been criticized for spending more money than the program’s results justify, the Children’s Zone has been praised as “literally saving a generation of children,” as President Obama said.
The federal Promise Neighborhoods Initiative provides towns and cities with grants from the U.S. Department of Education to spend a year planning “cradle-to-career services” for children, similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone. Athens was one of 21 communities chosen out of more than 300 applicants, along with Little Rock, Ark.; Boston; the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Mont.; and several neighborhoods in New York City and Los Angeles.
“We believe that the only way we can truly improve our children’s success rate is thinking holistically,” said Erica Gilbertson, program director for Whatever It Takes. Athens’ Whatever It Takes program is an initiative of Family Connection/Communities in Schools, a partnership of 90 organizations working together to meet the needs of children and families.
Terris Thomas, resident engagement facilitator for WIT Athens, said Whatever It Takes aims to ensure that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, involved in the community and educated. The way to do this, she said, is by involving everyone in the community, including parents, neighbors, teachers, doctors and religious leaders.
That’s one important way that Whatever It Takes differs from other programs, she said. It makes residents “not just recipients, but contributors,” Thomas said, by “building a strong sense of community where we are all responsible for each other.”
“We facilitate collaboration among all the different organizations in town that care about children,” said Tim Johnson, executive director of WIT.
At a monthly partners meeting in March, the leaders of Whatever It Takes invited parents, educators, religious leaders and other members of the community to meet at Classic City High School to discuss the program’s goals. The meeting opened with a short video about the Harlem Children’s Zone and its founder, Geoffrey Canada.
Gilbertson, whose job includes organizing focus groups to work on different goals to help children, shared insights from some of the focus groups. The focus group participants wanted to see more child care options and recreational and after-school activities, Gilbertson said, and they wanted faith leaders, Athens Housing Authority staff and public health nurses to get involved in working for children’s success.
Several parents, who serve as resident leaders for WIT in their neighborhoods, spoke at the meeting about what they had learned from having “living room conversations” with their neighbors.
Marcia Dotson, a resident leader and a board member of WIT, said the neighbors she talked with were concerned about helping children stay healthy. Dotson, whose child is experiencing health problems, met another mother in the same situation.
Sonya Freeman, also a resident leader and board member, said the neighbors she talked to were focused on education. They wanted to strengthen early childhood learning programs, and teach kids foreign languages at an early age so they won’t be left behind, but also let children learn at their own pace. Freeman told about one mother who attended the meeting who didn’t know how to read, and said that Whatever It Takes needs to help illiterate parents so they can help their children.
Since WIT Athens is still in the early stages of planning, it doesn’t have many specific goals or plans to achieve them yet. But Thomas said the program’s goals will be closely based on what parents and residents say is important.
“It doesn’t matter what their family situation is, all parents want their children to succeed,” Thomas said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to empower and create advocacy among community leaders.”
Whatever It Takes is applying for an additional grant to fund its efforts over the next decade. Whether it gets the money depends on whether Congress approves any more money for the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, Johnson said, and if so, whether Athens is chosen for another grant.
If Athens doesn’t get the grant, WIT will continue to look for other funding sources, including donations, but the leaders of WIT said community involvement and making connections with existing resources were more important than money.
So will Whatever It Takes be able to achieve its goal? Let’s break it down.
“At 1 p.m. on Wednesday July 1st, 2020…”
2020 is far off, but when you’re talking about supporting a child through every stage of development, nine years goes by quickly. Although the leaders of WIT aren’t ready to announce specific steps, they said the time period will be enough to make a difference.
“It’s hard to imagine how exactly we get there in 10 years,” Gilbertson said, “but I think it’s possible.”
“…every child in Athens…”
Will WIT be able to reach every child in Athens? For now, the program is focusing on the Alps Road attendance zone, which includes Alps Road Elementary School, Clarke Middle School and Clarke Central High School. But once its work starts to gain momentum and show results, Whatever It Takes plans to expand to other neighborhoods.
“We’re taking a geographically focused approach, going neighborhood by neighborhood,” Johnson said. “You change the culture of the neighborhood to be pro-education.”
“…will be on course to graduate from a post-secondary education.”
When a student is still in elementary or middle school, how can you tell if they will later graduate from college? WIT Athens plans to track reading skills, the teen pregnancy rate, graduation rates and the general crime rate as indicators of its progress. And “post-secondary education doesn’t mean a four-year university for every student.
“A young person with a learning disability is not going to go to a four-year institution,” Johnson said. Instead, that person might receive on-the-job training. Other students’ post-secondary education might take the form of community college or military service.
It’s too early to know if Whatever It Takes will achieve its ambitious goal, but Gilbertson said the fact that it was chosen out of over 300 cities for an initial Promise Neighborhoods grant means it has a good chance.
“This community is really positioned well to make this happen,” she said. “This is our moment.”
By: Sarah Lundgren
Willy Wonka’s “Golden Ticket” contest has a copycat in Athens.
Currently at the Terrapin Beer Co. Brewery, there are four different beers available, each representing an era of the iconic Georgia Theatre. A single one in each batch could earn you a “golden ticket,” a lifetime entry to the former music icon of the Classic City.
But all that’s standing of the theater that once brought people from all over the country is still charred remnants following the tragic fire on June 19, 2009. Or is it?
Since mid-2010, the Georgia Theatre has been in the process of rebuilding and revamping its former structure. High fences, large tarps and sawdust surround the outside, but on the inside its well on its way to opening day.
On June 19, 2011, the 2-year anniversary of the fire, the theater expects to reopen its doors to the public, with a whole new look but the same hometown feel.
Local bands, businesses and citizens alike are waiting in anticipation of the reopening of the theater, which will have a brand-new basement, rooftop bar and restaurant for customers to enjoy.
Owner since 2004, Wilmot Green, 40, of Gainesville, Ga., is ready and eager to open his doors. Green had hoped to get his establishment back in action sooner, but a problem with the age and historic value of the building slowed the process.
“We hoped to get the building permit by Christmas 2009,” said Green, “but it took us a full year to get it.”
The snows of early 2011 put a damper on the process as well.
“The snow was just coming in through the roof because we didn’t have one yet, we lost week after week,” says Green. “We were literally in there with snow shovels getting it out.”
But Green says, assuming the weather and materials cooperate, he’s confident in the June 19 opening. He’s hoping to attract the students of Athens, remembering his college years here.
“When I was in college, I was at the theater four nights a week,” says Green, “I can’t imagine how it’s been for the students who haven’t gotten to have that experience for the last two years.”
Green had the opportunity to walk away from the theater after it burned down, but he stayed in hopes of creating similar memories he had growing up for the youth of today.
“I kind of owe it to these young people, for them to have that same kind of opportunity,” says Green. “Some of the greatest experiences of my college years and life have been at that theatre.”
Heather Atcherson, 21, a senior Biology major at the University of Georgia from Annapolis, Md., appreciates Green’s determination to bring back the theater that’s been gone since just after her sophomore year in college.
“I definitely feel like I’ve missed out, says Atcherson. “In my first year here, I went to four or five concerts there, and then it burned down. I can’t say I’ve been to another local concert since. Looking back, I have a lot of great memories from the Georgia Theatre and I’d love to have had more.”
Atcherson says the theater enriched the lives of the students in Athens, and gave a better name to the city.
“I think the theater helps culture students a bit,” says Atcherson. “It offers students the ability to not only come and listen to great bands, but learn the history of the town and its music culture, kind of become a part of the reputation Athens has for being so musically cultured.”
The location of the theater to campus during her freshman year was so different from venues in her hometown, it gave her a local place to get to know in an unknown city.
“I loved the accessibility of great music and awesome bands right in the center of town and at walking distance,” says Atcherson. “At home to see a concert, it’s either a long drive in traffic or a struggle to find parking. The Georgia Theatre was in a perfect location.”
Atcherson is eagerly anticipating the reopening, despite her graduation date in May. She promises to not wander too far.
“It definitely gives me something to look forward to, a reason to come back into town to visit,” says Atcherson. “I want to make more memories, and in the meantime, I can rest assured that there are plenty of students filling my place and making up for lost time when they reopen.”
Attracting students isn’t the only goal Green has. He hopes music fanatics and former regulars haven’t wandered far either.
“I think a lot of people used the Georgia Theatre as their hub, it was the first place they checked to start their night,” says Green. “I hope that we can help those people and they’re still around.”
Green estimates the theater sold at least 100,000 tickets per year, at around a minimum of $25 per ticket, making the yearly revenue at least $2.5 million. And that’s just ticket prices.
“Probably half of the tickets we sold were to people from out of town,” says Green, “and you have to consider the amount of money they spend on their stay in Athens.”
Even not being a large venue, says Green, the Georgia Theatre has still brought business to the downtown area that will be helping support the city again soon.
“Whether you’re from out of town or already living here, you’re going to end up spending something downtown,” says Green. “Whether it’s hotel, food, shopping, it’s money for Athens.”
The community has shown their support for the theatre, as the extensive list of donors on the Georgia Theatre website shows. Businesses downtown that have contributed include Ben & Jerry’s, the Globe, the Taco Stand, the 40 watt, the Melting Point, and Horton’s Drug Store.
The local government has not made any contributions to the rebuilding, according to Green, despite the theater’s presence in the downtown area for almost 120 years.
But he isn’t sweating it.
“We’ve raised about $200,000 dollars,” says Green, “Our largest single donation came from the Zac Brown Band, which was $70,000. And then we’ve had another couple big donations from just regular rich people that felt we were important.”
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, a large non-profit, collects the contributions to the theater and takes care of the paperwork, says Green, making them a part of the public record.
The theater also received a standard bank loan in order to get the process going.
“The only non-standard part is that it’s a combination loan between a bank and the Small Business Association, part of the federal government,” says Green, “so it’s not a grant or anything like that.”
But getting the SBA involved, says Green, makes the payment system easier because it changes the terms of the loan, making it a 20-year plan as opposed to typical commercial loans, which are 10 years.
The loan together with continued donation help have led to the theater’s current status. Construction workers in hardhats mill in and out of the theatre on an almost-daily basis, hammering and sawing the theatre back to life.
“The toughest parts of construction are over,” says Green, as he walks through the building, leaning on steel beams and smiling at the workers. “The structure is finished, so now it’s just the detail work. But they say the devil’s in the details.”
Among some of the things left to do are installing an elevator, painting, finishing of the sprinkler system, placing of the A.C. units, and building the new bars. But Green says they are making great progress and are relatively on schedule.
With the finishing touches expected for mid-June, the theater has been booking bands and events for fall. The lack of stability in the reopening date has made it impossible to book for summer just yet, says Green.
“We won’t know until a couple days before reopening that we’re officially able to open,” says Green, “so the rest of the summer we’ll just have to plan on booking a week or two in advance, instead of 6 months like normal.”
Green is looking forward to picking out the opening act, whenever the date may be, as many are in anticipation of being the first in, he says. He’s already got one local band in mind, but absolutely no official decisions have been made.
“I would love for the Futurebirds to be one of the first bands to play,” says Green, “because the bird, like a pheonix, and future, like our future. It’d just be a great fit.” Over 30 different bands have made donations to the theater, include one from the B-52s of over $1,000.
Assuming no hardships befall the reconstruction, local bands and Athenians can look forward to the bright lights of the Georgia Theatre shining on the corner of Lumpkin and Clayton streets.
“People expect to be able to come see great shows and they expect us to be what we were in a lot of ways,” says Green. “We just want to book great bands and have people want to and be willing to come spend their hard-earned money here.”
Returning customers can also expect something brand new.
“The roof is going to have a bar and restaurant up there, and there used to be nothing on the roof” says Green. “We’re going to have three things on the menu: BBQ, chicken salad, and tofu.”
It’s all going to be smoked in advance, says Green, so the building will be smoking forever, making light of the situation.
Green’s biggest fear is that the theatre will suddenly become uncool, but he’s working to create a unique place for his customers.
“A good music venue, you walk in the door, and you feel like you’re somehow transported somewhere else, you’re in some kind of very special thing,” says Green. “That’s what we hope to create. A kind of place where a $20 ticket and a couple $4 beers just don’t seem like that bad of an idea.”
JOUR 5300 TR 9:30
March 31. 2011
Story 3 Final Draft
Downtown Athens is an oddity.
In an economic age where budgets have been tight, jobs have been few, and people have been discouraged, the Classic City remains steady as a strong environment for local businesses, restaurants and retail stores.
The key to downtown Athens’ success lies with one rather large revitalization tool –– one most people wouldn’t peg as the lifeline for the community –– The University of Georgia.
Jeff Humphreys, the director of The Selig Center of Economic Growth, has lived in Athens all of his life, and he said the downtown area has had its peaks and valleys over the years.
“Ever since the mid-80s, downtown Athens has been on an upswing despite recessions,” Humphreys said. “Despite the latest deep recession, I think that downtown Athens is doing particularly well –– especially when compared to other downtowns –– so whatever they’re doing has worked.”
According to Humphreys, rent in the downtown area has been rising, and there has been more pedestrian traffic throughout the area. By increasing the amount of time spent downtown, whether it be through spending time in restaurants or retail stores, the city continues to economically rise.
“I think [its] a real success story,” Humphreys said. “Not only compared to its recent past, but also when compared to similarly sized communities. Athens has done very well in terms of redeveloping its downtown.”
Redeveloping the downtown equates to revitalization.
And restoring the life and vigor of a community is not new concept for economic developers.
According to “Solutions for America,” an organization devoted to civic problem solving, downtown revitalization is needed because it creates jobs.
“[It] incubates small businesses, reduces sprawl, protects property values, and increases the community’s options for goods and services,” they say. “A healthy downtown is a symbol of community pride and history.”
From various downtown revitalization program strategies offered by Solutions for America, experts say that successful downtowns attract a wide range of individuals by affecting housing, work, shopping, culture, entertainment, government, and tourist attractions.
But downtown Athens’ vibrancy comes from one attraction in particular.
“In Athens, [revitalization] had to do with the proximity of the University and being able to leverage that into downtown development,” Humphreys said. “Often the busiest restaurants are the ones closest to campus. The University provides a stabilizing influence against recession, particularly student spending, particularly with the hope scholarship as it has made discretionary spending by students more recession resistant than many other University towns across the country.”
Yet, location is everything when it comes to economic growth.
Without the build of the Athens Classic Center, a local convention center for the area, Humphreys said it was one of the main factors aiding the economic growth for the area.
“It could’ve gone in another direction, another place,” he said. “It did come to downtown because of successful efforts to rebuild. Athens-Clarke County was undoubtedly going to build a convention center somewhere, it could’ve been built somewhere other than downtown, but that fact that is was built downtown has made a big difference.”
This trend is also apparent on a national scale.
In Johnathan Weber’s article from MSNBC.com, “Demographic trends now favor downtown,” he drives home the point that location is imperative to the real estate industry, and he even goes as far as saying that “the power of place [proves] to be ever more important for a broad range of small businesses.”
Weber mentions how demographic and market indicators suggest that growth and development across the country are moving away from the suburban and exurban fringe and toward center-cities and close-in suburbs.
This all bodes well for an area like downtown Athens, where the local economy is spurred by revenue from restaurants and retail stores ––spurred by the impact of small businesses.
But what’s the key to the successfulness of these money hubs?
“Having a college that is literally downtown makes a difference, ” Humphreys said. “It’s made it easier for downtown development to be successful.”
Without students being so close to the area, the economic development of the area would be drastically different, Humphreys said.
“Students spend a large amount of their budget eating out,” he said. “It doesn’t cost much more to eat out in Athens — it’s kind of renown for having cheap eats–and the restaurants that do the best are the closest to campus.”
Georgia’s HOPE scholarship also plays a role in the student influence in the downtown Athens economy.
“HOPE has freed up discretionary spending,” Humphreys said. “Budgets are tight, and a high proportion of UGA students get hope and keep it. The restructuring of HOPE is coming at a time where the tailwinds for the economy are increasing, so a little of the headwind is easier to offset.”
In a just published article from Paul Davidson of USA TODAY, where “New data shows strengthening job market,” The ADP National Employment Report said private payrolls were slightly under estimates in March of this year — full numbers can be found in Davidson’s piece –– but that the average monthly increase is up from reports from September.
From Davidson’s information, many economists estimate monthly job increases will average high numbers this year, and the recession is expected to reach its limit.
Athens’s odd economic stability hasn’t thrown Humphreys off his game. He said he’s happy with how the area has done, and he believes it will continue to improve.
“Economic growth is unique in every city,” he said. “Athens has done well.”
March 31, 2011
Story 3 Follow-Up Final
Parking is a hassle.
That seems to be the belief that everyone has when it comes to downtown Athens.
The Downtown Athens Parking System or (DAPS) consists of three types of parking choices. Most citizens park in one of 750 short-term on-street spaces.
Shoppers visiting Athens for two hours or less use these spaces most often.
Besides these street spaces, there are also four surface lots used for monthly parking.
Three of the lots are near Dougherty Street with the fourth lot adjacent to Hull Street. People who live or work in downtown Athens use these lots most often.
The third type of parking service available to citizens is the College Avenue Parking Deck. The deck provides the only covered parking service available to patrons of downtown Athens.
However, a new parking deck is in development to accompany the College Avenue Deck. Atlanta-based construction company Batson-Cook is building the new deck.
The new deck is scheduled to open in August 2011, and be about 75 feet tall.
The price of the deck will be $17 million and include 520 spaces.
Unlike the College Avenue deck, the first level of the new parking deck will include retail and office space.
Although the parking deck does not have a name yet, several are in contention. The names include the “Theater District Deck (in recognition of Georgia Theatre, Morton Theatre and nearby Ciné) or Ben Epps Deck (since the aviator first took flight a few feet away),” according to a story in the Athens Banner Herald.
Kathryn Lookofsky, director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority said that ADDA officials have even sought suggestions for the name of the deck on the social networking site Facebook, however the results were not as the ADDA had expected. “They didn’t get many serious submissions,” Lookofsky said.
Besides the name and cost of the new parking deck, the building of the deck has caused problems as well.
The construction of the new parking deck has been a noisy intrusion for citizens and business owners alike.
The banging of drills and hammers, and the clanking of skyscrapers during the workday disturbs those who work and live in downtown Athens.
Dressed in dirty t-shirts and blue jeans and hard, yellow hats, workers continue construction on the parking deck from early morning until the late hours of the night.
A crisp U.S. flag flies at the top of the structure, blowing effortlessly in the wind.
Several critics are opposed to the construction of the new deck, according to District 6 Commissioner Ed Robinson.
Robinson said the county legally is required to build the deck under state law because voters approved it as part of a 2004 referendum on a 1 percent sales tax.
Citizens have been raising their concerns at recent commission meetings according to Robinson, but because the measure was approved so long ago there is nothing the commission can do. “We simply can’t apply the funds to anything other than the parking deck,” he said.
As obvious as it may be, Lookosky says that the main reason for the deck is the need for more parking spaces in downtown Athens. She claims that the deck is being built for no other reason than the absolute need for more available parking downtown.
However, several people do not believe this claim. Because the deck includes retail stores and shops at its bottom and top levels, of which Waffle House and Momma Goldberg’s Deli have been confirmed, many believe that increased revenue for the downtown district is the main goal.
Ashley Cobbs, a graduate student at the University of Georgia from Buffalo, N.Y., does not understand why the deck costs $17 million to build. “That seems like a lot of money just for parking spaces,” she said. “I admit sometimes it’s hard to find a space to park downtown, but if you time it right, you will usually be ok.”
Citizens may have reason to worry, as the fee to park in the new deck will be higher than any other place in downtown Athens. Starting in 2011, the fee to park in the deck will be $2.00 per hour rising 25 cents each year until 2013 where it will top off at $2.50 per hour.
Though the prices have remained steady in all of the other parking locations, the construction of the deck has created a parking disaster in downtown Athens.
Salmon colored parking tickets adorn the windshields of several cars, providing an unwelcome surprise to those who illegally park or stay longer than their allotted time.
Students, business owners, and visitors alike all receive these tickets because of parking violations downtown.
Some citizens complain about the parking fees while others complain about the number of spaces. For instance, on weekends cars can be seen circling the perimeter of downtown Athens for minutes on end to find a decent parking space.
Yet on a calm, Wednesday evening spaces abound in virtually every area of downtown.
It remains to be seen whether the new parking deck will actually solve the parking dilemma downtown. But for the time being, citizens will have to endure the current state of parking, and take their chances on finding a convenient space.