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 façade 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.

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