Writer: Staff Reports
Published October 8, 2021
Main Street Athens recently celebrated its fifth year of service to this community.
Main Street Athens became a certified program on July 1, 2016.
“A lot has happened in the past five years and there is more in store,” stated Executive Director Lisa Dotson.
Main Street’s existence has coincided with the tornado of 2016, the downtown fire on July 1, 2017, and the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. However, the organization is still progressing.
“Not only do we have the benefit of being a partner of the national network, we have received support from our local and regional partners,” said Dotson.
As part of its partnership with the City of Athens, from 2018 through 2020, the program supported 13 business owners with facade improvements through a $100,000 grant sponsored by the Southeast Tennessee Development District.
In 2019, with assistance from local historians, an educational walking tour was developed which highlights the history of 32 properties in Downtown Athens. This tour will be part of the activities during this weekend’s Pumpkintown Festival.
This project was sponsored by the East Tennessee Foundation/Y-12 Community Investment Fund, DENSO Manufacturing and the McMinn County Tourism Fund.
In 2019, Athens was designated as a thriving community through the THRIVE Regional Partnership Initiative and was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation to convert a vacant lot on Jackson Street into a community gathering space which was dubbed “Pocket Park.”
In 2020, Main Street Athens had the opportunity to apply for another grant and was awarded $10,000 to help support the construction of a pergola at Pocket Park and the design and installation of a historic marker for J.L. Cook Memorial Park. This project was funded by the Tennessee Arts Commission, Southeast Tennessee Development District, Lyndhurst Foundation and THRIVE Regional Partnership.
“We have been blessed with the connections that have been made throughout the region,” said Dotson. “Our funders are excited about the development in downtown and they are supporting our efforts.”
Also in 2020, the Lyndhurst Foundation funded a $50,000 project for the creation of “The Friendly City Experience Masterplan 2020,” a design plan including a variety of ideas and proposals for converting Downtown Athens into a pedestrian-friendly town center.
The plan was created by consultants from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. This plan was adopted by the Main Street Athens Board of Directors and the Athens City Council and will be used as a guideline to assist in downtown improvements.
Last month, the Lyndhurst Foundation awarded Main Street Athens with a $75,000 grant that will provide $50,000 to help with the improvements included in the downtown master plan and $25,000 to support daily operations and program expansion at The LITE House.
Main Street Athens has provided funding support for The LITE House — a community small business development center under the purview of Tennessee Wesleyan University. This center houses work spaces and offers programs to support entrepreneurs.
“Although there have been past renovations and plans available for the future, we still have a missing link in our current market and that is in fine dining,” said Dotson.
This component was rated highly during a 2019 community survey offered by Tennessee Main Street.
“The good news is, we are working on it,” said Dotson.
In partnership with The LITE House Innovation Center, Main Street is working with consultants from PROOF — a restaurant and bar incubator located in Chattanooga to assist current or start-up restaurant owners.
The kickoff for this partnership will be Monday, Oct. 25, with a free workshop at the event space at White Street Market in Downtown Athens from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. After this initial workshop, owners can schedule a one-on-one meeting with the consultants. This program is funded by Tennessee Placemakers Funds.
“Our vision is to one day establish a kitchen incubator in downtown that will be a co-working/shared space for chefs that are not yet ready to launch into a storefront,” said Dotson.