To work at the Grill, the only requirement is a black T-shirt.
You may sport a tattoo. You may sport several tattoos. You may wear piercings, long hair, a beard or a mustache.
“What makes working here so cool is that you can be an individual,” Matt Hull, manager at the Grill, said.
But Hull fears if a “faceless chain” moves in across the street, his 15 or so employees and others like them working in small businesses downtown will become just another one of 300.
Developer Selig Enterprises said the Armstrong & Dobbs property on Oconee Street would include a large retailer, 220 apartments, 15 to 20 retail stores, a parking deck — and 300 jobs.
And it is these jobs that have garnered support for the new retail center, though many critics say 300 jobs at minimum wage may not be enough.
The Oconee Street space is set to cover 94,000 feet, and many say the large retailer taking up most of that space would be Walmart — a chain store notorious for cutting prices but also cutting wages.
Jesee Tron, media relations specialist at International Council of Shopping Centers, said a 94,000-square foot space would struggle to fit a Walmart.
“It would be nothing for Walmart to occupy 94,000 feet by themselves,” he said.
Tron said Walmarts can fit up to 140,000 square feet.
And according to the retailer’s website, they could be bigger.
The typical supercenter is about 185,000 square feet, according to Walmart’s website. It employs about 350 people and provides groceries along with specialty shops such as a vision center and brand-name restaurants.
Another smaller option for the property could be a neighborhood market, which sells groceries, pharmaceuticals and general merchandise, according to the website.
This option is smaller at 42,000 square feet, but only about 95 employees hired.
Still, according to Walmart’s website, Georgia does not have any of these neighborhood markets in any part of the state.
In fact, the most popular type of Walmart in Georgia is a supercenter with 136 in Georgia already.
A far second is a discount store. Georgia has four of them.
Walmart discount stores are typically 108,000 square feet and employ about 225 associates. They sell family apparel, automotive products, hardware and sporting goods.
Groceries are not part of this list, according to the website.
By comparison, Athens Hardware Company on North Thomas Street, a store that could be in direct competition with Walmart, employs 12 people total.
Tron suggested the retailer downtown could be a Walmart Express store — the smallest version of the retailer.
This new concept for a Walmart opened last June in Northwest Arkansas. The store is about 15,000 square feet and offers groceries and general merchandise.
The website does not say how many people these stores employ.
One of the first two Walmart Express stores is located in Gentry, Arkansas — a town with a population of a little more than 3,000 people, according to the 2010 census.
Athens, by comparison, has a population of more than 116,000 people, also according to the census.
But Athens also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
According to the 2000 census, about 30 percent of Athens residents live below the poverty level.
So, critics of the Walmart say jobs are needed, but the quality of jobs is more important than the quantity of jobs.
In a February Athens-Clarke County Commission meeting, supporters of the Walmart said it pays about $11.10 an hour. Critics argued it was more like $7.50 an hour, and Walmart’s website claims the average hourly wage of full-time associates is about $12.43 per hour.
Glassdoor.com, a website that gathers employment data, said the average hourly wage for a Walmart in the Atlanta area is $8.13. Glassdoor gets its information from anonymous reports on the website.
The minimum wage is $7.50 an hour.
By comparison, the Lay Z Shopper on East Clayton Street sells similar items to Walmart such as groceries, some hardware supplies and other convenience items. It pays its employees about $8 per hour.
Even if wages were the same, some critics still say Walmart jobs don’t have the same quality as other downtown jobs.
But Tron disagreed.
He said in order for a shopping center, such as the one Selig proposes, shopping centers need a niche market to succeed.
“Usually the way the developers will look at it is if they see a niche or a need for this particular shopping center or this particular retail format that it will work harmoniously with other centers or other retailers in that area,” he said.
Hull doesn’t believe Walmart will harmonize with downtown.
He said it would strip originality from downtown — taking with it many customers who come to downtown for the experience.
Tron did not agree.
“And there are consumers that are much more content with the sort of mom and pop downtown,” he said. “I think both of those could actually end up working hand in hand.”
As far as employment, this may be the case.
Hull, who has worked at The Grill for 11 years, said he was not afraid of losing his employees to a possible Walmart.
He said the type of people working at the Athens-staple restaurant; do so for a reason — they serve a niche.
“I don’t think any of our employees would go the Walmart route,” he said. “It’s just not our style.”
Michelle Baker struggled to open her blood covered eyes. She wiped the blood away and opened her eyes wide. Terrified, she looked up and saw her college boyfriend racing to help her up. Her horrified friends screamed at the top of their lungs as her boyfriend, Daniel, picked her up and carried her to his car. Michelle was out to celebrate the end of another semester of school in downtown Athens. As she walked out of her favorite bar, she stumbled over a loose brick surrounding a tree in the middle of the sidewalk. Michelle fell forward and busted her head open on the hard pavement. Thanks to her quick-thinking friends getting her safely to the hospital, she got the help she needed and is doing great now.
The streets of the downtown Athens area are full of possible hazards for the pedestrians that walk them, especially for the ones just out of the bars. From piles and piles of trash, fold-out advertisements from the local business, cracked and uneven sidewalks, potholes, and the loose and wobbly gas meter lids. Many of these do not sound all that dangerous, but for a girl out on a night on the town wearing her brand new high heels, they ruin the night and cause some serious injuries. These injuries can be anything from a broken or twisted ankle to a trip and a hard face-plant into the sidewalk.
Leah Gardner lifted her head up, and with a bright-red face, took a long look in both directions. She looked down Broad Street and College Avenue to make sure no one saw her embarrassing mishap. After she came to the realization that no one had seen her stumble on one of the many loose and wobbly gas meter lids, she let out a sigh of relief followed by a small chuckle. Okay and unharmed, but things could have been much worse.
“It really scared me; I mean I could have been seriously injured if I had not caught my balance at the last second. I really think something needs to be done about those gas meter lids,” Leah said, when asked about her trip near Five Guy’s Burgers and Fry’s in downtown Athens.
Curtis Harrison came out of his favorite Athens bar, Sideways. He walked out of the bar, past a nearby bag of garbage, and he heard a small splash. He looked down and saw an “ugly brown substance” all over his favorite pair of Nike shoes. Curtis, another pedestrian who had a mishap downtown, complained about the huge amounts of leaky trash bags that are laid out on the sidewalks at night. According to reports, restaurants in the downtown area were told by the sanitation department to quit using trash cans to put their garbage out, and to just put the trash out in the bags. This was due to the stench of the trash cans, but seemed to only cause a new safety hazard on the sidewalks of downtown. These trash bags will tear and leak the grease and other unsavory things into the street. These leaks create the scare of a slip if somebody was to step on them wrong. “I come here from Tennessee sometimes to hang out with some old high school friends who go to the University of Georgia. We have some of the same problems in Knoxville when we go out, the government really needs to do something about these hazards in the inner cities,” Curtis said.
According to reports, many businesses downtown have begun to use fold-up advertisement signs in order to bring in customers and inform them of deals and locations of their businesses. Many citizens have complained of these signs and the growing number of them in Athens, GA. In response to these complaints it has been said that banning the fold-up street signs would be unconstitutional and therefore the companies who set them out have the right to continue to do so.
Most people downtown are aware and careful to avoid these hazards and are just out to have a good time. However, for people who go out and have a little too much fun, these hazards have the ability to become very dangerous and could easily cause serious physical harm to someone. The gas meter lids along with some others that many cities have to deal with, such as; speeding traffic, broken curbs, etc. The tax payer’s money is collected to keep the tax payer’s streets and community clean and safe, and this should be done.
David Barbe is many things: graduate of Grady College, past and present musician in various bands, co-founder of Chase Park Transduction Studio and most recently, he even stepped in to perform with the well-known band Drive-By Truckers. In addition to these accomplishments, Barbe is now serving his fourth term as the director of the Music Business Program at UGA.
It would not do justice to say his musical and professional versatility is a positive asset to UGA and the Athens community as a whole; Barbe is the driving force behind the music industry at UGA and in Athens.
Barbe graduated from UGA 25 years ago and has been involved with the music industry in Athens ever since. Coming from parents who were both professional musicians, Barbe started playing with bands when he was 12 years old. After coming to Athens for college, he was hooked. “Athens is the greatest place in the world. I do not want to leave here,” he said. This may come as relief to music lovers.
Barbe’s familiarity and connections to so many people within the local music industry benefits his students as well as Athenians interested in music.
“He literally knows everyone related to music in Athens. He has definitely impacted the music business program on campus through these connections,” Jordan Anderson, a junior in the music business program, said.
Barbe relies on the Music Business Program to not only lead students into various aspects of the music industry, but to enhance the music industry in Athens as a whole. “I think the program makes UGA a center for the music industry. It’s a reliable source of manpower,” Barbe said.
One of the ways Barbe utilizes his connections and manpower is through his externship program. Barbe helps place each student in a music industry-related externship, which benefits both the students as well as the externship host. Partners with the externship include 40 Watt, Georgia Theater, Nuci’s Space and many more, according to the Music Business Program’s website.
The students are able to gain experience in different aspects of the field, and in return the externship hosts are able to increase employment without having to pay more salaries. The externship program also helps the hosts and the students to form connections and relationships with those who share their interest in music.
Tom Lewis, associate director of the Music Business Program, believes the externship to be a vital part of completing the program. “The bottom line is we can talk about anything we wish, but if we’re not engaged in it then we are just talking,” he said. “We can talk about details, but the real work is in the doing. If we can put them in the right spot… then we’re cooking!”
With the recent re-opening of the Georgia Theater and the expansion of the Classic Center, Athens’ music industry is thriving more than ever. Even in the fist year of it’s opening, the Theater is bringing a multitude of music fans to downtown Athens.
“People trust Barbe’s taste. He can convince bands to come and also convince people what bands we want,” Rachel Martz, an employee at the Georgia Theater, said. “And I know he is responsible for bringing bands and performers to us in the past!”
“He knows when a talented up-and-comer can step up to the plate and drive it home,” said Lewis. “I don’t second guess him. He is a visionary.”
For Barbe, the program is all about the students. “I teach them to focus on quality, to care more than others, think on their feet, and to under-promise and over-deliver,” he said.
It is also Barbe’s teaching style that makes him such as asset. “When we are talking about an unfamiliar subject, he uses examples we know and can relate to,” Anderson said. “His lectures are easy to follow and you can tell he has so much passion about music. That really encourages me.”
Barbe does the teaching, but leaves the learning up to the students. “He knows it doesn’t matter what we think so much for the future. It’s what they think because it is they that will do,” Lewis said.
Barbe agrees his teaching style is unusual. “I’m unorthodox in my teaching style. It’s true I don’t have a career in academia, but I describe my teaching style as intense but positive, jovial and ferocious.”
Barbe is easy to describe, no matter who you ask. He is, “outspoken, hilarious and sarcastic,” according to Anderson.
Lewis added, “he is phenomenal at what he does. He is personable, forceful, funny, sometimes extremely-long-winded, but this is never without an important point.”
Martz, who completed the program, said, “he loves to make students get involved. There is only so much he can teach inside the classroom, which is why he works so hard to immerse everyone in the industry.”
But, placing students in jobs within the music industry upon graduation is not Barbe’s only goal. “I want students to go from ‘who am I?’ to ‘who I am,’” he said. “I want them to realize what they want to do. To find a way to answer the question that is burning in their minds.”
By Anthony Votsis
Trash bags were piled knee high along the streets, some of them bust open, spilling their contents into the sidewalk. Beer bottles rolled into the street as thousands of pedestrians shuffled by in a drunken stupor. There was a dull roar as a hundred individual stories played out in downtown Athens. The air was electric and alive with anticipation.
The University of Georgia had beaten Auburn University earlier in the evening and the town celebrated like it hadn’t in years. As the hours waned, people left the downtown area, to go back home to recover from their revelry. Meanwhile, the downtown remained a mess.
The results of that night were the fault of the partiers. It was they who had consumed what the downtown had to offer, and they were just as responsible as those who trashed North Campus during the South Carolina game in 2009.
But the unique development of the downtown are cannot be taken for granted for its peculiar effects on the businesses that are located there and those who frequent the location.
Athens did not always have the reputation, true or not, of having the most bars per square mile in the country. Years ago, it was cleaner according to one longtime resident. There was only one bar frequented by undergrads, the BLN Warehouse.
As the University of Georgia grew, so did the downtown. The number of restaurants and bars grew on the east side of downtown, closer to the school campus. The east side remained relatively bar and more frequented by local residents and businesses that do not cater to university students and visitors.
Things culminated in 2010, when the University of Georgia was named the number one party school. At that point, it became clear that balance in the downtown area was becoming a major issue that will affect how the downtown evolves for years.
Chris Holloway, the owner of the new bar and grill Volstead, is particularly worried about the problems attributed with attracting businesses to Athens. The incentives to new restaurants and bars is low he feels.
“I could have made more money in Buckhead.”
Holloway went on to explain that he expects only about $10 dollars per customer in Athens where he could expect close to triple that in some places in Atlanta. This comes from the over centralization of bars in a small area, driving competition to unhealthy business prices.
Another issue affecting the west side of Athens is the larger-than-life parking situation in the downtown area. Holloway felt like his restaurant was almost completely dependent on pedestrian traffic.
The Athens Clark Country government has been trying for years to fix the problem and recently opened a parking deck that added almost 600 parking spaces to the downtown area according to the Athens Clark County website. It seems to be frequently unoccupied, at least during the day.
At the same time though, business leaders were frustrated to learn that the government was extending the parking meter times till midnight according to Athens Online. Also, Athens Online reported that this has caused a rift between traditional nine to five businesses and the nightspots that open later in the evening.
Despite these issues, several new businesses have come to Athens. These include Waffle House, Fuzzy’s Taco Stand, and the reopening of the Georgia Theater. These restaurants cater to a late night crowd, and also they have had an effect of bringing more people to the eastern bars said Eric Johnson, an owner of the restaurant and bar Trappeze.
Luke Stebbins, who just opened Fuzzy’s, agreed with Johnson that the opening of the parking deck and connected businesses was vital to increasing east side traffic.
Stebbins was pleased with the role of the Athens Clark County government.
“They are willing to get businesses downtown,” he said.
Stebbins, who has been opening Fuzzys’ all over had a good understanding of dealing with multiple city governments. They all have their own little quirks that have to be dealt with. He felt things went very smoothly in the actual opening, though he felt the permits were overly expensive.
Others felt the same way. Holloway felt like the process was overly complicated.
In a moment of frustration, he said about the Athens government,” They have done everything to deter business.
Meanwhile, true diversity is still desperately lacking in the downtown area. Of the new businesses around the parking lot, almost all of them are going to end up being late night restaurants and bar. Development without bringing something new to the table can only succeed for a while. Otherwise, stagnation could creep in risking one of the largest places of income for Athens.
It is 3 p.m. on the prettiest day in Athens in weeks, and downtown Athens is bustling with students and citizens sharing the sidewalks and soaking up the sunlight. But there is something putting a damper on the lovely day—a group of people off-putting to most downtown frequenters. Finally, Athens officials are poised to take new steps to curb this problem that downtown business owners consider a nuisance – panhandling.
That is a question Kathryn Lookofsky, director of Athens Downtown Development Authority, and other Athens officials have spent years trying to answer.
“We have discussed altering the current panhandling ordinance,” Lookofsky said. “I think the biggest solution is to get people not to donate to the panhandlers on the street, but to donate to the charities and services that offer solutions to people who are homeless or have other issues.”
In January, the Athens Legislative Review Committee discussed possibilities for tighter panhandling laws. The committee counseled with Lookofsky to find potential solutions before observing panhandling laws in cities across the country to find a model that would fit Athens.
The committee looked at Macon, Augusta, Atlanta, and Savannah, as well as Charlotte, N.C., Charlottesville, Va., Rockford, Ill., Miami Beach, Fla., and Tacoma, Wash.
Kinman, an Athens commissioner that serves on the Legislation Review Committee, said the committee will make a recommendation next week to the Athens commission, which will either accept or reject the recommendation. If accepted, the commission will vote on the ordinance within the next two months.
“The question the commission is asking itself is what is the problem we are trying to solve and what’s the public benefit from solving this problem,” said Kinman. “Businesses feel [panhandling] is keeping people away from downtown and, therefore, hurting the overall economy downtown, which of course affects the rest of the community.”
One student at the University of Virginia believes Athens could benefit from the model used in Charlottesville. The city has an area called “The Corner” with bars and restaurants similar to downtown Athens.
“Panhandling is much more passive at ‘The Corner’ than downtown Athens,” said Jordan Fulton, of Alpharetta, who transferred to UVA from the University of Georgia after his sophomore year. “In Charlottesville, panhandlers are loiters, not beggars. They don’t necessarily leave, but they just sit there. In Athens, they approach and beg.”
Athens installed parking meters on the two corners where College Avenue meets Broad Street and two more where College Avenue meets Clayton Street in 2003. The goal was to have downtown visitors donate via the meters instead of putting money directly in panhandlers’ pockets. The money from the meters is then given to homeless shelters and organizations in the Athens area.
Nearly a decade after the meters’ installation, Lookofsky believes the meters helped curve the panhandling problem but acknowledges the problem has not been resolved.
“They have been a success,” said Lookofsky. “They don’t provide near enough money to solve the problem. Everybody could have a meter, and it wouldn’t solve the problem.”
As for how much money the meters collect, Lookofsky said that fluctuates with the seasons and differs from year to year.
Just as donations come and go, panhandlers move with the activity of downtown Athens.
“[Panhandling] depends on the activities going on downtown,” said Lookofsky. “If there’s a big show at the Georgia Theatre or someplace, there will be more [panhandlers] out. If it’s pretty weather and there are people out on sidewalk cafes, they’ll be out.”
Lookofsky also said that students can perpetuate the activity of panhandlers.
“If there’s an influx of new students, [panhandlers] will be out,” said Lookofsky.
A recent study by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing showed that students are more likely to give to panhandlers than any other group, which may indicate the heavy presence of panhandlers near the University campus in Athens.
Jake Vaverka, a junior at the University of Georgia, lives in downtown Athens and has had several experiences with panhandlers.
“Every time I go to put change in the [parking] meter, I get asked for money,” said Vaverka, who also works downtown during evenings at The Mad Hatter. “I pass the same [panhandlers] every morning, and they never ask. It happens more at night.”
One city’s panhandling model that Athens officials have discussed adopting works to cease begging for money at night. Charlotte, N.C., made it illegal to panhandle after dark, as well as at ATMs and outdoor dining areas. Athens officials discussed a similar ordinance.
“Downtown business owners and the Athens visitors bureau are interested in limiting panhandling in certain situations, like when people are at places where money is being exchanged,” said Kinman. “They’re suggesting we limit panhandling a certain distance from parking meters, ATM machines and outdoor cafes.”
Kinman believes if changes are made the ordinance will reflect the wishes of business owners. However, aside from restrictions near locations where money is exchanged, the current ordinance would remain everywhere else.
The law currently in Athens maintains that only aggressive panhandlers can be prosecuted and face a $70 fine. Lookofsky said that if visitors encounter an aggressive panhandler, they must call the police.
Kinman said one issue with the current law is that “the bar is set pretty high for aggressive panhandling.”
According to the current law, aggressive panhandling includes the approached person receives or fears bodily harm or the panhandler continued asking after receiving a negative response. Impeding a person’s path after denial also falls under aggressive panhandling.
The future ordinance requires victims of panhandling to report the incident and testify in court, a problem Kinman said may keep the solution from working.
“One advantage of a law that says you cannot panhandle within a certain amount of feet from specific locations is that it is pretty easy to get a visual of where that person was standing when he or she asks you for money,” said Kinman. “But in order for panhandlers to be prosecuted, the victim has to testify in court. That’s a real obstacle to the ordinance being enforced since a lot of victims are visitors and don’t want to come back to Athens for that reason.”
The committee must find a way to not violate the First Amendment when creating the new law, according to Kinman.
“It’s tough to say how you differentiate freedom of speech for someone you know asking you for money downtown and a stranger asking you for a dollar,” Kinman said. “If you banned panhandling, you’d be saying a homeless person is allowed to say anything but cannot ask for money.”
Kinman said the Legislative Review Committee is responsible for reviewing court cases involving the panhandling model in cities that officials are considering.
“There have been instances where government can limit speech as long as there’s a public benefit. That’s when [the ordinance] holds up in court,” said Kinman. “That’s what we’re looking at.”
Lookofsky said that if the ordinance passes gauging its success would be simple.
“We’d see less complaints from visitors and guests downtown about being harassed on the streets for money,” said Lookofsky.
Kinman said the amount of complaints would be one of two ways to gauge the success of a new law.
“Another thing to look at would be how many actual arrests or prosecutions from panhandling,” Kinman said. “If those go up, maybe that is the measure of success.”
Lookofsky believes panhandling will still occur if the new law passes.
“I don’t know that we can end [panhandling], but we can be more aggressive about discouraging it,” said Lookofsky, who thinks educating the public about services to help people with their needs will go a long way towards curving the panhandling problem.
“If panhandlers weren’t making money, they wouldn’t be out there,” Lookofsky said.
Until the commission votes, the panhandlers continue to hover over visitors like a dark cloud over downtown Athens even on the sunniest days.
Panhandling is often a vicious cycle, and University students may be enabling it.
Recent efforts by the Athens Downtown Development Authority to change current panhandling laws have brought the issue back into the local spotlight, and students may be unaware of their own contributions.
Information gathered by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing showed that higher percentages of students give money to panhandlers than any other group. Some attribute students’ greater giving to inexperience with panhandlers, or a lack of knowledge of alternatives to giving on the street.
“People in rural areas may not understand the dynamics. Some people think its a joke, and others think they are actually helping,” said Katherine Lookofsky, executive director of the ADDA. “They don’t realize that they shouldn’t give on the street, or that they can give to organizations that will help these people.”
The new panhandling ordinance, currently under review, would ban panhandling at parking meters, ATMs, bus stops and sidewalk cafes.
This could help younger, less experienced students avoid being targeted by panhandlers, who are looking for larger contributions.
“Students are an easy target as far as panhandlers getting handouts, so there is more panhandling at the change of semesters when new students arrive,” Lookofsky said.
David Diss, a 53 year-old Athens panhandler, does not agree with the assessment, though.
“Students give money fewer times,” Diss said, “I think it’s because they’re warned in their orientation classes.”
Diss has been homeless in Athens since 2007 when he lost his job in Gainsville as a machinist. He said he didn’t start panhandling until he got to Athens.
Some Athens groups and businesses worry that panhandlers create an uncomfortable or uninviting atmosphere, driving away potential customers for local businesses.
“I think everybody feels uncomfortable about it,” said Chuck Jones, director of the Athens Visitors Bureau. “People could learn to steer clear, particularly if there is an area that has a lot of panhandlers.”
Diss said that most people don’t seem to mind panhandlers as long as they don’t become intrusive or aggressive. He doesn’t approach people for donations. Instead, he carries a sign that says “HOMELESS Every little bit helps.”
“I don’t like to be bothered by others, so I don’t like to bother others,” Diss said. “I just let the sign do the work.”
While businesses can remove panhandlers from their buildings, they have no authority on the streets and sidewalks just a few steps beyond.
Because there are few restrictions that can be legally implemented, students may feel less safe in areas where they already have money out.
“I think some people might feel threatened, especially… if you’re at a parking meter or ATM with your wallet out,” Jones said.
Diss said he understands why some people would support a new ordinance and would agree with the ordinance if it were passed.
“It would limit the number of places [for panhandling], but there are plenty of other places,” Diss said.
Nonetheless, the current Athens ordinance only bans panhandlers that, “accost or force [themselves] upon the company of another.” Even in cases of aggressive panhandling, most people want to avoid spending additional time pursuing legal action.
“It takes people time to call the police, file a report and go to court,” Lookofsky said, “If you’re coming downtown and you just want to pick up dinner you’d rather just forget about it.”
As students come into contact with panhandlers more frequently, though, they find out their own ways to help or avoid the issue.
“There are tactics you have to learn to avoid or ignore them. Sometimes I will give them a cigarette or leftover food in lieu of money,” said Ansley Davis, an International Affairs major.
Even though students might find alternatives some panhandlers are only interested in money.
“One time we were giving out sack lunches and there was a woman sitting about ten feet from us panhandling, but never walked over for food. I guess she just wanted some money,” said Jeromy Causeway, an Advertising major.
For those that feel the need to give money, the Northeast Georgia Homeless Coalition maintains a donation box at the corner of College Ave and Clayton Street. The money is used for bus tickets that will take those seeking help to local shelters and kitchens.
“It’s a transferable way to get money from people who would like to donate to panhandlers but don’t want to donate on the street,” said Samantha Carvalho, a member of the NGHC membership committee.
It’s Friday night, and several people form a line outside of a local Kroger. Some look impatient as they wait for their turn at the big, red machine in front of them. A few years ago, these people might have been in line to buy a Coke.
But this machine dispenses movies, not soda, and only takes credit cards. Meet Redbox, one of the newest members of the movie rental industry.
Across town, there are also people looking for the evening’s perfect film, but these people aren’t in a single-file line; they are walking up and down rows lined with hundreds of movies.
Welcome to Vision Video, the only local video rental store still in business, and it’s doing quite well, says co-owner Charles Seward.
The movie rental industry has changed dramatically over the past few years in reaction to a proliferation of new competition fueled by technological developments, such as streaming video, reports the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), the trade association for anything related to home entertainment.
Consumers haven’t stopped renting movies, but the number of places they get them has increased, said Grace Lee, manager of public relations and marketing for EMA. These include subscription services, streaming through cable and satellite companies, and the growing number of kiosks.
“There have been several changes in the home entertainment industry the past few years that paved the way for new types of delivery channels,” Lee said. “Each channel of video rental business offers consumers an attractive combination of convenience and value, and the consumer can choose which combination best meets their needs.”
Many of these new channels are thriving. EMA reports that Redbox now has over 24,000 locations across the country, compared to 15,000 in 2010.
“Traditional video retailers will no doubt experience even more competition in the coming year,” said Ross Crupnick, Senior Industry Analyst for the NPD Group, a leading market research firm, in EMA’s annual report.
Former industry leader Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in September 2010 and was bought by DISH Network, reports EMA. Movie Gallery, the second largest rental chain, went out of business earlier that year. Additionally, the number of independently operated stores continues to shrink in towns and cities across the country.
These traditional “brick-and-mortar” stores are closing at a rapid pace, Lee said, but they aren’t going to disappear altogether anytime soon.
“Video rental stores are not going to go away any time soon,” Lee said. “Many consumers appreciate the large selection, numerous copies, customer service, and ease of browsing that are available at their local video store.
“We anticipate that they will continue to adapt their business models to meet customer demands,” Lee said.
It probably won’t be long before another competitor enters the business, but Vision Video has proven that it can adapt to changes in technology and competition.
“It keeps us on our toes,” Seward said.
Seward and his brother started offering movies for rent as part of their pizza delivery business, and when the movie rentals became more popular than the pizza, they opened the first Vision Video downtown in 1986. Today, there are four Vision Video locations—three in Athens, one in Watkinsville—that employ 31 full-time employees, Seward said.
Vision Video continues to operate successfully, and Seward is confident that the business is here to stay. The two other movie rental stores in Athens, Blockbuster and Video Link, recently went out of business, but this doesn’t worry Seward. He said his stores would adapt if necessary in order to keep up with the onslaught of new competition, but that there are features that make all of his stores unique—and keep customers coming back.
His employees share the same attitude. Jeremy Long, manager of the downtown location for the past 15 years, said the overall atmosphere of the store “definitely” contributes to its success. It is hard to miss the old-school vibe upon walking into the store downtown.
The large selection of movies reflects the mix of people that frequent the business, Long said, and many of them are “regulars.”
“We get a lot of everybody,” Long said. “The best part of my job is seeing people all the time. It’s like a club of some kind.”
Long compared the store to a library, where people browse, talk to each other, and can ask for help from employees.
“We try to make it a place where people want to be,” said Long
Customers enjoy the service provided by Long and other employees, as well as the overall feeling of being in a traditional movie store.
“It’s cool that there’s actually still a movie store in town,” said customer Sarah Bruker. “They have a great selection and the staff is always willing to help you pick out something good, whether it’s old or new.”
The staff is carefully hired, said Seward, and all employees love movies. They help stock Vision Video with a wide variety of movies, and enjoy helping customers discover new movies.
Customer Stephen Mulherin says the “tranquil setting” and “helpful service” found at Vision Video is unrivaled.
“The staff is always willing to go out of their way to help you find whatever you’re looking for,” said Mulherin.
And although there may be more places to rent movies than before, there are things in Vision Video’s extensive library that can’t be found elsewhere.
“We make a point of stocking the best movies from not only the United States, but the world,” Seward said.
“They have stuff that no one else does,” Bruker said. “I can’t find a lot of the TV shows and movies I watch anywhere else.”
Customer Taylor Critz compared using NetFlix or RedBox to playing the lottery.
“I use them all for different purposes, but so often I leave the RedBox feeling disappointed,” Critz said. “Here, I’ve never had a bad experience.”
Some local experts attribute the success of local businesses like Vision Video to the diverse cultural make-up of the town.
Dr. Marcus Cunha, Associate Professor of marketing at the University, says that Athens’ “artsy” cultural identity contributes to the success of locally owned and operated businesses like Vision Video, Jittery Joe’s, and the dozens of restaurants and boutiques downtown.
“Artists appreciate uniqueness and these types of stores provide it,” said Cunha. “This could also explain why people in Athens want to keep the city’s character, rather than being overtaken by chains.”
Airee Hong, owner of Agora, a downtown boutique, says that it is these small, independent stores that keep visitors coming back to Athens.
“The whole reason why people come to Athens is because you get these really cool, unique, eclectic mom-and-pop stores that you don’t see anywhere else,” Hong said.
Seward says that his staff, the wide selection of movies, and the affordable prices are the main reasons why customers return to Vision Video.
However, he says that these things wouldn’t be possible if not for the sense of community exhibited by Athens residents.
Much of Vision Video’s continued success is due to the community’s support.
“Athens has really fostered a sense of community where the citizens have a real sense of local flavor,” Seward said.