Chamber, city focus on economic development

The Athens Chamber of Commerce and Athens local government plan to work together and focus heavily on economic development this year.

New chamber board chairman, Mike Morris, said at the chamber’s annual meeting February 18, that though the group focused heavily on economic development last year, this year was about “studying and addressing critical issues which will affect the economic outlook of Athens for many years to come.”

The biggest change will be the implementation of a new economic development strategy. Morris praised the city on its acknowledgement of the “necessity of economic development” with increased funding and government-level attention.

The city plans to focus its economic development efforts on attracting industry to Athens and working to retain and expand the industry present.

The city commission approved the creation of a new government department of economic development. Though most cities have economic development departments or developments, Athens didn’t until now, said Peggy Chapman, CEO of the city’s economic development foundation.

The foundation is a more general job-creation source, Chapman said, but it has little funding. The new department will have the city-backing to expand and attract industry in Athens.

“The foundation is an organization that was started 12 to 13 years ago, and the major focus was the creation of new jobs,” she said. “It really evolved into more than an industrial-type board. It was a job-creating source, but it had little funding to work with – to create programs or other things economic development authorities and groups usually do. This new department created with the county is putting together the funding and backing to do these kinds of things in Athens-Clarke County.”

Morris said the chamber gives its “full support” to Athens’ new department of economic development. The chamber and the city worked well together in the past, and the new efforts  will only enhance the relationship, he said.

The chamber and the city claim a major success in the relocation of a Caterpillar plant to Athens from overseas early last year. With construction almost completed, the factory will hire and train workers in early spring and begin operations this summer.

Morris said drawing in suppliers to maximize the impact of the plant is a goal for this year. Last year also brought the promise of $200 million in downtown development, which the chamber plans to deliver on this year.

The chamber partnered with the city and the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government to conduct a manufacturing wage survey to help Caterpillar assess appropriate local wages.

The chamber plans to focus its economic development efforts on entrepreneurship and commercial and retail development this year, according to Morris. The chamber will continue to offer the same support and existing services despite the city’s change, Morris said. Commissioner Kelly Girtz said the new department is in a conceptual stage, and the subcommittee that designed the local law that created it is still discussing how to implement it.

The Prince Avenue development corridor and the commercial strip on Atlanta Highway land at the top of the chamber’s list of retail concern this year.

The city released a study at the beginning of February regarding the Prince Avenue Corridor.

The report indicates a need for “the inevitable growth in these areas…to be guided by programs and policies designed to produce future sustainable residential and commercial development and to protect natural and cultural resources.”

Atlanta Highway is important to the chamber too because of its large retailers and chain stores. Oconee County’s in-progress shopping center and more attractive county ordinances could draw the big-box stores out of Athens.

The chamber is working with the city in both areas to create the “appropriate” zoning response, according to Morris. The new city department can help here – its responsibilities include reviewing and recommending changes to local laws to mitigate barriers to economic development.

Morris calls the loss of retailers on Atlanta Highway “likely.” He said that those losses will be coupled, however, with state Department of Transportation improvements, which “will require creative ideas, long-term vision and diligent work to overcome.”

The chamber’s theme this year is “Progress Together,” which signifies its commitment to making the combined public and private response to economic development work.

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