Rumors and history mix at ‘Spilledge’ house

In May, a tree fell on Serra Ferguson’s house.

While she was working across the street at Taco Stand, it hit her home on Milledge Avenue.

Ferguson and Jacky Ryder had just moved into the house in April and were in the process of cleaning up after the past.

“Before we moved in, there were some people squatting in here,” Ryder said. “They had turned off the water and electricity and were trashing the place.”

The house had been called “Spilledge” by many of its patrons and wasn’t just a rickety rental property — it had been a haven for local musicians, couch surfers and rumors.

“It was sort of a revolving door,” Ferguson said. “There was something of a heyday when all of these musicians used to come in and out of there.”

The house was once sibling to two others nearby: one called “the Zoo” and the other simply called “the green house on the corner.”

Legends surround all three.

“The green house,” it’s said, was the site of the first B-52’s show in 1977.

Kurt Wood, manager of the Taco Stand on Milledge Avenue later moved into “the green house on the corner” in 1980.

By that point “the Zoo,” became a “crash pad:” people passed through as they hung out in Athens.

“It became kind of a weigh station for people that wanted to live cheaply,” Wood said.

Then, at night, the house would transform.

“They would have a lot of parties and they were quite enormous,” Wood said. “Maybe two bands in different rooms at the same time.”

Supposedly, “Spillege” sheltered a myriad of people, maybe including Jeff Mangum and Will Hart, though the history there is hazy.

Wood said these houses were a part of a general house-show community, which was a necessity for up-and-coming bands, and which helped form a basis for the city’s rock ‘n’ roll history.

“In the late ’70s that was all you really could do, ‘cause until the early ’90s there were only two bars in Athens,” Wood said.

Despite its history, “the Zoo” was torn down around 1990, and “the green house” reverted to a normal rental a few years later. But, by that time the people living in “Spilledge” had begun to carry the DIY torch.

As “Spilledge” changed hands over the years, the atmosphere faded away.

Ferguson said the previous residents were bitter about being evicted.

“They invited people over to just take whatever they wanted from the house,” She said. “Stuff that can’t be replaced.”

In an effort to revitalize the house, Ferguson made a deal to do renovations in exchange for lower rent, and soon after the tree fell across the house — but there was a silver lining.

“It was kind of a good thing,” Ferguson said. “We had a legitimate insurance claim, and got the money to have it all fixed.”

For a while, Ferguson and Ryder lived with an improvised skylight, but now the house is mostly repaired.

Since then, they have hosted a number of bands, such as the Humms, the Rodney Kings, Timmy and the Tumblers and StreetViolence, and are trying to promote an expansion in the punk music scene.

“It’s not a scene that’s really big here, and in, like, Atlanta Athens is a big joke. They think we’re a bunch of weird indie stoners playing kazoos or whatever.”

Initially, repopulating shows at “Spilledge” was difficult.

“Initially we couldn’t get 10 people to show up for a band from 500 miles away,” Ferguson said.

Plus, the couple was hosting bands so often that it became a financial burden.

“If you’re having shows every week eventually you get burnt out,” Ferguson said.

But something clicked and people began to venture back to “Spilledge.”

“Now it’s like people know it’s going to be fun, or there’ll be booze and will show up no matter what,” Ferguson said.

In January “Spilledge” saw a huge breakthrough when it teamed up with two other houses and the Secret Squirrel to host the “Rodney Luther King Jr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Daze Fest.”

The shows brought more than 100 people — and a noise violation.

“It’s great that the house has functioned as a creative musical thing,” Ryder said. “It can be pretty dysfunctional, but it’s a pretty cool place.”

Silent students protest Trayvon Martin case

University students stood in silence at the Tate lawn.

They gathered there on Friday, February 23 to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin, with the support of the University chapter of the NAACP.

Martin, a Florida teenager, was shot and killed as he returned home from a convenience store on Feb. 26. Controversy started after George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman who said he killed the 17-year-old in self-defense, was not initially apprehended or investigated.

Nekabari Goka, an economics and international affairs major from Atlanta, and Zellars facilitated the protest. Zellars said over 175 students attended, word was spread entirely through Twitter, Facebook and by word of mouth.

Goka said that he initially found out about the incident via social media, but did not believe it at first.

“I was in class and saw a lot of hashtag Trayvon Martin, justice in florida,” He said. “When I heard the details I almost thought it was a joke, to say that a 17-year-old kid with iced tea and skittles and wearing a hood, and the shooter, the one with the nine millimeter, felt that his life was in danger.”

Soon after, Goka saw Zellars decided something needed to be done, organized the protest and were out on the lawn three days later.

“That shows a testament to the fact that we have the ability to mobilize,” Goka said. “Time and time again we’ve shown that when University of Georgia students talk, Georgia listens.”

As a part of the protest students stood silently in black, many with skittles and iced tea, and held signs with slogans or twitter hashtags to promote awareness.

“The reason we decided to do a silent protest is that if you look at the news, or if you look at social media there is a lot of talk,” Goka said. “You sort of loathe situations where people talk about things but don’t necessarily act. Coming up with the idea for the silent protest we said we aren’t going to talk, we’ll just act.”

Goka said that the way the news spread “like wildfire” was an indication of the potential of social media, which has been seen on an international scale.

“January of my junior year was when the entire Arab Spring movement happened, and I thought ‘How in the heck could Twitter start a social revolution?’” he said.

The inaction in the Martin case that sparked widespread controversy was attributed, by many, to Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, and the incident has brought Georgia’s own version of the law, “No Duty to Retreat,” under a microscope as many wonder if a similarly complex situation could arise.

“It seems like he was murdered for no specific reason,” said Stewart Zellars, an economics and statistics major from Augusta. “The silent protest is really for us to take a stand and say, ‘This is how we feel about something. We think this is an injustice.’”

Some Georgia Assembly members have called for a return to the old law, in which the defendant had a duty to retreat.

“It was a bad bill then, and it is a bad law now,” State Senator Vincent Fort said.

University of Georgia Law professor Camilla Watson said that the laws in Florida and Georgia the old law was changed because a number of redundancies .

“One [inconsistency] is, in order to have a valid self defense the threat has to be imminent. So, if it’s an imminent threat how can you have a duty to retreat,” Watson said. “The other thing is, a lot of people have called this the shoot first ask questions later law, and it does make the self defense doctrine a little stronger, but the other aspect of self defense is that you, the person claiming self defense, cannot be the initial aggressor.”

Watson said that, as she understood the facts at hand, the situation actually arose after the State’s Attorney was called by the officers on scene and  decided there was not enough evidence to bring up a case against Zimmerman. After further investigation that decision was overturned, and Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder.

Nonetheless, Fort and other senators plan to move forward with legislation and activism to reverse the law.

Zellars said that this is just the start of the movement, which will continue to rally in support of Martin’s family, and push for changes to the law. They are going to sell T-shirts to raise awareness, and are working with advocacy groups in Atlanta and Florida to organize new, focused movements to keep people engaged.

“The justice system isn’t doing what it has to do to make sure these things don’t happen in the future,” Goka said. “From a University of Georgia student community standpoint this is an attack on the structure of things, and a jolt of reminder to our elected officials that they’re here to represent us, not the other way around.”


Literary culture builds on history

There is an Athens literary culture — in fact, there are several of them.

Made up of a combination of  students, locals, relocated teachers and famous visitors, the scene is defined by its variety more than any sense of place or time.

The Classic City has produced a number of poets, novelists, screenwriters and journalists over the years.

“A.E. Stallings, who won the Genius Award, was a Georgia student. Natasha Trethewey, Georgia. Terry Kay is an Athenian. There are writers all over place,” said English professor Fran Teague, who sponsors the Bulldog Book Club. “They make it much more fun for people like me who are readers.”

But there is more to Athens’ literary culture than a heaving trophy case.

Andrew Zawacki, the director of the University’s creative writing program, said that the city has brought up writers with great variety and depth.

“Increasingly our students in the grad program are cross-generic,” Zawacki said. “More people don’t consider themselves strictly poets or fiction writers or nonfiction writers. They are all very well read, and see too many styles to want to stick to a single generic convention.”

Showyn Walton, a local poet and organizer, said he has seen the same trend among younger writers and poets that have, more than previous generations, become connected with the world.

“They have more freedom with the way information is offered via social media and the internet,”  Walton said. “They’re connected to what’s going on in the world instead of just their own little circle. They’re connected to everyone’s pain. It’s a more empathetic people coming up nowadays.”

Zawacki said most students are unaware of much of the work done in Athens and many are surprised to find a developed and thriving literary culture in a city its size.

“It’s not as big as New York City, so there are not as many literary institutions, like coffee shops and open mics and poetry societies or schools,” Zawacki said.

By contrast, the University is the only large institution, and is surrounded by a few venues.  But Athens still sees an influx of literary talent attracted by its local environment.

Teague said that the plethora of artists is, in no small part, due to the connection of the University and the city, which sets it apart from other towns around the nation.

“I do think Athens feels different. I think college towns do generally, whether it’s Chapel Hill or Athens or Sewanee, Tenn.,” Teague said. “There is an energy, for one thing. It’s a place where you’re allowed to think deep bizarre thoughts and talk about them out loud at four in the morning over feta fries.”

Beyond cheesy fried potato conversations, Athens is in the peculiar place of being a small town with big city conveniences.

“You can walk around Athens. I can walk into work, and if I want to come over here and watch a play and walk home at night I can,” Teague said. “You can’t do that in Atlanta or even other towns of this size like Macon. How are you going to get around Macon?”

Additionally, the cost of living in Athens is generally lower, and  artists can support themselves on smaller salaries from shops and restaurants, or when working fewer hours. Walton said it is one of the main reasons he has stayed.

“I can have fun with $20 in Athens,” he said. “You can park with $20 in Atlanta. Know what I mean?”

And with these cheaper comforts, Athens has avoided — for the most part — many big-city problems.

“There’s a lot less drama in Athens,” Walton said. “I mean [stuff] happens everywhere, but Athens has less shootings. You’re not asking yourself, ‘Am I gonna survive today?’”

Despite the easy-to-live-in conditions, Athens does not have the resources to support a literary career, let alone the careers of a town brimming with writers.

Walton said that many artists leave Athens for this reason, often alongside the cycle of the University.

For example, Walton has made community connections, like with Fabrice Julien who hosts a poetry show on WUOG, but because students leave so quickly it is hard to stay in touch.

“You’ve gotta understand, every four years nothing is the same on campus,” Walton said. “So, with all those connections that I made, they never were maintained.”

Losing connections with students is especially taxing because most of the work in Athens moves through the University.

A division between students and non-students is inherent to the University’s effect on Athens’ literature. Artists outside of the University may be looked down on because of differences in style or method or approach, but Zawacki said this is not the case.

While he did recognize there was a gap, Zawacki said it is unintentional.

“I think it’s more complicated than a town and gown thing,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to say that the poetry at the University is academic and outside is poppy. Students just have limited time and limited resources, and there’s just so much going on in Athens from week to week that it would be overkill.”

What they all have in common, though, is the city. It provides a geographic and mental place for writers.

Some writers, Teague said, bring that to bear in a more traditional context, through quintessentially Southern elements.

“I grew up in the South, I mean I grew up in Texas which thinks of itself as the South, which the rest of the South doesn’t, and sweet tea and kudzu, there are certain things that don’t make sense out of a Southern context,” she said. “I have no idea what they drink in Ohio but it ain’t sweet tea.”

This is changing, however, Zawacki said, and while the city and region are important influences, that may not be apparent in different authors’ writing.

“I think being in Athens with a grass roots feel is very influential, but you might read [students’] work and not understand that they have anything in common,” he said. “For instance, if you’re from here you might have an interest in geography that declares itself in a more obvious way, like through signs or the description of the color line. If you’re not from here the feeling might be one of alienation, or of ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”

Just having a number of writers live in the city does not necessarily translate to a specific style, or “Athens school,” Zawacki said.

“It’s not as distinct as what you might think of as the Athens music scene, where it makes sense of Montreal and that music works here in a way that, say, The Strokes from Brooklyn don’t,” Zawacki said. “There are just too many people coming from too many different places, and not just geographically.”

And again, as one group leaves, a newer group’s  new perspectives build on the left-behind foundations of thought or creativity.

The past devours the present — and the present, the past.

“You always are hearing stories about other peoples’ pasts, or you run into someone who is a longtime person, like me, and hear stories about what Athens was like in the ’70s,” Teague said. “Like the Iron Horse. Who doesn’t know about the Iron Horse? And while we may not riot over contemporary art today, we are aware of that horse.”

New Studies Suggest Caps On New Buildings On Prince and Oconee Streets

The Athens Banner Herald reported that plans have been filed for a new medical office building to be built on Prince Avenue. The building will be four stories high. There will be a three story parking deck. There will be a large basement. The building will be around 42,000 sq ft. And it may be the last building of that size on Prince Avenue.

The Athens Clarke County Commission decided to approve the Oak Street/Oconee Street and the Prince Avenue corridor studies Tuesday night at the monthly commission meeting. Those studies recommend new regulations to be placed on the sizes of the buildings built in these areas, a size that would place many current buildings way over the allowed space. Those limits would decide development in those zones for years to come

The Oconee Street corridor study recommended new buildings to be under 30,000 square feet. The Prince Avenue corridor study recommended buildings be kept under 10,000 square feet. This move has

 Many residents are worried about what continued development would mean for their living. Amy Johnson from Bike Athens is worried that continued development could increase the fatality rate of pedestrians and bikers, on Oconee Street in particular where the fatality rate is already high. Bike lanes themselves could also prove to save many more lives.

“The American Journal of Preventative Medicne in an article titled Urban Sprawl delayed ambulance survival.”  The problem with the sprawl is that drivers are tempted to drive quicker to get to their destination.

The commissioners are seeking to implement a complete street policy- a policy that considers how best to manage the streets among drivers, pedestrians, public transport areas, and pedestrians that maximize ease of use for all – in the most traveled corridors in Athens.

Implementing this policy could be harder to do because of Athens Clarke County being

An issue for strong contention is how the potential new regulation would affect the new medical college. The college is expected to bring in many new medicinal businesses that are expected to seek shop on Prince Avenue to cater to the students. The limit on development  could deter  businesses, something that the Commission is considering.

Commissioner Ed Robinson has seen in person how new medical campuses affect a community. He felt that the Athens Clarke County government was better prepared than any he has seen before. He appreciates the work that has already gone in. “This is a start. Pressures will be tremendous.”

A number of current businesses currently exceed the proposed building limits, a fact not lost to Ed Nichols. Nichols – a man who considers himself an expert on medical office buildings- was the only man who urged that the council vote down accepting the studies that were proposed by public works. He raised concerns about flawed language.

He argued the council should wait till the zoning office fixed the problems before they passed the studies. “It has fallen short of its goal.

A representative from the Athens Chamber of Commerce, Ryan Brinson, also spoke at the meeting. He advocated accepting the studies but cautioned the members to consider the needs of businesses. “What you decide to do with Prince Avenue will be slow and forming but permanent consequences.”

Ed Nichols, a man who considers himself to be an expert of medical offices, said that 10,000 square feet is unrealistic in today’s world.

There are at least seven buildings over the requested cap. Issues could arise if any of those businesses wish to renovate.

The commission voted to pass unanimously pass both studies.

There is concern that a state wide tax may reduce the ability of Athens Clarke County to act on these issues.

Commission Continues Fight for Elderly Entitlements

At the epicenter of economic downturn, the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission will hold their next council meeting on April 19th, hoping to tackle the issues for local government that they can’t do themselves.
The Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, or NEGRC, serves as a government planning and workforce development group for 12 counties from Barrow to Walton County. Aging services, a third and vital program for the elderly in these counties, help to provide financial and physical assistance to senior citizens in the area.
“Relatively unknown by the general public, [NEGRC] works for and are owned by Georgia’s local governments, existing to provide services and work on matters of regional importance,” said Dave Wills, government relations manager for Athens-Clarke county. “The regional commissions are an indispensable adjunct to counties and cities, leveraging local resources with state and federal funds to produce greater results than could otherwise be attained.”
NEGRC continues to fight for the elderly in giving them support to live without difficulty. Anne Hansen, program monitor for the Area Agency on Aging sector of NEGRC, reported at their January 2011 meeting that four grants has been awarded to them, including the Rosalyn Carter Institute Grant and the CDSMP Grant – Live Well Age Well Georgia.
“There could be information concerning grants that have been applied for or received,” said Mott Beck, executive assistant for NEGRC.
Although the last conference did not discuss economic development for Clarke County, NEGRC strives for the betterment of our neighboring counties. Renovations and innovations for the local government, such as a new tourism office in Watkinsville and rebuilding the Oglethorpe County courthouse, demonstrate the ability of a small group to enact widespread help.
“The primary speaker will be Jack Spruill, marketing director for the Georgia Department of Agriculture,” said Mott Beck, executive assistant for NEGRC. “Four of our counties will make reports on items of interest.”
AARP, the Georgia Council On Aging, and the Alzheimer’s Association have joined forces with the NEGRC to protect the funding of the elderly not only in the local government but in the Georgia General Assembly. All four groups advocate to protect the funding of the elderly, which is being recommended for restoration in the fiscal year of 2012 and 2013.
With the Grand Bargain – the budget proposal wishing to cut entitlement programs such as Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security – looming in Washington, the NEGRC hopes to remain fighting for the rights of its seniors.
The meeting will feature a report from information and referential specialist Michael Dock on the “Money Follows the Person” program, hoping to help recipients of Medicare.
“States are facing major budget shortfalls,” is the headline of the most recent flyer floating around from ADAPT, a community of disability and elderly activists for entitlement programs. “Major Medicare/Medicaid funds are being proposed at the federal level and are in the cards for most, if not all states.”
The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 created the “Money Follows the Person” program as a way to allow long-term patients to enter the community for six months, installing incentives for communities to provide care for Medicaid recipients to enhance their quality of life. Nursing home residents above the age of 65, according to Mathematica Policy Research in 2007, accounted for 75 percent of these possible recipients.
“It is a win-win,” says ADAPT. “People with disabilities get the choice to live in the community and states get the needed resources to rebalance their long term service systems to increase the availability of community based services.”
Athens-Clarke County reported 18.7 percent of the population, according to the 2010 census, receiving Medicaid public assistance. Older generations in Athens will cause a strain on Medicare/Medicaid as the “Baby Boomer” generation creeps into the retirement age.
The NEGRC continues to service the community in all ways possible. The work done by the commission will service the tri-county commission, creating a soapbox for the voiceless.
“In keeping with efforts as directed by Chairperson Brooks, RC staff continues to find ways to make the wisest use of available funds,” said Martha J. Beck, executive assistant for NEGRC, in the January 2011 meeting notes.

Athens post offices safe from closings

Streaks of dirt run down the engraved letters “UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE.”

Footsteps echo through the building inside while a clerk mumbles to his customer.

The place is nearly empty.

And yet, the East Hancock Avenue post office is not the one closing.

After 23 years, the Tate Center post office will be ending operations by the end of May.

“It’s unfortunate, but it was no longer a smart financial decision to keep it around,” said Dwayne Weaver, manager of Campus Mail, in a March 30 Red & Black article. “But the students will still get their packages and mail. They will just have to go elsewhere for mail orders and stamps.”

For Megha Sharma, a University graduate student, and Ankit Arte, a web developer for the University’s engineering department, “elsewhere” means the downtown post office.

“Our only other option is to go downtown,” Sharma said while filling out forms to mail a package at the Tate office. “It’s difficult because it doesn’t fall on the bus route.”

Arte agreed.

“Or it is a 15-minute walk, at least, from here,” he said.

Both said they mail internationally as well as domestically, and they use the Tate office quite often.

Still, customers of the downtown office don’t see the inconvenience of the location.

Ronald Ellington, a retired professor of the University, frequents the downtown office.

“This is the closest office by foot,” he said. “It is easier if you are downtown to walk over here to get certified letters than it is to get in your car.”

The Tate office closing seems to be part of the national trend.

Due to a decline in mail, it is no longer needed as a processing center. USPS only offered a $19,000 yearly contract to the University, according to a March 30 Red & Black article, as opposed to the usual $160,000 yearly contract the two had prior.

“We are looking at closing 225 or so mail processing facilities across the country for possible closing,” Michael Miles, USPS spokesman said. “Overall the network makes up 500 processing facilities across country. Those were setup when mail volume was growing… 2012 looking forward, there is not as much mail as we once had so we’re looking at shrinking that network of processing facilities.”

In fact, USPS is losing $36 million a day, according to the New York Times, with customers switching to electronic methods for sending their messages and other services.

To cut costs, the service has considered closing 3,700 post offices in mostly rural areas.

Athens Congressman Paul Broun, however, has said he opposes these measures.

“While a large city can absorb the closure of a post office, rural areas, which I am honored to represent, relies [sic] on the postal service for vital goods and services, such as medicine or payment of bills,” he said in an email interview. “ I oppose closing rural post offices as the first line of cost savings because their value to rural communities far outweighs the negligible savings that can come from closing them.”

But Miles said the service is not worried about what may happen after closings.

He said the future of the service is for it to become a “leaner, meaner machine.”

“The Postal Service is at the heart of a $9 billion business,” he said. “That means you are talking about transportation companies that haul mail, envelope manufacturers and printers and pre-sort mail houses and direct mail companies — and the postal services is at the heart of that business.”

And while the service has at least considered closing offices including the main plant in Athens at Olympic Drive, the Athens offices never made the final cut.

This is a relief for some Athens residents.

“From a convenience standpoint, [closings] would affect me a lot,” Paul Trudeau, a University staff member, said. “From an organizational point, for our job, we use our P.O Box for all of our literature. I just hope they let us know beforehand, so we can plan accordingly.”


Jerzees Sportsbar & Nightclub Open in Downtown Athens

     The clock strikes eleven. Staff members quickly move to put away tables and chairs which once held families sharing a dinner out. The lights dim, and the televisions begin flashing dance videos. A fun, cozy restaurant is converted into a sleek, trendy nightclub.
    This projected model of restaurants that become clubs at night is thought to be an emerging trend across the globe, according to Restaurant Management Magazine and Nightclub & Bar Media Group.Restaurants in major cities such as Las Vegas, New York City, and Rome have been using this model to appeal to two different audiences of people, according to travel promotions in these cities. Jason Cruz and his partner are bringing this trend to downtown Athens.
    Cruz is the co-owner of Athens’ newest venue, Jerzees Sportsbar & Nightclub. Jerzees houses a family-friendly restaurant during the day and converts into a club complete with dance floor at night.  
    “We wanted to build a place where everyone can come in and feel comfortable,” said Cruz. “Its a place where families can come to watch a game and have dinner, and at night it will turn into a club.”
    “Yeah,” interjected Jarrod NeShawn Miller, the bar manager of Jerzees. “There are places in Atlanta that do this. Its pretty tight.”
    Cruz believes Jerzees will be a venue that appeals to a large audience of people.  The Baltimore native is looking to make the restaurant and nightclub a place for both the students and local Athens residents. Being new to Athens, Cruz feels he can bridge the gap that is between locals and students by listening to both groups.
    Cruz knows what his he doing having had plenty of experience working in the bar and restaurant business. Cruz first got his start in 1987 as a DJ and soon decided to work his way into the management side of the business. He worked as a consultant for other bars in Baltimore before opening his first club in 2005.
    The idea for Jerzees came about last year when Cruz’s business partner brought him to Athens realizing it was a busy town with a lot of potential. The duo needed someone who knew the downtown Athens community, so Miller was brought into the project to be the in town consultant.
    “I had worked management at another bar downtown for about five years before meeting Jason’s business partner last summer,” said Miller. “I as the in town consultant at first, and then I brought in as the bar manager. I saw this as a great opportunity and jumped on it.”
    The team found a location on Clayton Street and realized the value of creating a venue that related to the sports teams at the University and nightlife downtown.
    “We saw there was a need for a venue for people who wanted to watch the game, but didn’t get tickets,” said Cruz. “We plan on covering all of the UGA sports teams like gymnastics and basketball. We will also have major coverage of the Olympics this summer.”
    “This is a place where you can watch any game and not have to pay an arm and a leg to get a drink. Plus you can eat lunch or dinner here,” said Miller.
    Jerzees will serve wings, burgers, cheese steaks, personal pizza, and other bar foods. Cruz wants to put some Baltimore favorites on the menu as well.
    “We are going to take what we know and bring it here. There is a famous sauce in Baltimore that we put on steamed crabs. We are going to use that sauce on the wings here. It will be a Baltimore menu item,” said Cruz.
    The kitchen will remain open at night selling personal pizzas after Jerzees changes from restaurant to nightclub.
    “After you get done dancing for the night, you don’t have to go wait in line at like the Grill or somewhere. You can just get your personal pizza here to and eat in the cab on your way home,” said Miller.
    Jerzees is also looking to bring large name entertainers and sports stars to Athens such as Jersey Shore cast members and Evander Holyfield, according to Cruz.   
    “We want to make ourselves a destination place downtown,” said Miller. “Lots of things we are doing here haven’t been done in Athens. We want Jerzees to make a statement downtown.”

Athens officials offer no change to panhandling ordinance

Business owners will not get their wish for a new panhandling ordinance in downtown Athens—at least, not now.

After months of research and legal consultation, city officials decided to postpone the discussion of a new, stricter panhandling law within the downtown district.  Instead, the city decided to spend $1,000 on “educating” citizens and panhandlers on the current ordinance in Athens.

And at least one long-time downtown business owner feels the decision is an “insult.”

The city commission had recently asked the Legislative Review Committee to look at possible alternatives and changes to the current panhandling law after business owners complained that panhandlers were driving away customers and visitors.

Anne Shepherd, owner of Chick Piano downtown since 1964, serves on the Downtown Athens Business Association and says panhandling has been a concern for years.

“I’ve been downtown since 1964, and we never had problems, real problems, with panhandlers until the unification [of Athens and Clarke County] in the early 1990s,” said Shepherd. “I don’t know where they came from, but they come out of the woodwork.”

City officials and business owners reviewed other cities’ panhandling ordinances in an attempt to find a model that Athens could use.

One possible solution the LRC discussed would have outlawed panhandling near ATMs, outside restaurant patios, parking meters and other places where money is exchanged—a recommendation from the Athens Downtown Development Authority.

Still, legal obstacles and problems with enforcing a new ordinance stopped commissioners from moving forward with outlawing panhandling altogether, said commissioner Alice Kinman.

“During the discussion, it kept coming back to enforcement. To get a conviction in [panhandling] cases, you have to go to criminal court,” said Kinman, a member of the Legislative Review Committee. “If you were to strengthen the ordinance, you still have to go to court to enforce a complaint. We realized we’d be spending resources on expanding our ordinance, and there would be costs with that, without reaching a solution the problem.”

The cities that officials and merchants reviewed are all similar to Athens, Shepherd says.

“We’ve tried and contacted different cities that are college towns and found out what those cities do about [panhandling]. We’ve brought those plans to commissioners and they say ‘it won’t work,’” Shepherd said. “But it works everywhere else. I can’t understand why it works everywhere else but it doesn’t work in Athens.”

Kinman said that city employees will work on how to educate the public on the issue of panhandling, using money from a few possible sources, including a city contingency fund.

“We have a staff that works on policy information and does this sort of thing on a regular basis. We’ve asked them to recommend how to spend the money,” Kinman said. “We’ve talked about things like flyers and maybe signage downtown. We want to get information to business owners as well.”

Shepherd, however, believes the public, including panhandlers, understands panhandling and the ordinance.

“It’s an insult to the taxpayers of Clarke County to think that they have to be educated. They all know what panhandlers do. The taxpayers are fully aware of what goes on,” said Shepherd. “A lot of the people that panhandle have homes, and I watch them get dropped off in nice cars to sit on the street all day.”

The commission planned to evaluate its panhandling education system in 2013, but Shepherd says that may be too long.

“It’s just not fair to the people who shop downtown and people who own businesses to allow panhandling to go on,” said Shepherd. “It’s a recurring problem, and if something isn’t done, more and more people are going to stop coming downtown because they just don’t want to put up with [panhandling].

Business owners can help the situation though, Kinman says.

“Business owners were reluctant to prosecute panhandlers for fear of retaliation. The only thing that will get panhandlers’ attention is vigorous prosecution,” said Kinman. “If the people being victimized by panhandlers won’t prosecute, then no change in the ordinance will help.”

Shepherd’s solution to keeping panhandlers away is simple, but other business owners need to come together to end panhandling, she says.

“When they get in front of my store, I chase them off,” said Shepherd. “There aren’t many business owners that want to be vocal. If the merchants would band together, we could get something done.”

Until then, says Kinman, the only people begging for change in downtown Athens will be the panhandlers themselves.

“We need the people who are downtown regularly, who own businesses, to help us out with this,” said Kinman.

Caterpillar to make big waves in Athens


Athens mayor Nancy Denson sat in her royal blue blazer, with her makeup pristine and a smile stretched across her face — as she typically does.

But this was no typical occasion.

After months hard work, it was groundbreaking day on the new Caterpillar plant to be built on a tract of land shared by Clarke and Oconee counties.

The event’s guest list highlighted the importance of that March afternoon — Gov. Nathan Deal sat to her right, followed by Caterpillar Vice President Mary Bell, Sen. Johnny Isakson and Georgia Representative Paul Broun. Even former Georgia head football coach Vince Dooley sat fanning himself in the audience.

And they were all there for one reason — to congratulate Denson and her staff for a job well done.

“I think today is really about me thanking all of you,” Bell said. “I wish everyone could have seen how seamlessly everyone — the city, state, technical college system — everybody worked together as one. They listened. They understood exactly what we needed. They pulled together as one team and remarkably — rapidly — developed whatever it took to get the job done. And I want you to know how unusual that is.”

But the March 16 groundbreaking was just the beginning of what will surely be a prosperous relationship between Denson, Clarke County and the manufacturing giant. When the plant opens late next year, it will likely change the face of the community and brining jobs in numbers Denson said she can hardily fathom.  

On the horizon

Construction on the plant is slowly getting underway, but for now the 940-acre tract remains a forest free of any sign of the busy assembly line it will soon house.

But that doesn’t mean its potential isn’t visible.

Former Athens mayor Doc Eldridge called the groundbreaking the “biggest news in our community since Herschel Walker came to the University of Georgia.”

Deal called it a “great day for Athens Clarke County, for Oconee County, for Northeast Georgia and for the entire state of Georgia.”

Others used words like “wonderful,” “good” and “exciting.” But Denson had a different type of feeling — relief.

“You get all geared up for something, the adrenaline is pumping and then when it happens you feel like water and you just want to melt into a puddle,” she said after the ceremony’s conclusion. “But I’m so thrilled.”

Denson said she has heard all the numbers before – 4,200 jobs and an economic impact of $2.3 billion. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

When West Point held a similar event for the opening of their new Kia Motors plant in 2009, few could have imagined how quickly things were about to change.

Just one year later, the plant employed 2,400 people and brought life back to a community that had struggled to stay alive since textile mills moved overseas, according to a USA Today report.

Sales and property tax receipts went up, unemployment numbers fell and an unavoidable sense of optimism floated around the town, according to the article. Aside from the plant, the mayor said 24 new businesses opened in just 20 months.

For Denson, this is the most exciting part of the construction project.

“These 1,400 jobs with Caterpillar are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “When I think about this, I think about the individual lives it’s going to impact because we’ve got so many people in our community who are either unemployed or under employed. And now those people will have the confidence that they can send their kids to college, they can buy that home they’ve dreamed of.”

The wait

Caterpillar officials say they’re working on a tight deadline – but a project of this magnitude takes time.

According to Plant Manager Todd Henry, they hope to have machinery rolling off the assembly line by the end of 2013.

They’ll begin with mini hydraulic excavators, expanding production to several models by 2014.

By 2015, a flock of small track-type tractors will be produced on the state-of-the art assembly line, complete with robotic welding, powder paint systems and onsite logistics.

According to Henry, at maturity, the plant will be Building Construction Products largest facility.

“This project was very important to us and had a very aggressive timeline,” Bell said at the groundbreaking. “Getting the right project site selected very, very quickly was a critical first step. Some talked about it being an impossible first step. But this impossible first step was accomplished thanks to the phenomenal support we had so many entities at all levels.”

But the groundbreaking doesn’t just represent a good first step for Caterpillar.

“I think [Denson has] done a great job,” Eldridge said. “She’s only been in office a year. She’s got three more to go. She’s off to a great start, I can tell you that much.”

Baxley and Zaxby’s

Robert Baxley, the Chief Operating Officer for the Zaxby’s Corporation, has been an employee since 1992. He began his career as a cook at the company’s third location in Valdosta, GA, working in the kitchen of the restaurant. Baxley has been working hard with the company from the beginning, but working his way up with the company was not the hard part for him.
When Baxley began his initial job in the kitchen, that restaurant went by the name ZAX. When the company started to franchise to people and get bigger, they decided to change their name to the now famous, Zaxby’s. This was in 1994 and they have kept this name ever since.
Zach McLeroy, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board, and Tony Townley, Chief Financial Officer, are the founders of Zaxby’s, and Baxley has been with them since the beginning of Zaxby’s.
Robert Baxley’s challenge in his time at Zaxby’s was not trying to work his way up, but the challenge was working with McLeroy and Townley in growing a new business. “It wasn’t so much me growing, as finding people to help the company grow,” said Baxley.
Baxley is from Camden, South Carolina where he attended the University of South Carolina and then ended up earning a bachelor’s degree from Valdosta State University.
“I have enjoyed watching employees grow with the company, and also love to see the licensees (people starting a franchise with Zaxby’s) grow their businesses and become more and more successful,” said Baxley. Seeing people grow with the company is what makes Baxley’s job so fulfilling and keeps him working hard to make that happen for them.
Zaxby’s began in Athens, GA and has expanded from one to three restaurants and has expanded to about 548 different stores nationwide. Baxley and the Zaxby’s company have no plans of leaving Athens either. When asked of their plans to remain in Athens Baxley said, “Headquarters will never move, as long as Zach, Tony, and myself are there.” The three men look at Athens as it being a part of them and who they are. Baxley believes the future of Zaxby’s is very solid in the Athens area.
“It is the community where our founders grew up. There is a sense of family for us in the Athens area,” said Baxley. They have 170 people employed at their corporate office in Athens and want to keep them there. Baxley believes that Athens has all the big city advantages of Atlanta, GA, but not some of the problems that come with being in the huge cities, such as less crime. It is a “fantastic area” and “Athens has a strong sense of community and is a great place to raise a family,” Baxley said.
Baxley is also very proud of the work that his company does throughout the Athens area. They have a “dedicated team that handles that sort of stuff locally,” said Baxley. The Zaxby’s corporation, under the leadership of Baxley, gets involved with, among other things, Relay for life, adopt a highway, and other national charities. They also will pick two schools and two churches to help out at different times and work directly with the schools. When asked of the work Zaxby’s does in Athens Baxley said, “It is kind of who we are, we focus ourselves on giving back to the community as much as possible.”
In the years from 1995 up until 2007, Baxley did very well as a multiunit operator. He was in charge of 21 Zaxby’s locations in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, according to reports. Baxley is married to Mandy Baxley and has two children a boy, Wyman, and a girl, Loy Brynne.
“I could not find a more respectful boss, not only did I look up to him as a successful business man and role model, but he was also a wonderful father and family man. He always attends and helps out with coaching as much as possible with his sons football and baseball games, on top of all of his business responsibilities,” said Lynnsey, who used to babysit for the Baxleys while attending the University of Georgia.
According to reports, Tony Townley, who is responsible for the overall fiscal health of the company, attended Georgia Southern College. Townley has been a CEO for Southern Mortgage & Lending Corporation, a mortgage originator for First Federal Savings and Loan and the Bank of Georgia.
Zach McLeroy, has been CEO for Zaxby’s from the beginning. He and Townley were childhood friends and have stuck together throughout the entire growth of the Zaxby’s corporation. They have grown the company into something bigger than what was ever originally planned. Both McLeroy and Townley own stock in many Zaxby’s restaurants and have brought Baxley in to create and grow the business and use that to help others get involved through franchising and employment and watch them grow with the company as well.
Robert Baxley worked his way up with a huge company, but has always worried more about the success of the company and fellow employees over his own. Baxley has worked hard with the founders of the company to keep a bright future and a successful business. His favorite menu item is the Kickin’ Chicken Sandwich, loves to golf, but always makes time to watch his favorite team, The Gamecocks play on Saturdays.