By Diane Lehr
The News Courier, Printed November 6, 2011
I serve as a volunteer and board member with Spirit of Athens, the downtown revitalization organization that follows the national Main Street principles for promoting and growing Athens' downtown. I serve on this board with many dedicated professionals, young and old, who are volunteering their time and energy toward making downtown Athens a wonderful place to be for generations to come. Trisha Black works diligently as an extremely well educated and dedicated executive director for the nonprofit Spirit of Athens organization.
In spite of the opinion of some, I see great advantages to Athens having this downtown revitalization organization and in strategically looking at other cities that have successfully revitalized and grown their own downtown communities. Spirit of Athens recognizes that in order to preserve the historic downtown Square, the Square itself must be economically vibrant and viable. In order to be economically viable, development must be high quality, and historically appropriate. It must be welcoming, and safe and attractive to new businesses, new residents and new users. The historic Athens Square has all the components that new developments like the Villages of Providence in Huntsville are recreating in order to have the 'old town' feel and appeal. Having citizens in agreement and the proper plans in place will protect the downtown from becoming worn down and longing for community activity. The Main Street principles have a proven success record in growing downtown communities across the nation.
Athens' beautiful historic downtown Square is waiting for new residents who will be thrilled to have a loft apartment representing a distinctive place to live in Athens. To my knowledge, it has never been the intention of property owners interested in downtown lofts, to have the fire code ignored. To say building downtown lofts is not responsible, is to say that Athens isn't capable of doing what other cities have succeeded in doing.
Simply sitting back, watching the clock on the Courthouse, and playing armchair quarterback to every idea and effort that organizations like Spirit of Athens present, threatens the future success of the downtown, and Athens as a whole. The downtown Square is one of Athens' trademarks. We should do what it takes to ensure the long term success of this asset because it makes good sense.
I shop at Publix on Highway 72, and I appreciate what Publix offers. However, if you blindly put me in the center of the store, I would not know if I was in Athens or in Madison, or in Memphis, but I would know I was in Publix. Publix intends this familiarity in order to have a Publix identity.
I also shop at several businesses on The Square from time to time, and I eat lunch or dinner downtown most every week. I travel the extra few blocks to go to downtown Athens for 'the experience' that downtown Athens offers. The independent businesses are unique and support an Athens' identity that is unmistakable. Being downtown gives one a feeling similar to appreciating original art or listening to live music. Downtown is the place where lots of locals bring their guests and the place where memories are built. This is not controversial. It is factual. Spirit of Athens is guilty of successfully promoting this message about the downtown. Spirit of Athens is also guilty of offering high quality ideas, hard work, extensive education and multiple projects in order to positively grow a community that is growing, one way or another.