Published February 5, 2017
By Jim Thompson
The three finalists for executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority struck one common theme in their recent community presentations — a need to find some use, even temporary — for vacant downtown storefronts.
The three people vying for the top job in working to revitalize downtown Athens and spur economic development there are former Athens-Clarke County commissioner and former Five Points business owner Linda Ford; former Athens-Clarke County Commissioner David Lynn, who worked with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government before downsizing prompted him to pursue what he called “a lifelong dream” and become a police officer at UGA; and William Herbig, whose last work was as a program director with the Congress for the New Urbanism.
The three finalists were chosen by the ADDA’s board of directors from more than 50 applicants for the job, which is projected to pay between $75,000 and $90,000 annually. The new executive director will replace Pamela Thompson, who took the job in 2013 and resigned in December to become director of the community development department for the government of coastal Glynn County.
As part of the final selection process, Ford, Herbig and Lynn were at a community reception Friday at Athens First Bank & Trust’s downtown offices to talk about new business development, the challenges facing downtown Athens, and the downtown master plan commissioned by the ADDA and accepted by the Athens-Clarke County government two years ago.
The reception drew about two dozen people — ADDA board members, downtown business owners and local elected officials comprised much of the crowd — to hear 20-minute presentations from each of the three candidates.
All three mentioned downtown Athens’ empty storefronts — nearly two dozen spaces, by some counts — and had ideas for how they might be used.
“Downtown Athens needs an art destination,” Ford said, to capitalize on the community’s reputation as a center for arts and music. Ford suggested using empty storefronts as studios, galleries, artists’ cooperatives, or a combination of those functions.
Herbig saw the vacant downtown spaces as an opportunity for “pop-up studio” space — not solely for artists, but for the entire community to gather for work, to incubate ideas, and to address community issues.
Lynn had a different idea about the “pop-up” potential for downtown Athens, suggesting property owners should explore offering 30-day leases to allow businesses to set up shop temporarily in the downtown area.
Lynn brought a fairly technical approach to his presentation, focusing on specific problems he sees in the downtown area and proposing some specific actions he would take as the ADDA’s executive director.
Lynn expressed some concerns about the mix of businesses in downtown Athens, noting the area is filled largely with bars and restaurants. While that’s not an unexpected circumstance in a college town, Lynn said, “I don’t think we want to become an alcohol theme park.” Pop-up markets, he suggested, would help bring additional vitality to downtown Athens, and bring new visitors to the area.
Lynn also suggested there should be some additional efforts to control panhandling in downtown Athens, an issue with which the county government has struggled over the years.
Additionally, Lynn called for allowing parking in reserved spaces in downtown parking decks after 6 p.m., so visitors wouldn’t have to go to the upper levels of the decks if more easily accessible spaces were available.
Lynn also noted the potential for downtown Athens to provide business incubation space — something that’s already under way with tech incubator FourAthens — and suggested that the area could also incubate bioscience and culinary arts enterprises.
There is also some potential, Lynn said, for turning downtown’s many alleyways into new public and business spaces.
“Athens is crawling with interesting alleyways,” he said.
Ford, touting her experience in business and government, also made some technical points, suggesting that upgrading downtown’s digital infrastructure — ensuring and expanding high-speed and convenient internet access, for instance — should be a priority. Whenever work is being done on downtown streets and sidewalks, Ford said, consideration should be given to installing up-to-date technical infrastructure while those areas are dug up.
Ford also said that efforts to install trees and other greenery in downtown Athens should be stepped up. Showing a photo of a street in another city awash in an effusion of colorful flowers, Ford said people “really want this ‘wow’” in streetscapes.
Ford went on to suggest that having a number of small, family-friendly events in downtown Athens, like scavenger hunts, could bring new people into downtown Athens, and prompt them to return frequently to enjoy the area.
“It becomes their downtown,” Ford said.
But, she added, the ADDA’s role should be to support and promote such events, rather than stage them.
Herbig, whose career has included work in revitalization in midtown Atlanta, said he was struck by the lack of economic diversity in downtown Athens.
“The downtown area seems to be targeted primarily to students,” he said. Herbig suggested additional work to tidy up the downtown area, to bring it to “the next level of clean.”
Also, Herbig said, some work should be done to make downtown Athens “a welcoming environment for everyone.”
Herbig said the downtown master plan, developed by University of Georgia College of Environment + Design professor Jack Crowley and some students, along with significant public input, is “a good template” for the area’s future. The plan, a proposal to guide development of the downtown area through 2030, calls for a broad mix of uses in the downtown area, with significant attention to the development of public spaces in the area.
Herbig, though, suggested that instead of developing the plan in broad swaths, a better approach might be to try out some of its ideas in smaller areas of downtown Athens to test their feasibility and impact.
Herbig went on to suggest that a key strategy for developing the downtown area will be building on its existing assets, including finding ways to support existing businesses.
But also, Herbig said, there should be some effort to promote the availability of key development sites in the downtown areas.
Overall, Herbig said, “town-making is a messy process,” and one of the ADDA’s roles should be fostering partnerships to get that work done.
Current plans call for the ADDA board to make a final decision on the executive director’s post sometime after Feb. 8.