Mayor Denson just doesn’t ‘slow down’

By JACOB DEMMITT

Athens Mayor Nancy Denson waited two months and two days for the call.

“Well Nancy, we got it,” she remembers hearing Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Chris Cummiske say last month. “We got Caterpillar.”

She sat at her desk — stacked high with budget requests, loose slips of paper and a key to the city — and took inventory of her emotions.

“It’s almost like a letdown,” she said. “You work and you work and get your hopes up. Then you think, ‘It’s probably not going to happen. I don’t want to get too excited about it.’ Then all of the sudden it’s done.”

Denson said it’s like finishing a good book.

“You want to know how it turns out but you hate to get to the end of it because you love that book,” she said.

The plant will bring a total of 4,200 jobs to the Athens community and have an economic impact of $2.3 billion, Denson said.

“I can’t think in these kinds of zeros,” she said. “Those kinds of numbers are just unbelievable to me.”

This is just the most recent episode in what has already been an up-and-down time in office for Denson. Since being elected in November 2010, she was praised for the Caterpillar move, scorned for her handling of the downtown Walmart controversy and even had her position challenged by a recall petition.

But what does Denson think of her time in office? She said she couldn’t be happier.

“I thought I could be a competent mayor and hoped I could be a good one, but I never knew I would love it so much,” she said. “Everything you do is an experience under your belt. So the negatives are experiences as well as the positives. And, actually, the negatives are the things that make you grow the most because they make you do the most self examination.”

 

The ups

Denson tried to contain her enthusiasm when she first heard someone was interested in buying the Orkin tract of land, located near the intersection of old US 29 and Georgia 316.

The site had been on the market for decades, often falling just short of bringing a major manufacturer to town.

“It has everything going for it but we’ve just never been able to close the deal on it over the years,” Denson said. “So when I got this call [in December] that there was an automotive-related company that was going to bring 1,400 employees, [City Manager Alan Reddish] said, ‘Don’t get all excited. They’re probably just using us as a foil against some other community to try to negotiate.’”

Caterpillar wanted to break ground in March, leaving just two months for Clarke and Oconee County officials to convince the company they wanted Athens to be their new home.

“I refer to it as the two month, two days project,” Reddish said. “So it was very quick. It was rather unusual for a project this size to go so fast.”

Denson met with Caterpillar representatives as other government employees worked through winter holidays to pave the way for the move.

“All the stars just aligned,” Denson said. “We had all the right people in all the right places. … I’ve never been as proud of people who weren’t related to me in my life as I was of the staff in Athens-Clarke County, Oconee County and the state.”

After finalizing the paperwork, Denson went out for a celebratory lunch with some of the county commissioners.

“We went down to The Globe,” she said. “I got a sandwich and a beer. And I don’t drink often, so even with one beer I don’t feel comfortable to drive.”

Just to be safe, she left her car downtown.

“I’m a very cheap drunk,” Denson joked. “A little bit of alcohol goes a long way with me.”

 

The downs

But the celebrations couldn’t last forever as Denson received yet another phone call only days after Caterpillar announced their move — but this call had a different tone.

“I got a call from [a voting registration office official]. She said, ‘Nancy, I hate to ruin your weekend, but somebody picked up a recall petition,’” Denson said.

The petition was returned a short time later with the necessary 100 signatures; though the Board of Elections later dismissed the petition on the grounds that several of the signatures weren’t valid, according to Gail Schrader, supervisor of elections for Athens-Clarke County.

“I think most recall attempts are long shots,” Schrader said. “You can’t just recall someone because you don’t like what they’re doing.”

Before the dismissal, Denson said she hired a lawyer in case she needed to defend herself in front of a superior court judge.

“I wasn’t worried about it because they have to have some kind of legal basis for it and there’s no legal basis,” Denson said. “And quite honestly, I didn’t really give it any thought because we were busy with Caterpillar and just doing my job.”

Doc Eldridge, president of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, said he didn’t notice any change in Denson’s demeanor when she went under attack.

“It didn’t rattle her,” he said. “She went about her business and it didn’t slow her down. It was more of a nuisance really.”

The petition said the recall attempt was in response to Denson’s handling Selig Enterprises — a corporation that purchased land to build what many believe will be a downtown Walmart.

It said she hid information from the public, violating the Georgia Code of Ethics for Government Service.

“The Mayor’s actions exhibit clear favoritism for a particular private corporation and intentional subversion of public interests,” the petition states.

But this wasn’t the first time Denson received complaints related to the Selig development plans.

“I’m certainly deeply concerned about some of the closed door dealings she’s been involved in,” said Melissa Link, a member of anti-Walmart group People for a Better Athens. “The fact that any elected official thinks they can show favoritism for a corporation over the people they work for is sad. I’ve become very sad over the whole issue.”

But even in the face of opposition, Denson said she stands firm in her convictions.

“I have said publicly that I think the Selig project — which is a large mixed-use project — is a good project for our community. And I still do,” she said. “They’re going to bring somewhere around 300 jobs.”

In any kind of public position, Eldridge, who previously served as Athens’ mayor beginning in 1998, said criticism is never too far away. The trick is managing what you let bother you.

“You can’t shut it out completely,” he said. “You know it’s there. If there’s something meaningful in criticism, you work it out and let the rest slide.”

Denson said she listens to criticism as she looks at situations objectively, often questioning her own stances.

“People who see black and white —Walmart is bad, this company is good — decisions in their lives are very easy,” she said. “But when you see all the grey in between … then it makes decisions tough.”

But Denson does know one thing for sure — she isn’t finished working.

“The 4,200 jobs that Caterpillar and their supporting suppliers are going to bring are not going to employ everyone in this region that needs a job,” she said. “And I think we can’t quit until we’ve got jobs for everybody that wants to work. So I never slow down.”

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