Old Town, New Look: Athens Businesses Revitalize Downtown Buildings

By Kyle Wingfield

Business owners improve their downtown business spaces with restoration projects.

Businesses occupying historic spaces in Downtown Athens require repair and upkeep. These buildings were constructed near the turn of the 20th century, according to the Athens Clarke County website. City officials said many businesses downtown renovate their spaces, but the process behind restoration is laborious.

The Athens Downtown Development Authority acts as “a liaison between the Athens Clarke County Government and the Downtown Business community,” according to its website. The Athens DDA website said its mission is to “undertake and oversee the revitalization and redevelopment of the urban, central city areas located within the Downtown Athens Area.”

Pamela Thompson, executive director of the Athens DDA, said the Authority welcomes historic restoration projects for downtown business spaces.

“The ADDA would be happy to work with anyone interested in renovating a downtown property” she said, “and prefer that the work is sensitive to the historic character of the building and area.”

Ryan Moore, the Director of Economic Development for the Athens Chamber of Commerce, said that Athens offers “ample options for dining and socializing in close geographic proximity,” which leads to stiff competition.

“Athens supports [a] density of cultural amenities. It takes a very adaptable business model to support this diverse demand.”

A popular staple in the historic Athens business district is Transmetropolitan, a pizza restaurant started in 2001. The business renovated in 2013, a change that owner Wesley Russo said the building was ready for.

“The space in general took a beating,” said Russo. “We decided that we wanted to reinvest in our business […] and that’s when we hired a friend of mine who does construction and renovation. We liked his ideas, and we trusted him to design something that our customers would like as well.”

The process of renovating a historic building is not easy. Chris Blackmon, vice-chair of the Athens DDA, said the planning process requires consulting with nearly 14 departments and organizations before a renovation project is approved.

The departments send comments and plan changes to the business owners. “The owner must make those changes for approval. Then the owner would pull permits from the building permit office to get all of the actual work approved before they can receive a certificate of occupancy.”

Plans submitted to the departments are subject to revisions that potentially delay the renovation process. “The business owners must comply or quit,” Blackmon said.

“Sometimes there is difficulty because the list can be reviewed again and new items [are] added once the original changes have been made to the plans,” said Blackmon. “It has been likened to hitting a moving target.”

Russo said buildings downtown have more length than width. “It just changes the dimensions in which we had to design,” said Russo.

“They’re kind of narrow and deep,” Russo said to the Red & Black. “We wanted […] more of an open, left-to-right spatial setup instead of front-to-back. So that was kind of the basis for the design of the renovation.”

The fire escape imposed by the fire department created a challenge in renovating a narrow business space, according to Russo. “We lose about 12% of the width of the building because of the fire hall,” Russo said.

“The fire hallway runs the length of the building,” said Russo. “I wouldn’t consider that an obstacle; anything that the fire department wants us to do in the interest of public safety is in the interest of our customers. We want to make sure that we do what we need to in order to ensure the public’s safety.”

According to the Red & Black, Russo said the modern overhaul helped smooth out issues the restaurant previously faced. The new floor plan realigned the kitchen with the back central wall and relocated the cashier stand to the storefront.

“We no longer have the line that kind of forms through the middle of the dining area,” Russo said to the Red & Black.

Dr. Jason Rudbeck, an economics lecturer for the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, said quality, service and reasonable prices are what businesses need to succeed in Athens.

“These restaurants and bars also need to meet the economic range of university students, as they make up a significant portion of their customers,” Rudbeck said.

Russo told the Red & Black Transmetropolitan improved its quality of service in addition to the restaurant’s new image.

“It’s a little more full-service,” Russo told the Red & Black. “Before, our customers ordered at the front and received their drinks and beer and wine and things like that from the cashier. [Now] they’re delivered to the customers at their tables.”

Incentives are available to those who want to renovate their building space downtown. Thompson, the ADDA’s executive director, said additional aid is obtainable for renovation projects if the building space qualifies.

Blackmon, the ADDA vice-chair, said a business owner could receive different forms of financial support if the building is eligible for these programs.

“There is often favorable financing through the department of community affairs” he said, “and there can be historic tax credits if proper regulations are followed.

Russo’s business qualified for some of these incentives. “When we first opened the restaurant, there were some property tax benefits that we received for restoring the building back to sort of original architectural look. I think there were probably more things available to us, but in the interest of time and expediency, we just went forward with the project.”

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