Counties, dealers still adjusting to Title Ad Valorem Tax

By Taylor West

Just over a year into the new Title Ad Valorem Tax system, the technical kinks are being worked out and people are adjusting to the changes, but those changes have created systematic winners and losers.

The TAVT, which officially began March 1, 2013, replaced the 7 percent sales tax and annual ad valorem tax, or Birthday tax — and is going to cost Georgia’s local counties and school systems millions.

“We are starting to see where the money is going to flow,” said Athens-Clarke County Tax Commissioner Mitch Schrader. Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Illegal tire dumping: a problem without a solution

By David Schick

Paul Martin didn’t see the hidden closing costs when he purchased the property where the old Omni Club sits. A quick survey of the ends of his property would reveal an illegal tire dump close to Briarcliff creek. What he soon realized is that the cost of disposing tires properly is exorbitant and often falls on the property owner.

Scrap tire disposal isn’t just an Athens-Clarke County problem.

In the early 1990s, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources created a Scrap Tire Program designed to clean up and recycle about 12 million tires that were housed in illegal stockpiles around Georgia. The landfilling of whole-sized tires has been banned since Dec. 31, 1994.

Read the rest of this entry »


LGBT Community Working Within UGA and Athens-Clarke County

Athens, apart from being recognized as a college town, is known for being a culturally diverse place with a progressive society. The downtown Athens area even has a reputation for having a bar or club for every social “scene.”

But what about the Lesbian, Gay, bi-sexual, and transgender community, commonly known as the LGBT community? Athens has a large and active LGBT community, but has no official place to gather outside of the LGBT Resource Center on the UGA campus.

Athens-Clarke County and the University of Georgia both show support for the LGBT community, but there seems to be some sort of disconnect between the community and the two institutions. Athens-Clarke County offers full domestic partnership benefits for city and county workers, however the University of Georgia does not. The university has an official LGBT resource center, whereas Athens-Clarke County lacks any official center for members of the LGBT community and has not had an official “gay-friendly” establishment in 5 years. Read the rest of this entry »


Downtown Police Substation Brings Reassurance Four Years Later

 By Ashton Adams

When an incompliant man began pounding on the glass windows outside the Smoker’s Den on College Avenue last week, employees didn’t bother calling the authorities.

Instead, manager Tonya Thorne walked next door and the situation was handled in less than two minutes.

The Smoker’s Den shares walls with the downtown police substation, a building whose presence alone has brought security back to downtown.

Read the rest of this entry »


Athens Area Chamber of Commerce makes global connection

By Emily Curl

While located in opposite sides of the globe, Athens-Clarke County and the City of Greater Geelong in Victoria, Australia have much more in common than one would suspect.

In hopes to improve downtown development and bring additional business to Athens, officials are researching and discussing new ways to help Athens’ businesses develop and succeed.

On February 8th, officials from the two cities met to discuss mutual interests in opportunities for economic development and signed a “Memorandum of Understanding to acknowledge the strategic relationship between the two cities,” as stated on the Athens-Clarke County website. Read the rest of this entry »


Last Sign Standing: Athens Restaurant Battles Code Enforcement

By Kyle MacArthur Wingfield

A little sign is catching big attention.

Ryan Myers, owner of Amici Cafe, said for years his restaurant used a sandwich board to market deals to the public.

“We have an A-frame sign we’ve been using for three years to advertise daily specials,” Myers said. “It generates money for not only us but the city in tax dollars. Whatever we put on this sign, it sells. The sidewalks create business for everybody.”

The sign did not become an issue until recently, according to Myers. A code enforcement officer would “come around once a year and tell us not to do it,” Myers said, “and that’s all you’d hear from them. We’d put the sign out, the code enforcer would come by, we’d take it in for a week, then put it out again. It became a battle, and we kept getting warnings.”

The warnings are the result of a sign ordinance passed by the Athens-Clarke County Commission in 2005 due to safety concern and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, Sarah Anne Perry wrote in Flagpole. The ordinance came to fruition due to a visually impaired man who was tripping over signs in the sidewalk and had threatened to sue, according to Perry.

The ACC government established that it is “unlawful for any person to direct, order, or instigate placing of signs in the public right-of-way,” according to Section 7-4-9 of the ACC Code of Ordinances.

A business usually receives two code violation warnings before consequences escalate, according to Mike Spagna, Community Protection Administrator for Athens-Clarke County. If the violation does not improve after the initial warnings, said Spagna, business owners are then brought before a judge.

Myers’ restaurant continued receiving warnings until his business was issued a citation to appear in court. “I get that,” he said. “You can only write so many warnings.” But Myers is determined to seek change in the county’s sign ordinance.

“I feel petty, getting wound up about it because it’s such a silly thing,” Myers said. “But it is such a silly thing. It’s a very grey area […] the code needs to be revised and revisited.”

Local business owners side with Myers. A recent survey conducted by the Athens Downtown Development Authority asked businesses for their thoughts on sidewalk sandwich boards. The ADDA received responses from 16 local businesses saying sidewalk signs have a positive impact on business.

Myers said sidewalk signs add to the Athens experience. “A lot of times, we’d put something funny on it that would make people look at it,” Myers said. The signs “give character to downtown; some people are funny with them. It allows you to see something.”

Athens business owners told the ADDA survey that sandwich boards are “creative and tasteful” and “add a charm downtown area.” Even owners who do not advertise with signs felt strongly that other businesses should be allowed to use them, so long as they are “reasonably sized and do not block pedestrian traffic.”

Amici’s sign sat flush against the building, according to Myers. “In no way does anybody have to change their pathway to get around it,” he said. “What they do have to change their path for is the railing, our café area.”

So Myers looked for ways around the ordinance. “We asked if we could move the sign into the doorway,” he said, “but that was still in the way.” Myers also questioned the code enforcer about removing a table and placing the sandwich board inside the railing of Amici’s dining area. “But they said no,” he said. “There was no way around it.”

A walk down Clayton Street Wednesday afternoon revealed multiple businesses with similar signs. The sandwich boards were placed in doorways, walkways, and inside the railings of restaurants and shops.

Athens local Ross Thomas, a junior at the University of Georgia, walked past a portable sign entering an Athens venue Tuesday. Thomas became heated when informed of the city’s sign ordinances.

“I think the city should spend time fixing broken and uneven sidewalks instead of fining honest businesses,” Thomas said. “A sign is a more visible obstacle than uneven cracks and curbs and presents a less physical danger.”

Amici’s sandwich board is currently in storage. “Part of me wanted to keep putting it out and just take the fines,” Myers said, “but I’m not sure what would happen if the sign were out again when we’ve already been ordered to court.”

Myers is awaiting the verdict of the court before placing the sandwich board on the sidewalk again. “The battle is being fought,” Myers said. “I don’t want to add fuel to the fire. I’ve been pretty vocal about my thoughts on it.”


Hotel growth in downtown Athens

By Brittney Cain

With the University of Georgia’s growth and number of conventions being held in Athens, the downtown area is becoming a site of construction and further expansion for hotels to accommodate the increase of people.

The Holiday Inn on West Broad Street has submitted a permit application on the building for a renovation and expansion.

Modifications to the parking lot and driveway are included in the proposed work.

The hotel industry in Athens, according to Hannah Smith, director of marketing and communications at the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), is growing to meet the needs of increasing number of meetings and conventions.

In 2003, there were a total of 14 hotels in the Athens-Clarke County area, according to the U.S. Census. The most recent census data revealed that in 2011 the total number of hotels jumped to 22 in the area.

And the Convention and Visitors Bureau reported there are 10 hotels within one mile of the Classic Center.

Brands typically do better in the downtown area, said Mike Waldrip, President of the Athens Area Hotel Association (AAHA).

Because occupancies and rates are driven by this brand loyalty, past experience, service and location, he said hotels in the downtown district have to create originality to set themselves apart from others nearby.

According to Foundry Park & Inn‘s website, they “could have built 300 ordinary hotel rooms, but chose instead to create a warm, welcoming Inn that feels like a home away from home.”

In addition to hotels’ vision of creating a new experience for customers, Hotel Indigo’s website said they “offer a unique experience that reflects the culture of its neighborhood.”

Hotel Indigo instilled “green features” for guests such as natural light and views and thermal controls powered by energy-efficient systems in each room. In 2011, Hotel Indigo was nominated for North America’s Leading Green Hotel.

Other hotels try to set themselves apart by providing meeting and convention rooms for business or football “game-day” additions for fans.

Waldrip noted that expansion and renovation of the hotels in the downtown area is based purely on demand.

“City-wide occupancy is above 55 percent but hotels operate on such slim margins that for most hotels this number needs to be above 60%,” Waldrip said. “When occupancies reach around 65percent expansion may be warranted.”

Construction costs, Waldrip said, range from $70,000 to $100,000 to build a mid-level hotel room. And in the last 10 years, the market has added about 475 rooms.

“A new Hyatt Place is planned for construction later in 2014,” Smith said. “[It] will be the first connecting hotel to the Classic Center.”

And, Smith said, the Holiday Inn is not the only hotel attempting to upgrade its facilities. Foundry Park Inn & Spa is preparing a massive renovation this summer.

With the culture of the University and the tradition of football games, it is not surprising that hotels are more occupied during the fall semester.

Georgia Gameday Center is specifically designed to create a “home away from home experience that is perfect for a UGA football weekend,” with all 133 units tailored to any UGA fan with a sea of red and black furniture.

Meetings and conventions are also frequently held in the downtown Athens area. Smith estimated that each meeting attendee spends on average over $219 per day.

“Tourism brings in $246 million per year to Athens-Clarke County and supports 2,450 local jobs,” Smith said. “Due to tourism spending and tax collections, each Athens-Clarke County household saves almost $400 per year in taxes.”

Hotels pay an additional 7% hotel and motel tax, which funds the Convention and Visitors Bureau and parts of the Classic Center.

“It is likely that over the next two or three years there will be some expansion of the number of rooms available downtown,” Waldrip noted. “This will be driven by the University’s growth and the expansion of the Classic Center.”