Patrolling the streets of Athens

By: William McFadden

Each week downtown Athens plays host to crowds of people trying to blow off stress, celebrate an occasion, or enjoy a night on the town. In order for those men and women to fully enjoy their night, they must feel safe and secure. The Athens-Clarke County Police Department are focused on providing that security for the downtown crowds.

To the ACCPD, a night downtown is just another night on the job; according to assistant chief of police Fred Stephens, the main focus of an on-duty policeman is the protection of the citizens enjoying the nightlife.

“The mission is to eliminate the fear of crime, policing is a shared responsibility so every individual can assist,” Stephens said. “When visitors and citizens are obeying the law and minimizing risk, we believe that is the most successful night.”

In a college town, many of the bars are occupied by underage students who are drinking illegally.
A WSB-TV article stated that, on average, 1,000 underage drinkers are arrested each year in Athens-Clarke County.

“The police officers downtown are very high-visibility,” Stephens said. “We understand that in a college town underage drinking is likely to happen. We try and intervene when it may lead to criminal activity or endangerment of an individual.”

One such student, junior Jackson Ruck, has had conversations with the ACCPD before and described them as reasonable.
“I was walking home with a friend and we were approached on a street corner by two bike cops,” Ruck said. “They asked us if we had been drinking and we told them yes. Then they asked if we were 21 and we told them that we were 20; the cops told us to be safe on the way home and didn’t cause any problems.”

During nights involving higher quantities of people, such as football or concert weekends, the assigned police receive additional support.

“There is a special downtown unit that is assigned only to downtown Athens,” Stephens said. “During busier weekends, additional officers from the West Precinct are brought in to help with crowd control.”

“I have definitely noticed more police officers during the weekends,” Ruck stated. “They usually have six or seven bike-cops on Clayton Street that keep the long lines and crowds at bay.”

Not all people view the increase of police as a deterrent; “I don’t think that having more cops outside of the bars is a good thing,” one UGA student exclaimed. “They are just looking to make more arrests and they know we are easy targets.”

According to the WSB-TV article, police have the discretion to hand out a citation and avoid an arrest unless the subject is clearly intoxicated.

Police Sgt. Derick Scott had a different sentiment, “If the person in question is underage, we will always issue an arrest instead of a citation.”

This is troubling news for undergrads at UGA.

“A person who is issued a citation must attend a court hearing where they will have a punishment determined, but they are free to go after the citation is issued,” Scott said. “A person who is arrested is taken to the sheriff’s office for processing and must pay a bond.”

Many students that have gone through this process describe it as a tiring and complicated process.

“I was taken into custody and had to get a bond company to pay my bond,” one UGA student said. “After I was released I had to report to court, pay a $200 fine and attend probation classes.”

For those who wonder if money is the driving force behind the arrests, Sgt. Scott says that is not the case.

“The police department makes no surplus money on arrests, the money goes to the courthouse and the state,” Scott said. “Our only reason for arresting somebody is to get them off of the street and out of danger.”

While the police will not make money on arrests, there is no cost incurred on the department to arrest someone.

“When a person is arrested and sentenced to stay in jail for an extended period of time that is the only time it will cost money, but the state is responsible for that payment,” Scott said. “The police do not spend any money on arrests, but do not make any either.”

According to the WSB-TV article, there are an average of 20 arrests per week in Athens. Sgt. Scott believed that to be an accurate number.

“I would say that 20 is a good average,” Scott said. “Obviously on the weekends there are more people and more officers watching, but every Monday and Tuesday we make arrests.”

“The weekends are definitely a busier time, and that is when I go out the most,” Ruck said. “I’ve gone out early in the week before too and the police arrested someone on a Wednesday when there were very little people out.”

The ACCPD are assigned to protect those who decide to enjoy a night in downtown Athens, a job not many respect, but the police take pride in.

“We try to be good ambassadors and hosts for the city of Athens,” Stephens said. “If an individual is able to enjoy their night without criminal activity, and I don’t mean drinking a beer, we are more than happy to leave them in peace.”

Caterpillar Thrives as Road Nears Completion

By: William McFadden

The newly constructed Caterpillar plant located in Athens has experienced some minor problems in an otherwise smooth partnership between the company and city said officials from both parties.

A crack in the road was noticed shortly before the grand opening of the plant, causing concerns about the safety of those coming in and out of the plant.

According to Oconee County Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood, “there was an old burial pit that was under the surface of the road. Through the settling process the road began to crack.”

Emil Beshara, the Oconee County Public Works Director, stated they first noticed the crack “sometime in early October, only a few weeks before the plant was set to open.”

Once it was determined that the road posed a threat to drivers, officials decided that it was time to take action.

“The surface was removed and the burial pit, which contained some sort of organic matter, was cleaned out,” said Haygood. “Then new dirt was put in and the road was repaved.”

Caterpillar has delivered on its promise of job creation and city spending. According to Oconee County Observations, a citizen blog dedicated to Oconee County happenings, the corporation filed a compliance report on February 26 stating it had provided 364 full-time jobs in 2013 and had invested over $100 million.

The company had originally promised to spend $50 million in 2013 and agreed to employ 100 full-time workers a month; Caterpillar averaged 214 full-time workers hired per month last year, Oconee County Observations reported.

According to the blog, Caterpillar hired 60 contract service workers, the highest number of any group, 54 agency production workers, 44 welders and 31 production assemblers amongst other categories.

Caterpillar Project Manager Teresa Curtis is optimistic about the company’s future.

“2013 was a very productive year, we were able to provide jobs for over 350 people,” said Curtis. “We look to do more of the same in 2014. Our goal for the next year is to continue providing jobs and reach our magic number of 1,400 employed.”

While the company has held up its end of the agreement, officials for Oconee and Athens-Clarke County are still working to fix the road.

The two counties, Oconee and Athens-Clarke, have invested over $18 million in project expenses for Caterpillar including $6.7 million for road improvement and $10 million for the land, according to a report the counties released in January Oconee County Observations reported.

“The road is in good shape, and we expect the project to be completed within the next two weeks,” Beshara said. “The project took time, but we wanted to be thorough and do it properly.”

It has taken time for this road to be fully repaired and Beshara blames part of the delay on the recent weather in Athens. The road, located on highway 78, has been shut down during this process causing workers to use the secondary entrance on Atlanta highway.

“Those couple of weeks in February caused us to briefly fall behind schedule,” Beshara said. “With the snow and ice we weren’t able to work on the roads until they were clear.”

According to Beshara they had hoped to finish the road building project before March, but they had to be sure that the road was set properly, and the freezing temperatures interfered with that process.

Once the roads are fully repaired, no immediate problems remain evident, and the company and city will be able to continue their goal of providing stable jobs for the Athens’ community.

Athens Becomes a Winter Wonderland




Snow 2



By William McFadden

In recent weeks, The University of Georgia experienced icy weather resulting in a cumulative five days of school closings.  During the school closings, downtown businesses decided whether or not to remain open in the wake of inclement weather.  Certain bars, such as The Bury, viewed this as an opportunity for increased sales and larger crowds.

“Monday and Tuesday were huge days for us,” said Brandon Hoover, one of three managers at The Bury. “They were essentially the equivalent to a Friday or Saturday night.”

The Bury was not the only bar that decided to remain open.  100 Proof, a popular bar located on Broad Street, opted to use deals to lure in snow-weary customers according to junior bartender Savannah Levins.

“We decided to introduce a large bucket that was a mixture of alcohols and was a bright blue color,” Levins said. “We called it a snowpocalypse bucket in honor of the snow storm and it was very popular.”

A snow storm that spans multiple days however, can be a big issue for a business that relies on stock deliveries throughout the week.  Some bars were luckier than others and had a favorable shipment schedule that arrived early in the week.

“Because we restock our bar on Tuesdays we weren’t in danger of running out of alcohol or cups like a lot of other bars.  We were really lucky,” Levins said.

Other bars, such as The Bury, did not have early delivery days but foresaw the problem and worked with the companies to avoid major complications.

“We really had to work with the business a lot to make sure that we had enough stock for the week,” said Hoover. “It was definitely a little odd, but the distributors worked with us very well.”

In order to maximize their potential revenue, many of the bars that did open decided to open earlier than usual.  According to Levins, 100 Proof opened at three o’clock each day as opposed to their usual opening time of nine o’clock.

“The bar was very busy and the crowd seemed to grow throughout the day,” Levins said. “It was about as busy as the weekends, but we made a lot more money because we were open all day long.”

Joe Calpin, a sophomore at the University of Georgia, was one of the many students who took advantage of school cancellations to go out.  He described the environment downtown as electric.

“It was almost as crowded as a game day and everyone was even more excited because there were still weekday prices,” Calpin said.  “You couldn’t walk into a bar without seeing someone you knew almost immediately.”

When students wandered out of the bars looking for something other than alcohol, they headed to The Grill, one of the only restaurants open during the snow days.  The Grill is a 24-hour burger joint that has long been popular amongst locals and students.

As a 24-hour restaurant, The Grill was open to students at any point of the day and one manager relayed that they had “a huge increase in business, and the tables were filled with students at all hours of the day.”

The restaurant expected a large amount of business, and adjusted aptly; “we were able to anticipate the snow day and ordered enough supplies so that we would be able to provide for everyone,” Said The Grill manager who wished to remain unnamed. “If we hadn’t, there is no way that we would have had enough food.”

If Athens residents risked driving during the icy conditions, they would have been pleased to discover free parking downtown.  Due to the city shutting down, the Athens Parking Services department no longer checked the meters according spokesperson Chuck Horton.

“We shut down as the school shuts down,” Horton explained. “When they were closed Tuesday, Wednesday and part of Thursday, we were closed at the same times.”

Although parking was free, many students opted to walk downtown due to the icy conditions.  Those that had to work downtown considered driving but decided that the risk was too great.

“I was going to drive to work on Wednesday, but when I started to back out of my driveway my car began to slide,” said Hoover.  “It definitely was not worth the risk when downtown was within easy walking distance.”

According to Calpin, there were very few taxis operating that night and even fewer police cars than can be found on a typical night downtown.

With the snow days providing respite for the Athens residents, many took to the downtown area for drinks at their favorite bar such as The Bury or 100 Proof and a quick bite to eat at The Grill.  While some businesses enjoyed the days off, others capitalized on the increase of consumers and downtown Athens turned into a winter wonderland for both the students and the downtown industry.

Caterpillar to make big waves in Athens


Athens mayor Nancy Denson sat in her royal blue blazer, with her makeup pristine and a smile stretched across her face — as she typically does.

But this was no typical occasion.

After months hard work, it was groundbreaking day on the new Caterpillar plant to be built on a tract of land shared by Clarke and Oconee counties.

The event’s guest list highlighted the importance of that March afternoon — Gov. Nathan Deal sat to her right, followed by Caterpillar Vice President Mary Bell, Sen. Johnny Isakson and Georgia Representative Paul Broun. Even former Georgia head football coach Vince Dooley sat fanning himself in the audience.

And they were all there for one reason — to congratulate Denson and her staff for a job well done.

“I think today is really about me thanking all of you,” Bell said. “I wish everyone could have seen how seamlessly everyone — the city, state, technical college system — everybody worked together as one. They listened. They understood exactly what we needed. They pulled together as one team and remarkably — rapidly — developed whatever it took to get the job done. And I want you to know how unusual that is.”

But the March 16 groundbreaking was just the beginning of what will surely be a prosperous relationship between Denson, Clarke County and the manufacturing giant. When the plant opens late next year, it will likely change the face of the community and brining jobs in numbers Denson said she can hardily fathom.  

On the horizon

Construction on the plant is slowly getting underway, but for now the 940-acre tract remains a forest free of any sign of the busy assembly line it will soon house.

But that doesn’t mean its potential isn’t visible.

Former Athens mayor Doc Eldridge called the groundbreaking the “biggest news in our community since Herschel Walker came to the University of Georgia.”

Deal called it a “great day for Athens Clarke County, for Oconee County, for Northeast Georgia and for the entire state of Georgia.”

Others used words like “wonderful,” “good” and “exciting.” But Denson had a different type of feeling — relief.

“You get all geared up for something, the adrenaline is pumping and then when it happens you feel like water and you just want to melt into a puddle,” she said after the ceremony’s conclusion. “But I’m so thrilled.”

Denson said she has heard all the numbers before – 4,200 jobs and an economic impact of $2.3 billion. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

When West Point held a similar event for the opening of their new Kia Motors plant in 2009, few could have imagined how quickly things were about to change.

Just one year later, the plant employed 2,400 people and brought life back to a community that had struggled to stay alive since textile mills moved overseas, according to a USA Today report.

Sales and property tax receipts went up, unemployment numbers fell and an unavoidable sense of optimism floated around the town, according to the article. Aside from the plant, the mayor said 24 new businesses opened in just 20 months.

For Denson, this is the most exciting part of the construction project.

“These 1,400 jobs with Caterpillar are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “When I think about this, I think about the individual lives it’s going to impact because we’ve got so many people in our community who are either unemployed or under employed. And now those people will have the confidence that they can send their kids to college, they can buy that home they’ve dreamed of.”

The wait

Caterpillar officials say they’re working on a tight deadline – but a project of this magnitude takes time.

According to Plant Manager Todd Henry, they hope to have machinery rolling off the assembly line by the end of 2013.

They’ll begin with mini hydraulic excavators, expanding production to several models by 2014.

By 2015, a flock of small track-type tractors will be produced on the state-of-the art assembly line, complete with robotic welding, powder paint systems and onsite logistics.

According to Henry, at maturity, the plant will be Building Construction Products largest facility.

“This project was very important to us and had a very aggressive timeline,” Bell said at the groundbreaking. “Getting the right project site selected very, very quickly was a critical first step. Some talked about it being an impossible first step. But this impossible first step was accomplished thanks to the phenomenal support we had so many entities at all levels.”

But the groundbreaking doesn’t just represent a good first step for Caterpillar.

“I think [Denson has] done a great job,” Eldridge said. “She’s only been in office a year. She’s got three more to go. She’s off to a great start, I can tell you that much.”

Russell Edwards active in local community, continues to fight proposed Wal-Mart


Russell Edwards was a clown in high school.
“I spent much of my high school years as a paid clown,” Edwards wrote in an email interview. “Great training for politics!”
Edwards, a University of Georgia graduate and local attorney, has explored all sorts of jobs — bicycle mechanic, paid clown, a Spanish teacher and an attorney.
Teaching eighth grade Spanish in Washington was one of Edwards’ defining moments.
“Every day was tough, but I went home knowing I made a difference in some small part,” he said. “Therefore, I hold public school teachers in high regard and feel the State of Georgia would do better to give them the support they deserve every day.”
Every day was tough, Edwards said, because the kids were “merciless in their scrutiny” of his actions.
But the job went beyond merciless scrutiny.
“We had some good laughs too,” he said. “I battle rapped the class clown on a field trip to the ballet — so much commotion and laughing that the bus driver pulled over on Massachusetts Avenue and threatened to kick us off.”
Edwards’ ultimate goal was to make a difference in the community he served.
“Overall, I was blown away by the devotion of my colleagues who came to work each day and made the world a better place,” he said. “I was fortunate to teach at a public school that was well supported by the community around it.”
Edwards didn’t stop there. He even tried his hand at politics when he ran against U.S. Rep. Paul Broun in 2010.
“I learned that running for federal office is an incredible sacrifice,” he said. “Candidates are not supposed to get paid to run, so I basically volunteered all of my time towards winning my race.”
Edwards said the pressure to raise money was immense. He spent hours tracking down old friends and family to “practically beg them for help.”
And it worked. He was able to raise almost a quarter of a million dollars in the span of only five months.
As a University law graduate, the natural progression for Edwards was politics. He said he attended law school to gain tools necessary to help him positively contribute to the community.
“When I graduated, I could not imagine a better contribution to the Athens’ community than replacing Paul Broun Jr. in the U.S. Congress with someone who understood the benefits of directing federal research dollars to UGA,” he said.
Though Edwards did not win the race against Broun, he learned a lot of lessons in his time as a Congressional candidate.
“I’ll never forget hiring a campaign manager sight unseen who ended up being a 50-year-old hippy with hair down to his back-side,” Edwards said. “I will never underestimate the importance of face-to-face interviews again. I ended up conditioning his continued employment on a haircut and then sent him down to City Salon.”
But Edwards doesn’t have to worry about unkempt campaign managers anymore — at least not for now.
“I just got married, started a law practice and am building a house,” he said. “Running for office is the last thing on my mind.”
Higher on his priority list is community activism.
For one, Edwards has been fighting against the proposed Wal-Mart complex in downtown Athens.
“Atlanta-based Selig Enterprises has come up with the absolute worst possible proposal for downtown Athens: a Wal-Mart the size of two football fields,” he said. “People for a Better Athens sprung to action as soon as we found out to help Athenians force Selig into building a development that will better serve our community.”
Edwards leads the group “People for a Better Athens,” which opposes the proposed retail development.
Currently, Edwards and the group are planning a 5K road race that will take participants around the area where Selig wants to build the complex.
But that’s not all Edwards is doing these days.
He serves on the board of the Athens Latino Center for Education and Services and acts as treasurer of the Democratic Party of Georgia.
“Through these two activities, I vocally support Georgia’s Latino community,” he said. “Moving towards the election in November, I hope to contribute towards the registration of 100,000 new Latino voters in [Georgia].”
Edwards said Georgia’s Latino community is under attack by what he thinks are people who fail to understand the “American Dream.”
“Leaders in our state have punished innocent children by banning them from public universities,” he said. “The plight of these undocumented children is the most important civil rights issue today.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Georgia, Edwards said he is thankful for the Mexican culture that immigrants brought there.
“The culture of America is a beautiful tapestry woven and made strong by diverse threads,” he said. “My wife is an immigrant too — born in South Korea.”
His wife, Airee Hong Edwards, owns an Athens-based business named “Agora.”
Agora is a boutique that sells antiques, art and vintage items in downtown Athens.
“Airee and I share a deep devotion to the betterment or our community, and we find our demanding schedules dovetail more often than not,” he said. “She gives a hand with my community events, and I give a hand with hers.”
The newlyweds enjoy traveling and finding vintage “treasures” to bring back to Athens. And what else does Edwards do in his down time?
“Fighting Selig’s Wal-Mart takes up most of my free time these days,” he said. “I’m really not interested in taking anything else on for the time being.”

Athens part of booming entertainment business in Georgia


Justin Timberlake rounds an empty street corner and leers at Amy Adams with googly puppy-dog eyes. As far as moviegoers are concerned — they’re in their own world.

But look past the tight shots, bright lights and movie magic — and the scene looked a little different.

A Kappa Alpha Theta sorority member stands on a chair at Flanagan’s Bar and Grill in downtown Athens, using one hand to stabilize herself on the shoulder of the person in front of her and the other to zoom in as far as she can on her iPhone camera.

Timberlake walks out from behind equipment and the crowd of more than 20 onlookers lets off a small gasp as crew members waive their arms to remind everyone that cameras are rolling.

“[Athens is] cool, a tough place to shoot though,” said an Assistant Director who agreed to speak without giving her name due to nondisclosure agreements. “College students everywhere. … We usually film in small towns, so we don’t have to deal with the crowds.”

Timberlake, Adams and Clint Eastwood visited downtown for two nights this month while they filmed “Trouble with the Curve” — a movie about baseball scouts expected to come out in September.

News of the visitors circulated quickly and celebrity spottings started showing up on social media sites.

“It’s really exciting for people to see those kinds of people in town who they don’t get to see very often,” said Stefanie Paupeck, a communication specialist for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

But despite their gawkers, it’s no surprise Timberlake and others gave Athens a taste of Hollywood — it’s happening all around the state.

Georgia’s entertainment business has boomed ever since legislators passed tax incentives for film production in 2008 — growing it from an $800 million industry in 2008 to $2.4 billion in 2011, according to Paupeck.

“A lot of production companies are going outside of the metro Atlanta area,” she said. “People think that’s where they all go, but they’re going all around the state. … On the ground today, there are three feature films, 16 television series and two pilots being filmed in Georgia.”

And another TV show, movie of the week, pilot and three feature films are already in the works to come to Georgia in the near future.

“We have a lot of activity,” Paupeck said. “They’re coming here, having a great experience and coming back.”

 “Camera ready”

Georgia started looking a little more like Hollywood in 2008 after the passage of the Entertainment Industry Investment Act.

The legislation offered up to 30 percent tax credits to production companies who spend at least $500,000 in the state. It also gave a sales tax exemption on Georgia products, saving producers an additional 8 percent.

As the economy continues to slump, Paupeck said more and more production companies are choosing to take advantage of these incentives. 

But she said that’s not all Georgia has to offer.

Besides good weather, blooming plants, easy access to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and an increasing amount of filming-friendly infrastructure, Paupeck said the state began the Camera Ready program in 2010 to make things even easier for production companies.

The program, which 136 counties are now apart of, aims to simplify the often chaotic task of filming by designating a community liaison to help production companies by coordinating local efforts.

Jeff Montgomery, an ACC public information media analyst and one of Athens’ local liaisons for the Camera Ready program, said he acts as a point of contact for production companies so they know who to go to for things like road closures, lodging and talent scouting.

“When a production company decides — for financial reasons — that it makes sense to film in Georgia — that’s step one,” Montgomery said. “Once they come to Georgia and start looking for places, I think Athens becomes one of the places that quickly gets considered.”

He said the city has a little bit of everything, with old buildings, a downtown, which can be made to look like New York, and even rural farmlands nearby.

“There’s a wide variety of locations here,” he said. “That’s appealing for folks to be able to come and shoot in locations and have urban and rural nearby. I think the more films that come here and find that it’s an easy [place to shoot], the people are easy to work with, then it will only encourage the continuation of that.”

“Trouble with the Curve”

But the production companies aren’t the only ones who benefit when they film in Georgia.

When the “Trouble with the Curve” crew came to Athens, they brought a crew of 600, according to an assistant director. Montgomery said that alone has a significant economic impact.

“Even ones who are here for a short period of time bring money into the community and it’s usually outside money,” he said. “[It’s] the idea of economic development. When a production company comes to town it can have a significant impact on providing business opportunities to, not only crew and staff, but businesses, craft services, folks who live in the area, hotels, extras, all kinds of things.”

Paupeck said the entertainment business employed 20,000 Georgians in 2011 and had an economic impact of about $2.4 billion.

“There are construction crews who had to cut back because of the economy but now they’re building movie sets,” she said. “A lot of crews, a lot of companies have moved here because there’s so much activity.”

Montgomery said this is one reason he would like to see more filming around Clarke County.

“There’s already a strong film community here in Athens,” he said. “There’s a lot of crew members, editors, location scouts — things like that — who have to go outside of Athens to find work. … We can find opportunities for them to be able to work closer to home, opportunities to build up a resume, that’s one aspect of it. [We want] to put people to work in the area and use their talents here.”

Though Montgomery admits this month marked the first major filming done in Athens since the “Road Trip” crew came to town in 2000, he said this is far from Athens’ first time on the big screen.

The 1980 television show “Breaking Away” was shot in Athens each week, often using the University of Georgia’s North Campus.

Fewer movies chose to come to Athens in the 90s, but Montgomery said the city has enjoyed quite a bit of attention since then.

“Not Since You” was filmed in Athens in 2009, according to The Internet Movie Database, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” in 2008, “Somebodies” in 2006 and “Darius Goes West” in 2005.

In addition to “Trouble with the Curve,” USA Network’s major television show “Necessary Roughness” has also filmed in Athens this year.

“We’ve had films shot here in the past, but it’s been a while since we’ve had more major stuff,” Montgomery said. “I think we’ve always had a little bit going on with it. Now, with more things coming to the state, there’s more opportunity for things to shoot here then there has been in the past.”

Non-traditional wedding ceremonies could be on the rise

By Polina Marinova

Wendy Salle and her husband-to-be will not be the only ones standing at the altar on their wedding day.

The couple’s kids will also walk down the aisle and accompany their parents as the newlyweds say their vows.

“Part of our ceremony will be that we’ll be giving our daughters rings as well,” Salle said. “The idea is that we’ll be uniting our two families rather than just uniting two people.”

Salle will have a non-traditional wedding with her husband-to-be and kids in October.

But Salle’s future wedding is just one example of something that could be part of a bigger trend — couples tailoring traditional vows or just doing away with the ceremony completely. Finances also play a role in the decision to take the alternate route.

The cost of US weddings skyrocketed in 2011, according to an annual survey done by and

The average wedding last year cost $27,021, including a reception, an engagement ring, a wedding gown, a ceremony site, a cake and party favors.

But the new “trend” is that many couples are choosing to spend the money elsewhere and are having courthouse weddings instead, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A couple, featured in a blog called “The Offbeat Bride,” got married at the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse in June 2010.

Nina Kelly, the bride, said money was a challenge so the couple kept decorations to a minimum.

“Money was of course a challenge, and we overcame it by having a courthouse ceremony and renting out a room at a local restaurant instead of dealing with a separate venue, catering,” she said in the blog.

In Athens, judges of the Magistrate Court perform up to four weddings per week — two per day on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“Sometimes it’s a full week, and sometimes we only have one or two,” said Kim Melton, deputy clerk at the Athens Magistrate Court. “Usually, it’s done in one of our courtrooms.”

If a couple wants to get married at the courthouse, they do not need to have any witnesses — it could be just the judge and the couple. And as long as they present a valid photo ID and their marriage license, they can be married within an hour.

“I would think it’s for financial reasons — I can either spend my money on a wedding or on a house,” Melton said. “There is no limit to how many guests they can bring, and we don’t charge anything to do the ceremony.”

Today’s economic climate could be a reason many couples are choosing to pursue the non-traditional route.

“Weddings today are so expensive,” Salle said. “It’s a big business. For example, I was trying to simplify things so I went on this website, and I was inundated with emails and phone calls. It’s overwhelming.”

But even though Salle and her fiancé are one of many couples that want to steer away from the traditional wedding craze, their unconventional ceremony will still come at a price.

The overall cost to host the wedding will be about $12,000 to $15,000.

“It all adds up,” Salle said. “Before you know it, you’re like ‘Oh my gosh.’ I feel for young people, but this is a big business. It really takes the shine of off the wedding because it’s so commercialized.”

Even though getting married at a courthouse seemingly comes at no charge, the county still gets revenue from local newlyweds.

Each couple must apply for a marriage license, which costs $67 and $43.80 of that fee goes to the county. The remaining portion of the money goes toward the judge’s retirement and Georgia’s Children’s Trust Fund.

However, there are discounted rates for couples that complete six hours of pre-marital counseling and present a certificate of completion. The discounted rate for the couple would be $27 and $11.80 would be dispersed to the county.

“I would say 30 percent of couples get the pre-marital certificate,” said Sarah Cook, deputy clerk and bookkeeper of the Athens Probate Court.

Cook said the county issued 932 marriage licenses in fiscal year 2011, and 555 licenses thus far in fiscal year 2012. Though the figures for the current fiscal year are still incomplete, Cook said the county typically issues 1,000 marriage licenses per year.

In contrast, the University of Georgia Chapel only hosted 25 weddings in 2011.

For a typical Saturday, the Chapel charges $850 for the venue rental and $150 for a security deposit — a total of $1,000. For a Sunday, the couple can get a discounted rate of $750.

“Most people who call me want a traditional ceremony,” said Erin Tatum, facilities and house manager of the UGA Performing Arts Center and Chapel. “Most ceremonies are about 30 minutes long and a lot of people do a unity candle and some readings and bible verses.”

But even the Chapel is hosting some non-traditional weddings.

An older couple recently requested a couple of hours on a Sunday with only 20 to 25 guests.

“It was a second go-around, and they had both been married before,” Tatum said. “We host maybe two or three weddings like that per year. I would call those non-traditional.”

Salle and her fiancé are working with Rev. Sam Mixon to plan just that — a non-traditional wedding ceremony. They will shorten their vows and incorporate their kids in the wedding.

Mixon, an ordained minister who performs weddings in Athens, Atlanta and Northeast Georgia, offers couples alternate religious and civil services for a customizable wedding ceremony.

“I would say about 60 percent of my services have some sort of religious element to them,” Mixon said. “A lot people want a religious service, but not over the top. If the couple isn’t particularly a religious, they might want to have a moderately religious ceremony to please their family.”

Salle’s ceremony will be non-denominational but her husband is Baptist and she is Irish, so they will incorporate some personal and religious elements.

“I feel that there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance in a wedding,” she said. “People are so caught up in saying traditional vows that they don’t really know what they even mean.”

Kelly echoed the sentiments in the bridal blog, and said the civil ceremony was “truly the most meaningful” to her.

“Since we got married at the courthouse and chose not to write our own vows, we didn’t have a rehearsal or anything,” she said. “So, while I had heard those same words before, I didn’t realize how moving it would be to say them for myself.”

Might downtown Walmart relieve ‘food desert?’

By Keith Llado

Athens food desert still uncertain in wake of proposed downtown grocer, Walmart

“People need to look into their individual communities” to determine the extent of “food deserts” in local areas, said Julia Gaskin, sustainable agriculture coordinator of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

                Part of the problem in assessing if a community suffers from food deserts is that the current U.S. Department of Agriculture food desert map does not take into account small stores or local markets, Gaskin said.

                “The USDA Food Desert Locator provides more of a satellite view,” Gaskin said.

                The downtown Walmart, likely anchor store of the 315 Oconee St. mixed-use development plans, would offer citizens greater access to affordable foods in the downtown area, said Jo Ann Chitty, senior vice president of Selig Enterprises Inc.

                Selig is the company responsible for spearheading the potential development of the Armstrong-Dobbs tract.

                As a result of The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the Economic Research Service conducted a one-year national study to better understand food deserts, their measurements and causes. The USDA classified ACC as a food desert as a result of this study.

                A food desert is “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store,” according to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative Working Group.

                The ERS classified the Armstrong-Dobbs tract of 315 Oconee St.—part of tract number 13059000100—as a food desert.

                Among the 819 residents of the tract, 100 percent are classified as low access and about 50 percent are low-income with low access.  

                “Low access to a healthy food retail outlet is defined as more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas,” according to the USDA. The Oconee Street tract is an urbanized census tract. 

                There are over 50 restaurants, including fast food, in the downtown area. Horton’s Drug Store Inc. and the Lay-Z-Shopper are the only downtown businesses that carry some form of grocery food. The Lay-Z-Shopper, along with canned foods and milk, carries packaged meats and cheeses.

                Supermarket El Camino Real, 4 Tigers Supermarket and Buy 4 Less are all located on North Avenue, about a mile from the downtown area. Daily Groceries Co-op is located a half-mile away from downtown on Prince Avenue.

                Earth Fair is located over a mile from downtown on Lumpkin Street. Fooks Foods is located on Baxter Street, just under a mile from the Miller Learning Center in the heart of the UGA campus. 

                Gas station convenience stores compose the available groceries on Oconee Street and West Broad Street within a mile from downtown. While convenience stores are available on almost every main road leaving downtown, their grocery selection is typically limited to milk, bread and canned foods.

                The nearest brand-name grocer is a Kroger, located about two miles away from the MLC down Baxter Street—over two miles from the downtown area. The Kroger sits within a mile of one other local grocer and more than 15 restaurants.

                “It’s all about access,” Chitty said.

                Among other criteria, a low-income census tract must have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent, according to the Treasury Department’s New Markets Tax Credit program. The percentage of people living below the poverty level between 2006 and 2010 in ACC was roughly 33 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

                “You’d have to be an idiot to go hungry in Athens,” said Daniel Pennington, 54, a homeless resident who currently lives in a tent near the Oconee River. “I could go down to the church right now and grab a bag of food.”

                There are many food banks and food drives, but a study on food deserts should be assessed according to economic class—homeless, low, middle and upper class, Pennington said, sitting in front of the downtown Taco Stand. “Not everyone’s going to shop at a Kroger.”

                Pennington shops at the Buy 4 Less on North Avenue because it’s cheap.

                Along with affordability and access, the availability of public transit plays a roll in determining food desert severity.

                The USDA’s food desert study does not assume bus routs, said David Berle, associate professor of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

                “Though there are clearly gaps in the Athens transit system, there is service to many parts of the county, grocery stores included,” Berle said.       

                At a price of $1.50 per one-way ride, Athens Transit is available to take residents to grocers outside of the one-mile radius from downtown. This is more time consuming than using personal transportation. The average trip on Route 25 to the Lexington Road Walmart could take three hours. The typical bus runs on an hourly schedule.

                Athens Transit has a safety policy that allows for up to five carry-on grocery bags per person, said Butch McDuffie, director of Athens Transit. Passengers must keep these bags in their lap or under their seat.

                “Athens Transit does allow and encourages passengers to use small shopping carts, which are better suited for transporting shopping bags,” McDuffie said.

                The mixed-use project is still in its planning, design and leasing phase. It will be several months until Selig addresses permits for the property, Chitty said.

                As development plans of the Armstrong-Dobbs tract progress, citizens must consider if a downtown Walmart would offer food benefits to the area.

                “I think the talk about food deserts provides a good place to start and a concept that is easy to understand,” Berle said. “Everyone recognizes the connection between food, health and wealth.”

Green to be color for Clarke County plant services

By Keith Llado

The Clarke County plant services and custodial operations department is looking forward to new green cleaning technologies, recycling programs and building renovations now that the office’s new executive director is in place.
The Clarke County School District recently decided to merge these two, formerly separate departments. Kimberly Thomas accepted her position as executive director in September of last year.
Thomas is the first executive director to oversee the joint department.
Thomas, a Georgia native, received her high school education from Clarke Central High School—something that made her decision to accept the position easy.
“When the position came up, it was almost a no-brainer to go back and work in the school district where you actually attended,” Thomas said.
Thomas is increasing efforts to implement green cleaning technologies and practices in Clarke County schools, according to a Banner-Herald report.
The program calls for the use of water, hydrogen peroxide and cleaning concentrates over harsh chemical cleaners that contain chlorine or ammonia. The focus is to provide better indoor air quality, a safer working and learning environment and more efficient and cost-effective building systems, Thomas said.
These factors contribute heavily to students’ academic success.
“When students, not just college students, but children are in healthy buildings, aesthetically pleasing buildings, they can learn more,” Thomas said.
The next step is improving cleaning tools and technologies. Custodians will hand in their mops and cloth towels for micro-fiber mop pads and towels. Vacuums with “help filters” will improve air quality in addition to cleaning. Custodians will clean major contact points—desks, door handles, water fountains, keyboards—with ionized water molecules, not Windex.
Georgia Tech, Emory University, Cobb County Schools, hospitals and schools nation-wide have already adopted these technologies, Thomas said.
Micro-fiber pads are cleaned in hot water and detergent, which is easier on the septic system and more cost-effective. These technologies are able to “get staff in quicker, into more areas” without harsh smells or noise pollution, Thomas said.
“If we’re doing our job right you should never know we’re there,” Thomas said.
The program encompasses research, policy, education and training. Thomas, though, is no stranger to green cleaning or management of a public business.
Thomas received her BA in political science and her MPA in public administration from UGA, making her a “double dawg.” She later worked as assistant director of the UGA Services Department—a position she held for over 20 years.
Thomas worked with multiple units of the university during her time as assistant director—student affairs, the police department and the physical plant. Her experiences as a student and assistant director gave her a unique perspective on the administrative and financial operations of the university, Thomas said.
The green cleaning campaign in place for Clarke County schools was adapted from UGA’s nationally certified green cleaning program. Thomas was one of the developers of the award-winning program.
One of the more challenging tasks of the campaign is changing the public’s perception of “clean,” Thomas said.
“People depend on smells,” Thomas said. “As long as you smell Pin Sol you think it’s clean.”
Beyond cleaning, Thomas is working on a focused recycling program in Clarke Central High School. The pilot program will be a joint venture between Young Dawgs, a UGA internship program for high school students, the Athens-Clarke Recycling Division and Thomas’ department.
The program will develop a recycling plan, raise environmental awareness, educate and attempt to change traditional attitudes regarding waste disposal.
It’s important to shape behavior early, so “by the time they get to college, it’s old hat,” Thomas said.
Thomas also wants to improve the mechanical systems in older school buildings. These renovations include heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation and so on.
“We’re always asking, what is in this building that has the potential to be more environmentally friendly,” Thomas said.
Thomas also makes personal efforts to be environmentally conscious outside of work. Minor, daily decisions like carpooling or walking can make an impact, Thomas said.
The most important thing about working as executive director is building partnerships, sound plans and then executing those plans for the better, Thomas said. “These things won’t happen over night, but we have plans in place.”

Public urination considered sex offense in Georgia, not enforced by police

By Polina Marinova

It’s 1 a.m. downtown. The bars are crowded and the lines to the bathroom are just too long. But he can’t hold it, and no one can see him behind that tree — except his 17-year-old girlfriend.

Until now, he was a first-year college student with hopes to go to med school. Though this situation is hypothetical, the student would be considered a registered sex offender for the rest of his life under Georgia law.

Georgia is one of 13 states that require sex offender registration for those charged with urinating in public. It is considered a sex offense if the act is committed in view of a minor.

So technically, all four University of Georgia students charged with public urination in the last two months could land on the Georgia’s sex offender registry if they were with friends who were under 18 years old.

Their names would appear right beside other offenders charged with crimes such as rape, sexual battery and child molestation. If labeled as a sex offender, the individual’s picture would be featured on the county sheriff’s department sexual offender registry and his residence would be marked on a map showing where he lives.

But those students’ mugshots will never make it to the state’s sex offender registry — at least not in Athens-Clarke County.

Federal law does not limit states’ authority to increase the number of offenses that require sex offender registration.

Researchers found that many states require individuals to register as sex offenders even though their conduct did not involve sexual coercion or violence. The researchers who are part of Human Rights Watch — an independent organization dedicated to defending human rights — compiled a report in 2007 examining US sex offender laws.

The public indecency provisions in the official Georgia Code state that a person commits a public indecency offense if there is a public act of “lewd exposure of the sexual organs” or “lewd appearance in a state of partial or complete nudity.”

But local law enforcement does not consider public urination to fit into those categories.
“Just because they word it in such a way doesn’t mean we’re doing it,” said Jimmy Williamson, University of Georgia chief of police. “Truly, I guess you could charge somebody with public indecency if they were to urinate, but most times we go with the public urination charge. It has to be more than just going to the restroom.”

The ACC police force does not classify public urination as a sex offense either, said Hilda Sorrow, ACC public information officer.

“Yes, it’s public indecency, but urinating in public is not a sex offense,” she said. “It becomes a sex offense if you start doing other things than just urinating.”

But where is the line drawn between exposing sex organs while urinating and exposing sex organs while doing those “other things?”

Williamson said public indecency differs from public urination because the indecency charge is typically for “someone who would be exposing themselves or touching themselves in a sexual way.”
He gave an example of an individual who goes to a park or stands outside of children’s day cares and masturbates.

“That’s typically what indecent exposure is for,” Williamson said. “So indecent exposure would be seen as a sex offense. Those actions that we see would be more of a sexual offender. You going over and urinating in the bushes — whether male or female — even though you’re exposing sexual organs, I don’t see that as an indecent exposure charge.”
But Williamson’s next example of public indecency makes his definition of public indecency even hazier.

“We have flashers in society — we haven’t seen many lately, but we could see them again,” he said.

Flashers — like public urinaters — are exposing their sexual organs in public but are also likely not touching themselves in a sexual manner either. Flashers, however, could be charged with public indecency and have to register as sex offenders, whereas urinaters would not.

This kind of ambiguity creates a fine line between what the law states is a sex offense versus what law enforcement officials consider a sex offense.

“Even though the law might allow for that to be charged, you wouldn’t typically see the police charge someone with public indecency if someone’s truly urinating,” Williamson said. “The way I view it, I wouldn’t call it a sex offense, and I don’t think anyone would send it in as a sex offense.”
Just because Williamson doesn’t see public urination as a public indecency charge doesn’t change the fact that it’s still on the books as a sex offense so long as the urination is done in the view of a minor.

In many cases, students who are caught urinating, are not even charged with public urination — which is an arrestable offense. Instead, they are typically charged with public intoxication or underage possession or consumption of alcohol, according to University of Georgia police reports.

“You normally don’t do those things when you’re sober,” Williamson said. “People only do those things when they’ve been drinking. It’s not uncommon to charge people with a number of charges to deal with the instance at hand. The public urination is usually what draws the police department’s attention.”

The incidents occur at 1 or 2 a.m., and 99 percent of the time, the public urinater is male, according to Williamson’s observations in his 25 years of experience in law enforcement.

But he’s never heard of a student landing on a sex offender registry as a result of urinating in public.

“Even if somebody’s charged with public indecency as a result of that type of action, I just don’t think our solicitor would allow it to rise to that level and be sent in as a sex offender if they’re just urinating,” Williamson said.

The police make the charges, and the solicitor’s office handles the final deposition. But the gray area between public urination and public indecency highlights the discrepancy between state regulations and local law enforcement.

“I don’t think the solicitor’s office would allow it to get to that level,” Williamson said. “I don’t think anybody meant for public urination to end up on there.”