Athens/Clarke County: A Seismic Shift
Changing The Face Of Georgia’s Classic City
Long centered on the University of Georgia, Athens-Clarke County’s economy may be tilting seismically toward life sciences in the near future.
None of the announcements are firm but they are close enough to set tongues wagging: Medical College of Georgia may expand in Athens instead of Augusta; a major pharmaceutical manufacturer is interested in an 800-acre tract for a facility that could generate 300 new hires (this deal is cryptically referred to as “Project Bamboo”); and Athens is on the “short list” of new sites for the National BioAgro Defense Facility (NBAF), which could employ at least 500 and put the Classic City on the world’s stage.
“It’s a big deal for the state of Georgia, not just Athens,” says Pat Allen, UGA’s community relations director. “It’s a natural fit – the NBAF project, the possibility of a satellite campus for MCG and the new pharmaceutical company – they all play into our community strengths, and are the type of development our community wants. The resources we have to support it are coming together really well.”
The NBAF will be a state-of-the-art federal laboratory intended to research and develop diagnostic capabilities for foreign animal and zoonotic diseases for the Department of Homeland Security.
“It will certainly complement the research already going on here,” Allen says. “The Vet School’s Animal Health Research Center is already engaged in research that affects animal and human populations, and animals to human diseases, with the Animal Health Center. Our overall proximity to and partnerships with Georgia’s other research institutions will further complement this new facility.” Other nearby institutions include USDA Russell Research Center, Merial (which manufactures animal pharmaceuticals), Noramco (a division of Johnson & Johnson that manufactures base pharmaceutical products), Emory University, Georgia Tech and Georgia State.
The NBAF has been eyeing a site on South Milledge Avenue, Allen says. The next step involves preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for affected communities. The 920-acre Project Bamboo tract is on the so-called Orkin Tract, a giant parcel of land on Georgia Highway 316 at the border of Clarke and Oconee Counties. A decision on this project is expected in January of 2008.
Those three announcements in themselves “would change the face of the Athens economy,” says Drew Page, president of the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Foundation.
Add to that expansion at Athens Regional Medical Center, which will create more than 200 new, permanent jobs, and a certificate of need awarded a Missouri company to establish a long-term, acute care hospital in Athens. Then triple it, Page says. “We think the spinoffs and support companies will double if not triple the employment currently predicted. Suddenly, Athens is a major player in the national health science fields.”
Athens has a lot at stake in these three developments, and a lot to gain from even one. The Navy Supply Corps School was ordered closed in 2005 and is scheduled to move in 2011, and last year pharmaceutical manufacturer Novartis passed over Athens in favor of Holly Springs, NC.
Officials from the governor to Sen. Saxby Chambliss have expressed confidence that Athens will be chosen for the NBAF site. The Southeastern Poultry Research Lab, where research is conducted on exotic and emerging avian diseases, has already been allocated $16 million in the federal 2008 budget for planning and design. UGA’s economic impact, already at $3 billion annually, could snowball as a result of the NBAF alone.
Former Athens mayor and current Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge expresses “cautious optimism,” and says the economic shift to healthcare is making the city more regional.
“We have two outstanding hospitals with almost all the specialized fields available – it’s such a draw for the community. It’s a big influence, all the way to South and North Carolina. Education has always been our number one industry, but healthcare is coming on strong, and it’s a good, clean industry,” Eldridge says.
From Lemons To Lemonade
Eldridge was mayor from 1998 to 2002, and took his new position in the wake of trying times for the chamber, particularly with the local government. “We’re trying to make a regional restart,” he says.
“When we lost the Navy School, instead of licking our wounds, we decided to turn lemons into lemonade. There’s been a rebirth of the relationship between the city-county and the chamber. We’re energizing to tackle regional transportation issues. We have about 10,000 people that come to the university from the Metro Atlanta area, and in terms of inbound traffic it would make a significant impact if we could bring the commuters here – not just for the university. Over the last few years, we see that people would rather look at headlights than tail lights.”
Many Metro Atlanta residents come to Athens for play as well as work. Athens’ nightlife has flourished, creating two economies – daytime and nighttime, Eldridge says. “Look at the UGA calendar – there’s so much going on that is free to the public. Then you have the Classic Center, or the Linden House, or all the clubs. There’s so much more to Athens than college football – of course, we love our Bulldogs, and in the fall, this town bursts with energy and enthusiasm.”
Tourism, always a pillar of Athens’ fall economy, has become a year-round industry. “Our Classic Center convention room nights for FY 2007 reached 28,583, a record number, and 2,000 more than what we projected,” says Athens-Clarke County Convention and Visitor’s Bur-eau Director Chuck Jones.
“The 185-room Hilton Garden Inn, which opened adjacent to the Classic Center in 2006, is doing quite well, and was built to handle future expansion. The 81-suite Country Inn and Suites will open this fall, and Hotel Indigo is seeking to build a 100-room hotel downtown.” Hotel Indigo plans to display local art, offer a stage for local musicians, and display an exterior, Athens-themed mural by graphic design students from UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art.
“There’s a huge market for conventions and meetings here,” Eldridge says. “The Classic Center has been a crown jewel – a huge shot in the arm for this community.”
Where tourism hovers, retirees are usually close by; and Athens is no exception. “The university presents a tremendous advantage for retirees,” Page says. “Culturally, it not only brings events, but it provides a population interested in cultural opportunities. My generation has ascertained that learning is a lifelong opportunity, not just for your college years.”
Magazine rankings have further piqued retiree interest. The Georgia Club, a 1,500-acre golf course community, was listed in the top 100 master-planned communities in Where To Retire magazine, partly because of its location 12 miles from the Classic City.
“We are regional, we just don’t act like it,” Page says. “Retail has become a bigger part of our economy over the last several years. Even though Target and Wal-Mart closed, we were able to fill their space – Academy Sports & Outdoors filled the old Target, and Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear filled the Wal-Mart. Fred’s Discount also moved into the old K-Mart. So three of our most visible empty big boxes were filled in the last year and a half.”
“Because we’re so small [Athens-Clarke County is the fourth smallest county, geographically, in the nation], we can create 100 jobs but only 29 percent will be filled by Clarke County residents,” Page says. “Employers draw from a one-hour commute radius, which suddenly covers a large portion of the population in this part of the world. So the major industries like Johnson & Johnson have a 20-county workforce.”
A number of public regional initiatives have already been accomplished or are currently under way, says Athens-Clarke County Deputy Manager Bob Snipes. “Athens-Clarke County worked with Jackson, Barrow and Oconee to build a regional reservoir. It’s been important to our communities this summer with the drought conditions.”
Snipes also cites a cooperative effort with Oglethorpe County to develop jointly used municipal solid waste and construction/demolition material landfills and creation of a recycled materials processing facility, via a public-private partnership, that accepts (at no charge) material from Athens and adjoining communities. The transit department is working with nearby communities to integrate their public transportation systems and possibly deliver riders to the multimodal center.
“Census results show why healthcare is increasingly important to the region,” says Elaine Cook, director of corporate communications for Athens Regional Health Services. “Our population aged 65 and over is projected to increase from 72,000 in 2006 to more than 90,000 by 2011. Athens Regional Medical already has an annual economic impact of over half a billion dollars.”
A new expansion beginning this fall will provide 226,000 square feet of new space, 44 new beds, four new operating rooms plus expanded pre- and post-op areas, expanded cardiovascular, endoscopy and laboratory services and $69 million worth of new equipment. Athens Regional also opened satellite facilities in the Jefferson/ Jackson, Oconee and Madison areas.
Growth at the hospital was well under way before the NBAF, MCG and Project Bamboo preliminary an-nouncements, with a current $44 million emergency, family care and outpatient radiology department expansion and renovation being completed in June 2008, Cook says. “But our expansion complements these de-velopments and speaks to the growth in this area.”
Indeed, UGA opened the Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Services last year, and in 2005 established the College of Public Health. Page says multiple entities in Athens have “recognized the goal of targeting the health sciences for some time.” St. Mary’s Health Care System, for example, was named “Hospital of the Year” by the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals in 2006.
“Since the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta is landlocked, it makes sense for them to expand here,” Page says. “It’s a logical situation, not a political situation. It’s well known that North Georgia will need 10,000 more doctors in the next 10 years, and MCG can only train 200 doctors a year. Savannah is expanding by building a branch of Mercer School of Medicine, and Brenau University in Gainesville wants to build a medical school.” When you take the NBAF and Project Bamboo into consideration, he says, “You see the need for additional technical staff, and it all plays together into training programs.”
Slow Train Comin’
The growth in healthcare needs correlates to efforts to create a significant research cluster between Atlanta and Athens. Transportation is the other piece of the regional picture, and proponents of the “Brain Train” linking Georgia’s research facilities are coming on strong.
Business community support suggests the Brain Train may be a partially private project, says UGA School of Environmental Design Professor John Crowley, but a public component might be necessary to put all the pieces together and make the fixed-line route happen – the most logical way to pay for the project being real estate.
As Highway 316 becomes more and more congested, Crowley, former Oklahoma Department of Transpor-tation director, says he feels commuter rail is inevitable – and that Georgia fans may once again be able to take a train right to Stanford Stadium in the next 10 years.
Crowley and local businessman E.H. Culpepper are helping move the Brain Train concept along. While Crowley says he doesn’t speak for UGA, he does believe that from an economic development perspective the project has the potential to drive the university to the next level and give more accessibility to a broader range of students.
“UGA sees itself as an international institution, but, technically, it needs to ensure its connection to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to make that happen. There’s a bit of awakening going on about Highway 316 – every year the price tag seems to go up a couple of hundred million bucks,” he says.
Growth in traffic could far outpace the new 316 interchange to Interstate 85, Crowley adds. “Given the typical DOT methods of funding, 25 years to finish changes to 316 is very optimistic.” Highways take so long to complete, Crowley says, that building a rail alternative, which he describes as strategy of benign neglect, might be the best approach.
The unified government has placed “an increased emphasis on alternative modes of transportation,” Snipes says. “To reduce dependence on the automobile, we have supported an aggressive sidewalk and bicycle lane improvement program. Alternative modes of transportation play an important role in our community’s future needs. Road widenings can be detrimental to adjoining communities, and create barriers between neighborhoods and schools.”
To widen Lumpkin Street, Snipes says, “could have changed the character of the adjoining area, creating a larger impediment for our students and other pedestrians moving from one part of our campus to another. Students are a significant part of what makes Athens unique and they contribute significantly to the quality of life of our community. Thoughtful transportation and land use decisions can impact what makes a community special.”
To integrate its Athens-Clarke County Transit and University of Georgia Campus Transit System – making the UGA Transit System the state’s second largest bus system after MARTA – the consolidated government built the $9 million, 9,500-square-foot Athens Multi-Modal Center (paid for with local Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and general funds) as a collection point for people to walk, bike, or take buses (with bike racks mounted on front).
“One of our biggest assets is our bus service,” Page says. “Because UGA has grown so much in terms of nonresidents on campus, bus service has become vitally important. And while passenger rail to Atlanta may be far into the future, if we don’t plan now, we can’t take advantage of it when the future arrives.”
“A lot of people chose Athens over Atlanta,” Page says. “And even though we don’t have an interstate, a lot of people commute from here simply because of the quality of life.”
Athens-Clarke County also has been aggressive about taking on poverty and homelessness. Mayor Heidi Davidson initiated Partners for Prosperous Athens with the chamber.
“There are about 1,000 citizens involved,” Page says. “We’re coming up with several different initiatives for the situation. Athens needs to do three things to move forward: work with schools to bring down the dropout rate, create a funding mechanism for our small businesses and entrepreneurs, and create a regional economic development effort, so we don’t have every county going it alone. After all, we’re the smallest in a cluster of small counties.”
Over the next year, multiple state, local and regional entities are expected to combine their strategies into one regional structure. Transportation may provide the framework, and not just cars, buses and trains. “We know that Hartsfield-Jackson is expected to run out of room by 2012, and regardless of whether they choose northeast Georgia for a second airport, we want to be at the table for the discussions,” Eldridge says.
And beyond the educational facilities it would connect – Atlanta University Center, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and Emory University/Centers for Disease Control – the Brain Train would also link airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson, DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, Winder-Barrow Airport, and Athens-Ben Epps Airport. “The rail stops could be coordinated with highway and airport stops. That creates the infrastructure for a lot of economic activity,” Crowley says.
“There’s a lot to be said for regional aircraft,” Eldridge adds. “If enough seating were established, there could be a route connecting Athens, Atlanta, Charlotte and Birmingham. In the South, we have a love affair with our cars, but anyone who isn’t thinking about alternatives isn’t looking beyond today.”
Athens/Clarke County At-A-Glance
Clarke County, 4.4 percent;
Georgia 4.9 percent
Top 10 Employers*
University of Georgia, 5,000; Athens Regional Medical Center, 1,000; Pilgrim’s Pride, 1,000; Dial America Marketing, 1,000; St. Mary’s Hospital, 1,000; ABB Power T&D Co., 500; Carrier Transicold, 500; Gold Kist Poultry, 500; McLane Southeast, 500; Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, 500
Per Capita Income
Georgia Dept. of Labor, U.S. Census, Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Foundation
* Numbers have been rounded