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.”


Drinking Underage in a College Town

The average student turns 21 during their junior year of university, leaving a large majority of freshman, sophomores, and juniors under the legal US drinking age.

People ages 12 to 20 years drink 11% of total alcohol consumed in the United States even though it is illegal under the age of 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also said that more than 90% of this alcohol consumed by minors is in the form of binge drinks.

University of Georgia Chief of Police Jimmy Williamson said in an interview with the Red & Black that he is noticing rising blood alcohol content levels in students being arrested.

“The alcohol levels that we’re seeing now are much greater and we are noticing that versus five, seven years ago, we’re having to involve EMS a little more than we used to,” Williamson told the Red & Black. “We’re seeing in the 0.30s more than we ever have.”

Downtown Athens is filled with endless venues and social opportunities, many of which involve alcohol. How do police enforce drinking laws when nearly half of the UGA student population is underage?

The Athens-Clarke County Police have many divisions within their department, according to their website. The ACCPD website said the Downtown Operations Unit is a part of the Uniform Division which “consists of the men and women who patrol Athens-Clarke County and meet the public on a regular basis.”

Lieutenant Gary Epps of the ACCPD Downtown Operations Unit said their purpose is to “provide the safest environment possible for what is considered the entertainment district for Athens-Clarke County,” especially when the majority of underage arrests are made in the downtown area, according to Lt. Epps.

“The Athens-Clarke County Police Department is fully aware of the amount of underage drinking that occurs throughout our community,” said Lt. Epps. “On any given night, the officers may be outnumbered 1000 to 1. We rely heavily on officer presence and strong enforcement of laws [and] ordinances to accomplish our order maintenance mandate.”

Although law enforcers may occasionally be outnumbered, their presence in the downtown area imposes a lasting impact on those drinking underage.

“While a strong enforcement stance may not prevent underage drinking, it certainly helps curb behaviors associated with the consumption of alcohol, which is most often the catalyst for other risky behaviors that lead to victimization,” Lt. Epps said. “The fear of being arrested seems to have a calming effect for some.”

Many underage drinkers agree with Lieutenant Epps. Underage Sophomore in Athens said the police presence in the downtown area impacts his behavior when drinking.

“No matter how much I drink, I see the cops on the corner and I sober up instantly,” Sophomore said. “I know that I can’t draw attention to myself for fear of being arrested.”

Lt. Epps said the “vast majority of underage arrests are made only after attention is drawn to the violator for other observed behavior.” He said violations range from open containers, urinating in public, and getting turned down from bars with a fake ID.

Bar A’s Manager agreed to an interview on the condition that he, his workers, and his bar remain unidentified. Manager said that underage drinkers are many times caught for offenses such as dress code violation before getting in trouble for being under 21.

“I myself was denied once going out to [a bar downtown] for having my hat on backwards,” Bar A’s Manager said. “I think things like that are what draw attention to a lot of these underage drinkers.”

Veteran Bartender at Bar A said she gauges potential underage drinkers through both their demeanor and conversation.

“One way I can tell who might be underage is by the way they act and talk about alcohol,” Bartender said. “I’ve denied people at the bar before if [they] look too drunk. I’ve told them ‘I’m sorry, I don’t feel comfortable serving you.’ It’s a little awkward sometimes, but I’m just trying to help them.”

Former Doorman at Bar B said his responsibility was to monitor the venue’s entrance and allow people of age into the bar.

“Most of the time, I turned people away for expired ID’s,” Doorman said. “It was a common indication of kids trying to use fakes.”

Drinking manifests common behaviors in underage offenders, according to Lieutenant Epps. He said that conduct ranges from “fighting [or] boisterous behavior to overindulgence resulting in situations requiring immediate medical attention.”

Heavy intoxication “increases the chances of a person becoming a victim of a crime,” according to Lt. Epps. Youths who drink underage are more likely to experience fighting, physical and sexual assault, unintentional injuries, and abuse of other drugs, according to the CDC.

The names of people interviewed and bars visited have been changed with their best interest in mind.


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.”