Athens/Clarke County: More Than A College Town

Tourism, healthcare and a thriving cultural scene
Becky Stein
New spec building: Athens-Clarke County EDF President Drew Page welcomes Rooker Development’s 120|!!|000-square-foot structure

Many Georgia cities can vie for relevance to music history. Savannah has Johnny Mercer; Augusta, James Brown; Albany, Ray Charles; Macon, Otis Redding and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Atlanta is the world’s black entertainment Mecca. But Athens has its own special legacy of “art” music that has now spanned three decades and multiple generations. Few bands are as loved as the B-52s, R.E.M. and Widespread Panic. And this legacy is very much active in the present: Most musicians in these bands (and countless others) still live here.

They know what so many are learning: Athens is a great place to live. Athens’ outsized music scene helps create a thriving intellectual atmosphere, further stoked by an excellent café-friendly downtown layout. Streets give way to extra wide sidewalks and an atmosphere geared to walking or cycling, not driving. It doesn’t take a great band playing to draw out throngs to overload Athens’ dozens of eating and drinking establishments, but it doesn’t hurt to have six or seven bands playing downtown on any given night. Or to have football games, graduations or Broadway-style theater at the Classic Center. There always seem to be good times in Athens coming at you in all different directions, and plenty of room to enjoy them.

“A number of University of Georgia graduates love to stay in Athens,” says Arnett Mace, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost for UGA. “They develop a deep fondness for community, and may return if not stay on.” Former UGA painting students, the B-52s, recently moved back from New York for a time to record a new album.

Now Georgia leaders are hoping Athens will prove as attractive to doctors as it is to musicians and artists. Quality of life is as much a strategy in the state’s effort to address a projected physician shortfall as research opportunities, and Athens is overflowing with it. Its culture has always thrived on easy living, and Athens is more walkable and bikeable than ever. It is the only city in Georgia with a multimodal transit station. And the University of Georgia grows more prominent for its academic accomplishments each year; this year it was the only public university to produce not one but two Rhodes Scholars.

Expansive Potential

Recent census figures gave the city cause to celebrate: with a 12.5 percent population increase since 2000, and capped enrollment at UGA, Athens is finally drawing new residents in the 21st century. Now the government is working to provide services such as transportation and healthcare to the community, and preparing for massive job growth with the new Medical College of Georgia Athens campus (which opened in a temporary facility and will move into the former Navy Supply Corps School in 2011) and possibly the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), which could bring 400 jobs if leaders can outsell current favorites, Mississippi and Texas.

“The MCG is as big a development that has ever happened in Athens in my memory,” says Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President and former Mayor Doc Eldridge. “It dovetails into what we’re becoming – a biosciences center for the state.”

Athens Mayor Heidi Davison, after listing the intricate infrastructure investments that allow citywide bike and walking paths and extensive bus service, speaks to the city’s unique challenges as a “laboratory” for quality living. “We’re part of a national trend of increased ridership on buses,” and more bicycle riders are out and about as well. During a promotional free bus day [a statewide annual event allowing free access to city bus services] Athens recorded a 45 percent increase in ridership, she notes. “So if you get [passengers] to try it and like it, hopefully, they’ll come back and use it again.”

On the flip side, she adds, it still costs local government gas to provide bus transportation through taxpayers subsidies. At times the system can’t handle the increase in ridership without additional equipment. The state provides no funding for transit, so the city has to rely on general funds. Athens takes advantage of federal funds, Davison says, “but we’re still heavily subsidizing buses.”

As the city prepares its infrastructure, the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Foundation (EDF) plans to move into the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce building this month to help coordinate employer recruitment. “This will be the first time the government and the chamber have been on the same page in a very long time,” Eldridge says, adding that similar models have been successful for Gainesville, Columbus and Macon. “It’s a very significant move for Athens and the region. I’m already getting calls from around the state.“

Efforts also are under way to link Athens and Atlanta with a “Brain Train,” or light rail commuter line, emphasizing its connection to Atlanta’s 10 colleges and universities and the Centers for Disease Control. Highway 316, which connects Athens with I-85, has similarly been marketed as a research ccorridor, with the new Georgia Gwinnett College meeting students halfway.

The EDF also recently announced that its industrial park will soon include a new 120,000-square-foot speculative building under development by Rooker Development Company. “We feel like this building will open some doors that haven’t currently been available to us, give us some product,” says EDF President Drew Page. “Everyone looks for existing buildings, and we had nothing to show, so we’re very pleased that Rooker took this chance on the community.”

Athens’ tourism economy is hotter than ever – restaurants are at capacity, another by-product of gas-wary road-trippers. “Our hospitality and tourism [industry] continues to grow, and part of that is also related to gas prices,” Davison says. “People don’t want to travel as far, so they can vacation here on a weekend.”

Page points to annual local music festival, AthFest, which usually takes place in late June (dates for 2009 are June 26-28), as a great way to take time off, and come hear good music. This year’s Athens PopFest, which takes place in August and also spotlights local bands, brought out underground legend Roky Erikson. The new UGA Art Festival, held this year Sept. 4-7 to dedicate the new Lamar Dodd Art Building, is expected to grow into an annual event that could further grab weekend vacationers. The Athens Conference Center continues to grow ahead of its expansions.

“We’re now beginning to see several conferences outgrow our current facilities, and are working on how to respond to that,” Davison says. “Meanwhile, several hotels are opening, including the new Indigo Hotel, whose owners are talking to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame about using a music theme.”

Day Job Blues

Athens is working hard to address its poverty level, which is the highest in Georgia at 31 percent, and the fifth highest in the nation, according to the Athens-Clarke County government. For years a high poverty rate has dogged the Classic City, and Davison created a task force to address the issue that is now called One Athens, a collaboration between the Athens-Clarke County government, the Clarke County School District, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, Family Connection/ Communities in Schools and the University of Georgia. The nearly three-year-old entity’s efforts include an affordable housing development fund, expanded transit lines, financial support for two teen pregnancy clinics operated by the board of health, changes to the Clarke County school district’s sex education curriculum and a mentor program linking K-12 students with UGA faculty. A charter school application has also been submitted to the State Board of Education.

While UGA has been the city’s most significant employer, it also has been threatened with heavy budget cuts that may result in layoffs. “We hope the level of state funding will not be impacted by budget reductions,” Mace says. “If we do have a reduction, we believe we can still move forward at the same pace.”

Complementing expanding medical education facilities at UGA, Athens’ medical community is exploding in response to regional and local needs. Athens Regional Medical Center recently added a new Mother-Baby Unit and expanded its emergency department, doubling its ability to take patients and helping to service indigent needs, says CEO John Drew.

St. Mary’s Health Care System also is booming. “We’ve seen a 26 percent increase in inpatient admissions over the last three years,” says St. Mary’s Health Care System CEO Tom Fitz. “That amount of business creates an entirely new dynamic, in terms of the need for physical space.”

In response, St. Mary’s is building a five-story medical office building with 100,000 square feet of space and a six-story, 700-space parking deck adjacent to the hospital.

Other healthcare developments are contributing to the synergy transforming Athens into a medical hub. Landmark Hospital of Athens, an acute care facility that adds 42 beds to the healthcare network and creates 100 to 150 jobs, opened on July 14 with 15 referrals and nine patients within the first week of opening. “It’s obvious the need is there,” says Landmark CEO Tift Merritt. “We’re not a nursing home and we’re not a hospice. We get patients ready for the next phase, whether a rehab hospital or nursing home, or directly to home. Not everyone referred to us is admitted, and we have no ER, so we will do a lot of work with St. Mary’s and Athens Regional.”

The hospitals are also busy coordinating efforts to accommodate residencies from the new MCG. “We have to see if our board wants to change our mission, from a community hospital to a teaching hospital,” Drew says, adding that the long-term advantages of keeping doctors in the community could overshadow the interim costs of taking on resident physicians.

“By 2020, unless we do something, Georgia will be the last in the nation for [the number of] physicians,” adds Fitz. “The state will have to step up to the plate, and provide the resources [to keep it from happening]. It’s not an inexpensive proposition, but neither is not having access to physicians.”

The new MCG campus has the potential to be a “watershed event for the University,” says Dr. David Lee, vice president for Research at UGA. “It will allow UGA to reach its full potential as a state flagship university, as it works with MCG to address Georgia’s healthcare shortage, innovate medical education and develop new strategies to prevent, ameliorate and cure human diseases.

“We also expect that once it matures, the new medical campus will be a significant economic force in northeast Georgia as a result of its combined education, training and research activities. This has been the experience with other academic health centers. I personally like the idea that eventually, Athens will be able to claim itself a city of medicine as well as a hub for education, music and the arts.”

Lee, who came this year from like-minded University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, adds that it will “take some time.”

The MCG campus won’t open until 2010 and will begin with only 30 students. But as the Navy Supply Corps School closes – the result of the last round of Base Realignment and Closure announcements in 2006 – reducing Athens’ population by around 300, its replacement brings with it the potential for high paying jobs.

“I believe our economy will dip slightly in the beginning, but as the site develops into additional health and educational facilities, it will certainly replace the income from the Navy School, and I think the potential for growth in the medical education industry is much higher than in the Navy School,” Page says.

“There is a lot of excitement within the community about the medical program,” says Mace. “No doubt, there is a very strong correlation between where physicians locate and where they do residencies. But with our medical program, we’re a more attractive community for physicians, and in addition to that, we think the partnerships for research conducted would be significant.”

Independent of the MCG addition, UGA also is growing existing health departments. The pharmacy school will expand its labs and teaching space into $42.9 million worth of new space to be called Pharmacy South. The Student Health Center is expanding by 30,000 square feet. “The expansions were both really needed to meet increased student demands in those areas,” says UGA Vice President for Public Affairs Tom Jackson.

Community Benefits

It is hoped that as MCG benefits the state, the services it will require will benefit Athens. Athens Technical College, however, has a head start when it comes to training medical professionals. “Athens Technical College doesn’t have a football team and it’s not involved in research, so you don’t hear about it that much, but it is growing,” Page says. “And as UGA trains people for jobs throughout the state, Athens Technical College is a regional program that improves the educational quality of the workforce of this area. Both have a direct impact, and a direct significance to the economy.”

The potential for new medical-related jobs addresses a critical need for the Classic City, where nearly two-thirds of Athens’ impoverished adults work full or part time, and a fourth of all children live below the poverty level. For students who graduate and want to stay in the community, there just haven’t been many opportunities; the problem has been enhanced by a shrinking manufacturing presence and rising population of commuters to Atlanta.

“Athens Tech, as part of its Allied Health life science programs, is training as many people as there are biotech jobs to fill, and as we expand the job market for individuals in those fields, it also meets needs of citizens looking for this type work,” Mayor Davison says. “MCG will a be critical component of addressing the underemployment problem, creating positions not just for doctors but other staff as well.”

Even before MCG Athens was announced, ATC was planning to build an 80,000 square foot Life Sciences building that will enable the college to eventually take on some 1,500 students. “We desperately need it,” says Andrea Daniel, ATC’s public relations director. “In the last year it’s allowed us to fill 250 slots already for programs like nursing, surgical technician, and diagnostic medical stenography. Soon our biotechnology program will be housed there [to serve] the 12th fastest growing industry in the nation.” The selection process is rigorous, she says, as word gets out about the programs and drives more applications.

Some students in the dental hygiene program hold four-year degrees from UGA. “We also had one in nursing with a master’s degree, and the overall GPA for that program was 3.63,” Daniel says. “Our instructors aren’t just measured on teaching and licensing, but also in the placement of students into jobs. Eighty-eight percent of our students who graduate work within a 50-mile radius of the campus.”

The healthcare tilt further empha-sizes Athens-Clarke County’s role as a regional player. Although it’s the smallest county in the state, the healthcare cluster helps reduce the region’s dependency on Atlanta’s overburdened health network while capitalizing on the link to research performed there, as well as proximity to the world’s busiest airport. The chamber, EDF and unified government are aligning to form a regional framework with Athens-Clarke’s neighbors. The NBAF may put Athens on the map with more than 1,000 high-paying jobs (a decision is expected in December), but even without it, this economy is prospering.

“We’re really sad to see the Navy School go,” Page says. “It has been an excellent citizen of the community, and provides an outstanding base of volunteers. On the flip side, the fact that we’re replacing it with a branch of MCG is going to open up some avenues for the future health and welfare of the community that are going to be outstanding.”

Athens/Clarke County



(July 2007)


Unemployment Rate

(July 2008)

Clarke County, 6.1 percent; Georgia, 6.5 percent

Per Capita Income



Top Five private Employers:

Athens Regional Medical Center, 2,771; Pilgrim’s Pride, 1,559; St. Mary’s Hospital, 1,336; Gold Kist, Inc., 615; Merial Limited, Inc., 549;


OneAthens, OnlineAthens, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Dept. of Labor

Categories: Northeast