The Oddity of AthensPosted: March 31, 2011
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.”