America’s Best College Town

This is no idle boast, although—as far as we know—there are no national rankings that would cement this claim. But in thinking about the factors that would be weighed if such rankings were done, Athens consistently shines.

Herty Field, located behind the Chapel, has been transformed from a parking lot to a green mall with a fountain. A similar facelift is planned for D.W. Brooks Drive on South Campus, which will become a walking mall.

Think about it. In how many other places in the country is a major research university situated in a friendly small town rather than a disconnected city?

How many other places feature a beautifully preserved area like North Campus as the historic backdrop to a vibrant downtown filled with sidewalk cafes, coffee-houses, and funky, locally-owned shops?

In how many other communities this size can you find the dizzying array of activities and entertainment so readily available here?

It's not just that Athens is a great place to go to school, though it surely is that. (Which explains why students through the years have been so reluctant to leave.) It's also a great place to raise a family or retire, as more and more people are discovering.

What makes Athens-Clarke County special is partly the result of fortuitous circumstance. But it's also attributable to wise decisions made by UGA administrators, business and government leaders, and various individuals and groups over the years—from the initial selection of the site for the state's flagship university through decisions to preserve and restore historic buildings to voter approval of local-option sales tax initiatives that have paid for improvements to schools, parks, and roads. Both the University and its host community have benefited from the active involvement of people who care deeply about this place and from a quality of life that students, visitors and year-round residents relish.

We've compiled a list of the 10 things that qualify Athens for the title of "Best College Town in America"  so it would be easy for you to come to that conclusion as well.

#1 Unparelled Setting

Landscape architect Adam Gross, who in the last 15 years has advised scores of schools and colleges on how to develop an appealing physical environment, has said that Broad Street frames "one of the greatest college towns in America." (Chapel Hill and Princeton also make his list.)

Despite fears that the 1982 opening of Georgia Square Mall would be its death knell, Athens' downtown area has survived and is currently thriving with an eclectic mix of independently-owned retail stores, restaurants, coffeehouses, and clubs.

"Keeping a balanced mix is important," says UGA economist Jeff Humphreys (AB '82, PhD '88). "You don't want to become lopsided."

That's a point the Athens Downtown Development Authority keeps in mind when working to attract new businesses to the area.

Certainly a beautiful campus is an essential ingredient for any place contending for best-college-town status, and, according to Gross, UGA has done the best job of any university he's seen in maintaining its grounds and open spaces. "When University of Virginia president John Casteen visited UGA a few years ago," says Gross, "he went home and said to his people, 'Why is the University of Georgia so beautiful in comparison to us?'"

The campus master plan, formulated in the late nineties, is being implemented in stages. The ultimate goal is to turn other parts of campus into the same kind of well-scaled, pedestrian-friendly greenspace that defines North Campus.

To that end, surface parking lots are being converted into beautiful lawns, encouraging people to park cars in decks and walk or use the bus system. A perfect example is Herty Field, located behind the Chapel, which has been transformed from a parking lot into a scenic green mall highlighted by a gorgeous fountain (see photo at left). A similar facelift is planned for D.W. Brooks Drive on South Campus, which will become a walking mall.

Historic North Campus has been maintained and improved through the years. During the downtown street and sidewalk renovations that took place this summer, the city "went the extra mile" to protect the area, says Tom Jackson, associate vice president for public affairs.

#2 Big Time Sports

Most people would agree that another primary requisite for best-college-town status is a big-time college sports program. And UGA certainly qualifies in that regard. For starters, there's football—which has been a big deal here since Charles Herty, a chemistry professor and UGA's first coach, launched the game back in 1892. With some rivalries dating back more than a century, Bulldog fans can work themselves into a woofing frenzy in Sanford Stadium, one of the largest college stadiums in the nation. With the addition of deluxe skysuites, seating capacity is now 86,520, and Georgia is a perennial top-five finisher in NCAA season attendance figures.

But the college sports scene is a year-round pastime here, with venues that include Stegeman Coliseum, the Ramsey Center, Foley Field, and the more recent addition of the women's soccer/softball complex on South Milledge Avenue. The Dan Magill Tennis Complex is home to the College Tennis Hall of Fame, and the NCAA men's tennis championship is a semi-permanent fixture here every May.

Few college sports programs can boast the kind of success Georgia has enjoyed of late: nine NCAA championships in the last three years, and a slew of SEC championships—including four in one day last spring. The women's sports program is consistently ranked among the top five in the country and UGA has twice finished in the top three in recent Sears Cup competition, which ranks the best collegiate sports programs. In 1997, Sports Illustrated picked Uga as the best college mascot in America and the Ramsey Center as the best on-campus sports facility. And UGA’s college town of Athens was rated among the best sports towns in the country by ESPN.

According to a 1998 economic impact study, spending by the UGA Athletic Association and visitors attending sporting events pumps $45 million annually into the local economy.

#3 Thriving Music Scene

One of Athens' major claims to fame is the world-famous music scene that spawned the B-52s, R.E.M., Widespread Panic, and countless other groups of at least local renown. The Athens music scene is chronicled, on paper and via the Web, by Flagpole magazine, whose publisher, Pete McCommons (AB '62), never left town after graduation. Three years ago, Flagpole started an annual music awards event described as a "townie Oscar night." It kicks off AthFest, a summer weekend festival showcasing local and regional bands that perform on outdoor stages by day and in downtown clubs by night. With an accompanying artists market and special events for kids, it's a quintessential Athens happening that attracts students, residents and visitors.

But there's more to the local music scene than the pop/rock/alternative mix found in downtown clubs. With the openings of the Classic Center in 1995 and UGA's Performing Arts Center in 1996, venues became available for touring Broadway shows and symphony orchestras. Music critics and musicians alike acknowledge that the Atlanta Symphony sounds better in the Performing Arts Center's Hodgson Hall, with its splendid acoustics, than in the cavernous Atlanta venue that is its home. Indeed, National Public Radio records a dozen concerts in Hodgson Hall each year for broadcast on the popular "Performance Today" classical music program.

#4 More Arts and Entertainment

Lamar Dodd, the man responsible for the growth of UGA's School of Art that now bears his name, can be considered the father—or grandfather—of today's Athens arts scene.

"His absolute conviction that the visual arts were important—not only as a discipline, but for their effect on the general public—transformed Athens," says Bill Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art and author of a Dodd biography. "He believed looking at art made life better. It was as simple as that."

Dodd's legacy is apparent, says Eiland, not only in the success of the art school, but in the general focus on the arts in Athens, where the work of local artists can be found on display all over town. In addition to the University being home to the state art museum, local tax dollars paid for a recently completed $6 million expansion of the Lyndon House Arts Center, which has several galleries and offers classes to the community.

The UGA dance department stages performances on campus and in the community, and faculty member Mark Wheeler personally generated a ballroom dance craze that's been in full swing for several years. There's lots of local theater, too, with community and UGA troupes performing in such venues as the Fine Arts Auditorium, the restored Morton Theatre, and the Seney-Stovall Chapel. A slew of special events such as the Classic Film Festival provide additional opportunities to showcase local and visiting artists of various stripes.

Beyond that, Athens has generated a buzz as a writers town. UGA is home to one of the largest University presses in the region and also the nationally known Georgia Review literary magazine. The Hariette Austin writers conference, held during the summer at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, has grown into the third-largest in the country. With local and national-chain bookstores, lots of book clubs, locally owned Hill Street Press, and a strong creative writing program at the University, Athens' reputation as a writers town will likely grow.

#5 Strong Town-Gown Relations

Those on both sides of Broad Street agree that town-gown relations have never been stronger. Local residents turn out for UGA events in droves, and faculty, staff, and students are actively involved in the community—as volunteers with various organizations, mentors to school kids, and fundraisers for local charities. Several members of the Athens-Clarke county government have UGA ties, either as alumni, retired faculty, or spouses. Local businesses depend on the ready supply of students who fill the roles of both employees and customers.

When the University welcomes new students to campus in the fall, former mayor Doc Eldridge was among those invited to the Opening Convocation. "I tell the students we want them to think of Athens as their home and hope they'll come back often after graduation," he says. "But we also want them to treat this place like they would their home."

Doc Eldridge says UGA-Athens relations are better than ever. He ought to know; he's both a former mayor and an alum.

Eldridge says UGA makes Athens virtually "recession-proof."

Mayor Doc Eldridge (BBA '76) is a life-long resident of Athens—not counting two errant years in Minneapolis in his first job after graduating from UGA. A former Clarke County commissioner, he's been active in a host of local groups. In 1997, he was the Junior League's "Community Volunteer of the Year." From his office at City Hall, he offered these thoughts about Athens and the University:

"I spent time with the governor recently, talking with him about how strong town-gown relations are here. They're better than ever. That says a lot about how the town functions with the University and the University with the town. The benchmark was the '96 Olympics—UGA had the venues, but Athens was the host city, so we had to work closely together.

"I can recite a litany of projects that UGA and the local government have worked on cooperatively, like the improvements to Lumpkin and Baxter streets and College Avenue, where University and community properties integrate with each other. Or Fire Station #7 on the east side, which is built on land owned by UGA. Or the Wray-Nicholson House, the second-oldest in the community, which at one point was headed for the wrecking ball. We used sales tax money to buy and restore it, then made a deal with UGA. Now it's the home of the alumni association. What better caretaker could we have for that jewel than the University?

"My parents moved here in August of 1952 and I was born in November. It never crossed my mind to go anywhere else but UGA. I like to say I got my education on Baxter Street—starting at Alps Road Elementary on one end, then Clarke Central in the middle, and UGA at the other end.

"When I was elected mayor, I spent a lot of time traveling around the state, and I was overwhelmed by the reaction when people found out where I was from. So many of Georgia's leaders got their education at UGA and love Athens. It's where they spent some of the best times of their lives—the place where they may have met their spouse or sent their children to school. College is where you make your transition to adulthood, and I can't imagine a better town in which to make that transition. We're an urban area, but we're not fraught with typical urban problems like traffic and crime. Still, we're big enough to have first-class entertainment and restaurants.

"I've said many times that I think Athens is the greatest community to live in in the country—particularly with UGA in our backyard, which makes us virtually recession-proof. The big challenge is to preserve our quality of life—to grow in a smart manner, acceptable to the community. That's a big challenge. But Athens has a good handle on preventing the sprawl you see in other urban areas. And we're fortunate to have access to experts like Jack Crowley [dean of the School of Environmental Design], who's been an incredible resource on planning and transportation issues.

"Athens/Clarke County is the smallest land mass in the state, but we're the fifth-largest MSA. [The metropolitan statistical area includes Clarke, Madison and Oconee counties.] In other MSAs, you won't find the mix of urban and rural, historic districts and new construction areas that you find here. Many downtowns in the South are virtual ghost towns. But in Athens, someone like me who wears a jacket and tie can walk to lunch at a sidewalk café and sit next to someone with purple hair—and we'll talk to each other. That's just neat."

#6 Healthy Economy

The University is by far the largest of the 10 major employers in Athens, a list that includes both Athens Regional Medical Center and St. Mary's Hospital, the Clarke County school system and government, two poultry processors, and some local industries. According to a 1998 economic impact study, UGA-related spending accounts for more than 16,000 full- and part-time jobs. The total includes some 7,000 residents of the Athens metropolitan area who were paid employees of either UGA or the Athletic Association, plus more than 9,000 residents whose jobs depend on university-related spending. In the Athens MSA, more than one job in five owes its existence to UGA-related spending.

But the economic benefits of serving as the host community to a major research university are even greater when long-term impacts are considered. As Athens seeks to diversify its economic base, the ability of the University to create spin-off firms related to faculty research is a major asset.

#7 Favorable Climate

Yes, the dog days of August can wilt plants and humans, but that's more than offset by long falls that stretch into December and early springs that start when there's still several feet of snow up North. Athens' mild climate supports the lush greenness and explosions of flowers and shrubs that delight visitors when they tour campus and local neighborhoods. During Masters week, Athens looks a lot like Augusta National.

#8 Environmental Stewardship

Last December, county commissioners approved a comprehensive land-use plan, almost three years in the making. In 1998, state, local, and UGA officials cooperated to purchase 200 acres of land along the Oconee River to create a bicycle and walking trail that, when completed, will stretch from UGA to Sandy Creek Nature Center. "This gives us a user-friendly, environmentally protected area within steps of downtown," then-President Adams noted at the ceremony announcing the project.

Athens-Clarke County also has dealt with water needs by joining with three neighboring counties to build the Bear Creek Reservoir to boost existing water resources and meet future needs. The local water treatment plant will be expanded and upgraded by 2005.

With a College of Environment and Design abd the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology, the first school of its kind when it was launched in 2007, taking shape, there will be no shortage of faculty and students available as resources on behalf of local environmental issues.

#9 Good Transportation

While an Atlanta-Athens rail line is still in the wish-list stage, plans for a multimodal transportation center downtown are moving forward. Preliminary designs call for a four-story parking deck, bus bays, and a covered pedestrian walkway and landscaped plaza. The creation of such a central transfer station, it is hoped, will encourage students and other commuters to rely on buses rather than cars to get around, easing the traffic and parking problems that plague most college towns. Taxis and airport shuttles will also use the hub, which is expected to be under construction in a few months. "We're obviously excited about a facility like this," says Judy Dudley (BSEd '68), assistant director of Athens Transit.

With Hartsfield International Airport within easy driving distance—and Athens-Ben Epps Airport supporting business and commuter air travel—it's easy to get from Athens to just about anywhere in the region or the world, and vice versa.

#10 Location, Location, Location

As far as most Athens residents are concerned, Atlanta is just close enough. On one hand, it's a definite advantage from many standpoints to have a major international city just 70 miles away. On the other, that's enough distance to maintain (so far) a protective buffer from the city's notorious traffic and urban sprawl.

Besides easy access to Hotlanta to the west, Athens' central location in the Southeast region makes it easy to enjoy a weekend getaway, whether one's preference runs to mountains or beaches. Head north and you soon hit the foothills of the Appalachians and the start of the Appalachian Trail. Go east to find any number of charming cities and resort areas along the Atlantic coast. Or drive south a couple hours if you prefer the blue water and white sand of the Gulf. Orlando—the world's No. 1 vacation mecca—is within a day's drive.

Of course, with all there is to do in Athens, vacations aren't really a necessity. As the Chamber of Commerce notes on its Web site: "If you dial heaven from Athens, it's a local call."

A Downtown Renaissance

Athens, Ga., has been called the birthplace of alternative rock and America’s best college town. That was yesterday. Sure, the town that spawned R.E.M. and the B-52s is still an indie-songsmith hub. And University of Georgia Bulldogs fans are as passionate as ever. But Athens’s historic downtown has rerouted some of that hipster-meets-rah-rah history into a hyperlocal entrepreneurial spirit that caters to the mature tastes of those who have moved in, come back or never left. The result is a renaissance for the area, which feels like your favorite, secret neighborhood, where iconic locales dovetail with new and resurrected music spaces, boutiques, lounges and restaurants, as well as a brewery set to open this fall.

— ALEX CREVAR, New York times

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