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.”


Underground construction unearths Athens history

By Ashton Adams

When City Engineer James Barnett developed a plan to install underground piping through downtown Athens in 1914, he certainly did not expect these pipes to remain in their place a century later.

Yet, there they lie and Athens construction crews will soon be encountering them and much more underneath the city’s streets.

“Speaking professionally, our department can map out and describe what crews will be running into during construction. Cracked pipes, leaking, rust. Those types of things,” said S.P.L.O.S.T Program Administrator Donald Martin. “However, when we speculate about the downtown area, knowing it is about 200 years old, we know we are bound to run into some interesting finds.”

Crews received the green light to begin excavation underneath Clayton Street after city officials approved a $7.1 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax project last year. This year long downtown streetscape project, which began in February, will focus on repairing and upgrading the in-ground utilities along Clayton Street and will conclude in August.

With or without specialist consultation, pieces of Athens’ history remain underground and crews will soon become privy to what lies below.

Generations of city developers since the start of the 20th century have had a history of paving or backfilling entire structures in an attempt to cut back on funds. Janine Duncan, a campus planning coordinator at the University of Georgia and member of the Athens Historical Commission, believes that many of these structures remain where they stood a century ago, surrounded by inches of thick paving material.

“History shows that humans have always taken the path of least resistance. What has resulted in Athens’ case is a lot of structures getting backfilled,” Duncan said. “By working with archaeologists and anthropologists here in Athens, we can distinguish human activity from a century ago. Human activity remains as a scar.”

According to Duncan, the city stands almost a foot taller than it did in 1914 because of the countless layers of pavement that have been laid over the years.

And underneath the pavement are indicators of the city’s age.

“Chances are, what crews will find below ground are remnants of century-old paving bricks, Belgian block and entire water cisterns that horses and mules once drank out of,” Duncan confirmed.

Crews will see trolley tracks that once split the downtown area and ran down Lumpkin Street and various side streets as well. This railway service ran from 1885 until 1930 when G.I.’s returning home from WWII were hired to disassemble the tracks.

When it comes to underground utilities, both Martin and Duncan agree that the pipes installed in 1914 still remain in their place and are in good condition.

“I don’t think city developers a century ago built some of these underground utilities with an intention that they would remain there today,” Duncan said. “On the other hand, crews in the early 1900’s were using withstanding material like glazed terracotta and cast iron for the piping. I believe the city was putting more money into its projects than what today’s city would be doing.”

Smaller objects such as railroad ties, rough-stone stairs, fences, wells and outhouses from the early 20th century have been found under Broad and Clayton Streets.

Duncan, with the help of professor of anthropology Erv Garrison, has been able to scan the ground in and around downtown Athens and discover outlines of human disturbances underground.

Scanning these areas with radar and electromagnetometer equipment, Duncan confirmed that specific areas downtown also show to be areas of interest for archaeologists.

“The areas downtown where I can guarantee archaeologists will uncover human disturbances are in those small interior alley ways that run behind most buildings,” Duncan said. “They have virtually been left untouched since downtown’s original construction.”

It has been 40 years since crews have done an excavation project like this one, and one local administrator has been present for both.

“The last time Athens went underground like this, crews and officials were surprised at how well the piping had held together. Even then that was shocking to us,” said Glenn Coleman, assistant director for the Public Utilities Department. “And during our pre-construction evaluation on Clayton Street last year, we were yet again shocked. The cast iron piping below ground has evaded rusting, cracks and decay for so many years. It really is impressive.”

Per requirements of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, S.P.L.O.S.T officials had to take into account their undertakings on historic properties, above and below ground, and allow opportunity for an advisory council on historic preservation to comment on the project. Martin said the S.P.L.O.S.T department fulfilled these requirements.

“We have certainly been in coordination with the Historic Preservation Commission in order to make sure we do not impact anything from a historical standpoint,” Martin said.

However, conflicting reports from a member of the commission revealed that S.P.L.O.S.T officials had not consulted the Historical Commission as previously stated.

“From my standpoint, city officials have commonly avoided approaching the Commission about local projects because they regard it as a pain or a waste of time,” Duncan said. “There is a preconceived notion with developers that if they consult the Historic Commission, they will not be able to proceed with their work and that is not the case whatsoever.”

Amber Eskew, Preservation Specialist for the city’s Planning Department also said she knew nothing about the S.P.L.O.S.T-funded project and had not been consulted or involved with the project in any way.

This Clayton Street underground construction will be the last of its kind for decades. Any replaced piping will remain where it is for another 60 to 70 years. Construction will be done on a block-by-block basis beginning on E. Clayton Street. Work will be minimal, non-disruptive and nearly invisible to the common passerby.

 

 

 


Boom Baby Boom

BY TAYLOR BROOKS

By the end of 1945 World War II ended, American troops were returning home, and birth rates began to steadily increase giving rise to a generation we now refer to as the “baby boomers.”

During this demographic boom nearly 79 million Americans were born. Due to advances in medicine and modern technology these individuals, the first of whom celebrated their 60th birthdays in 2006, are experiencing much longer lifespans.

With more than 72 million Americans over the age of 65 by the year 2030, what can be done to assist this large group as they age?

Athens Community Council on Aging member Madeline Van Dyck explained: “Our graves used to be filled with people who died from phenomena, and child birth complications, we now have antibiotics and anesthetics, so people don’t easily die anymore, when they otherwise would have.”

This very same trend is happening in many communities around the nation, but more specifically in college towns, like Athens. The Athens Community Council on Aging became aware of the growing number of boomers and created the Athens Area Village to accommodate aging citizens’ needs.

Van Dyck states, “2012 marked the beginning for the next 18 years of the second ‘silver tsunami,’ which is made up of the members of the baby boomer generation; in a way, demographically, this has not been represented before. We now have the sixty-something-year-old and the eighty-something-year-old in the marketplace and we [boomers] are the ones holding the wealth for the most part, so it’s a huge consumer market.”

According to the 2010 US Census there are 9,952 citizens ages 65 years and older in Athens-Clarke County. This makes up 8.5 percent of the total population. The National Institute on Aging predicts that “by 2030 almost 1 out of every 5 Americans – some 72 million people – will be 65 years or over.”

The Classic City has also been cited as a popular retirement destination in the past several years. In 2013 Forbes and AARP named Athens as one of the top places to retire in the country and U.S. News and World Report listed Athens as one of the cities to which baby boomers will move.

Boomers are attracted to the Athens-Clarke County area for the rich culture and atmosphere, relatively low cost of living, affordable and available healthcare in the area, a less congested environment, and possibilities for continued education through the University of Georgia through programs such as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

In 2012, in response to the “silver tsunamis,” the Athens Community Council on Aging (ACCA) started the Athens Area Village to accommodate the growing numbers of adults over the age of 50 in the Athens area.

The program is designed after the Beacon Hill Village in Boston, Massacusettes. Their mission was to provide aging citizens assistance by using local resources and volunteers and provide a way for aging adults to do so within their own community.

Beacon Hill Village began in February 2002 and quickly became a trendsetter for assisting aging adults over 50 to age comfortably in their own homes and communities. In 2006 the Beacon Hill Village published “The Village Concept: A Founder’s Manual” which shared experiences and advice for creating a new village.

The Athens Area Village is the first village program in Georgia and serves as the model for the state as well.

The Athens Area Village, much like the Beacon Hill Village it is modeled after, provides services for adults over the age of 50. Volunteers from around the community offer services to Village members, who pay an annual membership fee.

The Athens Area Village has no physical location, but is made up of a community of volunteers and service providers from the Athens area that offer personalized assistance for Village members.

Unlike retirement communities or nursing homes, the Athens Area Village program allows aging adults to the freedom to age in their own homes and receive volunteer help or services as needed. The Athens Community Council on Aging does however have an office in Athens located on Hoyt Street.

“You have your members, your volunteers, and your providers,” Said Matte Barkdoll, a social worker at the ACCA. “Providers go through a vetting process and then they often offer a small discount to our village members. So our main focus is to have our members remain in their homes, age comfortably in place, and provide community and volunteer services like assistance in transportation and simple home repairs that help our members to remain comfortably where they are living.”

The Athens Area Village also offers a variety of additional services to it’s members including: fitness classes, special events, book clubs, and outings around the Athens community.

Other establishments in Athens also provide services for aging adults and disabled citizens. Iris Place which opened its doors in Athens in 2000 is an independent living community which also provides services for aging adults.

Members of this group live within the Iris Place Community, pay rent (including all utility expenses), are provided with three meals a day, and a variety of activities and events offered through the community.

Iris Place has 22 condo spaces and 118 apartments. In regards to whether Iris Place would be able to accommodate an influx of aging individuals in the community, manager Ken Grindele stated: “We’re at a limit now.”

For more serious care-related issues, facilities such as Arbor Terrace offer assistance and facilities for anyone who needs assistance.

Judee Odonell, a worker at Arbor Terrace said “Most of our residents are over a certain age, or simply people due to health-related issues that need help with medication management or a great deal more. For those that have serious dementia or Alzheimer issues, we have a memory care unit for that.”

While both types of assistance and care are necessary within a growing community, the Athens Area Village has adopted an innovative way of providing assistance for aging adults in their homes.

“What is happening is we are aggressively under-cared for across the frailty continuum of aging until we are suddenly permanently over-cared for. This means, we [boomers] have to find a way to die more gracefully, which is coming. Now there are these huge aging dynamically and wisely movements all around the country. Hospice is now not the last three days, but the last three years.” Said Van Dyck.

The Athens Area Village has adopted an innovative approach to assist aging adults in our community at a low cost, comfortable lifestyle, and ultimate ease. When faced with the question of if the Athens Area village could accommodate a large increase of members in the next several years, social worker Matte Barkdoll responded with a resounding “Absolutely.”

The Athens Area Village’s reliance on volunteer work and no risk of reaching a physical capacity with facilities, the program has potential for growth.


Athens annual Water Conservation Event right around the corner

BY BRITTNEY CAIN

When the Athens Community Council on Aging sensed its Hoyt Street building was wasting water, it decided to take action with the Athens Water Conservation Office.

After they reviewed and inspected the building, experts from the Water Conservation Office knew a solution for their problem.

The Council on Aging retrofitted 10 toilets, which cut their water bill in half.

For their ability to save water and attract citizen attention, the Council on Aging won the 2012 Fix-a-Leak week competition, awarded annually by the Water Conservation Office.

The Council on Aging is similar to organizations across Athens who strives to save water daily, and officials offer a solution.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that household water leaks waste nearly one trillion gallons of water each year.

In hopes of educating citizens about wasted water, they organize Fix-a-Leak weeks in cities across the United States.

These selected cities across the U.S. sponsor educational events and leak-fixing efforts.  In the North Georgia area, local governments within Districts planned a Water Drop Dash 5K race and Water Festival.  The festival features water conservation education and related activities.

Athens, the EPA noted, runs alongside the best cities and organizations partnering with the WaterSense program.  The WaterSense program encourages water efficiency across the U.S. through the use of a special label on consumer products.

In 2012, the EPA congratulated Athens for its outstanding approach to fixing leaks with “helping hands” by partnering with the University of Georgia.

“Volunteers from student organizations at UGA performed water conservation audits at local businesses, showed residents how to audit their own homes and distributed free water saving devices,” the EPA stated in regard to the 2012 partnership.

Currently, the 2014 Fix a leak week is in the process of receiving nominations.

Last year, there were nearly seven to eight applications.  This year, they received two to three.

The Athens Community Council on Aging remains one of the biggest success stories with the Fix-a-Leak week program.

Toilets persist as the main source of water use in homes and account for nearly 30 percent of the average home’s water consumption.

Older toilets use as much as six gallons per flush, while WaterSense toilets use 1.28 gallons per flush or less.

By replacing the inefficient toilets with WaterSense models, the average family can reduce water usage for toilets by 20 to 60 percent, saving nearly 13,000 gallons of water every year and more than $110 per year in cost.

In comparison to households, the Council on Aging replaced a total of 10 toilets, which cut back on their water cost tremendously.

The Athens Community Council on Aging stood as a perfect candidate in 2012 for the Fix-a-Leak week project due to its massive size and the media attention that it would gain.

Marilyn Hall, Coordinator at the Water Conservation Office, said that everyone reaps the benefits, not just the official winner.

“Runner-ups also get water assessments.  The Water Conservation Office visits their facilities, checks for leaks and offers them water saving advices,” Marilyn Hall stated in regards to the remaining nominees.

Although the Water Conservation Office does not directly fix their leaks, the assessment and advice serves as a starting point in conserving water.

“Our Daily Bread” Soup Kitchen was one of these runner-ups in 2013.

They installed a new pre-rinse spray valve, which helped conserve water when spraying down dirty dishes.  The advice given by the Water Conservation Office stated that the kitchen spray valve continues as a major water waster.

Organizational kitchens that switch to WaterSense labeled pre-rinse spray valves can save more than $115 yearly in water and energy costs.

Action Ministries was the 2013 retrofit winner during the Fix a leak week.

As a part of their winnings, they received a Water Sense toilet and a new kitchen faucet, which expected to cut the cost of their water bill.

According to Erin Barger, Executive Director of Action Ministries, they are grateful for the support of the Water Conservation group, but unfortunately their facility burned down in April 2013 shortly after installation.  They were not able to see the benefits from the project.


Athens-Clarke County is getting a new recycling center

By, Evan Caras

Glass and paper are easily recycled materials.

However, many materials cannot be easily recycled, such as, grease, pesticides, mattresses and batteries.

Athens-Clarke County’s leadership has recently taken steps to ensure that local citizens will be able to recycle new materials-the easy ones as well as well as the hard ones.

In order to recycle those materials, the Athens Commission recently approved a motion to have a recycling center placed at 1005 College Avenue.

However, Jim Corley, the Solid Waste Department Director, said, “there was no money in the budget for such projects since 2008.”

The center itself had been voted for a special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) project.  The center will offer the means to recycle materials that cannot be easily recycled or are potentially hazardous to do so.

To help offset the potential costs of constructing a new building, the center will replace a county-owned building currently used by the police to store evidence.  Their new storage facility will be built at 3035 Lexington Road, Athens, Georgia.

However, the building will be used by the police for evidence storage until their new building will be completed which is expected to be by winter 2015 at the very latest.

The total costs to convert the storage facility into a recycling center are estimated at the Athens-Clarke County website at $193,000.

However, the yearly operating costs ($66,000) will not be included in the SPLOST funds.  The funds themselves can only be used for capital improvements.

The building itself will shift functions in January 2015, according to Corley.

The materials the center will recycle include (but are not limited to) items such as carpet, mattresses, tires, electronics, paints, batteries, and Styrofoam.

 “These materials cannot be picked up at the curb and can often end up in a landfill,” Corley said.

However, on average Solid Waste will also take in roughly 50,000 tons or 100,000,000 pounds of waste annually.  This waste also includes various objects that cannot be recycled without the future center.

The system that the recycling center uses will be different than the one currently used by Solid Waste.

In the current system, the businesses or homes will be given bags for recycling and bags for trash. Solid Waste charges a fee to use the bags for trash, but the bags for recycling are free of charge.

 “Citizens and businesses would have to bring their materials to the facility to be recycled. These are not normal curbside recyclable materials. Some like household chemicals, pesticides, paints, etc. can be considered hazardous. There will be a fee for some of the materials to cover the cost of processing and shipping. Others we get paid for from different vendors so we would not charge a fee.”

The process can be summed up in three steps.

First the consumer will bring their materials that they do not want to throw out, but are not collected under the current system.

After that they might have to pay a fee for certain items (the more hazardous ones).

Finally, once the materials are put in a container, they get sent elsewhere.

However, the biggest issue that faced the recycling center had nothing to do with either funds or the method used!

In reality, the decision of where to place the center was more challenging.

The issue stems from the fact that in order for the recycling center to serve the people it had to be placed somewhere that the average person or small business would be willing to drive to with hard-to-recycle and potentially hazardous materials.

However, to make the problem more difficult, it also should be relatively out of the way so that the traffic would not bother a large number of people.

Eventually the commission picked 1005 College Avenue

The location had two problems; it is very near the University of Georgia and the location functions as a gateway to the city.

In addition, as Kelly Girtz, the District 9 Commissioner, noted in a regular meeting on Feb 4, “more funds would be nice for things such as landscaping.”

The reason why the aesthetics have significance is that the area is on the corner of Cleveland Avenue and it also functions as something a lot of people will see when they come to Athens.

If one of the first things they see is a congested mess then, that will leave a negative impression since the first ones are important.

However, even though the aesthetic issues provided a challenge it might not have been a real choice.

According to Suki Janssen, Waste Reduction Administrator, the commission picked the location since the Clarke County government would not need to transform the existing land and the Clarke County Government owned it.

As a result when the issue came to a vote on February 4, 2014 it was seconded then passed unanimously and quickly.

Nancy Denson, Mayor of Athens, Georgia even noted, “We’re moving fast!”


Athens Becomes a Winter Wonderland

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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.


Athens sits in a paradox of poverty and health

Athens residents, among the poorest in Georgia, are healthier than anyone would expect.

The poverty is well known. Clarke County has the seventh highest poverty rate in the state out of 159 counties. Nationally, Athens contains the fifth highest poverty rate among counties with populations higher than 100,000 people, according to recent census data.

And, experts say, that with this level of poverty comes poor health. This is the outcome for most counties in Georgia. Nearly 80 percent of Georgia’s counties with high poverty rates contain health statistics that match up just as poor.

But, a new study shows just the contrary for Athens. Clarke County ranks 14th for the best health rates in the state. They sit just above Henry County who oppose Clarke with the eighth lowest poverty rates.

An assembly of experts offered a range of explanations as to why these statistics contest one another. They include: a UGA Public Health professor, the state’s most well-known demographer, a volunteer physician, and an office manager at a health clinic for the underprivileged.

Three primary explanations from experts:

  • Athens is a young town with a small percentage of the population 65 years or older, which lowers the mortality and morbidity rate.
  • Athens has a large number of highly educated people who make smart health decisions.
  • Athens is a social and economic hub with two regional health centers that attract commuters. There are also free health clinics that help the uninsured.

Athens is a young town.

Multiple news sources, from CNN to Kiplinger, have ranked Athens, Ga. as one of the top places in the country to retire, yet only 8 percent of the population is 65 years and above. That is lower than the rest of Georgia where an average of 11 percent are in their retirement years. In Clarke County, 74 percent of the residents are between the ages of 19 and 64 years old.

“If you have a population that is on the younger end of things,” said Dr. Monica Gaughan, UGA assistant professor in the College of Public Health, “than you are going to have lower mortality rates because older people are the ones who tend to be sicker.”

The University of Georgia plays a slight role in this statistic; however, only a small percentage of students declare Clarke County as their permanent residence so they do not effect the census results.

Almost two-thirds of UGA students come from about ten counties in the metro-Atlanta area, said Dr. Doug Bachtel, UGA professor of demographics. A significant number of these students drive back and forth from school each day or live in university dormitories.

The facts are simple. Younger people tend to be healthier people. Athens has a significant number of young to middle aged citizens who push the mortality and morbidity rate down; therefore, the overall health rate of the county is elevated.

Athens entices the highly educated. 

“Better educated populations are going to live longer and they are going to be healthier while they are living,” Gaughan said. “One of the weird things about Athens-Clarke County is that we have extremely low income levels and extremely high education levels.”

The high school graduation rates of Clarke County are at 66 percent, which is only one point lower than the rest of Georgia; however, there is an overwhelming number of of the population with a bachelors degree or higher. The University of Georgia, located in the center of Athens, obviously plays a part in this statistic. A large portion of the population consists of highly educated professors and professionals, all who contain premiere health insurance and can afford to live healthy lifestyles.

Athens has a bimodal distribution of education and poverty levels, meaning there are large populations of people resting on two extremes of the spectrum. Forty percent of the Clarke citizens have a bachelors degree or above, which is twice the percentage of rest of the state.

“If you aren’t poor in Athens you are actually very well-off,” Gaughan said. “These are the people who are going to have access to good health care. They have money to buy healthy food. Yes, poor people are going to be unhealthy people and they are going to be more likely to die, but if half of the population is extremely wealthy, which is what happens in Clarke County, than they can pull that statistic up.”

Those classified within the 34 percent who live under the poverty line are not all uneducated. Gaughan stressed the necessity to remember the people who contain a college degree, but are voluntarily poor.

“Think about all of the musicians, and the artists and the hanger-oners that are part of Athens,” Gaughan described. “You have the education which will reduce your mortality and reduce your morbidity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that education is translating into higher income.”

Athens is a medical hub.

Athens is a lively town with shops and shows that people from all parts of the state travel to be a part of. They also commute in for medical care because of the two regional hospitals: Athens Regional Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital.

“It’s all about the location,” Bachtel said. “There is a large number of state and federal agencies that are headquartered here. You’ve got a large number of people with Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance. Plus Clarke County and Athens tends to be a social, retail, service and educational hub in northeast Georgia. That’s why a lot of things cook here.”

About 20 percent of Athens’ residents contain Medicaid. Another 23 percent contain jobs but are still uninsured because they are ineligible for Medicaid and make too little to afford insurance. Most of the private physicians in town refuse to see either type of person, choosing to only care for those on the upper half of the bimodal distribution.

Those struggling in the lower half are not left completely uncared for. A multitude of free clinics are offered through Athens Health Network, an organization committed to filling in the holes of medical care within the health system of Athens. The program started from an umbrella organization through UGA called OneAthens, and then broke off in 2010 to be more focused on underprivileged healthcare.

“Its confusing because most populations have a much more normal distribution than our population,” Gaughan said. “Athens-Clarke County is comprised of extremely affluent, white retirees and professors and professionals, and extremely poor African American people who clean our toilets, and that is the ugly little secret of Athens. These clinics constitute the health safety net in town so poor people, who don’t have insurance, can use these practices to get access to the system.”

The two most popular clinics are Mercy Health Center and Athens Nurses Clinic. Both care for those who are completely uninsured, with no way of paying for health services.

One their main goals, said Dr. Paul Buczynsky of Mercy in a World Magazine article, is to get their patients involved in their own health by educating them on their illnesses. When a patient is treated for diabetes, one of the most perpetual chronic diseases seen at the clinics, he or she is required to take a six-week course that teaches the patient about the illness in order to get a prescription refill. The volunteer physicians highly enforce lifestyle changes over quick treatment so that more patients can be seen over time.

Not a perfect system.

Despite the glowing census numbers, not all experts agree on the accomplishments of Athens’ healthcare system.

Dr. Bachtel feels confident in the success of the services provided by the faith community and free clinics; however, Dr. Gaughan and those at Athens Health Network know the harsh reality.

“We do not have enough resources for the poor,” Gaughan stated. “I think it is a convenient little fiction that we tell each other when we say, ‘There’s so much charity care. Athens is just too busy to hate.’ That’s crap.”

Demand for free healthcare in Athens is rising, according to an AthensPatch article. The clinics are first-come, first-serve, and only have the resources to see a limited number of patients per day, said Mary Baxter, office manager of Mercy.

When the clinics are closed, 75 percent of the patients go to the Athens Regional ER, even though most of their health issues are not emergencies. This increases their wait time and many leave without being treated.

“The poor have pretty hard lives and don’t have a lot of access to care,” Gaughan said. “They go to the emergency rooms which is not necessarily the highest quality of care. If you have diabetes and you are having a diabetic episode than you don’t need to be in the emergency room, you need to be with a physician that has been managing your care. Very few physicians take people who don’t have health insurance, or even take people with medicaid.”

Athens-Clarke County is one of the few places in Georgia who has defied the standard of poor people with poor health rates. However, as seen nationally and locally, there is always room for improvement in the public healthcare system.

Statistics taken from: CountyRankings.orgCensus.gov, GeorgiaStats.uga.edu


One Month after opening World Famous settles in

One stop shopping is becoming The World Famous’s mantra.

The establishment has been open for a month and has already become a destination for food, drink and entertainment. As the sign says outside the door “This is It.”

“I’m really floored by how well received we’ve been,” said co-owner David Parajon. “The community has been nothing but supportive, and it’s made it all worthwhile. The reception has been wonderful.”

There is no question on how successful the model is. It all does start with the food.

Head chef Jarad Blanton takes no shortcuts. The challenge for the chef who formerly worked at establishments such as The National and Farm 255 was to make fresh, high quality food at an affordable price.

“I wasn’t going to serve something that came out of a Cisco bag, that’s not what I do,” Blanton said. “I wanted to get the freshest ingredients and still have affordable food.”

Menu items such as the chicken and waffle club sandwich and wonton nachos only scratch the surface on the creativity Blanton has placed on his food. He embraces the challenges of being the head chef with open arms.

“I like to make pub fare. I hate to put a label on much of anything,” he said. “I want people to come in, not be stressed about the food, have it at an affordable price and enjoy it. “

Alongside that, living up to the world aspect of the name, Blanton also incorporates a wide array of global food.

“The approach has to be the same no matter what kind of food you make, that’s what I try to do here,” he said. “We’re trying to make cost-effective bar food, but we want to make it as fun and tasty as we can.”

Mixing high quality food in a bar environment at first might sound out of place. Yet with the venue serving food until 2 a.m. and having its peak hours of food come after midnight, it all comes together.

“When you’re drunk I want you to think about my food,” Blanton said. “I kind of like that.”

While having a restaurant wasn’t an idea at first, conditions of taking over the rental space played a  role in that occurring.

“One of the stipulations the landlords here had in regards to renting the space out to perspective tenants was that there needed to be a restaurant,” Parajon said. “So, I guess the bar and the venue came first when we found the space and when we realized a restaurant was going to be required we embraced it.  We were thrilled to be able to have that, it was just another challenge.”

The next tier is the drink menu. All of the menus are ever-changing, and the cocktails are no different. Recently introduced were the Tango Whisky Foxtrot, which features tang on the rim of a mason jar, and the Flash Gordon which mixes gin, lime and Cheerwine.

“If you’re in a space, you want to be confident and comfortable with what you serve,” Parajon said. “Whether that’s the band on the stage or the drink in the glass, you want it to be something you’re proud of and something you’d pay to enjoy.”

The affordable prices are what draw people in. Nothing on the menu is over $10 and the portions are filling.

“As long as we can offer folks something that’s worthwhile, if you can offer them a worthwhile experience at a fair price, there’s no secret how to do business in Athens,” Parajon said. “That’s all there is to it.”

Finally, there is the entertainment portion of the venue. As a space that can only host up to 60 people, high quality acts have been booked for the venue.

For instance, later this month the venue will bring in Kishi Bashi, and it has been chosen to host shows for AthFest and Twilight Americana.

“It’s cozy,” Parajon said. “If you ever wanted to be in an environment where 60 people feels like 60 million, we offer that here.”

Branding itself  as a home away from home, The World Famous is all about comfort and relaxation. Through that, the owners are bringing in new ideas.

For instance, there are plans to have bring your own vinyl nights as well as airing television shows in the listening room.

“Over the last five to ten years, TV has become an almost private vice,” Parajon said. “We would love for you to watch ‘Game of Thrones’ here, or ‘Walking Dead,’ Braves games, Georgia games. If it’s a TV event of any importance, we can watch it here together. We’ll watch the election returns or whatever.”

One of the difficulties came with the fact there are so many different establishments downtown either offering food or music. That has required the staff to be versatile and creative in having a presence on Hull Street.

“There are so many entertainment options downtown. We knew we couldn’t offer anything that was already happening, but at the same time, it’s not like we’re reinventing any wheel either,” Parajon said. “We’re just trying to offer folks a variety of things to do, while keeping it fresh.”

With the wide array of ideas, it is hard to believe the place is so small. At only 1500 square feet, some limitations occur, but it doesn’t halt the quality of the food or entertainment.

“The reality was that with 198 square feet [in the kitchen]. It’s tiny, and concessions were made,” Blanton said. “I want to take the same approach the guys at Five & Ten take, I wanted the food to taste like anything I made over there. I wanted to take my time and develop tastes that hit your palate all over the place.”

Outside of space, there have been few limitations and difficulties. Creativity has been what’s making The World Famous successful, and special.

“That’s the great thing about this place,” Parajon said. “When you have an idea, it can come to fruition because there isn’t anybody stopping you.”

Looking to the future, the owners are grateful for the success the venue has had thus far. With that success, the only hope is it will continue.

“We’ve had a lot of great shows and been fortunate enough to feed a lot of people,” Parajon said. “Hopefully we will have many more months like this.”

 

World Famous menu

World Famous menu

World Famous menu

World Famous menu

Mat LaVore performing at World Famous.

Mat LaVore performing at World Famous.

Mat LaVore performing at World Famous.

Mat LaVore performing at World Famous.


Campus Kitchen Fights Senior Hunger and Food Waste in Athens

While one in seven seniors go hungry in the United States, according to a Meals on Wheels report, nearly half the food produced in America is wasted, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council study.

The irony of this isn’t lost on an Athens nonprofit, Campus Kitchen, aiming to solve both– and it now has the recognition of its national namesake.

So far, the organization has targeted a population in need within the community, affiliated with the national Campus Kitchen organization and seen tangible results from its efforts.

“Campus Kitchen has grown a lot and our expansion is really an ongoing process,” Nathalie Celestin, an AmeriCorps VISTA working with Campus Kitchen, said.

Campus Kitchen began at the University of Georgia in the spring of 2011 as a campus organization, but faculty sponsor Cecelia Herles connected the club to her classroom as an initial means of institutional support.

“From the beginning we have been a hybrid of a service-learning course effort and a student organization,” Sarah Jackson, an intern with the Office of Service Learning at the University and volunteer since 2010, said. “It has worked out for the best. Having a student organization and Leadership Team provides the structure and consistency we need to run this level of efforts, but they really wouldn’t be plausible without the support of students from different courses.”

Students completed community assessments in one of Herles’ class to determine the need a feasibility of an Athens Campus Kitchen.

“Campus Kitchen at UGA focuses on seniors in Athens because the rate of food insecurity for seniors is much higher than for other groups,” Talie Watzman, a junior social work major at the University, said. “We wanted to address that food insecurity directly in our operations.”

One of five Athens-Clarke County residents is food insecure, many of whom are elderly.

 “We found that because the senior population is often hidden from society, people tend to forget about them,” Celestin said. “If you think about it, there are so many programs and aid out there geared towards children and young adults because that’s who we see all the time and that’s great but what about the senior population?”

Volunteers pick up food from places it would be otherwise wasted– restaurants, community gardens and Greek housing– and then repurposing the food into meals at a central cooking space. Shifts then take these meals to seniors facing food insecurity.

“The Athens Community Council on Aging already had several programs in place that were targeted at seniors, Grandparents Raising Children and Meals on Wheels are the two we work with, so it was easy for us to get connected with the senior community that way,” Watzman said.

Campus Kitchen benefactors are funneled through these programs, meaning the group can focus primarily on project follow-through and organizational growth.

One major area of growth is the Athens Campus Kitchen’s recent affiliation with the national Campus Kitchen.

“Being affiliated with the national Campus Kitchen was a huge deal for us. It was something that Sarah Jackson and other members of the leadership team had been working for for the better part of 2 years,” said Watzman. “The national organization makes us ‘official’ in a way that we weren’t before.”

And despite a history of service and community connection, that affiliation did not come easily.

“It required a lot of time and a lot of paperwork. We had to submit records of our operations, stuff like the amount of meals we served each month and how many pounds of food we collect weekly,” said Watzman. “A representative of the national organization visited Athens for a few days to check us out.”

Once a school is offered affiliation, the group must pay a $1,200 annual affiliation fee, which covers everything ranging from program support (access to national program managers, on-site training, program materials) to financial resources (in-house grant opportunities and internships) to marketing support (use of national brand and logo, website services, publicity support). In total, Campus Kitchens estimates the value of an affiliation with them to exceed $8,000.

Campus Kitchen volunteers say the training and national management support has been invaluable, and funding opportunities have played out this month. Between April 5th and April 12th, Campus Kitchens across the country are competing against each other to crowdsource the most money in the “Raise the Dough Challenge,” an effort supported by national branding and online funding platforms. The national Campus Kitchen will also give the school that raises the most money $1,000 and the school with the most donors will receive $750 towards their efforts.

Support for Campus Kitchen groups is expensive partially because the projects are so intense, but also because each group is distinct and poses different challenges and needs. The Campus Kitchen at the University of Georgia is no different.

We’re the only Campus Kitchen that focuses on senior hunger,” Watzman said.

Georgia is eighth in the nation for hunger among older adults, and collectively the 166 Campus Kitchen volunteers have put in 680.2 hours of work this semester, according to their own calculations. Many keep coming back because they see tangible effects from their work.

“We were able to remove 32 clients from our waiting list and provide them with two prepared meals, produce from the UGArden and commodity goods to last them the month,” Celestin said. “Thirty-two might not seem like a huge number, but it was a big accomplishment for us and we hope to keep that going.”

Even before those seniors were added to the meal list, in 2012 that totaled 5,745 meals that Campus Kitchen prepared and delivered to community members in need, a result of collecting 27,623 pounds of surplus food, again, according to their own calculations. Those involved also benefit from the work, which Watzman calls “the most rewarding volunteer experience” she’s ever had.

“So many student groups on campus are focused primarily on fundraising and while that is incredibly important, I really wanted to do hands on work with members of the Athens community,” Watzman said.


Digital Learning Continues to Improve in Clarke County Elementary Schools

A fifth grade student at Whitehead Road Elementary reached out during a “Figurative Language Game” and touched the SMART Board.

With a point of a finger, the student showed the class that the phrase “happy as a clam” was a simile. He walked past the classroom netbooks and returned to his seat with a smile.

 Elementary school students like the fifth grader in Clarke County are surrounded with advanced technology like SMART Boards and Netbooks on a regular basis. Because of the support of the community and tax funding, students are able to prepare for a more technology-driven society.

Founded in 1997, the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax was renewed in 2001, 2006, and 2011. Clarke County is currently in Education SPLOST 4.

A Citizen.com article reported that the E-SPLOST (Education Special Purpose Local Option Tax) expires in April 2014 and has a $115 million collection ceiling.

The revenue generated funds the upkeep of schools in Georgia, as well as improved digital learning environments. The SPLOST 4 renovation projects have helped Whitehead Road Elementary School, Borrow Elementary School, Barnett Shoals Elementary School and Clarke County High School.

 Stroud and Whit Davis elementary schools have been revamped as a result of the previous SPLOST funds.

Over the past ten years, a lot has changed, according to Emily Hodge of the Educational Technology Center at the University of Georgia.

“Just off the top of my head, I would say, in no particular order, harnessing the power of the Internet and digital resources, Google and all of its glory, interactive whiteboards, student voting devices, online learning, learning management systems, tablets, Apps, SMART Phones, ‘bring your own technology’ or byot, social media, and cloud productivity and storage,” Hodge said.

 Software like longitudinal data system has helped the school district gauge each student’s strengths and weaknesses in certain subjects based of technological usages.

Online Athens reported an accrediting team gave Athens Clarke County “glowing reviews” after a four-day inspection.

The inspection showed how the team was impressed with the use of technology and partnership with the University of Georgia’s College of Education.

Hodge believes that the local schools are just as, if not more so technologically advanced as the University.

            “It helps teachers individualize learning to students’ interests and abilities.” Hodge said. “We are also helping students be more thoughtful and responsible consumers of information.”

Whitehead Road Elementary, along with the other elementary schools around Athens, has SMART Boards in all classrooms, LCD projectors, computer labs, mobile laptop labs, wireless internet access and other technological advances.

Media Specialist at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary, Deirdre Sugiuchi, uses sources such as Google Docs, Glogster, PebbleGo, and Pathfinders to help students learn to search information.

“We are finding that because of technology, learning extends far beyond classroom walls,” Anisa Jimenez the Director of Public Relations and Communications of Clarke County School District said. “Students are giving feedback to each other in the evenings, and are able to communicate with their teachers as well.”           

What is next for our technology-driven society-first graders using Twitter?

At Barrow Elementary, the Media Specialist Andy Plemmons used Twitter to communicate first graders’ thoughts on the books hello! hello!  by Matthew Cordell and On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole.

“I thought Twitter would be great for this because it would require the students to write 1 short sentence that used capital letters, punctuation, and persuasion,” Plemmons said.

According to Hodge, technology is no longer a nice add-on. It is more of a norm rather than an exception.