Spirit of Athens, Honestly loves Downtown

By Diane Lehr
Guest Columnist,
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.


Loft Development Presentation Online Now!

Developer and preservationist Chris Chain, Renovations of Mississippi, Inc., made public presentation on Thursday, October 20 in Athens, AL.  Click to watch the video.


Ully Fest - Good, Ole Fashioned Fun

Ever tried to explain to your children or grandchildren what life was like without texting, tweeting, skyping or gaming?  On Saturday, October 15, you can experience some good ole fashioned “unplugged” fun at U.G. White Mercantile’s Open House and UllyFest.   From 9 AM to 4 PM, the store will have free family activities, in store demonstrations, refreshments, door prizes, and live entertainment. 
“We want to celebrate new product lines and reintroduce the store to those that haven’t been in awhile,” said owner Derrick Young.  “Our schedule that day includes many nostalgic activities for every member of the family.”
Activities include pumpkin carving contest, Penny farthing, shooting Red Ryder BB guns and whittling contest.  There will be soap making demonstrations and a honey making presentation.  Weather permitting, there will also be a free dog wash provided by Peace, Love and Animals and live entertainment by Barron River Trio.

Door prizes will include Tilly hats, Red Ryder guns, Case knife, and other store favorites totaling more than $2500 in giveaways.  The winner of the pumpkin carving contest will receive a $300 shopping spree.  Participants for the pumpkin carving contest need to bring their own tools and can purchase a pumpkin on site.  Judging will begin at 3 PM.
Ully Fest is in honor of the original owner, Ulysses Grant White a farmer and business owner that founded the store in 1917.  Born in 1876, he tragically lost his right arm in a gin accident in 1902.  In an Alabama Courier article from October 22, 1902, his friends and family stated that “U.G. White, with one arm, is worth more than lots of fellows in a community with two.”  White persevered until his death in 1952.  
Young and the U.G. White Mercantile staff are dedicated to preserving the integrity of the store and hope that UllyFest will become an annual celebration.
For information on Ully Fest, visit U.G. White on Facebook or call the store at 256-232-4540.


Downtown Athens appeals to new business owners for different reasons

Visitors to downtown Athens have their reasons for being there.  On any given day, the sidewalks are busy with shoppers, residents walking or riding bikes, local government workers, professionals, and curious tourists discovering great little places to have casual meals.
But why does a business owner choose to open in the downtown district and invest in a “old” building? Is it the foot traffic?  Not necessarily.

For the owners of Reruns Resale Thrift Store, at 116 North Jefferson Street, it was the love of the old and familiar.

Kim Hill, owner of Reruns Resale
“I always wanted a store in downtown Athens, and especially up on the square. I love the small town atmosphere, in the downtown area. I grew up riding my bike up these sidewalks, so everyday is a trip down memory lane for me,” said Mike Hill, owner.

Hill has always loved antiques especially collectibles including comic books, toy trains, cars and other items he played with as a child.  He also has two Buster Brown comics in his personal collections from the 1930-40s and stamped “Smiths Dry Goods, Athens Alabama.”

Hill and wife Kim wanted to open a store that would carry collectibles along with other quality items. 

Not to be confused with consignment, they sell donated items including clothing, furniture and accessories.

Store hours are Tuesday - Saturday 10-5 PM. Seniors (55 and up), get 40% off every Wednesday.  Donations can be dropped off during store hours.

Leah Handley owner of the Pottery by You studio, 103 North Clinton Street, saw the potential for expansion in downtown Athens.

“We had several customers from Athens so when we thought about expanding, Athens was a logical choice,” said Handley.
Leah Handley, owner of Pottery by You

Handley said they hosted several large groups from Athens in their Madison location.  “So with the encouragement of our loyal customers, we took a leap of faith...even in these hard economic times and we expanded.”

The Athens location can accommodate groups of more than 20 and has a relaxed atmosphere for families looking for a creative outlet.
Handley also works with many organizations in creating unique fundraising projects.  To learn more about these projects, or to schedule a group function, call 256-479-9522 or email potterybyyou@gmail.com.
In April, Athens State University opened the Center for Lifelong Learning at 121 South Marion Street.  The Center and gift shop compliment existing businesses and fill the needs for a multi use facility. 

"The Center for Lifelong Learning is the University's way of sharing our educational wealth with Athens and Limestone County," states Athens State University President Bob Glenn.  "It encompasses a broad scope of uses - from credit and non-credit class offerings to a gathering place for social and entertainment purposes.  What we hoped would happen has come to fruition as it has fast become a draw to downtown Athens and an educational and entertainment haven for area residents."
Continuing education classes include guitar lessons, ACT prep courses, book discussion groups, specialized exercise classes, cake decorating, and more. 
To check out the full fall schedule, visit www.athens.edu/CLL or call 256-233-8260.  Meeting space is also available. 

Downtown Athens continues to be a desired location for business owners.  Reasons may vary for investing in the district, but downtown Athens continues to thrive as a hub of activity for the community, serving as the county seat, and preserving the deeply rich heritage that makes it unique.

Other businesses that opened in 2011 include H&S Photography, Kristi A. Valls Law Firm, P.C., Amy Boston Photography, and the Law Office of Steve Andrews. 

For information on available properties, contact Spirit of Athens at 256-232-9040 or email spiritofathens@att.net.


As beautiful and elusive as spilled mercury...

by Chris Paysinger, local historian and SOA member
I have had the opportunity to work as a landscaper in Athens and Limestone County during the summers for the past seventeen years. Though it began as a way to make money during some very lean college years, it has continued into my career as a teacher. As my wife Suzanne leaves for work during my “off” months, I thought better of incurring any enmity from her (or worse yet, the much dreaded “Honey-Do” list). So, during that time I gave up the opportunity to sit around sipping coffee and catching up on the witty banter of the Today Show. Instead, I traded leisurely mornings for hours of grueling back-breaking labor.

Yet during my time of seemingly digging up or sodding over half of Athens, I have had a wonderful learning experience from a design perspective. My taste has developed into something I call “Southern Vernacular”. Southerners have always migrated to locally available resources and traditions to address unique needs and circumstances. By doing so, we have found the value in a good porch or patio. Southerners have always seen the worth in indigenous plants, which are not only beautiful, but just as importantly, can withstand blistering summers and frigid winters. The Southern style has always been able to evolve over time to reflect environmental, cultural, and historical context. As with furniture, Southerners will appreciate a good cherry chest, not because it is perfect, but because it has collected patina and imperfections over time.  
Southerners, in light of necessity, but also due to the development of a unique style and understanding of place, have long valued the beauty in the collected aesthetic of material and items over time. Plants, for Southerners, have long been something to enjoy, but more importantly, something to share. The created commonality from doing so brings people together and creates context and meaning, not only in the changed landscape, but also in the shared sense of community. How many Southerners have visited over something cold to drink in the growing warmth of spring and traced the ancestry of their gardens back generations?
Like so many other traditions however, Southern Vernacular style is quickly being displaced by that of a manufactured aesthetic that is grounded in impermanence. For so many years we in the South valued stacked stones, rescued from so many farmers’ fencerows as borders, replete with lichens and moss that convey age and time. All across the region, people collected brick, locally made, however imperfect, and snaked pathways through yards in an effort to avoid the sticky clay from which they were cast. The new standard is now concrete that gets a good pressure washing every spring. Patios and walkways are made of manufactured materials and “stone” walls are veneered. Landscape design has evolved to plantings that never change, save for a planter that alternates between begonias or pansies, depending on the climate. And as noted landscape architect Chip Callaway has observed, “roses now smell like cabbages.”

Athens is a wonderful Southern town. In defining our future we must stay focused on this fact. In many places we still have venerable old boxwoods that are as tall as the houses they anchor. Large trees and crumbling brick walkways still exist. We have historic districts, a beautiful university, and a town square that have all retained the contextual integrity of history and place. And all of these things are as beautiful, and as elusive, as spilled mercury. There is nothing wrong with a new building or landscape, yet if it is of an inferior quality and design, then something is likely lost forever.

Of all the plants that are inherently Southern, perhaps the Mock Orange is my favorite (many refer to it as an English Dogwood). For the majority of the year it can be a somewhat “scraggily” plant. But for a few weeks each spring, it literally drips with white flowers. Since the end of the Civil War, there has been “the promise of a New South.” It implies that we will never divorce ourselves of our past, though we hope for an improved future. And perhaps this is why the Mock Orange is my favorite. All year, as I look at it out my living room window, though it is wholly imperfect, it offers the promise of something better.   



Click to S.O.A.P. Augusts 5, 2011


Proceeds from Local Events Fund Downtown Facade Improvement Programs

Members of the Storytelling Festival Board present Trisha Black, SOA Executive Director with a $15,000 check for facade improvement programs. From left to right: Jeanette Dunnavant, Judge Jimmy Woodroof, Wayne Kuykendall, Storytelling Festival Board Chairman, Jim Hays, Board President, Black, Garner Ezell, Frank Travis, Shane Black and Rick Mould
Since 2008, the Storytelling Festival has sponsored education training opportunities for Spirit of Athens, commissioned an architect to do renderings of downtown, purchased garbage cans designed by local artisan Travis Fleming, and adorns downtown with Harvest decorations every October.

In August 2011, in addition to making a donation to the existing Spirit of Athens Facade Improvement grant program, the Storytelling Festival Board voted to fund a NO interest loan program.

The loan program will provide up to $5,000 toward improvements approved by SOA on a 50/50 match with a three year repayment period.

For example with these facade programs, if a business or property owner is considering a project costing $15,000, they can apply for the $1000 grant reimbursed once completed and also apply for the $5,000 loan with that amount repaid over three years-that’s about $139 per month.

“Spirit of Athens hopes that these incentives will encourage those owners that are considering doing facade renovations,” said Trisha Black, SOA Executive Director.  “Other Main Street communities have experienced great success with similar programs.”

“When we started the Storytelling Festival, one of our goals was to give back to the downtown district and participate in revitalization efforts,” said Jim Hays, Storytelling Festival Board President. “We are excited about this program and look forward to seeing it used to restore the historic charm of the downtown buildings.”
The Annual Cars on the Square committee also recently donated $2000 of their proceeds to be used in the already existing grant program. 

Tony McCormack, SOA Board member and Trisha Black, SOA Executive Director receive check for $2000 from proceeds from the 2011 Cars on the Square.  Car show representatives presenting check is Tom Schuman, Ira Whitehead and Dwight Billions.

“Although downtown events can draw large crowds, some visiting for the first time, it can be a strain on businesses when the streets are closed,” explains Black.  “Special events don’t necessarily ring those registers that day, but those attending are likely to return to shop at a later date.”

“Downtown businesses now have the opportunity to apply for funds that were generated from these events and will hopefully ease some of the financial burden for facade maintenance and improvements,” said Black. 

The grant application can be found on SOA’s website, www.spiritofathens.com, or by request 256-232-9040.  The loan program application will be available after September 1, 2011.


Purchase Willow House products and raise money for SOA!

Check out April savings with Willow House and remember Spirit of Athens when placing your order.  A portion of the sales will benefit SOA.  Click to read more.


Imagine, What's in a Name?

As seen in The News Courier  on Sunday, Feb. 27,2011.

by Diane Lehr

Imagine a picturesque downtown square lined with perfectly restored historic buildings filled upstairs and down with charming gift shops, working artists’ studios, antique stores, clothiers, offices, hair salons, loft apartments, bookstores, and delightful restaurants. Locals smile and wave to one another as they pass on the street while admiring the architectural grandeur of the Courthouse that represents a rich history and the current laws that protect the citizens who call this community home. Laughter fills the air and mingles with the soothing voices of mother’s telling their children to ‘take this money and go buy your self only one piece of candy.’ People are ducking in and out of shops while teenagers hang out with friends walking the square in search of a flirtation or two. Dusk falls and the downtown rooftops outlined in white lights, present a unique city scape, while storefront windows sparkle. The lampposts on the streets glow to life and the restaurants and artist studios hum with the sounds of the evening.

This may seem like a scene from a dream called ’too good to be true,’ but it is the ambition of many in Athens to see this whole picture come to life for future generations to enjoy. The vision is one of a progressive small Southern art town and there are non profit organizations and local downtown businesses working to capture that title for this area right now. The vision allows Athens to retain the southern charm and small town ways long forgotten in other cities that lost their heritage in favor of white bread progress. Savvy small art towns realize that by incorporating something splendid as they grow, they move the community forward in a splendid way. This sort of town will offer tourists and residents a glimpse of the past while enjoying modern cultural events right in the heart of their own community. Visitors might wish to spend their Saturday in Athens shopping for clothing or antiquities, admiring public art, reading in a bookstore, listening to music, attending a festival or simply watching people walk by. Athens' visionaries wish to attract rocket scientists, eccentric artsy types, life long learners, and mainstream middle class Americans who deeply love historic small towns.

Much can be said of Athens' future when you think of the origin of its’ name. Athens, Greece was once the center of enlightened intellect. It was a place that welcomed diverse people as long as those people were willing to live within the law. This allowed ancient Athenians the opportunity to excel in any direction they chose. Individuality, as ancient Greeks believed, was the basis of their success as a society. Although many of them strove to be the strongest athletes, and most memorable political orators, others ventured into philosophy, drama, pottery, poetry and the arts in general. One of the most important concepts that the ancient Greeks followed, was inscribed on the great shrine at Delphi,’Know Thyself.” This basic tenet led to Athens, Greece being one of the first societies in ancient times to encourage independent thought and ultimately democracy.

Some small towns have a reputation for being boring, immovable, outdated and cliquish.
These small towns are resistant to anything new. They yawn as their downtown districts fade away. They attend art events in other places and disregard ideas of such nonsense at home.

Tapping into the valuable resources that exist here and supporting the long time quality businesses that are the mainstays in Athens, are ways to achieve positive growth, as growth is inevitable.
Limestone County already has a cultural wellspring living amidst the rivers, lakes, hills and fields, from which to draw. Talented musicians, writers, actors, photographers, painters, ceramicists, sculptors, and more live in the area. Educators at Athens State University desire to connect and assist local citizens in the positive educational growth of the community. Dedicated volunteers stand ready to serve with their time and talents. Long time citizens, local politicians, and new transplants to Limestone County see the potential and know that growth is happening now.

The question is ‘how will we grow?’

Small towns have been reborn and jobs created as the result of the persistence of historic preservation blended with art minded citizens pushing forward the cultural psyche of small town communities across the nation.

While Athenians hold tight to the love of Athens as a small town in order to avoid the hassle of big town overload, so must Athenians seek out solid solutions to preserve their local heritage while continuing to create splendid cultural opportunities right in this community.

Local cultural events in Athens

Athens State University
March 8
Natalie Chanin - Concert Lecture
7:00 p.m.
The Ballroom
Free and open to the public

Alabamian Natalie Chanin has a degree in Environmental Design from North Carolina State University. For twenty years she lived both here and abroad, working as designer. She has made documentary films, is a mother of two, and an avid gardener. In 2000, Natalie returned to her
southern roots to develop Alabama Chanin, a lifestyle company that focuses on creating an array of products while emphasizing slow design and sustainability.

Art On the Square presents:
Dessert with The Divas- Athens State University Parlor
May 1
Vocalist Tonya Williams will perform an opera and spirituals program with piano accompaniment, and The News Courier Editor, Kelly Kazek will read a few selections from her novel, Fairly Odd Mother.  A dessert buffet will be provided. Tickets are $20.

Art Camp for children- June 2011 (grades 1-6)
Further information to follow.

Art On the Square Art Fest
Downtown Athens, Alabama
September 10

Thousands attend this free juried fine arts festival in downtown Athens. Approximately 50 visual artists are selected to participate and sell their works on the grounds around the Courthouse. The Douthit KidsZone offers over 20 hands on art activities for all children and is always free.
AOTS has added the professional Wood and Strings Puppet Theatre for 2011, This professional performance art troupe has played to audiences all over the country including to sold out, standing room only crowds at National Geographic Live, in Washington DC. They will perform Out of The Midst, A Dragon.  For more information, visit www.aots-athens.com or email artonthesquare@hotmail.com.

For more local cultural events information check out

Art classes can be found @ Center For Lifelong Learning-
256-233-8261 or visit www.athens.edu/CLL.

 Carole Foret Fine Art Gallery-art classes

Art On the Square Arts League was created by a dedicated group of volunteers over 6 years ago to support local and regional artists, promote art education, and to bring cultural events to Athens, Alabama. Over the last six years the non profit organization has grown to be an integral part of the Athens community as the festival held each September in downtown Athens draws thousands to the area.


Downtown Restaurant Makes Grown Men Cry

Step into Wing Zilla Grill on any Tuesday night and see big, burly men with sweaty foreheads, and crying eyes trying to endure 10 of the hottest wings on the menu.  Why? What’s at stake? For those that can handle the heat, a free meal, dessert and an inflated ego.

Owner, Kuang Stophel, (please call her Roxanne), opened in late November at 102 East Washington Street at the former Easter’s Cafe and later the Tavern’s location.  Ms. Stophel is already building up a steady and regular clientele, many of which recognize her from previously owning Cricket’s in Madison, Alabama. 
Dell Roberts, Athens resident and self proclaimed wing connoisseur, said he and his buddies travel to different restaurants just to try the wings and participate in wing contests like the downtown fire challenge in Cullman.  “After eating one of (Wing Zilla’s) hottest wings, I knew I just couldn’t make it through the contest.” Having found the right temperature now, he returns regularly and is sure to leave room for the homemade peanut butter pie.  “You just have to try the pie, it’s great.”

Josh Wilbanks, also an Athens resident and friend of Roberts, adds, “These are the best wings in North Alabama.”
Stophel offers quality food in a casual atmosphere.  “Our wings are never frozen and we use soybean oil for frying,” said Stophel.  “If I won’t eat it, I won’t serve it.” 

Wings are not the only item on the menu.  Items include cheesy fries, fried pickles, salads, burgers, chicken sandwiches, ribs, homemade apple roll, and more.

Wing Zilla Grill is open Monday through Friday 11-2 PM, Monday through Thursday 5-8:30 PM, Friday 5-9:30 PM, and Saturday 11-9:30 PM.  Take out platters and catering is also available.  For more information, call Wing Zilla Grill at 256-232-7746.

Roxanne with welcome gift from Spirit of Athens

Variety of beverages available

Peanut butter pie


Carole Demonstrates Toning a Canvas

Photographer visits Downtown Athens

Read this recent blog post by a photographer that visited Downtown Athens last Saturday.


Organization member blogs about Spirit Luncheon

Amanda Romine has volunteered and served on the Organization committee for almost two years. She's amazing and can plan a good party.  Read her blog about the Spirit Awards Luncheon held earlier this week.  Amanda, along with Lisa Milby, Teresa Higgins, and Diane Lehr planned an incredible luncheon.  Pamela Hartmann did some great PR leading up to the event as well.  My hats off to them all!




Spirit of Athens is pleased to offer the facade improvement grant program to businesses and property owners in Downtown Athens, Alabama. The grant will offer financial assistance to offset the cost of painting, lighting, signage, awnings and other improvements to the exterior of buildings within the program area.

“The (SOA) Board realizes it can be costly to restore and maintain historic buildings,”
said Derrick Young, Spirit of Athens Board President. “This grant will hopefully help those
business and property owners that have committed and invested in our downtown.”
In 2010, Gray and Holt Dry Goods received $1000 for painting the building facade and
replacing their sign. With Gray and Holt serving as the pilot program, it allowed SOA to go
through the process and work out any issues or questions.

The grant application will be available to Spirit of Athens members that are business
owners or property owners with income producing commercial space. The Design committee
will review the applications. If approved, the applicant will receive up to $1000 after work is

The funding for the grant program consist of donations from Bank Independent, Carole
Foret Fine Art, 2009 Cruising the Square Reunion, and Limestone Chapel.
Applications are available on SOA’s website, www.spiritofathens.com. For more
information, contact Trisha Black at 256-232-9040.




Chris Paysinger, SOA Promotion committee member, speaks to Rotary last month regarding preserving Athens' history and celebrating our uniqueness

Until last Thursday you were going to get a stock assessment of Athens’s history. But just after Thanksgiving dinner, my wife asked her young cousin, who is in 4th grade what he liked about school. I was ready to weigh in on the invigorating discussion that would follow when he stated that he was enamored by Alabama History. Much to my chagrin James didn’t say which subject he most liked, but which he most disliked…Alabama History. After what likely equated to a harrowing cross-examination, he noted that it was boring and that they were currently talking about the Civil War. I firmly believed this was my chance to change his mind. I asked what his teacher said about Athens in the War and he noted that they talked about “some stuff in Montgomery” but that was all. It is easy to blame the teacher or the state and federally mandated curriculums for this incident. But it is not isolated and more worrisome; it is a part of a much larger problem that may have direct effects on Athens and Limestone County.

The survival and greatness of a small town is predicated on its uniqueness. But as the world becomes flatter, places and people assimilate, with all ultimately becoming a homogenized version of their former self. Athens could easily be no different. But, luckily, it doesn’t have to happen here. Athens and Limestone County have the elements in place that make a community a wonderful place to live. But perhaps one of the most significant benefits, and one that is least considered, is our history. As I built my Master’s thesis on Athens, I was amazed as sources seemingly fell from the sky. Perhaps the thing I most learned though during the process was that for years I had searched out history of people and places, far removed from my community, when stories better than any historian could imagine lived here in Athens and Limestone County.

These stories, of Emily Frazier, a self reliant slave, who, when the Union army occupied the town in 1862 bought up all the whiskey she could, and sold it to the soldiers…until their commander complained about their drunkenness. She then went and bought a cow and sold them milk. The story of the Donnell family during and after the Civil War, whose home still stands at the middle school, is better than that of any leading figure in the South. The story of the Isom’s, who lived 4 miles east of Athens and were vocal Unionists, so much so that the sheriff publicly threatened to hang them, is a wonderful example of a divided community.

I recently discovered a quote, which has become a favorite, and is by William Faulkner. He said, “To understand the world you first must understand a place like Mississippi.” What he was saying was that people have a propensity to look outward for direction and guidance. Faulkner was keenly aware that your community is ultimately what defines you. To understand it though, you have to be critical regarding the whole of the community. It is no doubt the reason Faulkner wrote about the Sartoris’s, the Snopes’s, the Compsons’s…disparate families all existing within the same fictitious county… And he also knew that the you can never divorce a place of its past.

For 10 years I have taught in the Madison area. A place esteemed by many as a veritable boomtown. A place to which many look for what to do to move forward and be progressive in education, economic and housing development, etc. I’ve no inclination to believe that there are many lessons to be learned from the place. But one that I hope Athens and Limestone County will take away from the Madison model is that what has developed there is a people and a community that has lost their “sense of place.” There is little attachment or pride in the community among the students and the people with whom I interact. Madison could be picked up and dropped into any place in this country and blend in seamlessly. But I can’t believe this is what makes a community great.

Athens and Limestone County have the culture, the people, the education system, and the rich history on which to focus to be a great community. But to keep that focus, businesses, groups, organizations, and institutions must be specific in branding those attributes that makes this place special. Athens State has done a wonderful job recently in renovating buildings which convey something about the institution and its past…and most especially its future. Their Vision 2020 report notes why ASU has thrived for 188 years, and continues to do so. The report plans for the changes and contingencies of the future, while building on the successes of the past.

A friend noted a few days ago that exit 351 has become one of “those” exits. They described it as a blip on the GPS, a place to fill up or grab a quick burger before leaving Athens in their rearview mirror. Many people believe that history should be saved to remember the past and honor those who came before us. In the case of Athens, I believe we can’t afford to forget our past…but only for the sake of our future.        

Photo and caption in the News Courier      


Spirit Awards Luncheon

by Pam Hartmann, Organization Committee

Mark your calendars for Monday, January 31, 2011, because Spirit of Athens is hosting the Spirit Awards Luncheon at 11:30 a.m., in the Rodgers Center at First Presbyterian Church on Jefferson Street, in downtown Athens.

Awards will be presented to a few outstanding volunteers and supporters who have demonstrated great interest and service toward the revitalization of Athens’ downtown.  All of the community is invited to the luncheon, which combines the Spirit of Athens annual meeting with the awards’ presentation. This is a great way to show support for the downtown while celebrating with new friends and a few old ones. Have you been interested in finding out more about the campaigns and events that Spirit of Athens sponsors that highlight the downtown?

This luncheon is a great opportunity to hear about the successes and to acknowledge the people who have worked diligently to keep things moving in the right direction in Athens.   Although there will be a few guest speakers, the luncheon is planned with an emphasis on fun, good food, and socializing. You’ll have plenty of time to eat and meet a few new faces at this meeting. Spirit of Athens committee members will be visible and ready to offer information or have you volunteer to help this organization make Athens’ downtown the most successful downtown in Alabama.

Seating is limited for this luncheon. VIP tables for 6 will be available for $100. VIP tables will be up front and specially decorated for the guests who have reserved them. General reservations are $20. per person and must be made no later than January 26th.
 Attendees will be delighted by the food prepared by the Sweetest Things Tea Room, and by LuVici’s. There will be lots of additional surprises for those attending the luncheon. Information on volunteer opportunities, membership and upcoming events will also be available.

The Spirit of Athens, led by executive director, Trisha Black, follows the national Main Street Program model. The Main Street Four-Point Approach is a unique preservation-based economic development tool that enables communities to revitalize the downtowns and neighborhood business districts by leveraging local assets- from historic, cultural, and architectural resources to local enterprises and community events. It is a comprehensive strategy that addresses the individual issues and problems that challenge traditional historic downtown districts. The Four-Point approach emphasizes the areas of Organization, Promotion, Design and Economic Re-Structuring.

If you would like to share your talents and get more involved in your downtown, there is room on many of the committees or you can volunteer for one of the many individual events that Spirit of Athens sponsors.

Reservations for the Spirit Awards Luncheon, may be purchased online at www.athensspirit.blogspot.com or call 256-278-6436, and leave a call back message, or email tblack@athensal.us. Reservations are due no later than January 26th.


Re-locating to Athens and finding a Jewel downtown

By Pam Hartmann

“Northern Alabama is one of the best-kept secrets” This quote from a prospective co-worker opened my husband’s sales-pitch for a possible relocation to the Tennessee Valley.   After a TVA job interview in Athens, he returned to our home in Miami loaded with facts and figures to make his presentation.  After he interacted with his potential new co-workers and garnered much input, I must say, his pitch was very intriguing.  “ Northern Alabama has a beautiful countryside with rolling hills, and multiple waterways and streams.  It is home to several outstanding state parks.  Athens is located as the center point between Chattanooga, Huntsville, and Nashville. All  were attractive selling points.”
Miami is known for it’s exciting night life, eclectic mix of Cuban and Latin cultures and beautiful beaches.  All I knew after living there for three years is that I wanted to move back to somewhere that people said “ya’ll”.  I’m originally from Louisiana, so I was real serious about the “ya’ll”!   For this criteria, Northern Alabama got a resounding, ‘Check!’
The other thing I kept telling people I missed while living in Miami was “the green”.  I didn’t quite know how to explain it- although the palm trees, beaches and proximity to the Florida Keys were awesome, on a day-to-day basis I never saw enough GREEN!  There were turnpikes and condos and postage-stamp yards as far as they eye could see.  Oh, how I missed the “green”.   ‘Check!’  Welcome to Northern Alabama-  now  my daily drive takes me through hilly, green fields.  How they restoreth my concrete-saturated soul!
Another bit of trivia you may not be aware of is that Miami drivers are repeatedly voted the “Rudest Drivers in America”.  Let me tell you, no title has ever been more deserving.  Each drive on the turnpike was a fight to stay alive, as drivers repeatedly cut you off.  I would come home daily and check to see if a targeted bulls-eye was painted on my car! Don’t even get me started on ever hoping to get through a 4-way stop intersection.
I must say, after moving to Athens, I did have a problem getting through a 4-way intersection one day, but not quite for the same reasons.  Shortly after arriving here, I discovered the electricity was out for a portion of Hwy 72 as I approached a traffic light.  I groaned inwardly and braced myself for the inevitable hostile competition to get through the intersection.  I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that the drivers were so considerate of one another that  it took a while to get through the intersection, but not for the usual reasons.  It was because people seemed to be saying:
“After you”
“No, after you- I believe you were here first”
“No, you go ahead, I insist”
I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my husband about this joyful traffic experience I had in our new hometown!
We lived in an apartment in Madison the first month of Johns’ new job as we researched the surrounding areas to choose the area we wanted to make our home.  He interrogated his co-workers about the pros and cons of each area and we researched and rode around until we enthusiastically chose Athens.
The clincher for me was downtown Athens.  With it’s majestic courthouse in the center, surrounded by quaint shops and restaurants, it is a welcome break from the concrete malls and cookie-cutter shopping centers. My daughter, visiting from Miami for Christmas this week, murmured as we drove through the decorated square,
“Every time I drive through here, it’s like going back in time through a portal to some place nice”.
I think she expressed it perfectly- Athens has managed to retain the nostalgic feel and charming aesthetics of small-town USA in our downtown , while having the savvy to know that it must also strive to remain active and vibrant. This does not happen by accident.  My husband’s career and travels around the country have enabled us to drive through many small towns.  It is heart-breaking to see how many downtowns have declined into boarded-up, dusty, gloomy ghost towns.
I discovered the Spirit of Athens while seeking to meet people and become more involved in the community over a year ago.  This organization was formed to revitalize and keep active Athens’ downtown area. I was warmly welcomed and my input and questions were encouraged. Not only did I make wonderful friends, but I was amazed to find how many  activities and projects the Spirit of Athens is spearheading at this very moment.
 From the Hometown Celebration and the Spirit of Athens sponsored homemade ice cream ‘Crank-off’, to the i-Walk campaign that was simultaneously kicked off with the Chick-fil-A Jessica Elkins run, to breakfast with The Easter Bunny, to co-sponsor of the annual Athens Christmas Open House, to their annual Spirit Awards Luncheon in January, to their fa├žade grant program for local downtown businesses, to working with the city fathers on making improvements to the downtown, to ad campaigns that highlight Athens, the Spirit of Athens, is the lifeblood of downtown revitalization. They are constantly promoting events as well as encouraging patronage to our fine shops and cafes on the Square. Not only does this promote tourism, but the spirit of community and camaraderie that so many towns lack is reinforced with each completed task. Lasting memories are formed between neighbors and families and these are the bonds that draw children and grandchildren back to Athens when they grow up and seek their places in the world.
I hope that the people of Athens realize what a rare jewel they have in their midst on the Square.  I long for more to get involved and find a place working as a dedicated volunteer like I have. I hope that more will see what is being done in this downtown and realize how easy it would be for it to become a boarded up ghost town or a concrete jungle. I pray that more will do their part to keep the legacy alive for future generations of people here. With the spirit of the incredible people I have met in Athens, I have no doubt that I will remain here for years to come, and I will encourage other good people to come and sit awhile and enjoy this historic place.