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.

Both cities are home to large universities (The University of Georgia in Athens and Deakin University in Geelong) and heavily rely on those schools for economic development.

“Since I live on campus, I go downtown a lot,” UGA freshman Shai Bendavid said. “It’s really easy to go there to shop or eat instead of driving somewhere farther. I go downtown about twice a week, so I’m glad everything I need is located close.”

This memorandum focused on the impact the schools have on the surrounding community’s economy and how the two cities could share ideas and tactics to enhance their respective city’s economic development.

One approach Athens has made to encourage downtown economic development is the process of improving its Chamber of Commerce.

The website for the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce states “The mission of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce is to serve its members by developing an environment conducive to business.”

Just a little over a week after the signage of the memorandum, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce held their 110th annual meeting with more than 500 people in attendance, as reported by Online Athens;  making it the largest and most successful meeting to date.

“Imagine Athens without UGA,” keynote speaker UGA President Jere Morehead said in reference to his vision for the relationship between UGA and the Athens community. “And imagine UGA without Athens.”

“Athens and UGA are in fact joined at the hip. We prosper together, we work together, we rely on each other, and we bask in the reputation that we share together,” President of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, Doc Eldridge, stated in his report to Online Athens. “We will continue to look for more ways to work together in the economic development of our area.”

The partnership between  Athens and Geelong originally stemmed out of talks between UGA and Deakin University about programs within the universities, but eventually made their way to the Athens-Clarke County  and Geelong governments to focus on the cities as a whole.

As stated on the Athens Downtown Development Authority’s webpage, “The mission of the ADDA is to promote, to maintain, and to enhance a safe and economically viable central business district by focusing both public and private resources on the fulfillment of downtown’s potential to benefit the entire community.”

“I think downtown Athens does add to the whole UGA experience. I love having so many different restaurants and venues just steps away from campus,” said UGA junior Ariel Rowe. “The only thing I would change about downtown is to add more places that students under 21 could go.”

“The Economic Development Department is vigilant in seeking out and implementing relationships that can enhance our global outreach efforts,” Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Director, Ryan Moore, said in a report on the Athens-Clarke County website. “This partnership is an opportunity to showcase the international appeal of Athens-Clarke County. The Geelong team has been great to work with and we look forward to a mutually beneficial long-term relationship,”

Another step the Chamber has made in order to enhance downtown economic development is through the establishment of committees within the Chamber.

Two of the committees include the education committee and the small business committee.

In hopes of becoming more relevant to the Athens community, the purpose of these committees is to focus on services available in the community and uncover important issues and topics surrounding Athens area business.

Although some downtown small businesses are struggling to keep their doors open, others believe a strong relationship between UGA and the Chamber of Commerce is what is best for downtown development and their own benefit.

Agora Vintage, a large, eclectic, second hand store, is an example of a business that is currently succeeding in downtown Athens.

After opening one store on West Clayton Street, the owners decided to open an additional, smaller location on Broad Street.

“Most of our clientele is from the university. We have students come in most often, but we also have tourists. Recently, a lot of customers who are in town for conferences at UGA also stopped by,” said employee Kristin Basile, in the Broad Street location. “UGA has a huge impact on our business.”

With the partnership with Geelong and changes made within the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, Athens hopes to improve its downtown, not only for business owners, but for everyone who visits.

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