High volume causes low success rate for downtown business

For a student going out on a Friday night, or spending a weekend afternoon downtown, Athens seems bustling with opportunity and entertainment, but for those who run the businesses—it’s not as easy as it looks.

“There was nothing easy about opening the business and we are still learning things everyday,” said Ashley Becker, owner of Flirt Fashions, a boutique downtown.

She cites the economy as a factor in her struggle to find quality lines of clothing at a good price, but she also mentions unexpected obstacles.

“The weather is also a huge factor in our business which we never would have expected because if it’s cold or rainy no one walks around,” said Becker.

She feels that retail stores are the hardest business to keep afloat in a college town.

“Bars are more successful because of the population of students and because of football season,” she said. “There are also many more bars than retail stores or restaurants in Athens.”

However, according to the Athens Downtown Development Agency’s website, Athens is home to “65 specialty retailers, 55 popular eateries, and 40 taverns and nightspots.” Assuming this tally is kept current, this would disprove her theory.

Chris Walker, owner of Last Call and The Mad Hatter, argues that the volume of bars in Athens is a bad thing for bar business. It spreads the customers too thin. 

Walker has been in the Athens downtown business scene for a long time. He was an owner of the original Last Call, saw it through its name change to the Library and recently, back to Last Call. 

According to Walker, the turnover rate for a bar in the downtown area is about three years. He believes the turnover is an Athens specific problem due to all the competition, and that bars that cater exclusively to students are the ones that suffer most.

“Even since 2002, the student body has changed so much,” he said, “SATs scores are higher, it’s harder to get in. All the partiers are going to places like GA Southern and Milledgeville.”

In an article from Inc. magazine on successful small business tips, Norm Brodsky writes, “Forget about shortcuts. Plan and work with forever as the goal.”

Walker believes that is a problem with many start-up bars, they are out to make money and don’t consider the long term. He also explained other factors that plague student-body bars.

“These flash in the pan places, when midterms come around, or it rains for two months, they’re in trouble,” he said.

Walker said that other college towns don’t have the problems Athens bars face because at schools like GA Southern, there are only five or six bars. Less bars means less competition and more staying power.

So what is the key to surviving in an atmosphere like Athens?

From Walker’s observation, the best way to be a success in Athens is to keep your overhead prices low, and maintain high volume. His advice is to follow the example set by Allgood, Georgia Bar and others and become popular with a diverse crowd.

“Young professionals, people in the working world, people who have their own money to spend are always going to drink,” he said. “Even in a bad economy they’ll be there drinking their sorrows, and in a good economy they’ll be celebrating.”

Walker says the effect the economy has on students trickles down and affects business.

“If Mommy and Daddy are hurting, they are going to cut back, not on rent or food money necessarily, but definitely on that extra play money,” Walker said.

The economy can help business owners too. According to Walker it is a great time to open a business or renegotiate a lease while the prices are low, which is just what he did with his new bar, The Mad Hatter. He is following his own advice in his new business venture and is marketing it towards an older crowd.

“If you have the money, and do it right, now is a great time,” he said. “Landlords are more apt to lease places at a low price, and you can establish a real solid cash flow for when the economy recovers and rent prices go up.”

Board meeting makes progress on plans for new gym

Fourteen empty black leather chairs surround a dark wood table in anticipation of the Athens Housing Authority’s Public Hearing and Board Meeting.

The public hearing begins at 4:15 p.m. in the Central Offices of the Athens Housing Authority on Rocksprings Street, and is one of only two the Authority holds a year.

One is to annually approve the small decals denoting Authority vehicles, and the other is to allow for comment on the Annual Agency Plan, according to Marilyn Appleby, Marketing and Communications Director for the AHA.

The regularly scheduled Board meeting follows the hearing. Board meetings are held every fourth Tuesday of the month at 4:30 p.m.

Board Commissioners trickle in and help themselves to the coffee and bottles of water on a table in the corner of the large room filled with natural light. Against one wall are more leather chairs available for any guests.

Becky Hartman, Administrative Services Director for the AHA, enters the room and sets her things down on the table.

“I was amazed everyone got here so early,” she said, “But then I remembered, we do have a public hearing today, and it is over my stuff.”

“Yep, you’re the guest of honor,” said James C. Smith, the Vice Chair.

In accordance with the agenda, after the approval of the minutes, Hartman debriefs the group on the Five Year and Annual Agency Plans.

“The documents have been available for public comments for 45 days and to the best of my knowledge there have been no comments and no challenges,” she said. “My belief is this is because our Resident Advisory Board helped draft the document, all issues were addressed at that time.”

As there were no residents present to make comments, the public hearing was open, then closed, in two minutes.

The Board meeting commenced with an audit of the Athens Housing Authority.

Next on the agenda is David Linder’s talk about the financing documents for the plans to build a new Boys and Girls club gym. Linder moved from the side of the room the to main table in order to individually discuss important articles in the document and explain the progress.

The new gym will be part of a larger effort to renovate the H.T. Edwards building into another location for the Boys and Girls club of Athens.

Currently the Athens Housing Authority provides non-federal funding to the Jack R. Wells Boys and Girls center, but the facility is outdated according to Appleby. There is one main room, and some rooms on the side, but the building is small.

“In the probably 15 years of use, the Boys and Girls Club have just outgrown it,” she said. “They had probably outgrown it the minute they moved in.”

The Jack R. Wells center is in the middle of a neighborhood, and in Appleby’s opinion, this is problematic.

“Only neighborhood kids use the space,” she said, “With the exception of summer programs, we just don’t see many kids from other areas.”

The H.T. Edwards building is in a central location that should make it more accessible to more people. It will also have many of the same features as the existing, larger Fourth Street Boys and Girls Club. This will include a newly refurbished gym, offices, art space, and potentially a music lab.

The financing has been in the works for close to a year according to Appleby, the complications being caused by the partnership between four entities, local government, the school system, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Athens Housing Authority.

S.P.O.L.S.T money from the government, Boys and Girls Club fundraising, and money from the Athens Housing Authority is all being used to finance the project, and the school system owns the H.T. Edwards building.

“This is a very, very unique project,” J. Richard Parker II, the Executive Director said. “I can’t think of another example of four such high profile groups coming together to provide a service that is going to have this kind of long term benefits. None of us could have accomplished it on our own.”

Parker II guesses that building plans should be ready in 60-90 days, and construction should begin this summer.

An event is tentatively planned for April 22 to celebrate the partnership. Parker II would like the media to be there and to hand the Boys and Girls Club a giant check. The event would be held later in the day so children involved in the Boys and Girls Club could be present as well as the Board members from all the partners.

After this informal discussion, the Board meeting resumed, covered more ordinary business, and adjourned at approximately 6:45 p.m.

Low-income homeowners given the chance to speak

There has been little change in the list of those who require affordable housing in the past year, according to the data collected by the Athens Housing Authority. Yet there are still plenty of families who are living in poverty and currently deprived the opportunity of homeownership.

The Athens Housing Authority has released its Five-Year and Annual Agency Plans for public review, and both contain goals to correct this situation.

The Athens Housing Authority will conduct a public hearing on March 23 at 4:15 p.m. with a board meeting to follow. The hearing is held to allow public comment on the Five-Year and Annual Agency Plans that will go into effect July 1, 2010. The meeting will take place at the Athens Housing Authority’s central offices on Rocksprings Street.

Public hearings are held once yearly, or more if the Annual Plans are amended during the year, according to Carol Kirchman, Executive Assistant for the Athens Housing Authority.

“Our Mission is to provide secure, affordable, quality housing and resources which encourage and sustain independence for wage earners, elderly and families,” Kirchman said.

Section 9.0 of the Five-Year plan details the housing needs of these demographics in specifically the low, very low, and extremely low income groups.

There are 5,700 families in Athens-Clarke County have an income 30 percent less than the median, according to data from the 2010 Annual Action Plan of the Consolidated Plan of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County. Many of the Athens Housing Authorities customers fall into this category.

The information in Section 9.0 states that 80 percent of the approximately 553 families on the waiting list for the Athens Housing Authority are below 30 percent of the median income.

The reports states that for a community where rents are largely affected by students at the University of Georgia, rents in the private market remain to a great extent “unaffordable” to this population.

This makes providing housing to the low-income population a consistent problem, and makes it necessary for the Athens Housing Authority to focus many of their programs on this need.

Section 9.1 of the Five-Year Plan describes the strategies for addressing these housing needs including, issuing Mortgage Revenue Bonds, continuing the ACT I Home program, and maintaining strong partnerships with local government, other agencies, and private industry.

The ACT I Home program strives to provide affordable home ownership opportunities.

The Athens Housing Authority newsletter, the Resident Report, outlines the requirements to qualify for an ACT I Home. Families must be at or less than 80 percent of the median income for Athens Clarke County, but a minimum of $20,000. An ACT I Home resident must also attend housing counseling, have a credit score of 600 or more, have a minimum of $1,000 for down payment funds, and be able to obtain a mortgage.

There are packets of information regarding the ACT I Home program available at the Athens Housing Authority offices, but all had been given out as of Wednesday. This could be an indication of the program’s popularity.

So far, the ACT I Homes program has put 19 families in affordable housing located in the downtown area, according to the Resident Report. Each house is two or three bedrooms, contains Energy Star appliances to reduce utility bills and is made of low maintenance materials.

Programs such as ACT I Home are important, as Section 9.0 of the Five-Year Plan anticipates that a continued depressed economy will affect jobs in Athens. Many jobs have remained untouched up until now, as Athens jobs are largely tied to stable government positions at the University of Georgia, local government, or hospitals.

For those interested in previewing the Five-Year and Annual Agency Plans before the meetings, copies are available at the Athens Housing Authority’s main office, Athens Regional Library, Jack R. Wells Boys and Girls Club, and Offices of East Athens Development Corporation.

Any interested party is welcome at the hearing, but in Kirchman’s experience, typically AHA residents and members of local agencies that partner with the Athens Housing Authority attend.

Despite the fact that the Five-Year and Annual Agency Plans directly outline policies and goals that will affect the community, historically few people have attended the public hearing, said Kirchman.

Though this is commonly the case, Athens Housing Authority residents are well represented.

“The Agency Plan is developed in conjunction with a Resident Advisory Board comprised of AHA residents. Therefore, AHA resident input was incorporated into the draft plan from the beginning,” Kirchman said.