Athens, GA. Wal-Mart Gives Town A Big Gift: We Are Not Coming
Here's a Christmas story with a happy ending. It's a story about a big gift that nobody wanted.
On November 21, 2011, Sprawl-Buster's received a short, succinct email about a battle brewing over a big box store in Athens, Georgia. "A Wal-Mart anchor store was proposed last week 1 block from downtown Athens," the email said. "There are dozens of small businesses there, most of which will not survive a 100,000 sq ft. wal-mart a block away."
A second email came in later that day: "I live in Athens, Georgia, where there are 2 Wal-Marts now. They are proposing building a third anchor store 1 BLOCK from downtown Athens, which would destroy ALL of the local businesses there. These little stores are what make Athens a great town. Our Mayor is all for it; she was quoted on Saturday as saying, "Some might call Wal-Mart's foreign suppliers sweatshops, but they're putting food on the table for Third World workers - Mayor Nancy Denson " Our community is on it's own for the time being."
Before Christmas arrived, a full-blown group had been formed: People For A Better Athens, and petitions and local events were happening to raise awareness of the Wal-Mart threat to Athens. The group launched a People For A Better Athens website, where they explained the project and their mission: "Downtown Athens, Georgia is renowned for its rich cultural history, creative artistic community, local businesses and world famous music scene. Athens has earned its nickname the 'Classic City.'
This Wal-Mart proposal threatened to alter Athens irrevocably. Athens' citizens discovered in an 11th hour revelation that Selig Enterprises planned to build a 100,000 sq. foot Wal-Mart in downtown Athens. Many residents realized that the construction of a big box store in downtown Athens would devastate the existing local business community and turn a vibrant downtown area into a ghost town of shuttered stores and empty buildings. "We want to see our elected officials execute an Athens-based vision for downtown development," the group wrote, "that will better benefit the local citizens and enhance the long term viability of Athens."
People for a Better Athens presented the city council with more than 17,000 signatures from Athens residents petitioning against a proposed downtown Wal-Mart. Athens Mayor Nancy Denson stated publicly that her hands were tied. "That's what's sad to me is that the people that are coming there are asking us to stop something that there's not a legal mechanism by which to stop it," the Mayor said. "And I wouldn't like to stop it if we could. The private investors have a right to enjoy the value of their property when they get ready to sell it. I think it's wrong to block them to reduce the value of their property by holding it up."
The anti-Wal-Mart battle attracted the interest of an Occupy Athens group, which began a peacefully encamped in front of City Hall. On March 7, 2012 at least 17 Athenas-Clarke County police officers, including the chief of police, arrived suddenly and without warning, threatened the group with violence and arrest if they did not vacate 'City Athena.'
"This cowardly suppression of our First Amendment rights illustrates how little the State, and in this instance the Athens-Clarke County government, thinks of the public's voice or will," Occupy Athens told me. "We were loud, assertive, and inconvenient for the city. Last we looked, none of those traits are crimes. Despite Mayor Denson's on-record endorsement of our encampment, and the implied support of ACCPD's own Lt. Nick Soriano, we were evicted without any firm justification or warning. 'Y'all have a public forum out there in front of city hall for as long as you want to have it,' Mayor Denson said on camera to Athens Occupiers on Monday, March 5. 'I will protect your rights as diligently as I protect theirs.'"
Thirteen months since our first report from Athens, there is a festive air in town. People For A Better Athens sent Sprawl-Busters the following account on December 13th:
"Incredible. A year ago, we learned just before the holidays that Wal-Mart planned to occupy a 100,000 sq. ft. big-box in downtown Athens. Shortly thereafter, we started our petition. We organized: legal counsel was retained, meetings were attended, voices were heard. We never accepted what our mayor and other elected leaders would have us believe- that this project was a 'done deal.'
Yesterday, numerous reports confirmed the developers of the site have made drastic changes to their proposal, incorporating this past year's Athenian feedback. The new anchor will now be 35,000 sq. ft. Wal-Mart is no longer interested in a downtown Athens location.
Thank you to the worldwide fans of Athens, GA, who had the courage to take a stand for a better Athens- it was not easy. Tonight, we're partying. Pop a bottle, and raise a glass. P.S. People for a Better Athens is not going away. "
What you can do: Anyone who wishes to congratulate the efforts of Occupy Athens to force city government to hold open, public hearings on the Wal-Mart plan, should email the group at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers are also urged to email Athens Mayor Nancy Denson at email@example.com with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Denson,
It looks like you are off the hook for now regarding what would have been the third Wal-Mart in the Athens area.
Your response last year of powerlessness in the face of this large corporation was certainly not a Profile In Courage moment for you -- and I hope with Wal-Mart removed from the scene you can now think through all the options a community has to prevent sprawl, beginning with your Master Plan and zoning code. Hundreds of communities like yours have developed the "legal mechanism" that you said you lacked to stop big box sprawl.
Wal-Mart has given you a second chance to plan for the kind of small town quality of life your residents want. And it would be important for you not to pass up the opportunity to redo you local ordinances -- because Wal-Mart may very well darken your door again."