By Lora Scripps
If new businesses and restaurants were an indicator of the local business climate in Athens, some would agree the area is fairing well — especially in a slow economy.
“I feel like Athens has been rather blessed,” said Athens City Planner Mac Martin. “We are still seeing commercial and residential growth.”
Martin said during the past five years to date, approximately $60 million in commercial construction permits have been issued. “That is a strong indicator of being able to survive the Great Recession,” he said. “We have been able to maintain a climate with construction projects that a lot of places in the state and country have not.”
He believes some of the growth can be contributed to the fact the greater-Huntsville area has continued to advance as well.
Martin pointed to projects like the Fairfeild Inn, off Athens-Limestone Boulevard, and IHOP, which is renovating the old Back Yard Burger location, as indicators. Other projects include First National Bank, a strip mall off U.S. 72 near Walmart and at least five new restaurants and businesses.
“It’s real exciting to have these businesses locating here,” said Jennifer Williamson, president of the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce. “I feel it is a good indicator of what is going on in the economy. I feel like the businesses are meeting the needs of the community. The market is here.”
The city of Athens has number of bright spots, according to Williamson. She believes the area offers good job opportunities, great school systems, great secondary education and an affordable housing market. “We are in a great area with a great quality of life,” she said. “As a result there is a need for restaurants and retail.”
“Overall, the city of Athens has experienced a pretty steady growth,” Martin said, adding that the city has seen in the neighborhood of 10-percent growth per decade.
Current projections estimate a 4-percent growth during the next five years.
Martin credited Mayor Ronnie Marks, Athens City Council, the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce, Spirit of Athens, and other groups for fostering a business-friendly climate. “We try to provide timely, accurate and appropriate information,” Martin said. “We try to work together to understand what the city is lacking and help fill those gaps.”
Martin said he believes everyone continuing to work together will ensure Athens has a healthy business environment for years to come.
Currently U.S. 72 and the Interstate 65 interchange in Athens are part of the area’s “bread and butter,” according to Martin. There are approximately 50,000 cars that travel the area in a day and most are traveling U.S. 72. “We must try our best to continue to get that out to interested parties,” he said. “Our community is open for business.”
Martin did stress one thing policy makers will have to address when it comes to planning is “a higher concentration of rooftops in the community.” He said developers and franchisers look at a city’s traffic count and the number of rooftops in the general vicinity and make decisions based on those criteria.
Martin said, in his opinion, one thing that inhibits businesses like Target from locating in Athens is how spread out the rooftops are in a concentrated area. The city encompasses 40 square miles, but rooftops are still fairly sparse, according to Martin. Some developers might look at Athens as a feeder city to Madison and Huntsville instead of building here. However, Martin said the infrastructure on U.S. 72 is already in place for future growth.