By Luke Dixon
Drinking alcohol in Athens could become less restrictive in the near future, at least the area where you are permitted to do so.
The Athens-Clarke County Commission is set to consider making consumption of alcohol easier and allowing additional outdoor portable signage at sidewalk cafes in Athens.
The original sidewalk café ordinance was adopted by the City of Athens in 1979 and has been amended three times since then in 1994, 2003 and 2011. There are two types of sidewalk cafes as defined by the Legislative Review Committee’s proposal. One is a common area café on College Square, Walker’s which have open space in front of the bar property.
The proposed amendment to the ordinance also states that “cafés attached to the building which are limited to 50% of the sidewalk width and must allow a minimum of 5 feet for a pedestrian path, alcohol is allowed, and dividers are required” according to the commission report and recommendation.
The current ordinance calls for required physical barriers and railings that are placed outside the cafés to mark the territory where patrons can consume alcohol on the sidewalk and patio area.
There are multiple parts to the proposed amendment of the existing ordinance. The first part would allow an option of a physical barrier to be put up or sidewalk cafés no that are not in downtown Athens proper, but rather outside the downtown district. The Legislative Review Committee has proposed two zones– one in downtown, one for the rest of Athens-Clarke County outside of downtown.
The major difference is bars outside downtown wouldn’t require a physical rail boundary. Instead they could use a non-physical marker throughout the sidewalk that would mark where patrons could and could not drink. This would allow sidewalk cafés like Go Bar, which is located on Prince Avenue outside of downtown, to not have to put up a physical barrier on the sidewalk drinking area of their properties since it would fall under the scope of the outside downtown cafés.
The second part of the amendment would allow a place like Creature Comforts Brewery, which is located at the intersection of two streets and has its property on both streets, to be able to apply for a sidewalk café permit on both streets.
The third part of the proposed amendment states that owners of the establishments will be responsible for enforcing the boundary at their particular establishment. This means that any obstruction of the boundary i.e. a person crossing over the boundary could result in a fine to the owner/permit holder of the café. The fourth part of the amendment would eliminate the required pressure washing of the sidewalk by each sidewalk café.
During their discussion, the commissioners agreed with many of the provisions and amendments to the sidewalk café structure in downtown, but some also had some reservation and concerns.
Commissioner Jerry NeSmith was wary about the new boundary requirements outside of downtown. He questioned who would be held liable for any misteps and making sure patrons would be made aware of the new boundary. NeSmith requested the city manager and others proposing the amendment clarify the exact boundary requirements for those cafés.
“I wonder if we should require a sign that tells [patrons] because otherwise if no one tells them, then they’re just not going to know,” NeSmith said.
Commissioner Andy Herod shared the same concern and asked Athens-Clarke Attorney, William Berryman, about the enforcement of the proposed policy.
“I still believe if the patron steps out on the sidewalk, with an open container, that patron is going to have full responsibility,” Berryman said in response. “The government might be able to take an administrative action against the owner of the establishment for not giving the warning, but it won’t change the responsibility of the person with the actual open container.”
From a business standpoint, Jake Fisher, the manager of The Cabin Room, formerly known as The Bury, thinks the physical barriers are necessary to most bars downtown. He said that more space could allow for a less restricting barrier and that if a café has the space, like Creature Comforts Brewery for example, to allow freer roaming drinking space, they should do so.
“I think it has its pros and cons as far as clearing up some sidewalk space and allow some of these bars to expand out for the people who do like to go outside and drink a beer,” Fisher said.
Customers and in particular University of Georgia students would favor expanded drinking space, especially in the warmer months, according to UGA students Brandon Estroff and Logan Booker.
Estroff, said the idea of having more space is great even though it likely won’t effect him following graduation in May.
Booker on the other hand was ecstatic to hear of the possible expansion.
“I think it would just be a more lively atmosphere,” Booker said. “Just being outside in general is more of a festive drinking, not just drinking, but more of a social setting. In spring and fall in Athens, it’s nice to be outside.”
The proposed change in the sign ordinance calls for wall mounted board signs and additional sign allowance for all Athens sidewalk cafés.
These are signs that include menus and drink specials among other information, according to the Legislative Review Committee’s (LRC) report. The LRC is recommending that sidewalk cafes be permitted to use mounted wall signs to display menus and specials outside that are currently on portable signs that are placed outside during a businesses operating hours.
Presently, the ordinance does not allow for mounted wall signs that do not count against a café’s allowed signage space. If the mayor and commission approved the proposed amendment to signage ordinance, the mounted wall signs would not count against sidewalk cafés allowed signage space. The mounted wall signs would be restricted to one per business, two per property if the businesses are stacked on top of each other like Taco Stand and Blue Sky was the example Girtz described during discussion. Each sign would not be able to exceed six square feet.
During the discussion, three commissioners raised concerns about the proposed sign ordinance proposal. Link wanted to clarify the difference between signs and posters under the sign ordinance citing many of the downtown business owners concern of not wanting to further hinder their business’ signage and display, with more upcoming construction in the downtown area.
“I’m hoping that we can tweak our ordinances or at least clarify what constitutes art and what constitutes a sign in the very near future because we are going to be seeing some big giant retaining walls popping up in our downtown area and I know that it would be nice if we had the opportunity to brighten them up a little bit without jumping through a bunch of hoops,” Link said.
Herod was concerned that the change in the downtown sign ordinance could affect the proposed café boundary or hinder the marking of the boundary and Girtz was concerned about the content neutrality of the signs.
“Legally speaking, if they allow one type of signage, they have to allow all type of signage in the public space because we have to have content neutral approach,” Girtz said.
The additional signage allowance would be welcomed by sidewalk café businesses, according to Fisher.
“Having a hanging sign would alleviate some of the problems because when it does get busy, sometimes those signs can get trampled and get in the way,” Fisher said. “It’s happened before where I’ve been to other places where it happens. I’ve seen it happen at our bar, other bars.”
If the commission approves these measures at their montly April meetin, it will allow sidewalk cafes with the space and ability outside of downtown additional space in the outdoor and patio area of their establishments. All bars will be able to hang additional signage without hindering the walkway. It will also give more freedom for their customers to enjoy an alcoholic beverage outdoors just as spring fully arrives in downtown Athens.
Both amendments to the ordinance were tabled for further discussion at the Mayor and Commission’s March 17 agenda setting meeting. They will continue to discuss the proposal during their April monthly meeting.
By Lauren McDonald
A young farmer discovered last month at the Georgia Organics Conference that his farm has formed a reputation among Georgia farmers.
“They would ask me, ‘What does your farm do?’” said Nathan Brett, owner of DaySpring Farms. “I’d tell them ‘We produce stone mill flour.’”
“Oh, you guys are the stone mill flour guys.”
Brett laughed and replied, “Yeah, that’s us.”
Customers will return to the Athens Farmers Market on April 4 at Bishop Park, and Brett is one of several young farmers who have emerged as local market celebrities.
“We heard that soon enough, instead of having celebrity chefs we would have celebrity farmers,” said Jan Kozak, manager of the Athens Farmers Market. “And lo and behold, we’ve got some farmers in our local market that are not necessarily celebrities but have done a good job of marketing themselves to where they’re really recognizable.”
DaySpring Farms is one of the nearly 100 small farms in and around Athens-Clarke County, all of which contribute to what Kozak calls a “burgeoning” local food scene.
“In the case of Athens, we have a fairly young farmer scene, and all that really contributes to the really great, vibrant local food scene that we have,” Kozak said.
Brett and his father Murray opened DaySpring Farms in 2011 in Danielsville, about 20 miles outside of Athens.
DaySpring Farms produces organically certified wheat, corn and produce. The 90-acre farm’s most well-known feature is its stone mill, which grounds wheat into flour.
“There may be a handful of other farms in Georgia that are growing organic wheat,” Brett said.
DaySpring Farms has expanded rapidly since it began four years ago.
The farm produced 30,000 pounds of organic wheat in 2014. Brett said they hope to sell 60,000 pounds this year.
But before 2011, Brett had very little interest in running his own farm.
Brett studied music business at the University of Georgia until 2008. He then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue a career as a musician.
He dreamed of seeing his name up in lights.
“For the better part of my college career and afterwards, I was very intent on making a name for myself as a singer, songwriter or performer,” Brett said. “I wanted to the next Ryan Adams or Bob Dylan.”
His father convinced him to make a career in farming instead.
“He grew up on a farm in South Georgia,” Brett said. “He moved away from the farm to go to school. He says that he wishes he had never left. In about 2009, he got in my ear and talked me into moving back to the farm.”
So the Brett family bought a piece of foreclosed property in Danielsville.
DaySpring Farms sprung up on the local Athens food scene by taking part in the Farmers Market and building a client base. The farm began with just three acres of wheat.
Their biggest buyers have been Heirloom Café and the Independent Bakery, Brett said. Last month, he also began selling to The National and Five & Ten in Athens.
Chef Hugh Acheson, owner of The National and Five & Ten, buys 70 percent of food for both restaurants locally.
He said several new young farmers like Brett have sprung up on the local food scene in Athens lately, many of whom are finding ways to distinguish themselves, just like Brett has done by grinding his own flour.
“There’s a lot of new people doing some really cool stuff,” Acheson said. “As much as there’s new stuff on the rise, though, there’s also a lot of old timers that I still want to support.”
Brett said the Athens community recognizes the stone flour mill as his farm’s trademark, which he said improves his sales, as well as his notoriety.
DaySpring Farms has more control over where it sells crops, Brett said, because it owns its own stone mill. The farm can grind and store the flour because the mill is on-site, rather than outsourcing to a separate mill.
Brett keeps his business viable by storing and then selling the wheat throughout the year.
Brett did not expect to develop a passion for organic, sustainable farming.
In the past four years, though, he said his goal has become to share this philosophy with the Athens community, and he hopes to use his new-found fame to do so.
“Not only is there a need for farmers to produce real food, but it’s also extremely important to be a productive contributing member to society,” Brett said. “Farmers have an extremely unique responsibility in that. They provide one of the most essential things to the local community, and that’s food. Responsible farmers lead to more responsible communities.”
Brett no longer aspires to be a celebrity. Today, he only hopes to sustain his business, educate the community on organic farming and spend time with his wife and 3-month-old son.
“Living with that kind of mentality where you want to see your name in lights can be pretty damaging,” he said. “I’m grateful to have moved away from that, and I don’t really care if people know who I am. If I can provide a good living for my family, then I’m happy for that.”
By Brittney Cain
With the University of Georgia’s growth and number of conventions being held in Athens, the downtown area is becoming a site of construction and further expansion for hotels to accommodate the increase of people.
The Holiday Inn on West Broad Street has submitted a permit application on the building for a renovation and expansion.
Modifications to the parking lot and driveway are included in the proposed work.
The hotel industry in Athens, according to Hannah Smith, director of marketing and communications at the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), is growing to meet the needs of increasing number of meetings and conventions.
In 2003, there were a total of 14 hotels in the Athens-Clarke County area, according to the U.S. Census. The most recent census data revealed that in 2011 the total number of hotels jumped to 22 in the area.
And the Convention and Visitors Bureau reported there are 10 hotels within one mile of the Classic Center.
Brands typically do better in the downtown area, said Mike Waldrip, President of the Athens Area Hotel Association (AAHA).
Because occupancies and rates are driven by this brand loyalty, past experience, service and location, he said hotels in the downtown district have to create originality to set themselves apart from others nearby.
According to Foundry Park & Inn‘s website, they “could have built 300 ordinary hotel rooms, but chose instead to create a warm, welcoming Inn that feels like a home away from home.”
In addition to hotels’ vision of creating a new experience for customers, Hotel Indigo’s website said they “offer a unique experience that reflects the culture of its neighborhood.”
Hotel Indigo instilled “green features” for guests such as natural light and views and thermal controls powered by energy-efficient systems in each room. In 2011, Hotel Indigo was nominated for North America’s Leading Green Hotel.
Other hotels try to set themselves apart by providing meeting and convention rooms for business or football “game-day” additions for fans.
Waldrip noted that expansion and renovation of the hotels in the downtown area is based purely on demand.
“City-wide occupancy is above 55 percent but hotels operate on such slim margins that for most hotels this number needs to be above 60%,” Waldrip said. “When occupancies reach around 65percent expansion may be warranted.”
Construction costs, Waldrip said, range from $70,000 to $100,000 to build a mid-level hotel room. And in the last 10 years, the market has added about 475 rooms.
“A new Hyatt Place is planned for construction later in 2014,” Smith said. “[It] will be the first connecting hotel to the Classic Center.”
And, Smith said, the Holiday Inn is not the only hotel attempting to upgrade its facilities. Foundry Park Inn & Spa is preparing a massive renovation this summer.
With the culture of the University and the tradition of football games, it is not surprising that hotels are more occupied during the fall semester.
Georgia Gameday Center is specifically designed to create a “home away from home experience that is perfect for a UGA football weekend,” with all 133 units tailored to any UGA fan with a sea of red and black furniture.
Meetings and conventions are also frequently held in the downtown Athens area. Smith estimated that each meeting attendee spends on average over $219 per day.
“Tourism brings in $246 million per year to Athens-Clarke County and supports 2,450 local jobs,” Smith said. “Due to tourism spending and tax collections, each Athens-Clarke County household saves almost $400 per year in taxes.”
Hotels pay an additional 7% hotel and motel tax, which funds the Convention and Visitors Bureau and parts of the Classic Center.
“It is likely that over the next two or three years there will be some expansion of the number of rooms available downtown,” Waldrip noted. “This will be driven by the University’s growth and the expansion of the Classic Center.”
By Clay Reynolds
Jill Helme brings a unique mix of skills to her new position as director of the downtown Athens based nonprofit AthFest Educates.
A former English teacher and school administrator, she left her job working with a school system in Orlando Florida to pursue a masters degree in nonprofit leadership – a step she took with an ultimate objective of becoming the executive director of a nonprofit organization centered around education or youth.
A nonprofit like this one was exactly what she had in mind.
“My entire path has been leading me to this,” Helme said.
Helme, named director of the organization this past week, replaces previous director and founder Jared Bailey, who stepped down earlier this year. She takes over the position April 15.
She comes into the job hoping to help the organization set a more of a future vision in its efforts at sponsoring music and arts education programs for kids in local schools.
AthFest Educates supports grants to local educators through its two well-known fundraisers: the AthFest Music and Arts Festival each summer and the AthHalf half marathon every fall.
Highly successful with those events, the organization’s board wanted to bring in someone who could help better translate those dollars into the community impact they want to make.
Helme fit into their plan perfectly.
“Their mission is so clear. They just want to make sure they can achieve that mission,” she said. “I felt like I was a big piece of that puzzle.”
Helme moved to Athens last year when her husband took a job with the University of Georgia’s Dept. of Student Affairs.
She joined in on his trip to interview for the position, and made sure to bring along their 2-year-old son so they both could scout out Athens as a place to live, work and go to school.
It made the cut.
“It was really important to me to feel like we could live and work in a college town even though we were not directly connected to the school,” Helme said.
She graduated with a bachelors degree from the University of Florida – a college town atmosphere she said is totally different from Athens.
“Living in a place like Gainesville, truly the whole culture was the college,” she said. “Athens has a complete separate identity. People who aren’t connected to the university still have a whole separate culture.”
Quite a bit of that culture will reside just outside the door of her new downtown office, housed in the AthFest headquarters on Clayton Street. She’s only been there a few times, but is still new enough to not have memorized the address.
Helme expects the change in leadership to be largely transparent, especially since she’ll leave much of the organizing work behind this year’s already-scheduled music festival and race to those who have done it in years previous.
She will mostly throw her efforts behind evaluating the programs AthFest helps fund for effectiveness and purpose, and look to develop long-term plans for improving them.
“They’re clear on who they want to serve and the kind of impact they want to have,” Helme said of the AthFest board’s objectives. “What’s not perfectly clear is where they want to be in three years. They want somebody to help pull all those ideas together and to get it into some kind of vision.”
She describes her passion as working with youth, ages 13-20. She realized that in five years spent teaching English and language arts, four of them in Orlando and a fifth in Valencia, Venezuela.
Helme eventually moved out of education to do more work dealing with youth development and after-school programming. Her family spent time living in Orlando, Philadelphia and Chicago before making their most recent move to Athens.
They felt attracted to the Classic City for a number of reasons, especially the low cost of living, which has enabled them to spend more time together. But she was most intrigued by the sense of community she noticed in all spheres of Athens life.
“It’s definitely a community effort,” Helme said. “Everybody is focused on doing what’s going to build and better their community.”
Athens is different from places she’s previously lived, but is great in its own way.
“There are a lot of things I miss,” she said. “But a lot of great things about living in a smaller town that you couldn’t replicate anywhere else.”
By Lacey Davis
Students and residents in Athens, GA have been on high alert since the eight reported street robberies in nine days this past December. Students have been increasingly concerned while walking home from downtown since the reporting of these crimes.
The crime rate in Athens appears to many as being higher recently than in the past. This increased sense of fear has likely stemmed from the highly publicized robberies that have occurred. Since the high crime rates in 2012, Athens law enforcement has made an effort to keep the public more aware of issues occurring in and around Athens.
There were 38 more robberies during the first four months in 2012 than in 2011, 75% of which were drug-related. Since the uptick in crime in 2012, 40 suspects were arrested and countless others have warrants out for their arrests. There has been an increase in detectives to catch these criminals still on the streets, according to OnlineAthens.com.
The Athens-Clarke County Police Department and UGA Police Department have told students and residents of Athens how to keep themselves safe. They have also stepped up law enforcement in areas with a history of being more dangerous, such as downtown. These efforts have led to lower crime rates and a safer community in 2013.
During the nine-day period with eight robberies in December 2013, emails were sent out over large student listservs from clubs and other organizations, local newspapers wrote several articles that were published each day on the new robberies and ACCPD released statements of how students should be aware of their surroundings.
“I always knew I needed to be careful walking around downtown at night, but I thought it was in areas that would never affect me,” Nikki Grossman, a sophomore majoring in psychology said. “I definitely felt less safe after I heard people were being confronted and robbed in areas that some of my friends live and are in every day.”
Students, such as Mitch Wunderlich, a junior majoring in business, are taking safety into their own hands while walking around downtown at night.
“I always try to make sure my friends go home in groups or at least with one other person so if something goes wrong then they’ll have someone who will know what happened,” Wunderlich said. “But now, because of all the robberies last semester, I actually call my friends to make sure they’ve gotten back safely. [Our safety downtown] worries me when I think about it.”
Wunderlich is using one of the many tactics that law enforcement has encouraged students to use to stay safe downtown. The most important tips are to travel in groups, avoid poorly lit streets and not to show large sums of cash.
The ACCPD released a statement after a few of these robberies saying the areas on the outskirts of downtown are the most dangerous. This could be a result of drunken young people walking around at night being an easy target.
“It definitely does worry me that downtown is more dangerous, but I’m thankfully rarely alone and haven’t felt unsafe in any particular area,” Jessica Strauss, a junior living in apartments just outside the boundaries of downtown said. “I just try to be aware to keep myself safe and always have my phone in my hand in case something happens.”
According to the Archnews listserv sent to all faculty and students, the winter season has a higher potential for person and property crimes. Thankfully, now that the holidays are over and it is officially spring, the risk is lower than at the time of these crimes.
Although the risk is lower than in years past, future residents of these areas where crimes were committed are skeptical as to if they chose a dangerous place to live.
Ellen Cohen, a sophomore majoring in digital and broadcast journalism said, “The security makes me feel much safer, but of course I was a little freaked out after hearing a few people were robbed just outside of the complex I’m living in next year.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m more worried this year than I’ve been in years past. It’s honestly just more or being aware now,” Lauren Cadranel, a senior from Atlanta said. “If there are problems now then I’m sure they were there in the past. I’m just hearing more about them this year.”
To keep the police in Athens as efficient as possible, the UGAPD and ACCPD frequently work together when there is a criminal overlap. “We work with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department all the time and are always sharing information with each other,” UGA Police Chief Jimmy Williamson told OnlineAthens.com.
The increased effort of public awareness in 2013 and 2014 has produced lower crime rates than in 2012, however still higher than five years ago.
“That’s a little hard for me to believe that it’s lower this year than last, but definitely reassuring,” Cohen said with a grin. “But that definitely doesn’t make me want to walk home alone or stop taking any precautions that I’ve been taking.”
Music to the law enforcement officers’ ears. A cautious and aware public is certainly a safer public, which will lead to even lower crime rates in the future.
By Brittney Cain
After living in busy downtown Athens for 2 years, Lauren Klopfenstein has learned the ropes for getting around problems.
She has found a way to deal with one of the most common annoyances—loud noises.
Klopfenstein’s best advice is to find a different place where it is quiet to get schoolwork and studying done, since downtown isn’t always the best place.
When signing a lease downtown most people think they are aware of the living conditions, but not all actually are.
The growing heaps of trash, loud noises, and run-ins with intoxicated students are often the biggest issues with students and residents of downtown.
One “annoyance” often overlooked is parking in downtown Athens.
More residents are choosing to live downtown, officials say, because of the close proximity to the University of Georgia campus and convenience.
According to a 2012 study of Athens, nearly 2,000 people lived in the downtown Athens area.
Jack Crowley, head of the downtown Athens master plan project, believes that with recent and current construction of residential areas, numbers are set to more than double in the next few years.
With growing number of residents in the downtown area, annoyances are unavoidable.
Here are some tips from current residents and public officials.Trash remains one of the biggest problems with living downtown, according to UGA student Hannah Lech. In addition to being a resident for a year, she also works downtown.
“I work at Athens Bagel Company downtown and can see all of the trash and litter piled up early in the morning,” Hannah Lech responded when asked about the claims of trash.
Among the Athens-Clarke County’s most commonly broken codes, unlawful dumping and littering can be seen downtown.
Garbage is collected by the Solid Waste Department in the downtown district. If garbage isn’t picked up on the proper days, residents can call the main office at 706-613-3501.
Living above Whiskey Bent, Hannah Lech also finds the noise to be disturbing.
“I can usually tell what song is being played at the bar below by the shaking of my floor. It can get pretty loud even on weekdays,” said Hannah Lech.
She suggested future residents invest in earplugs or stay up late enough that they will immediately fall asleep despite the noise below.
Athens-Clarke County Staff Sergeant, Derek Scott, said “we notify bars if they are playing loud music after hours to prevent potential complaints from the residents of downtown.”
Another annoyance is one that is sometimes unavoidable.
Dealing with intoxicated students is bound to happen with nearly 80 bars downtown.
Christian Conover, a junior at the University of Georgia, said, “dealing with intoxicated students is annoying, but I think this comes with living in a college town and can only be fixed by increasing police presence and cracking down on underage drinking.”
Professor John Newton specializes in Criminal Justice at the University of Georgia.
He said that the main problem with intoxicated students is the threat of large crowds and disorderly behavior of those intoxicated students.
Professor Newtown said, “I would be concerned about the unpredictable nature of intoxicated people who may be more likely to resist with violence than a sober person.”
A tip for dealing with these unpredictable “drunks” is to travel in small groups if possible to avoid conflict, and for those that are deciding to drink to be responsible and aware of those that live downtown.
Although trash, noise and inebriated students are annoyances that you would think of when living downtown, most people are unaware of parking situations.
Danny Boardman, a resident on Broad Street, continues to be annoyed with the parking situation. Not only are there small amounts of parking spaces available, but also the parking tickets given are beginning to increase.
Even though there are 750 short-term, pay as you go parking spots along downtown streets and 4 pay lots; it can be difficult to find parking for guests close to residential lofts and apartments.
“I have to be prepared to drive around downtown to find parking spots. Parking is free on Sunday, so it’s the worst that day,” Lauren Klopfenstein said about the new annoyance of parking issues.
Despite all of the minor issues and annoyances of living in a downtown area, Hannah Lech claims, “she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” She fully recommends others give it a try.
By Eli Watkins
The state of Georgia is a bastion of college football fanaticism, church attendance, and gun ownership. In keeping with one of these traditions, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill in February easing restrictions on concealed carry in colleges, churches, and bars. The bill has teetered back and forth in the legislature since then.
This legislation could carry real ramifications for downtown Athens, an area predominantly composed of bars.
The gun rights expansion would bring many changes to Georgia if it becomes law. As the law stands now, gun owners of legal age (21 or over) can register with the state of Georgia and receive a concealed carry permit. Permit holders may then keep a weapon on their person. They can carry the weapon in many places with few exceptions. The proposals flying through the Gold Dome seek to remove some of these exceptions and reduce the penalties for violating the rules.
Republican legislators in Georgia have pushed hard for some expansion of gun rights with last year’s failure behind them and elections in front of them this year. HB 875, the “Safe Carry Protection Act,” and its more recently amended counterpart, HB 60, have become the substance of that push in this legislative session. The original proposal was broader in scope, and observers will have to wait for the current legislative session to end today to see what form the final bill takes, if any.
Legislators have backed down on some points so far. They curbed potential concealed carry expansions to public places, like colleges.
One of the proposed changes could affect downtown Athens more than all the others could, and so far, legislators have not taken it off the table. Georgia may remove the ban on carrying firearms in bars, instead leaving that decision up to bar owners. The question remains: Will the bar owners of Athens welcome gun owners into their establishments?
When asked about a broader proposal last year, Athens bar owner Paul DeGeorge came down as a clear “no.” He owned firearms, but that did not mean he thought they belonged in bars.
“It’s a bad environment to have access to something like that. There’s too many brawls,” said DeGeorge.
A third year journalism student and occasional bar-goer, Skye Rubel, echoed DeGeorge’s concerns.
“People drink and do stupid things. Guns and alcohol are a horrible combination,” said Rubel.
Other Athenians in the bar industry were not so critical. Norman Scholz, the general manager of The Globe, did not have a problem with the idea of concealed carry in his place of work.
“As long as it is legally concealed carry, then it’s not our concern,” said Scholz.
Opinions vary on this controversial legislation, with viewpoints ranging from outrage to skepticism to full support. Discussions over the potential expansion of concealed carry have taken a decidedly chill tone in Athens, as one would expect. However, the controversial aspects of this bill have invited statewide and national scrutiny.
The gun control advocacy organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns wrote, “This bill [HB 875] would dangerously expand the scope of the state’s existing Stand Your Ground law.” People on different sides of the debate have disputed the accuracy of this letter’s claims. However, the text of the bill they referenced did provide the legal opportunity for fights in bars to end in justifiable homicide involving firearms.
State Representative Scott Holcomb is one of the bill’s skeptics.
“As far as bars are concerned, I think that any of us that have had that witches brew touch our tongues get that you don’t want to mix guns with that,” said Holcomb.
Gun possession in bars does have its advocates. John Monroe of GeorgiaCarry.org, Inc. said his organization supports carrying firearms in bars, openly or concealed. “We think safety would be enhanced in bars if carry were allowed,” said Monroe, “Carry already is allowed in restaurants that serve alcohol… So, people already are carrying in many places that are essentially bars and there are not issues with it.”
The push from Republicans, particularly in the state house, has been strong. Almost all of the Republicans in the state house voted in favor of the bill, and they almost comprise a supermajority in that chamber. The vote in the GA house split the members from Athens. Democrat Spencer Frye voted “Nay,” and republican Regina Quick voted “Yea.”
A gun bill of the kind discussed so far may pass in the waning minutes of this session and move swiftly thereafter to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk. If it does not, observers can guarantee a similar push next year.
The Georgia state government may soon make its decision, then the bar owners of Athens will make the ultimate call.
People know the bars of Athens for eclectic music and underage drinking. These welcome frat brothers sporting identical popped-collar polos and townies sporting identical vaudevillian mustaches. Will bars open their doors to concealed firearms too? It looks like someday soon, the people of Athens will find out for themselves.
It’s 2 a.m. and the ice cream is melting – Kathryn Lookofsky is at Kroger wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt, red hair spilling out of a baseball cap, no makeup on and ready to check out. Then, a downtown merchant who just happens to be there walks up and asks her a question.
“I’m really never off work, which is irritating,” Lookofsky said. “But I’m not complaining. I love what I do.”
Lookofsky plays a key role as director and CEO of the Athens Downtown Development Authority in all things concerning economic development downtown, and part of her job is that she’s always on the job.
She explains her job this way:
“I walk that bridge between the downtown business community and local government,” she says. “I help get information back and forth, and help make sure both pieces work well together.”
The latest example of her work is the oversight of a seven-story parking deck being built on the corner of Lumpkin and Washington next to the Georgia Theatre, which will be using $6,768,205 in SPLOST funds appropriated in 2005 as a part of Project 28 of that year’s SPLOST referendum.
“We have the ability to issue bonds, and that’s what we did to finance the parking deck for the ADDA part of it,” Lookofsky said. “It was a bond issuance of just right over $6 million. They’re revenue bonds, so they’ll be paid back over time with revenue from the parking deck.”
The new deck is a three-way venture between the ADDA, Athens-Clarke County and a development company called Batson-Cook.
“The easiest way to think about that, to wrap your head around that is to kind of think of it like a condominium development, where you buy an apartment in the condominium, or a unit,” Lookofsky said. “You don’t own the whole building. So the way it’s set up now, the county owns the actual land that the building sits on. Batson-Cook owns the retail and the office parts of the building, and then the county, or the parking services, owns the parking aspects of it. It’s a lot more complicated and detailed than that, but that’s the crux of it.”
And the goal of the deck?
“The goal would be to provide more parking downtown,” Lookofsky said. “That’s not a smartass answer, that’s really the goal. We’re building it for more parking. I think last count was 520 or 540. I don’t remember exactly.”
Last year, the total operating budget for downtown Athens collected as revenue was $281,000.
“We have a downtown tax district, that’s the ADDA district, and there’s a millage rate for all the property in that district,” Lookofsky said. “We get part of the money for the property taxes in that district, and last year it was about $150,000. So that’s one way we get money. We also manage the downtown parking system, and we get paid a fee by the county to manage the system, and that’s $100,000 a year. Plus, we get a bonus if the revenues are beyond what was projected, so that just encourages us to do the job better. The bonus is part of our operating budget.”
Lookofsky, a Georgia native, came to this work after returning from a position in another state.
“I managed a small town in New Hampshire,” Lookofsky said. “I worked for the city of Decatur, worked for the city of Jonesboro, and eventually wound up in Athens. I actually love Athens. I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be. It’s a great town.”
Lookofsky makes the most of her job by working with others holding her position around the state.
“I know the woman that does my job in Augusta,” Lookofsky said. “I talk to the people in Savannah and Decatur more than anybody because they’re the most similar – we have more in common with the issues we face and the problems we face. We definitely compare notes and steal ideas and copy each other.”
She’s really never off the clock outside of the professional world.
“Even when I go on vacation out of town, I’ll be taking pictures of manhole covers or street lamps and thinking of things we could try out here,” Lookofsky said in an Athens Banner-Herald article on Oct. 31, 2008.
Being close to home is not much different when it comes to being off the clock.
“The rare opportunity I do get to go on a date, I hardly ever come downtown,” Lookofsky said. “I’ll be on the date and somebody will come to the [restaurant] table and speak for 30 minutes.”
Regardless of working day and night to appropriate millions of dollars or just to make sure all the streetlights are working, Lookofsky’s personal life, when she gets to enjoy it, looks a lot like the girl’s next door or the guy’s across the street.
“I enjoy cooking, hanging out with friends,” Lookofsky said. “I like to go see live music, host dinner parties. I’m a runner. I hang out with my dog, Rufus – he’s a basset hound, pit bull mix. He’s really cute.”
Kathryn Lookofsky doesn’t know what she wants for dinner — but at least her meal ticket is paid.
Next month marks her 5-year-anniversary as director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, and as she peruses Kroger’s isles for the possible menu for the evening’s table-makings, she goes over a few of the changes she has already brought to the table.
“Our old parking meters — the ones that you twist, the manual-style ones — we bought those used in 1985,” Lookofsky said. “They’re so antiquated that it’s really hard to find new parts for them when they break. We had to figure out what we were going to replace them with.”
An answer to the problem of the ancient coin swallowers came in the form of sixteen spanking-new parking kiosks installed in March of last year on Broad and Clayton streets between Thomas and Lumpkin at $11,000 each – a price that included shipping and installation
Another project helmed by Lookofsky dealt similarly with outdated citation practices.
Athens-Clarke County did a study three years ago comparing the city of Athens to others of comparable size and demographics, only to find that the citizens of Athens were paying remarkably lower citation rates.
The city decided to make an adjustment.
“One of the problems with our fines originally was that people just considered it the price of parking — it wasn’t a fine,” Lookofsky said. “Once we raised the rates it actually became a fine, and people paid attention to the rules and said, ‘Oh, I better move, I’m going to get a ticket.’”
Three dollars — the old rate — was bumped up to $10, more than tripling the price of parking past a meter’s time limit.
Increased fines coupled with the new kiosks have contributed considerably toward the coffers of Athens-Clarke County’s downtown governing element, but Lookofsky contends the funds are not a source of profit for her outfit.
“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding there,” Lookofsky said. “The whole purpose of managing the parking is to make sure that people have a place to park and it’s not being abused, and that the parking turns out. A lot of people think that it’s a revenue source, and it’s just not.”
Lookofsky and the ADDA get paid a fee for managing parking, “but as far as making money off of parking, we don’t,” she said.
The ADDA is not technically a governmental body, though it does have the ability to distribute taxpayer funds for public works projects, such as using SPLOST funds totaling over $6 million in a joint-effort with the development company Batson-Cook in building a seven-story commercial parking deck.
“We serve as a liaison between the downtown business community and the local government,” Lookofsky said.
But parking is only one of Lookofsky’s jurisdictions in the downtown area — she may hold the keys to the kingdom, but another woman manages the locks.
“It’s been tremendous how the revenue has improved,” said Laura Miller, director of Parking Services, speaking on the parking kiosks that have been in place for almost a year. “Better than 20 percent.”
Such an increase in revenue comes from the fact that, as Miller put it, “Everyone must pay to park.”
Under the old meter system, a customer would park, put money in and do whatever downtown. The meter would still tick to the good when the customer decided to leave, allowing for that time to be used by another visitor to the downtown area once the spot had been vacated.
Plus, it was hard to get an accurate accounting of money with the wind-up jobs — the little coin catchers inside acted almost like beggars’ cups.
“So many hands were in the money on the way to the bank,” Miller said. “The new machines will tell you to the penny how much money has been put in them, and when you take it to the bank there better be that much there.”
The number of citations since the installation of the kiosks has increased alongside revenue from people simply feeding money — or debit and credit cards, a new convenience for downtown parkers — to the new machines.
There were a total of 20,110 expired meter citations written for the period of October 1, 2009, through the day before the kiosks were put in on March 29,2010. These citations account for a grand total of fines at $201,130.
Comparatively, there were a total of 22,122 expired meter citations written for the period of October 1, 2009 through March 8, 2011, and these citations account for a total of $329,423.
The difference between the two periods of time shows that the kiosks have brought potentially extra
revenue in the order of nearly $130,000. One drawback of these numbers is that not everyone has paid their tickets. For example, the balance still due for the 2010-2011 period is $206,845.
All of the revenue collected from parking downtown stays downtown: “Every last penny,” Miller said. The funds go toward downtown enhancements, such as holiday lighting and decorative banners hung from street lights.
And who is responsible for these amassed fines — the delineator of lines crossed, and ultimate regulator of bought time?
Nick Andersen makes his way, car by car, up the street. He is checking meters when there are meters to check and kiosk printout slips when they are present on dashboards.
A long stick is in his hand, and attached to the end of that stick is a piece of chalk that’s “more like a crayon.” This goes on the tire of a vehicle.
When a vehicle moves, the chalk-crayon hybrid comes off of the tire. If the vehicle doesn’t move, but the ticker does — into the red — the driver of the vehicle could get a ticket.
“I am called Parking Violations Officer,” Andersen said. “Nicknames, I’ve heard many: meter maid, meter butler, ticket fairy. Those are all okay with me.”
Andersen sums up nicely the ground up view of parking downtown — puts the meat back on the bone, so to speak: it’s all about the money.
“There are merchants on the board of directors that make policy for the company,” Andersen said. “This is really a lot about the merchants being able to have good traffic in their business, keep the spaces turning over.”