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Will Wal-Mart Chase the Cool out of Athens, GA?

In the controversy over a new development planned for downtown Athens, the chain retailer seems to be a Trojan horse for a larger debate about economic development and who gets to define what is best for a community.
February 28, 2012, 8am PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Wal-Mart is not cool, I don't think anyone would argue that point. It may be more arguable today than 10 years ago, but Athens is. The home of a thriving cultural scene and the bands R.E.M., the B-52s, and Widespread Panic, Athens is facing an identity crises, brought on by plans for a large development destined for downtown, according to Will Doig.

In a downtown known for its walkability, independent business, and green space, "Renderings [for the planned project] by the Atlanta-based developer Selig Enterprises show a bricked concourse surrounded by large-scale retail, including a 94,000-square-foot superstore, topped with apartments. It also includes three restaurants - two of which are over 10,000 square feet - and 1,150 parking spaces," writes Doig.

As Doig points out, the town's mayor and key business leaders support the project, which could bring jobs to a county with a nearly 40% poverty rate. "At a commission meeting earlier this month, support for the project split largely along racial lines. 'Small jobs are better than no jobs,' was how one black supporter put it."

The mention of Wal-Mart as a possible tenant of the new development stirred passionate opposition from another segment of the community. According to R.E.M. band member Mike Mills, "'Athens is successful in large part because of its quality of life...Quality of life draws investment and new citizens.' Even if the development does create jobs, its diminishing effect on the appeal of downtown might cancel out its economic benefit."

Doig points out that quality design, rather than type of tenant, may be just the element needed to bridge the gap between competing factions. "The truth is, the downtown desperately needs more practical retail. Right now, there's not even a grocery store, and there are more places to buy vintage skirts than paper towels. So last month, a group working under the banner 'Protect Downtown Athens' began trying to broker a compromise that reframed the debate as one over the project's design, rather than who might move into the space."

As it turns out, Wal-Mart was the only potential tenant, amongst several grocery retailers, "that was willing to adapt to an urban design," reports Doig.

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Published on Saturday, February 25, 2012 in
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