The Athens square is not dead, but it’s ailing.
Little, by little businesses are moving out from what used to be the main shopping district of a bustling community. A newly formed group, Spirit of Athens, hopes to restore the square to its former health by pumping new life into business while preserving its historic character.
It’s a tall order, but it’s not like reinventing the wheel. Armed with guidelines from the Main Street Committee, an organization with a four-pronged plan being employed by communities across the nation, the local group is tackling what could be a years-long project.
The four areas—organization, design, promotion and economic restructuring—attacks downtown revitalization on all fronts. Spirit of Athens is now officially a Main Street Committee affiliate. First, the group organized by adopting bylaws based on those of Main Street, chose committee chairpersons in all four areas, elected a 15-member executive board and an advisory board.
Carolyn Crow, owner of Pablo’s on Market, is board chairman. Athens Public Works Director James Rich chairs the economic restructuring committee; Regina Crawford, owner of craft and hobby shop, Crawford’s, chairs promotion; and Carole Foret of Carole Foret Fine Arts, chairs design.
Even before Spirit of Athens officially formed as a Main Street Committee, other organizations in town began efforts to spiff up the downtown. Richard Martin, who has spent nearly 20 years establishing the Rails to Trails project, applied for a state historic grant to place glassed platform plaques on all four sides of the square with photos of original buildings and brief histories.
The Beautification Board and Keep Athens-Limestone Beautiful went to the City Council for an appropriation to place planters around the square. Several individuals and organizations have sponsored the purchase of park benches. A few years ago, the city replaced old sidewalks with pebbled walkways as part of the Downtown Project begun by local businessman Carl Hunt in 1995.
New business is key
But no matter how many cosmetic touches the groups apply, empty stores make the downtown look like a first-grader’s smile with missing teeth. Attracting new business is the key to filling the gaps.
Rich said the Spirit of Athens laid groundwork by inviting Fayetteville, Tenn., Main Street officials to Athens and the group took a bus to view Main Street activities in Alexander City in June. The local delegation also attended the Main Street Alabama Conference.
“We received verification of limits and defined the city’s Historical Commercial District,” said Rich. “We spoke with the Alabama Historical Commission about our grant potential.”
Rich said the group also conducted a survey of existing buildings, recording size, year constructed, owners and use. Next, members of the group went out to explain their mission to other organizations in Athens.
Alex City model
Marsha Bankston, executive director of Main Street Alexander City, said that city’s group formed in 1994 and officially joined Main Street in 1996.
“Our first project was to have a streetscape plan designed for in front of our courthouse,” said Bankston. “We wanted to make it more pedestrian-friendly, attractive and inviting by installing shorter crosswalks and at the same time a roundabout. It was a complicated intersection, but now it works better for both pedestrians and automobiles.”
Other Main Street Alexander City improvements are a downtown park for large gatherings and events and a downtown plaza to unite a business district located on both sides of a railroad track.
“We hope to start development of the Broad Street Plaza in the next few months,” said Bankston. “It will include benches and be more appropriate for passive use, such as eating lunch or small civic events.”
Bankston said in design, plans for new businesses stay as close to original designs as possible to preserve the character of the downtown. Storeowners are encouraged to strip off 1960s-era aluminum façade coverings to expose the brick.
“In economic restructuring, we’ve worked with government leaders, services, lawyers, accountants, Realtors, retail and restaurants,” said Bankston. “We would like to get a coffee shop or ice cream parlor. But we have to realize that owners must make a living, it must be a viable business. And we’re always looking for more retail.”
Main Street Alexander City promotes its program by sponsoring a downtown farmer’s market for growers only, as well as doing advertising and erecting signage and obtaining official historic status.
Spirit of Athens Chairwoman Carolyn Crow said that while the effort is spurred by downtown merchants, she stresses the benefit to the whole community.
“The general public is invited to join our group—even people out in the subdivisions—this is their town too,” said Crow.
The next step for Spirit of Athens is getting corporate and business sponsorship to hire a project manager. Foret is designing a logo and building a Web site.
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