Program uses sports to reach underprivileged kids

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Well, sometimes when it does, it finds its way back.

Ben Farnsworth grew up all over. The son of a minister, his family moved from his birthplace in Greenville, SC to St. Louis, MO. He followed his father Hal’s ministry to college towns like Nashville, TN and Starkville, MS. Regardless of where he was growing up, he found himself in the church. But after graduating from Presbyterian College in 2003, Farnsworth didn’t immediately enter into the family business.

“I went off to build houses,” said Farnsworth. “I left a lot behind – including the church.” Farnsworth says he enjoyed that time, saying he didn’t need things like “money, possessions and girls.” But unfortunately, it didn’t work out.

“It was a long crazy journey,” said Farnsworth. “But I came back to the church.”

Farnsworth, now 30, is the Executive Director of Downtown Ministries in Athens. The ministry began as a sports program in 2003 as a part of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, also in Athens. It separated from Redeemer to become its own non-profit entity nearly two and a half years ago.

 “Everyone involved [in the ministry] decided that the need was so great, that it didn’t need to be just a Redeemer thing. It needed to be an Athens thing. We needed help from other churches and other people in the community,” said Farnsworth.

Beginning as a single team in 2003, the Downtown Falcons expanded to two teams the following year. Today the program boasts four footballs teams, four basketball teams, four cheerleading squads and even a drum line.

Located in the heart of downtown Athens, Redeemer has always served a diverse community. Ben’s father, Hal Farnsworth, is the Senior Minister at Redeemer. He was one of the original program workers who saw sports as a great way to reach children in lower-income areas.

 “People in housing projects like Parkview [near downtown Athens] aren’t in our natural sphere of congregation members,” said Hal Farnsworth. “But sports bring all walks of life together. That’s how the football team started.”

Ben Farnsworth was not a founding member of the program. After returning to Athens, a friend asked if he would be interested in coaching a football team. Having played football is his high school days at Clarke Central, Farnsworth agreed.

“I had a job,” said Ben Farnsworth. “But everyday I woke up and asked God how this was a part of his plan. I didn’t have a hobby – just trying to figure life out. So I started coaching.”

Ben Farnsworth recalls his first few months of coaching. He was struck by the story of one of the children on his very first team. Wanting to make a difference in the young boy’s life, Ben asked him out to dinner. Farnsworth said that was all it took.

 “This was when I really decided I was happy with [coaching],” said the younger Farnsworth. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about the kids!”

Farnsworth and others continued to expand the program. In the words of Ben Farnsworth, it continued to be “a great avenue to enter into [the kids’] whole living situation” and an opportunity to “speak truth into [childrens’] live through the realm of sports.” Yet, there is more to the program off the field.

Downtown Falcons, as the program is sometimes called, also offers tutoring opportunities for the children involved. At least once a week (oftentimes more), Redeemer offers its warehouse to Downtown Ministries as a site for the tutoring program. According to their website, the children play scrabble and other board games to improve verbal, math and social skills. The children are also encouraged to keep a journal to improve their writing skills. Sessions typically conclude with a meal.

 Redeemer, still tied with Downtown ministries, is not the only organization that offers a helping hand to Ben Farnsworth and the rest of the program. Farnsworth says the local chapter of the Boys and Girls club has teamed with the Athens Housing Authority to provide buses for transportation to practices and games.

 Farnsworth is happy that the community as a whole has seen the need to come together and provide for whoever needs it – not just those involved in their respective programs.

“They came to us,” said Ben Farnsworth, referring to the help offered to his program. “It’s not a competition thing. We’re all on the same team.”

 Looking to the future, the younger Farnsworth hopes his ministry continues to grow and help the people of Athens. He is very appreciative toward those that have offered their time and services. Farnsworth is also proud of the service and assistance provided by the local government in Athens. However, Ben Farnsworth seems convinced that it is the smaller non-profit organizations that are able to provide the most personal and worthwhile support.

“If we really want to change the city of Athens, the government can’t do it all by itself,” said Ben Farnsworth. “It can help, but the government usually acts strictly as a band aid [for problems.] A band aid on the jugular won’t do much. The only way to really change Athens is by people entering the community and truly investing their lives for legitimate change.”

It may have taken a few years and a couple of career moves, but Ben Farnsworth seems to have found his true calling. Farnsworth seems primed to continue his work for Downtown Ministries, offering genuine and personal services to the people that need it most.

Parking fine raises prove effective

You may have noticed more open spots in downtown Athens over the past year – and fewer citations on those cars already parked there.

It’s been just over a year since the Athens Mayor and Commission decided to make certain changes to the downtown parking situation.

In May 2009, the ACC Commission approved raising the fine for an expired meter from $3 to $10.  The penalty for funding expired meters was raised from $5 to $15.  These changes, the first of their kind in Athens since 1984, went into effect July 1st of 2009.

Citation penalties, however, were not the only fees that were changed.  Metered spaces located in the downtown were raised from 25 cents to 50 cents per hour.  The Clarke County Courthouse deck and the parking deck on College Ave. also saw increases from 75 cents to $1.50 per hour and $1 to $1.50, respectively.

While some local citizens may not have approved of increased fees, Laura Miller believes the changes were appropriate then, and have been effective since their introduction.  Miller is the Parking Director for the Downtown Athens Parking System, part of the Athens Downtown Development Authority.

“The increased fines have worked to accomplish our goal of creating turnover for the parking spaces downtown,” said Miller.  “We are issuing fewer citations, which means the higher fines have caused people to comply with the parking ordinances.”

Before the rise in fines and fees, Athens’ were among the lowest in the Southeast, according to a 2007 county audit.  Mayor Heidi Davison agrees that it was time for a change.

“The meter fees [downtown] had not been changed in 25 years, which is ridiculous,” said Davison.

Some were concerned with the amount of local citizens and college students using the spaces for cheap all-day parking, allowing fewer individuals to use the same spots for shopping at local businesses downtown.  Davison says this was a key reason for her support of the changes.

“Fines were too low to change behavior,” said Davison.  “Spaces were being used by folks not for shopping.”

Miller is glad to report that these changes have, in fact, affected citizens’ decision on when and where to park – and how long they stay in these crucial spots.

“Overall, [these changes have been] better for the retail businesses,” said Miller.  “Customers are able to find a place to park more easily than prior to the fine increases… Business owners have told me that their customers are better able to find parking now that people are complying with the time limits.”

New “Pay and Display” machines have also been introduced downtown within the last month.  According to Kathryn Lookofsky, the Downtown Development Authority Executive Director, these new machines provide users with three payment methods: coins, dollar bills and credit/debit cards.

The new machines, which are solar-powered, have not only made life easier for those parking downtown, but also those in charge of enforcement.

“[The new machines] are convenient,” said Davison.  “They remove a lot of clutter from the street; they are easier to repair and adjust for changes in fees.”

Miller added “the machines will also be effective in providing us with valuable information, such as peak parking times, most heavily utilized parking areas, and a computerized audit trail of transactions.”

While many experts agree the machines have been a success, as with any unfamiliar system or tool, there have been some mix ups.

“So far, the most common question from users is, ‘where is the receipt?’” said Miller.  “The receipt is white, and after it is printed, it is dispensed behind a white plastic door, which must be raised to remove the receipt.  Some people can’t see the receipt, so they think it’s not there.”

Regardless of any problems that have come with the transitions, local authorities seem pleased with the progress of the new laws and machines.  However, this issue has not been completely laid to rest.

“Future plans are to evaluate [the situation] on an annual basis the prices, fines, effectiveness of the Pay and Display machines, and make adjustments as necessary,” said Miller.  “For example, if the hourly price to park at a meter is too high, we will have an overabundance of supply.  If it’s too cheap, we will have too much demand.”

Regardless of supply and demand, those little yellow citations now cost more green, and have been effective in cleaning up the downtown parking situation.

Mayor, Commission review historic Milledge Avenue

Milledge Avenue has always been one of the enduring images of the Classic City.  Now, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission want to make sure it remains as citizens have remembered it for years to come.

After over two years of preparation, the Mayor and Commission finally discussed the historic preservation of Milledge Avenue at their agenda setting meeting this past Thursday, May 18th at City Hall in downtown Athens.  The item would designate Milledge Avenue as an historic district and establish development restrictions to ensure the preservation of the popular street.

No final actions were taken at last Thursday’s meeting.  All business items discussed were moved to the meeting set for Tuesday, April 6th.

While a number of items were discussed, the historic designation and preservation of Milledge Avenue grabbed the most attention.

Kathy Hoard, the District 5 Commission, has spearheaded the effort to preserve Milledge and protect it from what some would consider improper development.

“Obviously, I’m very excited about this,” Hoard said at last Thursday’s meeting.  “This has been a two year process with a lot of input from the [UGA] Greek Community and our in-town neighborhoods.”

District 7 Commissioner David Lynn is glad to finally see this item come before the commission.

“This is an area that’s overdue, frankly, for this kind of work” said Lynn before the commission on Thursday night.  “We’ve seen some consequences of that.  This is one of those areas that –when you think of Athens – Milledge Avenue is one of those places you think of.”

According to the Historic Preservation Committee, the Milledge Avenue Local Historic District contains both sides of Milledge Avenue, from where it intersects with Broad Street to its intersection with Lumpkin Street.  Many of the structures on Milledge remain in their original form, some with a few alterations.  Newer ones have replaced older buildings through time.  Especially during the Great Depression, single-family homes gave way to apartments and commercial structures.

But the most recognizable aspect of modern-day Milledge is the affiliation with UGA’s Greek organizations.  University of Georgia members of fraternities and sororities such as Alpha Gamma Delta, Kappa Alpha Theta and Alpha Delta Pi have been a part of the community for over 50 years, according to the ACC Commission agenda.

One aspect of the proposed legislation would mean that Greek organizations will no longer be considered a special use. Such organizations would be allowed into the district without any special use review.  A special use allows property owners to bypass certain zoning regulations when making alterations to existing properties.

“We would not have Milledge as we know it today without [the UGA Greek community,]” said Hoard.

At last Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Hoard proposed an amendment that would not require a special use for any additions to less than 50% of the heated space of an existing structure.  This is one of the few aspects of this legislation that is still up for debate.

“I think there may be some concern that 50% [of the heated space] is too much, and a lower threshold might be more acceptable, given the expansive size of many of the buildings on the corridor,” said Athens Mayor Heidi Davison.  “At this time, I am still considering this amendment and am not prepared to say one way or another whether this is something I can support.”

The Mayor and Commission will meet for final consideration of this and other items on Tuesday, April 6th.  Concerned citizens are encouraged to attend this meeting.

While there is still some debate left to be had considering some aspects of the item, the Mayor and the Commission look forward to moving ahead with this item.

“We’ve had a few mishaps,” said District 3 Commissioner George Maxwell.  “This will ensure that this street is preserved for future generations to enjoy.  So I hope we have unanimous support on April 6th.”

Feral cats not just a local problem

Derrick Thomas

Five million.  According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, up to 5 million U.S. cats are euthanized in shelters each year.

With an estimated population of anywhere from 20,000-50,000 feral cats, this is a problem all too familiar with the Athens area.  The Athens-Clarke county Commission, however, has made an attempt to control the problem when it approved a new method for which to handle such animals.

In a 9-1 vote Tuesday evening, the commission passed legislation supporting the trap-neuter-release method of controlling stray cats, also called TNR.  TNR programs allow citizens to feed, trap and vaccinate feral cats before releasing them back into the wild.  TNR practitioners are now allowed to legally register feral cat colonies, thanks to Tuesday’s vote.

TNR is an alternative to rounding up and euthanizing stray cats.  Both the issue and the proposed solutions have been debated in the community for some time.

“TNR is one component of reducing the population of stray/feral cats within the community,” said Athens Mayor Heidi Davison.  “Will it be successful – I hope so.”

District 7 Commission Kathy Hoard agrees.

“Considering the minimal funds budgeted for humanely dealing with our stray and feral population, a public/private partnership with our government and dedicated volunteers appears appropriate,” said Hoard.

Many, however, do not see TNR programs as a viable solution to the problem.  District 1 Commissioner Doug Lowry was the only member to oppose Tuesday evening’s vote.

“This will not reduce the number of feral cats in the community,” said Lowry.  “We don’t know anything about the scope of this issue.  There is no evidence that (TNR programs such as these) will work.”

Mayor Davison, on the other hand, believes TNR programs have already been proven effective.

“There are colonies in Athens that began with 30+ cats, that are now reduced to… a very small number of cats that are not adoptable,” said Davison.

Some experts say that TNR programs may not be the ultimate solution, but they should help.  Amanda Rodriguez is the owner of Pawtropolis, a local organization devoted to caring for pets and animals.

“We must have stricter spay and neutering laws, and we have to educate the public in addition to these programs.  But to say that (such TNR programs) won’t make a difference is just ignorant,” said Rodriguez.

The Classic City, however, is not the first community divided by this issue.  Feral cats have caused a stir in communities – large and small – throughout the country.

In Jacksonville, FL, First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) runs a program called Feral Freedom.  One of the first of its kind in the nation, the program, in conjunction with the Jacksonville Humane Society, brings stray cats in off the streets to be cared for.  They are vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and given a health check.  Before being released, they are also “micro-chipped,” which enables the cats and their colonies to be monitored in the future.

According to Rick DuCharme of Florida’s Feral Freedom, the program has led to a 26% decrease in shelter intake.  The live release rate has risen from 10% to 50%, and there has been a nearly 60% decrease in the amount of adult feral cats in the community.

Not all such programs in major cities have been well-received, however.

Los Angeles, which has a feral cat population of around 3 million cats, according to the Department of Animal Services, has been dealing with this issue for years.  TNR programs had been promoted and funded by the government, and were the preferred method of controlling feral cats.

In a December 2009 decision, however, a Superior Court judge ruled that the programs – and their funding – be suspended.  The judge ordered that the entire issue be more closely reviewed before the city could continue to support it.

Smaller communities, such as in Evanston, Il, Point Pleasant Beach, NJ and that surrounding Penn State University, have also dealt with growing feral cat communities.  All have used a variety of methods, with varying results.

Tuesday night’s vote was the culmination of months of study and debate.  But it certainly is not the end of the issue.

“It’s one piece of a much larger pie of policy,” said District 9 Commission Kelly Girtz.

“I hope the individuals who are managing colonies and those within our scientific community will seize this opportunity to work together to help us evaluate the program so that an informed decision can be made as to its efficacy,” said Davison.  “We will certainly be looking at other strategies, including increased education, knowing that TNR alone will not solve the problem.”

The legislation approved Tuesday night calls for a review process one year into the legislation, at which point the programs will be reevaluated.  The legislation also calls for a review at the three-year point, with new criteria being evaluated at each point.

“I’d be happy to not talk about cats for a couple weeks,” said Girtz, whose idea it was to include the mandatory review in the legislation.  “But we’re already getting experts together for the evaluation process next year.”

Meeting to discuss preservation of Milledge Ave.

Derrick Thomas

Whether it comes from the families that built the homes that line it over a century ago, or the young college students who inhabit those homes today, Milledge Avenue has always been a rich source of history and community in Athens.

And now, it seems, the Mayor and Commission want to keep it that way.

Among other topics, the preservation of Milldge Avenue will be discussed at the Mayor and Commission’s agenda setting session, set for tonight, Thursday March 18th at 7:00 at City Hall.

While it may be hard to notice from a leisurely stroll down the road, the preservation of Milledge Avenue, lying just west of Downtown Athens, is something Athens Mayor Heidi Davison takes very seriously.

“Protecting Milledge Avenue will ensure that its beauty and grandeur will no longer be eroded by improper development,” said Davison.

According to the Historic Preservation Committee, the Milledge Avenue Local Historic District contains both sides of Milledge Avenue, from where it intersects with Broad Street to its intersection with Lumpkin Street.  The street itself runs beyond these points, but since the early 1830’s, this portion of Milledge has been “a principal street in Athens,” according to the committee’s local historic property designation report.

The ensuing decades of development are marked in the varying architectural styles on display on Milledge Avenue.  Much of this had to do with the introduction of the street cars in 1888.  The streetcar line was extended south on Milledge from Baxter St. to Lumpkin St. in 1910, according to the ACC Planning Dept.

Most houses were made of brick or wood, with a few stucco exceptions, but one of the more noticeable features of these predominantly two story homes are the large amounts of space between the homes and the street.  According the designation report, these setbacks are “far greater than [those] seen on the residential side streets developed off of Milledge Avenue.”

“The historic designation and overlay is also meant to encourage new development that is more in keeping with the architectural and other design features of the corridor,” said Davison.  “[This] should translate into an even more beautiful and breathtaking boulevard than what we have now.”

Many of the structures on Milledge remain in their original form, or with some historic alterations.  Newer structures replaced some of the originals as the area changed throughout the years.  During the depression in the 1930’s, many of the occupants of the single-family homes were unable to maintain these properties.  This gave way to more apartments and commercial structures.

Perhaps the most noticeable and noteworthy change, however has involved the Greek organizations affiliated with the University of Georgia, such as Alpha Gamma Delta, Kappa Alpha Theta and Alpha Delta Pi.  A number of these organizations have been a part of this area for over 50 years.  The ACC Commission agenda states that such organizations “have become custodians of not just the large historic homes they maintain, but the historic streetscapes and sense of place that results.”

In August of 2008, a committee consisting of property owners, neighborhood representatives and representatives from UGA and the UGA Greek community was appointed by the mayor.  According to the County Commission Agenda, the committee met for several months to discuss the possible preservation of the area.

The committee expressed a need for both an SDO (special district overlay), as well as desire to designate the area as a local historic district.  In March of 2009, the Mayor and Commission approved these findings.  The Planning Commission was set in charge of developing the special district zoning overlay, while the Historic Preservation Commission was to develop a local historic district.

The Athens-Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission held a public hearing on the matter on February 16th of this year.  Individuals from both sides of the issue were given a chance to voice their opinions.  Some were in favor of historic designation for the area, while others were against.  At this meeting, the ACC Historic Preservation Commission unanimously recommended the approval of designating the area in question as the Milledge Avenue Local Historic District.  Design Guidelines and text amendments were included.

A survey questionnaire was sent to property owners and property occupants to gauge the level of support by those affected by the proposal. This was sent along with a notification of the proposed legislation and to alert of upcoming public forums.  While these findings are not binding on the Mayor and Commission, it is noteworthy that only 39 of the 380 questionnaires sent were returned.  Furthermore, of those returned, only 14 were in support of designation.

This comes as little surprise to the mayor.

“There will always be individuals to complain about government restrictions
on their ability to make alterations to their property,” said Davison. “But those who appreciate Athens, and the importance of these buildings and corridors and what makes it special, usually agree with the effort to put protections in place, knowing that their ownership is not forever.”

Concerned citizens are encouraged to voice their opinions at tonight’s meeting at City Hall at 7:00.

Issues concerning the Public Utilities Dept. Services Delivery Plan will also be discussed at the meeting.  Specifically, the addition of sewer lines in the Sandy Creek area will be discussed.  This is important because Athens-Clarke County gets drinking water from this watershed.