Town and gown relationship strong under UGA President Michael Adams

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On his first day as president of the University of Georgia, Mike Adams stepped through the Arches, crossed into the downtown, climbed the hill to City Hall, ending up at the desk of the Athens-Clarke County mayor.

Many saw that action as testament to the new president’s commitment to the UGA-Athens relationship.

Now, 16 years later, many agree the relationship is better than ever.

Interviews with Adams, Mayor Nancy Denson, and others show the mindset, the projects and the systems that propelled the improvement.

Relationships between college towns and the colleges they contain can be tenuous amidst the clash of university administration and city government, local and student. Denson said before her time in Athens government, there was a “wall” between the school and the city. Now, the relationship is much improved, thanks in large part to Adams. That improvement, though, doesn’t mean smooth sailing. It means fostering awareness and mutual respect despite the disagreements.

“That tug and pull between different interests makes us arrive at the best interests for everybody,” Denson said.  “Because if you’re just running along smooth and everything’s going great, you don’t look at your processes very closely.”

A collaborative attitude

Director of Community Relations Pat Allen said it is important for the University to be mindful of the importance of its relationship with Athens. Attracting the ideal students and faculty requires a “solid town,” he said, in addition to all of UGA’s qualities.

“I guess we have a self interest in ensuring that we have a vibrant economy in our community,” he said. “That it’s a safe place, and it’s a place that people will want to come for four years or for 40 years.”

The University also has a responsibility to the state, which incorporates its responsibility to Athens.

“And of course as a state institution we have a commitment to the state of Georgia, including Athens-Clarke County, to bring the resources of the University to bear on the biggest problems in the community,” he said.

Denson and Adams both acknowledged that they encounter Athens residents who bemoan the amount of land the University owns but doesn’t pay taxes on. Both, coincidentally, used the term “short-sighted” to describe this mindset, and counter with their own.

Adams pointed out that comments of this type are “potentially harmful to our state support base.”

“They contribute to a negative feeling in Atlanta, not widely shared by our funding partners, who still believe that sending some $400 million of taxpayer money every year to Athens is a pretty strong level of commitment,” he said.

Denson disagreed with these complaints on an even more fundamental level.

“It’s important to note that the University wasn’t just plopped in the middle of town. The town and the university grew together. And basically, without the university, Athens would just be a sleepy little village,” she said. “If we didn’t have all those taxes in property taken by the university, there would probably be just raw land sitting there and it would not have much tax value to it.”

Instead of “raw land,” she said having the University in her city brings a variety of positives – including a more “cosmopolitan” attitude and business growth.

“The University is more of an asset than anything else to the community, but it’s not a uniform asset to every member of the community,” she said.

Allen’s job, created in 2003, is a product of this collaborative attitude.

“It’s called a liaison, it’s called a lot of things, but my role is to assure that we communicate with local government and community groups on issues and opportunities for us on issues that we might be having,” he said. “As self-serving as it may sound to you, him recognizing that we needed someone focused on this every day, that’s a commitment of the University’s resources to the issue.”

Project-based collaboration

Adams’ tenure has seen a variety of projects that strengthened the relationship between UGA and Athens. Project-based collaboration. just one part of the complex relationship, has increased dramatically while Adams was in office.

The University contributed $3.6 million to ACC’s new water treatment plant for odor control in 2011.

“You remember the terrible smell over on East Campus? That impacted the University and our quality of life,” Allen said. “So we recognized first that a lot of the products they processed in that plant comes from campus, so we partnered with them and helped them with some odor-control technology.”

Part of that contract also dedicated UGA resources to helping expand the College Station Road bridge. The bridge expansion will also provide better access to the University’s Veterinary Medicine Learning Center that will be built beyond it.

The University also gave the city land for a fire station adjacent to the plot of land designated for the new Veterinary Medicine Learning Center.

Allen said these are examples of mutually beneficial exchanges.

“We also worked with the city on the bridge at college station road that goes across the Oconee River, to connect not only with that plant but to connect with property that the university owns past that plant,” he said. “We can have much better access to our own property, but at the same time are able to provide another access point for the sewage treatment plant.”

He said the fire station helps both communities as well.

“What that does for the county is it saves them the cost of buying property to build a new fire station,” he said. “What it does for us is it gets us assurance that we have close-by, adequate fire protection on the south part of our campus, especially now that we’ll be building a $90 million building next door to that fire station.”

Another prominent collaboration between the city and the University was made over a building built two decades before the Civil War. The Wray-Nicholson House has flipped between University, city and private ownership over its long history. The antebellum home traces its roots with UGA back to 1825, when it served as the dining hall. It then returned to private ownership in 1845.

ACC saved the house from demolition in 1994 as part of a $64 million sales tax referendum vote. The house took up $4.4 million of that referendum. The city bought the property for $860,000 and spent the rest of the money to renovate the house and the four smaller buildings nearby.

The University, with approval from the Board of Regents, bought the house in 2000 for $2.3 million. It is now the home of the UGA Alumni Association.

The University subsidizes the Athens Transit bus system, “which is what’s kept this city bus system alive,” Adams said.

The University pays 86 cents per rider today, which Adams said puts the University support of the system between $800,000 and $850,000 annually.

A commitment to long-term partnership

Partnership means more than occasional project collaboration. Cooperation on longer-term, issues-based initiatives deals with the broader relationship between the town and University. Allen said this has been one of Adams’ priorities since before his job was even created.

“Since the mid-90s, a group of University administrators and the senior staff for Athens-Clarke County have breakfast once a month, and we talk about those very types of things,” Allen said. “So we look for things, and communicate openly about what projects that each of us have and how me might compliment each other with those.”

the University has a neighborhood relations roundtable, composed of “of Athens-Clarke County elected officials, Athens-Clarke County staff, neighborhood leaders and University folks,” Allen said.

The committee used to meet regularly to address issues of ACC citizen concern. A neighborhood leader chaired the group. Allen said the chair eventually told the group that the major issues had been addressed. The neighborhood leaders suggested meeting on an as-needed basis.

“To me, that is a very good example of improving town and gown relations,” he said. “We have the group that was formed to fix the problems saying we’ve come so far that we can just meet on-call. And there hasn’t been a meeting in several years.”

Denson and Allen individually lauded the UGA College of Education partnership with ACC schools.

“We’ve really invested our faculty and staff in assisting the Clarke county school system,” Allen said. “And we help them operate what we call professional development schools, every school now has some type of relationship with the University, though at different levels, some have on-site faculty some have more of a consultative relationship.”

This collaboration began in 2007, but Denson said she hopes to see even more done to solidify the partnership.

“It’s something that has begun to happen but I’d like to see it happen to a much larger degree,” she said. “So it’s a great benefit to those student-teachers that are coming in because they’re getting hands-on, real world experience with students, but it’s also expanding the faculty of the school because you’ve got more people working with those students. So that’s a perfect example of how you mutually help each other. I think it’s just as beneficial to the university as it is to the elementary schools.”

Allen also noted UGA’s involvement in Partners for a Prosperous Athens, an organization that broke ground in 2005 to address poverty issues in Athens. The organization was a collaborative effort on the part of UGA, ACC government, the Clarke County School District, the Athens Chamber of Commerce, and various local nonprofits.

“We formed a group called Partners for a Prosperous Athens where we had a major initiative to identify and address poverty issues here and develop strategies to try to deal with that, understanding that the poverty level of this county, being whatever the numbers show now, is just an embarrassment to a county with the flagship institution of the university system located within it” he said.

He said the University’s ability to collaborate is important to ventures like this one.

“We got involved and partnered with these other people,” he said. “We didn’t come in and say we’re the university we can fix this for you, what we said is let’s work together and we’ll bring our resources in terms of facilitators and office space and back-room support to help our community address what we think is the major social problem here.

PPA spent time and resources fact-finding and adopting an action plan to address poverty in Athens. It then transferred their findings to a nonprofit called OneAthens. This organization has addressed a variety of needs in the community – most recently helping to develop the Athens Health Network.

Bumps in the road

This positive relationship has had its bumps along the way.

A highly publicized scuffle occurred at Sanford Stadium beginning in 1999. The teams weren’t composed of athletes, but rather of administrators – the University versus ACC.

Before the 1999 football season, UGA workers noticed a brown liquid that looked and smelled like sewage bubbling up from that sacred piece of grass between the hedges and causing patches of grass to die. UGA brought in the company that installed the field to determine the cause of the problem. That company brought in an environmental consulting firm, which concluded that leaking sewage from an ACC line was the crux of the problem.

The cost of repair to the field, the University said, could be in excess of $1 million.

The University took the report to ACC officials and indicated they may be at fault and liable to pay for repairs to the field. ACC responded by hiring their own consulting firm. This firm’s report concluded that the smells and liquid could not be sewage due to the depth of the line beneath the field.

A third report concluded that the smells and liquid was indeed sewage, though the sewage leaks weren’t as bad as in the past. It said the death of the grass was due to old age.

UGA and ACC retained lawyers. The threat of a lawsuit was eminent. But Adams and then-mayor Doc Eldridge announced a solution to the problem in April 2000.

The city agreed to remove a discontinued sewer line discovered beneath the field during investigation. The project cost approximately $40,000. The University agreed to bear the cost of installing new turf and restoring the field before the 2000 football season began.

The relationship has grown since.

Allen said community relations is about bigger questions than periodic projects, whether they be successful or not.

“It’s not just helping build a bridge or a fire station, but it’s helping to address issues that are more long-term and not project related, and might have a long-term impact to the University and the community,” he said.

For richer and for poorer

This isn’t a perfect marriage.  When times get tough, the relationship is strained. But Adams and Denson have worked hard to fulfill their primary responsibilities, despite the dwindling dollars.

“We would like to help in more [ways],” Adams said. “But there’s just not been that much venture capital over the last three to four years to do anything new.”

The University must stick to its “core functions” of teaching, research and public service when money gets tight, Adams said, “and probably in that order, if you look at the budget.”

In his State of the University address this year, Adams said “some have forgotten that the University of Georgia is a charity, not a donor.”

He praised the collaboration on “mutually beneficial” projects in the past, but he reminded the audience that UGA is “a nonprofit educational institution” whose “resources have been more limited in the past three years than at any other period in my 16 years here.”

Adams said it’s important to remember that UGA’s commitment is statewide, not just to Athens.

“I get up every morning thinking, ‘OK, how do I serve the state of Georgia?’ I don’t ignore Athens, I love Athens, I live in Athens, I’m going to continue to be in Athens going forward, but my job is a statewide mission,” he said. “So sometimes I have to balance what’s the request from Athens versus what does the whole state need. And that’s not always a perfect answer.”

Denson said there’s a fundamental imbalance, but the right attitude helps maintain a good relationship.

“Of course the university’s core responsibility is educating its students, and our core responsibility is providing for the safety and welfare of everyone here, including the students,” she said. “So when money gets tighter, that gets to be harder for both of us. But I think that we can make that easier to both groups by having an attitude that we are responsible for each other.”

Looking forward

 When Adams steps down July 1, current Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Jere Morehead will take his place. Denson said she thinks Morehead will be “a real asset to the community.”

The mayor praised his academic background, but said “the fact that he was the first person in his family to graduate from college” will give him the sensitivity to understand the people of Athens.

“He’s going to have the sensitivity and understanding of regular people,” she said, “that people in academia in previous generations may not have had.”

 

 

 


Students add vibrance to downtown

Downtown Athens on a Thursday night is a sight to see. Streets swarm with people moving from bar to bar in what has been called the world’s best college town.

The masses crowding the sidewalks are mostly students, attracted to downtown’s 40-plus bars and nightlife spots.

Downtown during the daytime is a different story. The bars, all that are visible at night, melt into the fabric of shops and restaurants and historic architecture.

The Athens Downtown Development Authority’s goal is to keep Athens – day and night – “safe and economically viable.”

Jason Leonard, who owns Flannigan’s and Whiskey Bent – two bars downtown, said that while students come downtown for the bars, Athens is offering a “better product” on all fronts.

“I would say that there’s an increase in a better product overall of downtown. I think the clothing shops are better clothing shops and the restaurants are better restaurants,” he said. “Downtown is providing a better quality product today, which would inspire students to hang out there.”

Bars hire students and cater to students. Students spend their money where their friends are.

“You know how it works, someone recommends someone who knows someone to work here,” Leonard said. “ And we love everyone, but when we hire someone, they usually bring in their network of friends.”

So students use downtown – one way or another. But what about residents of Athens? Visitors?

Kathryn Lookofsky, the executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, said it’s not that black and white.

“Downtown is the center of the community and should have something for everyone within the community,” she said. “I think the relationship between students and residents is a symbiotic one.”

Maura Freedman, a UGA senior, lived on Pulaski Street downtown for three years.

“I feel like every year more and more long term residents are moving out and more students are moving in,” she said. “There are these really nice, big beautiful houses on Pulaski, and I wonder how families feel about paying a significant amount to rent or buy those homes when the neighborhood is shifting towards students.”

Freedman said the neighborhood is attractive to students because of its location.

“Logistically, it’s close to downtown, and it’s nice not to worry about cabs or driving when you go out.”

Maura’s landlord, Lee Smith, said students have been a part of the neighborhood for a long time.

“There’s always been a rental component to Pulaski as long as I’ve lived here,” said Smith, who has owned property on Pulaski Street since 1996. “Over the years, particularly in the late 90s and early 2000s, a lot of people purchased houses that were condemned or in disrepair and turned them into rentals.”

He said there’s no tension between students and residents.

“I’ve never perceived any sort of tension between undergraduate renters and homeowners here,” he said. “Actually, there are several people in our neighborhood, including my wife and I, who over the years have been able to purchase houses around them because we knew we could rent them out to students. We’re surrounded by our rentals – they’re our next door neighbors.”

Smith said he has seen an increase in students wanting to live downtown.

“I’m inclined to think it’s going to be more of the same,” he said. “In the time since I went to school here, downtown has just become more and more urban. So I think we’ll continue to see that. I’d expect denser and more taller buildings downtown. More people will want to live downtown, but I also wouldn’t expect that to only be students.”

The Downtown Athens Master Plan town hall surveys show that 44 percent of attendees want to encourage urban professional residential growth, 20 percent want family housing, and only 3 percent want student housing.

Yet a student housing development is in the works for downtown – set to open Fall 2014. The development will create more than 600 apartments for students.

“I don’t perceive that as negative,” Lee said. “If there are more students living downtown, that’s more opportunity for people to open businesses that cater to students, more restaurants, bars, clubs, maybe even movie theaters. Maybe we’ll finally get a grocery store downtown. There will be other types of development that go along with it – it’s not only going to benefit students.”

He said most Athens residents understand what living in a college town means.

“If you live close to a university, you’re going to be close to students,” he said. “That’s the way it is, so you’ve got to make your peace with it. My wife and I, through our rental properties, are able to continually meet new young people who move to town. We have a wide range of friends that if we lived in a different town we wouldn’t necessarily have.”

Freedman said students are capable of building community downtown.

“Just because a lot of students live there, it doesn’t mean the area is devoid of community,” Freedman said. “There’s a really tight-knit community of people who care about Athens culture and music, so that’s really appealing to someone who is going to be in Athens for a few years.”


Chamber, city focus on economic development

The Athens Chamber of Commerce and Athens local government plan to work together and focus heavily on economic development this year.

New chamber board chairman, Mike Morris, said at the chamber’s annual meeting February 18, that though the group focused heavily on economic development last year, this year was about “studying and addressing critical issues which will affect the economic outlook of Athens for many years to come.”

The biggest change will be the implementation of a new economic development strategy. Morris praised the city on its acknowledgement of the “necessity of economic development” with increased funding and government-level attention.

The city plans to focus its economic development efforts on attracting industry to Athens and working to retain and expand the industry present.

The city commission approved the creation of a new government department of economic development. Though most cities have economic development departments or developments, Athens didn’t until now, said Peggy Chapman, CEO of the city’s economic development foundation.

The foundation is a more general job-creation source, Chapman said, but it has little funding. The new department will have the city-backing to expand and attract industry in Athens.

“The foundation is an organization that was started 12 to 13 years ago, and the major focus was the creation of new jobs,” she said. “It really evolved into more than an industrial-type board. It was a job-creating source, but it had little funding to work with – to create programs or other things economic development authorities and groups usually do. This new department created with the county is putting together the funding and backing to do these kinds of things in Athens-Clarke County.”

Morris said the chamber gives its “full support” to Athens’ new department of economic development. The chamber and the city worked well together in the past, and the new efforts  will only enhance the relationship, he said.

The chamber and the city claim a major success in the relocation of a Caterpillar plant to Athens from overseas early last year. With construction almost completed, the factory will hire and train workers in early spring and begin operations this summer.

Morris said drawing in suppliers to maximize the impact of the plant is a goal for this year. Last year also brought the promise of $200 million in downtown development, which the chamber plans to deliver on this year.

The chamber partnered with the city and the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government to conduct a manufacturing wage survey to help Caterpillar assess appropriate local wages.

The chamber plans to focus its economic development efforts on entrepreneurship and commercial and retail development this year, according to Morris. The chamber will continue to offer the same support and existing services despite the city’s change, Morris said. Commissioner Kelly Girtz said the new department is in a conceptual stage, and the subcommittee that designed the local law that created it is still discussing how to implement it.

The Prince Avenue development corridor and the commercial strip on Atlanta Highway land at the top of the chamber’s list of retail concern this year.

The city released a study at the beginning of February regarding the Prince Avenue Corridor.

The report indicates a need for “the inevitable growth in these areas…to be guided by programs and policies designed to produce future sustainable residential and commercial development and to protect natural and cultural resources.”

Atlanta Highway is important to the chamber too because of its large retailers and chain stores. Oconee County’s in-progress shopping center and more attractive county ordinances could draw the big-box stores out of Athens.

The chamber is working with the city in both areas to create the “appropriate” zoning response, according to Morris. The new city department can help here – its responsibilities include reviewing and recommending changes to local laws to mitigate barriers to economic development.

Morris calls the loss of retailers on Atlanta Highway “likely.” He said that those losses will be coupled, however, with state Department of Transportation improvements, which “will require creative ideas, long-term vision and diligent work to overcome.”

The chamber’s theme this year is “Progress Together,” which signifies its commitment to making the combined public and private response to economic development work.


Athens to build first mixed-income housing

The Athens Housing Authority received an $8.6 million grant from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to raze the Jack R. Wells public housing complex and replace it with Athens’ first mixed-income community.

Mixed-income housing is the newest development in the public housing. It used to be that low-income people were placed into public buildings – communities where every tenant was receiving government assistance or reduced rent. Now, there’s a new wave of developments that combine low-income and working class renters – brand new developments where cops and nurses live alongside those traditionally “quarantined” to public housing.

Mixed-income housing has popped up in cities across Georgia and across the nation. Athens is finally joining the ranks.

Mixed-income housing became an identifiable affordable housing option as early as the 1960s and 1970s. However, the trend took off in 1993 with the federal HOPE VI program, a federal housing subsidy designed to combine assisted and full price rental units in the same developments, according to an academic study

Officials, experts and citizens alike were skeptical at first. Would the stigma of “the projects” drive away market-price renters? Were the costs really manageable?

Over the past two decades, however, professionals in the affordable housing industry have turned to mixed-income housing as an alternative to traditional assisted-housing initiatives. The majority of experts today prefer multi-income housing, though there are still questions about its long-term validity.

Until key questions are answered, “advocacy of mixed-income housing will be based largely on faith and the dissatisfaction with the previous thrust of housing policy,” according to a study published in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s periodical.

There are numerous successful mixed-income developments nationwide, including at least 23 in the state of Georgia.

“It’s the first mixed-income housing community in Athens, but not nearly the first in the state,” said Athens Housing Authority media director Marilyn Appleby.

State and local governments nationwide developed incentive programs and initiatives to promote mixed-income housing. The Georgia DCA, in an example of these government incentives, granted $8.6 million in tax credits to AHA to replace Jack R. Wells with mixed-income housing.

Jack R. Wells, a maze of low-slung, 1960s brick and siding apartment buildings, houses 125 renters. The public housing complex admits tenants based on income level. Eligible residents’ incomes fall between 50 and 80 percent of the median income in Clarke County.

The new Jack R. Wells community will boast 375 units, equally divided between public housing units, affordable dwelling units and market-rate units.

“We’re transforming this neighborhood here. To update the buildings isn’t enough – there’s a limit to what you can do there,” Appleby said.

Phase one of this project is set to begin this summer. Tenants will move out and the whole neighborhood will be razed.

The first construction along Hawthorne Avenue, slated for completion in 2014, will include a 100 unit building for the elderly. Phase two will be complete by 2016, and the third phase will finish by January 2017, said Appleby.

The Georgia DCA is providing current Jack R. Wells residents with Section 8 housing vouchers if they choose to leave the housing authority system. The vouchers allow families to obtain affordable prices from privately managed properties affiliated with the program.

“A lot of the families that live in Jack R. Wells have indicated that they’re interested in the voucher program,” Appleby said. “They’re completing their paperwork and they’ll work with the Department of Community Affairs on being eligible for the program, and then from there also looking for places to live that are in that program. They can go anywhere that takes the Section 8 voucher.”

Current residents will have the option to return to Jack R. Wells after construction is completed. AHA is working with the Clarke County School District to ensure students won’t have to change schools when they move.

The tax credit comes from money the federal government allocates to the states under the Low Income Affordable Housing Tax Credit created in the 1986 Tax Reform Act. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs allocates those funds for the state. Builders get the credits to develop and maintain apartments as affordable housing.

AHA gets $869,000 in tax credits for ten years through this program. The AHA will sell the tax credits to finance the construction at Jack R. Wells. Large businesses and corporations can buy these credits, or they can be syndicated to individuals, who use them to take money off of their own taxes.

The money generated from tax credits allows AHA to borrow less, allowing for lower rent charges.

Phase one of construction costs about $14 million, according to AHA. AHA estimates that the funds from selling tax credits will generate 60 to 70 percent of the total cost of the project. Local government and other loans will pay for the part of the project not funded through tax credits.

Columbia Residential, the developer for the project, has built 23 mixed income communities throughout Georgia and more throughout Texas and Louisiana.

The residents of Jack R. Wells support the process – in fact, they voted for it.

“We voted to start over. Tear it down,” said a resident of Jack R. Wells. “I can’t wait to come back to this,” she said as she pointed to the sketch of the finished community.