Athens/Clarke County: Classic City Mobility
Athens is truly a city born of — and sustained by — education. As home to the University of Georgia, Athens-Clarke County’s unified government, its economic developers and the city’s merchants count on students — now numbering more than 31,000 — as a steady stream of commerce and tax revenues. UGA researchers say its campus and 5,000-plus employees have a $3 billion annual economic impact on the local economy.
That’s an elephant-sized presence in Georgia’s smallest county in terms of land area. Clarke County is also Georgia’s sixth most densely populated. Even though everything seems to be just around the corner, sometimes getting there is no fun at all, especially during, say, a home football game weekend.
But travel in the Classic City has benefited from $13 million in transportation improvements that began to fall in place in 2002 with the opening of a 650-car parking facility downtown, just steps from the university. Since then, Athens has only accelerated its transportation improvements.
In August, Athenians celebrated a ribbon cutting at the new $9 million Athens Multi-Modal Center (AMC). Designed with the feel of a big city train station, the 9,500-square-foot facility is a collection point for people who walk, bike, or take taxis or buses. One day it will also serve those traveling by rail. This grand central station may be a throwback to the days before air travel, but its advocates were looking in another direction when guiding its construction.
“We think we’re turning the clock forward,” says deputy county manager Bob Snipes. “We think this is the wave of the future. We’re going to see more walking, bicycling and public transportation use and less dependence on the automobile.” The AMC will serve students, shoppers and workers as a transition point for university buses, public transportation and taxis.
Snipes says the AMC has already influenced the construction of one nearby condominium tower, with another coming off the drawing boards soon. “That is an indication from the marketplace that it is the kind of place that people might want to live and have access to the UGA campus, the business district and the many modes of transportation that will be available,” he says.
Better yet, the AMC and the flurry of development it has engendered are in a warehouse district along railroad tracks at the edge of downtown. “This is healthy for downtown because it gets people to live in the central business district,” Snipes says. “We’re trying to preserve the land in the central business district and the university campus for office buildings and buildings people can live in as opposed to surface parking lots.”
No one is happier about the AMC than Chuck Jones, director of the Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is housed in the neighboring Athens Classic Center, a 70,000-square-foot conference and convention facility. The Classic Center already shares parking with the AMC, and Jones expects the multi-modal facility and two new nearby hotels to add to local tourist traffic.
“The transportation center makes it easier to get from anywhere to downtown and its restaurants and music venues,” he says. “And certainly to get to the campus.”
Education And Tourism
The UGA campus, Jones notes, is a big part of what attracts tourists and conventioneers to Athens — visitors who left $170 million behind in 2004.
“Naturally, university sports are a big magnet for attracting visitors, and it’s not just football,” Jones says. He estimates UGA football brought in some $15.4 million to the area in 2005; other sports generated about $1.5 million.
“We just had 600 or so of the best swimmers in the country for a big swim meet and they brought coaches, parents, friends and other supporters with them. We have sporting events throughout the year. Most people would think that football is the big tourism draw, but actually it accounts for just 10 percent of visitor expenditures.”
New hotels and transportation improvements are expected to boost the number of conventions in the city from 60 to 70, Jones says. “We have already booked eight additional conventions for next year,” he adds.
Tourism revenues for Athens-Clarke County have steadily risen about 5 percent annually since 2003, according to TIA’s data. Tourism currently provides about $40 million in payrolls for Athens-Clarke County, a historic site in American education.
The Underemployment Rate
The Georgia General Assembly chartered the University of Georgia in 1785, making it America’s first state-chartered university and marking the beginning of public higher education in the young nation. The city of Athens, named for the Greek home of culture and learning, was chartered in 1806, and for the next 200 years town and gown would be as one in the minds of Georgians.
Today, Clarke County is home to the state’s best-educated workforce; 19 percent of its population holds graduate or professional degrees (compared to 8.3 percent in Georgia as a whole). To some Athens natives, getting a college diploma is considered something of a birthright.
For years it seemed Jennifer Givan was destined for a career in education — or perhaps a career in getting an education. Since graduating high school, this Athenian has received an associate’s degree in business administration, a bachelor’s degree in political science, and has completed work toward a postgraduate degree. Along the way, she’s gained another education in the school of real life.
A marriage, a child, a divorce, several career changes and a continuing search for the right job finally deposited the 39-year-old Givan at a day care center in Athens, far from her girlhood dreams. “My plan was to get my Ph.D. and teach at the college level,” she says wistfully. “But now I work at a day care center. I don’t want to get stuck changing diapers for the rest of my life.”
To make sure she can put those diapers behind her, last year Givan enrolled in courses at Athens Technical College with an eye toward becoming a paralegal. By late July she was excited by her prospects. “I have one more course and an internship before I get an associate’s in the subject,” she says. “I’m looking at making $10,000 to $15,000 more a year when I go into the workplace.”
Givan is one of thousands of underemployed people living in Athens-Clarke County. Unemployment rates are low here — 4.3 percent in a state that averages 5.1 percent — but it isn’t a lack of jobs for locals that distinguishes the county, it’s a lack of appropriate jobs. The Classic City is rife with Ph.D.s who deliver pizzas and MBAs working the counters at convenience stores.
“About one-third of our student population already has a college degree,” says Flora Tydings, president of Athens Technical College. “They come to us because they have not found a job in the field for which they have completed their studies. Or they are retooling; they were in a job that they decided they did not want to do for the rest of their lives.”
The well educated but underemployed don’t usually end up as defendants facing criminal charges in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Steve Jones. Instead, he gets the other end of the educational spectrum. “When you see 25 inmates brought into the courtroom in chains, in those orange and blue [prison jumpsuits], and they are 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, it just really bothers me and I want to do something about it,” Jones says.
What he and a host of local leaders are doing to get such youngsters out of jail and into jobs was formalized last year when Partners for a Prosperous Athens (PPA) was founded to address a number of social problems.
Despite the high numbers of well educated citizens in the local workforce, Athens-Clarke County — the two governments were consolidated in 1991 — ranks 152nd among the state’s counties in percentage of the population living below the poverty level. The county’s crime index ranking of 152nd places it in the bottom eight counties in the state. Jones believes the matching ranks in poverty and crime is beyond coincidence.
“We may have a lot of Ph.D.s delivering pizzas, but our problems are more than that,” Jones says. “Only about 42 percent of the people in Clarke County live in owner-occupied houses (the rate in Georgia as a whole is 67.5 percent). Forty to 45 percent of our people are dropping out of school. One in four children live in poverty.”
Jones is listing a few unpleasant facts about life in Athens that appear on PPA’s Web site (www.prosperousathens.org), a compendium of data that throws down the gauntlet before the citizenry of Athens-Clarke County.
To the county’s mayor, Heidi Davison, PPA’s mission begins with a hard truth. “Most communities want to put into the public eye only their best features,” she says. “We’re laying our cards out on the table, and we’re saying we can’t keep doing this. We’re saying these are our problems and we’re going to face up to them.”
Meetings have been attracting large and enthusiastic crowds, say leaders of the organization, which is funded by a mix of grants and donations. UGA chips in with donated salaries and office and meeting space.
“Right now, the mood in this county is, ÔLet’s get it done,'” says Jones, PPA’s chairman. “If we don’t concentrate on those 17-year-olds, they likely end up in my courtroom. And they have no skills to offer for a job. Part of my job is to come up with ideas to keep them from coming to court.” Recommendations from PPA are expected to begin later this year.
As home to Georgia’s signature institution of higher learning, a research university to boot, Athens has a cachet that technology based companies can appreciate, says the county’s chief economic developer.
“The intellectual capacity of the university carries over into the business community,” says Drew Page, executive director of the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Foundation. “It is particularly noticeable when you’re talking with [industrial] prospects. It is difficult to separate the university from the city. They are one and the same.”
UGA’s presence has helped diversify the Athens-Clarke economy. “Manufacturing is one of four major economic quadrants in Athens-Clarke County,” Page says. “And we are a regional medical center with two hospitals, giving us another fast growing economic sector. Another is, of course, education, led by our largest employer, the University of Georgia. And because of the large number of students, the service economy here becomes very important — somebody has to feed all those students.”
When one Athens company, Merial, expands next year, adding about 50 employees to its present 300-plus, it will mark the fourth time the international corporation has upped its Athens payroll since moving to the Classic City in 2000. Merial, the world’s largest animal health care firm, placed its research laboratories, manufacturing facilities and related offices in Athens to take advantage of the city’s scientific atmosphere and its myriad opportunities for training and continuing education.
Page and other Athens economic developers were stung last July when they got the news that Athens lost out to North Carolina in the effort to land a flu vaccine production facility. But Page believes such disappointments are a natural part of chasing jobs. “You’re not going to get every one you go after, though you really want to,” he says.
Last year when the federal government announced the closing of Athens’ Navy Supply Corps School (NSCS), community leaders an-guished over the loss of a neighbor of 51 years, as well as its $9 million annual payroll. When no prospects for a new federal tenant arose by last May, the NSCS Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) began to entertain ideas of turning the 58-acre prime site into a revenue producer.
The LRA is a federally mandated property management committee comprising Athens-Clarke County citizens charged with the responsibility of finding a use for the Navy school. There has been no shortage of interest in the former Navy facility, says Paul Chambers, an LRA board member.
“We’ve heard from developers all along, but we had to wait for the federal period of interest to end,” Chambers says. “There is incredible potential for this facility. It is a beautiful property in a great location on a major thoroughfare inside the perimeter with buildings in incredible shape.
“We’re sorry to see the Navy leave. At the same time, as any community must do, we must look to the future to see what is the best way we can make use of what is going to be a tremendous asset. A primary goal of the LRA is to enhance the economic vitality of our community. We want to replace that $9 million payroll that went away with the Navy. And we are optimistic.”