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/