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Hunker Down for Athens

Plans to build a Walmart in downtown Athens will drastically and permanently alter the character and charm of one of Georgia's most cherished downtown business districts.

There's a great little town just up the road where many of us have lived, or worked, or gone to school at some point in our lives. For those of us no longer residing in her city limits it's still a great place to shop or dine out and perhaps even hear some world class music from time to time. There are theater groups, museums, sidewalk cafes and, of course, UGA football. You would be hard pressed to find many Georgians who don't have fond memories of the tree lined streets of downtown Athens.

Unfortunately the historic charm and down home funkiness of this wonderful business district is under attack by one of Atlanta's most powerful developers, Selig Enterprises, who wants to plop a 200,000 sq. ft. modern shopping plaza anchored by a 90,000 sq. ft. “big box" grocer/retailer (rumored to be Walmart) smack dab in the middle of it. As you can imagine, this would be disastrous for a majority of the small business owners fighting to survive in the vibrant, yet always tenuous business community that is downtown Athens. It is grossly unfair to expect these brave entrepreneurs to compete directly with the sweatshop economy of the mega-marts.

There are those who argue that the poor neighborhoods of East Athens are under served or that downtown needs a grocer in order to maintain a viable residential living space. While both may be true, the important thing here is that each of these goals could be accomplished with a much smaller footprint than the proposed 200,000 sq ft. behemoth. In fact a small downtown grocer, like a Piggly Wiggly Express, could easily fit in existing retail space. Can you imagine walking the historic streets of Athens after a Georgia game and seeing the ghosts of downtown merchants in the reflections of empty storefront after empty storefront? This proposed development will drastically and permanently alter the landscape of the downtown Athens business district.

According to a recent Athens-Banner Herald article, two Athens-Clarke Commissioners Kelly Girtz and Alice Kinman, who represent the area between East Broad and Oconee streets where Selig Enterprises plans to build, have delayed development for 90 days by invoking local laws that prevent historical buildings from being torn down. Sadly, this is only a temporary fix and will ultimately not prevent the development from going forward.

Local Athens attorney and former Congressional candidate Russel Edwards has organized the group “People For A Better Athens” and started a petition against the building of a Walmart in downtown Athens which has garnered over 14,000 signatures in less than a week. Selig has already invested heavily in this project and the only hope of stopping it, or significantly altering it at this point is to let Selig know that this venture is opposed not only by Athenians, but by all Georgians who hold Athens dear. While development of this vauable parcel is inevitable, it is important that the community have a voice in what goes there. This is something Athenians, and all Georgians, will have to live with for generations.

I lived in Athens for over 20 years and worked there for another 10 before retiring to Barrow county a few years back. During my time in the community there I was an active participant; PTO president, Scout leader, Little League coach, as well as serving on the Student Assignment Appeals Committee during the school choice mess and as a member of The Ark's executive board for several years. My most active, productive years were spent there. I will always have a stake in the Athens community regardless of where I live, even if it's Timbuktu. Judging by Edward's petition many others feel the same way and that is a tribute to what a special place Athens is. Please help the fight to keep it that way.

In the words of UGA's beloved radio announcer Larry Munson, "If you didn't hear me you guys, hunker down!...I know I'm asking a lot you guys, but hunker it down one more time!"  Let's all hunker down for Athens. You can join the discussion here or comment on earlier this week on Athens Patch. I would also urge you to sign the People For A Better Athens petition here: http://peopleforabetterathens.org/

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Judy Johnston November 25, 2011 at 12:46 AM
Mr. Crawford states, "As you can imagine, this would be disastrous for a majority of the small business owners fighting to survive in the vibrant, yet always tenuous business community that is downtown Athens." If the status quo for downtown businesses is so very tenuous, then we are in dire need of the unprecedented vibrancy that appears to be on the table with the Selig development. I have spent a great deal of time in vibrant downtown areas of Europe. What makes them work is the potpourri of local, national and global businesses which melt together in a "something for everyone" bustling environment. A development such as the one proposed could easily catapult downtown (and areas well beyond) into a prosperous future we have not seen since the department stores of the last century vacated the area in the 1970's-'80's.
Brian Crawford November 25, 2011 at 03:29 AM
I appreciate your comments Judy but I'm afraid there isn't much there I could agree with. Being a small business owner, especially a retailer or restauranteur, is always a tenuous proposition and the downtown Athens business district has worked very hard over the past few decades to rebuild a vibrant retail climate that was devastated when the first big boxes came to town. This is a familiar pattern that has been repeated in small towns all across America. Once thriving downtown areas have seen many small businesses shuttered as the big retail and restaurant chains establish themselves on the outskirts. These business districts are left to scratch and claw themselves back to viability, Some are more successful than others. Locally, Winder and Monroe offer an interesting contrast. There isn't much going on in downtown Winder versus the relative vibrancy found in Monroe. Athenians are lucky to have such a dedicated small business community downtown but part of their success has to do with their proximity to campus and the lack of direct competition with the big supply chain monsters lurking up the road. It is naive to think the Selig development, as proposed, won't have an intensely negative impact on downtown businesses. Europe is a mess, not to mention very different culturally. I'm not sure using them as an example helps your argument. I don't see how you expect this development to be a catalyst for prosperity when prior experience has been the opposite.
The Dish November 29, 2011 at 02:35 PM
I have only visited Athens a few times, but I loved the small town feel and the old downtown area with the local shops. If the big developer wins then not only will the area lose it's small town feel but the local shops will not be able to compete (especially in this economy). I'm the 1st one to line up for a low price on something, but not at the expense of someone else's livelihood. That's why I don't shop at Walmart. They destroy small business. I will definitely sign the petition. Thanks for the info Brian.
Colleen Walsh Fong December 09, 2011 at 03:36 PM
Athens already has 2 Walmarts. I know. I get the credit card bills from my 2 UGA student children. So, it seems the small city is more than adequately covered by Walmart. They plan to put the new one across from 2 lux apartment complexes. The traffic will put an end to that status. This is typical of the Walmart model--build a big box, suck the life out of all the small merchants nearby, and abandon it 5 years later to move a few miles down the road. I vote NO!
Brian Crawford December 10, 2011 at 07:35 PM
Thanks Colleen, spread the word!!
Cynthia Montgomery March 02, 2012 at 05:27 AM
Liberal B, I thank you for your alerting us to the issue facing our beloved, second hometown of Athens. As I tell my children, the best four years of my life were spend in Athens. From eating at Blimpies, after exams to marrying my college sweetheart on Prince Avenue, Athens shall always be a second home for me. Our second generation also claims Athens as both daughter's have the required senior photos on the Arches and my son married his bride there as well. Athens holds fond sweet memories for so many Georgians. On this issue you have found a true partner in agreement with your words. Athens herself can make even two opposing Bulldogs see eye to eye at times. Athens is a special town. Athens must retain its charm. While the B&L has become the Athens Police Station and Blimpies is now a coffee shop, each generation recalls Athens in their own memories as a charming walking place to be. We can not let that change with the big box development. With the economy down many developers are now able to afford real estate that was once to pricey for their wallets. Downtown area is now up for grabs as real estate prices fall further and further. Putting a big box in Athens would be like putting a cheap plastic pearl on a strain of Mikimotos! Consider this DAWG hunkered down & barking to all. WalMart is my retirement but even I know this is a NO GO! Thanks again for the alert, LB!
R++ One of the Famous Dacula Crew March 02, 2012 at 07:24 AM
After reading these last 2 posts, the earth shook... WallMART may have just met its match.
Anonymous Dude March 02, 2012 at 03:48 PM
There is a group of gonzo city planning types who have this monstrosity shot down. Let them put it in Watkinsville near Rocket Park, if they must.

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