Nothing has quite the same appeal as a historic downtown in a small city, bustling with activity and smelling of a nearby deli.

For those who recall the days when downtown Athens was the only place to shop, eat or do any sort of business, the square of shops around the Limestone County Courthouse hold a place in history and a sense of nostalgia. Neither has been enough to sustain it.

Across the South in the 1960s, downtowns went bust as malls sprung up in the countryside. Then, about a decade ago, that desire for quaintness breathed new life into many downtowns, including the one in Athens.

But our downtown has hit another slump. Not only are new eateries catering to the lunch crowd forced to close their doors, but some of the oldest, most well-established businesses in the county have closed or moved from town.

Easter’s Café closed last year.

Now Cluxton’s plans to move from downtown after nearly 60 years.

The building that housed Green Door Books has not been rented since it closed more than a year ago.

A committee called Spirit of Athens has formed to try to find ways to revitalize downtown Athens.

Some may wonder why they bother. If people don’t frequent the businesses to help keep them open, maybe it’s time for downtown to die.

But downtown is more than a few rows of businesses. It is the heart of the community. It is where people gather for events and parades, and it is where the past and the present merge.

It also has its place in the future.

Saving downtown will help bring revenue to Athens and Limestone County. How attractive are rows of empty buildings to prospective residents and business owners?

Quaint downtown shops appeal to tourists and help encourage local residents to shop here rather than driving to Huntsville or Decatur.

So what will it take?

Athens and Limestone County leaders need to take a look at downtown and get firmly behind any plans for the future.

Develop a plan for and approve city ordinances that would allow people to live above the shops in trendy loft apartments.

Encourage a restaurant to locate here that will stay open past 5 p.m. and on weekends, providing a place for couples or families to enjoy an evening or a Saturday out. Downtown needs to be a place to eat a good meal, browse in shops, and maybe stroll to Big Spring Park to feed the ducks.

A Christmas event planned by Keep Athens-Limestone Beautiful and city and county officials is a step in the right direction. An old-fashioned Christmas tree lighting on the square is a perfect activity for families.

Let’s work together to return the heart to Athens.

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