Athens/Clarke County: Hopeful Signs
New initiatives and old standbys
Athens has seen its share of ups and downs lately. Leaders lobbied hard to land the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) to enhance its growth in the life sciences sector last year; but a combination of community opposition and a massive incentive package sent the project to Kansas instead.
Medical manufacturers Novartis and Solvay have opted not to build massive operations in the Classic City in recent years, and University of Georgia has been through two cycles of budget cuts in response to waning state tax revenues. Finally, the Georgia Theatre, downtown’s biggest landmark, caught fire last summer and was gutted. The theatre’s marquee message said it best: “Ouch.”
But Athens is a fiercely independent place, and some amazing, disparate positives are emerging to challenge the climate of national woe. The city is planning a 500-space parking deck to wrap around the Georgia Theatre, which may emerge from the damage transformed into a multi-use facility with a restaurant and other daytime components.
Next fall, the Medical College of Georgia will begin its first classes on a new Athens campus – “the biggest thing Athens has seen in my lifetime,” says former Mayor and current Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge.
Athens received a $10 million loan from the state to upgrade its water treatment services, among other projects, and is planning to make over its gateway from downtown to Highway 316 along Prince Avenue.
Discussions are under way to form a joint economic development program with Oconee County to help market the 920-acre Orkin property and expand marketing potential for other projects in and around the 316 corridor. For the first time in a decade, Athens-Clarke has a speculative industrial building to help lure employers, and other new office facilities for health-related endeavors are under construction.
The city’s hospitality economy, centered around continuing education and regional meetings, has insulated Athens somewhat from the economic downturn. “Hospitality and travel are down, but they have not degraded as far as some other industries,” says Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Foundation (EDF) Director Drew Page. “People don’t eat out as often, but they do eat out.”
The new environmentally friendly, LEED certified 150-room Indigo Hotel opened downtown with a Friday music series designed to complement football games, just in time for football season.
Page is optimistic as he prepares to retire from the EDF. “We have a very strong, sophisticated, international manufacturing community here that helps diversify our economy that I believe we can build on. Although it is small, it is vitally important to our economy and to Georgia.”
He’s leaving the EDF in a good place. Tucker-based developer Rooker has built a 120,000-square-foot speculative building in the Athena Industrial Park, Clarke Coun-ty’s first spec building in 12 years. “It is open to single tenants or 20,000-square-foot segments,” Page says. “I think it is a complement to the mixed-use park, with neighbors involved in everything from metalworking to pharmaceuticals.”
Prior to the unsuccessful NBAF effort, Athens had been a runner-up site for pharmaceutical manufacturer Solvay, which chose Birmingham before opting out of the project altogether in 2008. The competition brought local and regional leaders together, says Athens Mayor Heidi Davison, fostering an unprecedented sense of cooperation that will help it become a bigger biomedical community.
“NBAF and Solvay had us working really closely with University of Georgia and Oconee County on economic development,” Davison says. “It will help position us in favor of the kind of economic development we’re looking for.”
Athens is part of a research triangle formed with Atlanta and Augusta, which state economic developers have been branding in partnership with the Georgia Research Alliance, headed by Dr. David Lee, vice president of research for the university.
About six years ago, UGA President Michael F. Adams and former MCG President Daniel S. Rahn met to discuss how to increase the number of physicians educated in Georgia. “At the time, Georgia was number 37 in the nation for physicians per capita [it’s now 40th], and Georgia residents had a number of healthcare issues,” says Arnett Mace, UGA senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, who retires next year. “It was agreed that it would be more expedient to obtain accreditation for a four-year program in Athens if UGA and MCG partnered.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Military Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) session in 2005 decided to close the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School, leaving a 60-acre campus on Prince Avenue, close to the UGA campus and two main hospitals. A local redevelopment authority formed to oversee the property recommended to the Navy that the property be conveyed to UGA for a health sciences campus in partnership with MCG. A consultant indicated that the cost of educating physicians on the property would be half the national average, Mace says.
The MCG/UGA Medical Partnership will begin educating 40 new physicians per class in Athens in August 2010, with plans to increase to 60 students per class in a few years.
Mace adds that UGA has focused on increasing biomedical sciences over the last decade. The College of Public Health was established in 2005 and accredited this summer, complementing the long-established College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Pharmacy. “We’ve also partnered with companies like Merial [an animal vaccine manufacturer] to foster research into incubator activity,” Mace says.
Lee has taken UGA’s new medical mission to heart. “Our top priority is to make university research as meaningful for Georgia citizens as possible,” he says. To do so involves working closely with UGA’s Public Service and Out-reach program.
“As the MCG/UGA Medical Partnership blossoms and our new College of Public Health expands, we expect our outreach efforts to increasingly include a medical emphasis,” Lee says. “One problem I think we can help to impact is childhood obesity. Georgia is currently ranked the third worst state in the nation after Mississippi and Arkansas when it comes to the fraction of obese and overweight children. UGA has a range of expertise that, when coupled to other assets in the state, may help to reverse this harmful trend.”
In order to identify and mobilize the various resources that can be brought to bear on childhood obesity, the Georgia Research Alliance and the University System of Georgia are working with the state’s research universities and other institutions including the CDC to host a statewide meeting on childhood obesity in November.
UGA’s long history of public service and outreach is currently epitomized by its Archway Partnership program, which sends experts to Georgia communities in response to requests for help. In Colquitt County, for instance, Sanderson Farms Chicken has opened a processing plant that will employ 1,700; Archway has helped the community accommodate the new growth by expanding its infrastructure. Archway recently won the 2009 Outreach Scholarship W.K. Kellogg Foundation Engagement Award for UGA.
“We believe it should be possible to engage communities and take advantage of the very successful Archway platform to design and implement childhood obesity intervention programs that are effective and sustainable.” Dr. Lee says. To that end, the Georgia Children’s Healthcare Alli-ance, a new organization affiliated with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, has identified childhood obesity as a major priority. The organizations will work closely with one another, state organizations devoted to children’s health and the research universities to create a sustainable intervention plan to tackle childhood obesity.
“Bioenergy is another important initiative at UGA,” Lee says. “The Southeast’s richness in biomass combined with our existing agricultural economy, which would benefit from additional missions, could help in responding to the nation’s need for more renewable fuels.”
UGA is the leading academic institution in one of the three national bioenergy research centers established by the Department of Energy Office of Science at considerable cost during the recent Bush administration. The BioEnergy Science Centers (BESC), which also include Georgia Tech, are focused on how to more efficiently generate transportation fuels from cellulosic biomass. “The process will have to be made considerably more efficient in order for it to be commercially viable, and scientists at UGA are working to address this challenge,” Lee says.
And even though Athens is landlocked, UGA is also a Sea Grant Institution, partnering with Savannah State University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography to address coastal issues ranging from protecting our fisheries to sustainable development.
The focus on water isn’t restricted to the coast, Lee adds. UGA has a tremendous depth of expertise when it comes to water resource issues, ranging from science to engineering to public policy and is currently considering how best to make this expertise available as Georgia and surrounding states tackle water availability.
Addressing key issues is a “good way to begin cross-institutional collaborations,” Lee says. “We’ve always had a strong outreach culture with agriculture. But the emergence of the College of Public Health and our partnership with MCG are extending that tradition into the medical arena. We have an opportunity to take advantage of our expanding biomedical expertise. And it’s not a one-way street. Working on childhood obesity, we have the chance to extend outreach efforts that are informed by research and to build trust in communities. The results feed back into our thinking, improving future research and outreach efforts.”
Closer to home, UGA has partnered with the city to build a new water reclamation facility, part of an overarching plan to increase its water capacity from 18 to 28 million gallons a day. “We took out $200 million in bonds last fall to pay for it, but it’s close to the university and they’re helping pay for part of the road into it,” Mayor Davison says. “It will reconfigure the area to give them better access to their property in addition to a greenway in close proximity to both [the center and the university].”
The city also is spending stimulus funding on a number of projects – Community Development Block Grants, a Green Jobs Initiative, cleaning up blighted properties, a small business loan program and a $2.2 million transportation grant to retrofit buses. A $10 million Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority loan helped pay for water treatment upgrades through the State’s Clean Water Revolving Loan fund. “We’re actively responding to grants we’ve received and looking for other opportunities,” Davison says.
The city is also working on a public-private endeavor with Batson Cook Company of Atlanta to build a parking deck around the Georgia Theatre. But this isn’t just any parking deck – in addition to more than 500 spaces, it includes a retail component on the ground level, plus offices and a rooftop garden to help manage stormwater – a $17.5 million, first-class affair.
Just as the Navy School’s redevelopment will put fresh taxes on the city’s rolls, this will open up the district to new revenue streams, and, it is hoped, enhance a new and improved Georgia Theatre.
“We began a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in 2005 to do the deck, and I understand that Will Green and Richard Smith do plan to rebuild the Georgia Theatre,” Davison says, “but in a way to expand the programmatic elements and tie into the new deck. It’s in the early stages, but the plan has promise.
“Their doors will be open more hours a week – the way it was operating, there was no daytime activity, so they’re looking for another use,” possibly a restaurant or shop, says Kathryn Lookofsky, Downtown Development Authority director. “We’re excited about it, and hope it will drive more development on that end of town,” she says. “It will definitely encourage more activity at the Morton and Georgia Theatres.” Not to mention businesses such as 40 Watt, Caledonia, Agora and The Manhattan, which all border the downtown west side.
Open For Business
Within the Athena Industrial area, the 680-acre tract dubbed the Athens Research and Technology Park is open for business and accepting a new tenant, Athens Research and Technology BIO. With 10,000 square feet under construction and 46,000 square feet planned, the company will offer wet lab space for rent to attract future neighbors to the property.
“We identified the need for lab space some time ago,” Page says. “We believe that it will open some new doors for us within the health science arena.”
West of town, the city is planning to revitalize Prince Avenue, the gateway into Athens, with development that will complement the new MCG campus. “I think we’ll see a surge of housing prices on both sides of the Prince Avenue corridor,” Eldridge says. “There are older historic neighborhoods that need to be protected, but we also need to be open to new types of buildings and facilities that will be needed in close proximity to the medical school.”
Eldridge, whose chamber offices were recently combined with the relocated Economic Development Foun-dation on the west end, believes this new one-stop shop will expedite growth at the gateway. “It will help open up the west side, which is the natural path to get to Jackson, Oconee and Barrow Counties as well as Highways 316 and 129,” he says.
Athens Regional Medical Center, which already has contributed to some revitalization of west Athens, is finishing a three-story clinical services addition and a 337-space parking deck. St. Mary’s Hospital, which this year welcomed new Chief Operating Officer Don McKenna, opened a $5.5 million, 34-bed Alzheimer’s/Dementia Care Fa-cility on the campus of Highland Hills Village last year.
“There are always cranes over there,” Eldridge says. “Our healthcare community is really booming.”
Athens Technical College is doubling the size of its health science classes, with a 30,000-square-foot expansion, in anticipation of the need for more nurses and technicians to support Athens’ growing medical community. “What everybody forgets about is that every new physician needs 17 support people,” Page says, “and they generally come from the technical schools. Athens Technical Colleges does an outstanding job of reading area business needs and responding; this is another example.”
Classes begin at MCG next fall, creating opportunities for additional support occupations for the campus’ first crop of doctors. “While Athens Tech was previously limited by space constraints, that is being resolved. The first class in conjunction with classes at MCG will all be on time, taking place simultaneously in 2010,” Page says.
While the Orkin tract remains a potential opportunity for a big employer, the city is well set up for smaller companies looking for a place to grow. “Our community, as well as our business parks, lend themselves to entrepreneurship,” Page says. While there are fully serviced sites ready for large companies, he adds, “we’ve done well with helping small companies become large companies, and we like that.”
There’s a slight shift in strategy here that could pay off handsomely in the long term: “We’re watching our re-sources, especially water use and air quality, more closely and substituting a more intensified focus on the growth of local, existing companies,” Page says. “Our goal is that instead of waiting for the economy to come back, we’re making it come back.”
Athens-Clarke Chamber of Commerce
City of Athens
Dr. David Lee
Vice President of Research
University of Georgia
Clarke County, 7.7 percent; Georgia, 10.6 percent
Per Capita Income
Top Private Employers
Athens Regional Medical Center, Pilgrim’s Pride, St. Mary’s Hospital, Gold Kist, Inc., Merial Limited, Inc.
U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis