ATHENS — Some residents raised concerns about unchecked growth while others called for amenities to attract more young residents during a community kickoff last week for the “Athens 2040” project to develop a new comprehensive plan for the city.
“Madison offers a cautionary tale” for a growing Athens, said Pete Peterson, a former Madison resident who has lived in Athens for two years. “They never got ahead of the game. Madison is jam-packed. Traffic is crazy.”
Peterson was among about 50 people who attended the in-person session at Athens City Hall on Thursday night to get public input into the master plan that will be developed by Franklin, Tennessee-based Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative. Another 35 people participated via Zoom.
“I’ve watched the growth over 30 years and I’ve enjoyed it, but we’re getting to the point where we’re getting congested,” said John Sparks.
The pressures of growth in the Athens area are “incredible,” and the comprehensive plan will “set you up to be able to be proactive instead of reactive” to that growth, said Brian Wright, the founding principal of the Tennessee planning consultant.
The plan, he said, will be “uniquely Athens” and offer “something for everyone,” including business owners, residents, visitors, the development community, and “people of all ages.”
He said the plan will cover conservation and growth, housing, business and tourism, open space and recreation, transportation and parking, and community services, facilities and amenities. The city’s current plan doesn’t include all of these elements, according to Wright.
There are opportunities for the community to get involved throughout the process, through events like Planapalooza, scheduled for May 15-19, or “On the Table” meetings that can be hosted in homes, restaurants, places of worship, schools, libraries and offices or online.
A draft plan will be presented to the city’s planning staff for its review, and a public draft plan and open house are scheduled for this winter. Final plan preparation is to last through next spring.
“First and foremost, this is all about understanding people in the community,” said Matt Noonkester, the president of Charlotte, North Carolina-based City Explained Inc., which also is helping develop the plan. “We will engage you early and often.”
Noonkester said that “conflict is healthy” in the process of developing a comprehensive plan. “It’s OK to have opposing viewpoints.”
Samuel Barker, an 18-year-old student at Athens State University who works in multimedia production in Athens, said the town needs more variety in dining options, beyond “burgers and chicken.” And Valleri Zeanah, who lives just outside Athens and whose daughter is a student athlete at Calhoun Community College, said the Athens area needs more safe, affordable rental housing for young people.
Zoom participants complained about the lack of public transportation in Athens.
“What we need to do is attract young people,” who will help make the city “vibrant,” said Kelly Range, of Athens.
Thousands of jobs are expected to be created at Mazda Toyota Manufacturing and other industries, and Range said that if more dining and entertainment options aren’t available in Athens for those people, “they are going to go somewhere else. We’ve got to have young people in this town. Let’s try and do something for the young people.”
Wright said he’s hearing that Athens residents are leaving town for jobs elsewhere and are stopping for groceries and dining outside town before returning home. The way to change that is to “create an environment where a business wants to set up shop” in Athens, he said.