Economic Outlook

Experts believe the city's recent growth will only help Athens, not hinder it

E dward Wilde, pronounced will-dee, owns an impressive resume. Since 1977, he has been involved with businesses in downtown Athens, either as a landlord or a business owner. Currently, he owns all of 260 North Jackson Street and has part ownership of the buildings for The Globe and The Last Resort.

Due to Wilde’s long presence in downtown, and living in Athens for 45 years, the landlord and business owner keenly remembers the economic shifts that have occurred in the Classic City.

Edward Wilde, who has lived in Athens, Georgia since 1972, has been a landlord and business owner for 45 years. Photo by Thomas Mills.

“The first big shift was the opening of the Georgia Square Mall in 1981,” Wilde said. “The big anchor department stores downtown, like Sears, Penny's, Davidson's, moved out to the mall. And people said, 'That's the end of downtown.'”

It was, in reality, not the end of downtown Athens. The mass exodus of stores leaving left the door open for small business entrepreneurs and restaurateurs to take their place.

“A lot of small entrepreneurs, bar and restaurant owners opened places because storefronts had relatively reasonably prices,” Wilde said. “The mall opening was a reflection of the economic change in downtown Athens.”

Today, the Classic City is home to over 90 bars and restaurants, 40 retail locations and a slew of other national businesses, residential high rises and local stores.

Yet, within the last three years, locally owned stores, such as Jackson Street Books, have shut their doors, causing locals to be vocal about their distaste for the latest national retail stores.

Experts believe that the current economic surge being seen in downtown Athens is a natural progression and will, in the long term, affect the city for the better.

Ryan Moore, director of the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department, looks to demographics, not economics, to explain the recent economic expansions happening in downtown.

“Over the last ten years, we have added 20,000 or so residents to Athens-Clarke county and that put us over the 100,000 person mark,” Moore said. “I think our population base is getting to the point that we are attractive to commercial retailers from outside of Athens-Clarke county.”

Athens-Clark County Population, 1990-2016
Create bar charts

Yet, according to, Dr. Richard Martin, professor of economics and real estate at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, Athens has been, until recently, a very hard sell for national retailers.

“Athens has always had a problem of selling itself to national chains because the income numbers are really low here,” Dr. Martin said. "I've talked to commercial real estate people in town and they have a hard time selling their locations to national chains because the numbers don't look good.”

Indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38.1% of the county’s population is in poverty, making Athens one of the poorest counties in the entire country. Additionally, while the national median income for the entire country was $53,889 in 2015, Athens-Clarke county’s median income was $32,162.

Top 25 Counties with the Highest Poverty Rates - U.S. 2016

Data from: Poverty USA, U.S. Census Bureau
# State County Poverty Rate
1 South Dakota Corson County 47.4%
2 South Dakota Ziebach County 47.1%
3 Kentucky Clay County 46.8%
4 Mississippi Clairborne County 46.3%
5 Kentucky Bell County 44.7%
6 Colorado Crowley County 44.3%
7 South Dakota Todd County 44%
8 Mississippi Holmes County 43.3%
9 Kentucky Owsley County 42.4%
10 Mississippi Leflore County 42.3%
11 Georgia Steward County 42%
12 Mississippi Humphreys County 41.5%
13 Kentucky McCreary County 41.5%
14 South Carolina Allendale County 41%
15 Mississippi Issaquena County 40.4%
16 North Dakota Sioux County 40.4%
17 Kentucky Martin County 40%
18 Alabama Perry County 40%
19 Alabama Bullock County 39.6%
20 Mississippi Jefferson County 39.3%
21 Georgia Wheeler County 39.3%
22 Mississippi Quitman County 38.2%
23 Georgia Clarke County 38.1%
24 Arizona Apache County 38%
25 Arkansas Philips County 37.3%

As a result, local developers have had to show retailers just how valuable downtown Athens is due to the buying power of the local student population.

“Part of what's going on is that they're catching on,” Dr. Martin said. “There's actually more buying power in this town than the numbers show. They're realizing that there's potential here, especially with the student population and the buying power of the student population.”

Additionally, Athens’ efforts to bring in more tourism, coupled with the university’s large fan base, have helped create a healthy local economy.

“A healthy commercial and retail sector is a good thing,” Moore explained. “Being that we are a major importer of tourism and the great things that we are doing at the university and the Classic Center, where people come into town and spend money, the more opportunity they have to do that, the better.”

Additionally, there has also been a growth in the retail space due to the expansions of residential developments downtown. According to Moore, over 100,000 square feet of retail space has been added courtesy of buildings such as Georgia Heights and The Standard.

These events look to make downtown Athens a hub for national stores and retailers for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Martin explains that, though it might seem tough to compete with national brands, local stores can offer unique experiences and opportunities that give them an edge against larger stores and retailers.

“I just think you can't go head-to-head,” Dr. Martin said. “You got to work in the gap areas where the national chains don't serve as well. It's got to be clear that you're providing something other than just a product that someone can get for cheap.”

"It's got to be clear that you're providing something other than just a product that someone can get for cheap."

- Dr. Richard Martin, Professor of Economics & Real Estate, Terry College of Business

Dr. Martin also points to niche stores such as Junkman’s and Native American, who provide unique gift items, such as hand-crafted jewelry and a customizable bead section, that the national stores don't cater to.

“They've got a very clear focus of what they're trying to provide,” Dr. Martin said. “There's room for that, even if you have a few national chains.”

Despite the increased competition, Moore sees the large student population as a great opportunity for smaller businesses and brands just starting out.

“I think that we are still a great place to have a local business and in fact, we are probably one of the best places in the nation to start a small business and a brand because we have such strong student population here and 10,000 new students to come and go every year,” Moore said.

Even though experts believe that commercialization and growth has resulted in a better downtown, the community still has a great say in what they want in their city.

"The local community is very passionate about what they do and don't want in their downtown." Moore said. "We have a very engaged and informed citizen group and a very passionate citizen group. It shows our citizens' level of engagement in the process which is a good thing."

While Moore understands local frustrations about the increasing presence of national retailers and businesses, he challenges residents to come up with stronger evidence that small businesses are struggling.

"I really challenge people to name the mom and pop shops that have been put out of business over the last three or four years," Moore said. "And, just anecdotally, it's a struggle to come up with those names."