Lacking Diversity Risks Athens Economic VitalityPosted: February 21, 2012
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.