The City of Athens appears to be heading toward preliminary engineering work on proposed improvements in Downtown Athens.
At last Monday’s Athens City Council study session, council members heard details from City Manager C. Seth Sumner regarding a potential change in philosophy regarding the project.
Late last year, the council voted unanimously to adopt the Experience Masterplan 2020 for Downtown Athens. The proposal, which was developed in conjunction with the Lyndhurst Foundation and the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, details a series of practical and aesthetic improvements for the city’s historic business district. Included in the plan, which was fully funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation, are beautification measures such as facade improvements, decorative landscaping and wall murals.
A large focus of the proposal is the narrowing of streets to provide additional parking, as well as to slow down traffic and make the downtown area safer for pedestrian foot traffic.
The specific areas being discussed are Jackson Street, College Street, White Street, Washington Avenue and Madison Avenue, including the perimeter of the McMinn County Courthouse. The plan also proposes a crosswalk across Jackson Street between Tennessee Wesleyan University (TWU) and the Arts Center of Athens.
“Our plan last year, last October, as the plan was adopted was to look into the TAP grant for potential funding for the downtown improvement plan that has been adopted by Main Street Athens and by the city council,” said Sumner. “As we’re looking at that, there was an idea to bring forth the engineering on that to get the design paid and put in place ahead of the grant application.”
Sumner was referring to the State of Tennessee’s Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP).
“I wanted to make sure to keep you all informed of a little bit of change of order that we’re looking at and a real good look at whether the TAP grant is going to be the best vehicle or if it may be better for the City of Athens not to have a grant to pay for a part of this improvement,” said Sumner.
In the meantime, Sumner is seeking council approval to move forward with the engineering for the project.
“We don’t believe that this will interrupt our timeline and it’s possible to even speed up our timeline a little bit by doing it this way,” noted Sumner, who said at the time the council approved the plan that some work could begin within three years.
The city’s newly-hired project manager Kevin Helms and Athens Public Works Director Ben Burchfield are working towards inviting officials with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) for a visit to Downtown Athens to provide them with an overview of the project.
Sumner said TDOT could assist city officials by “tell(ing) us how we can maximize leveraging our taxpayer dollars.”
Burchfield added, “Our biggest concern is the scope of work that we’ve got; it may or may not really help us out to go after those grant funds in the grand scheme of that and to do so will potentially add a lot of extra time to project completion. … At the end of the day, the ends may not really justify the means to pursue TAP funding.”
Ultimately, Burchfield said the TAP funding may not cover as much of the project expenses as was originally thought.
“So, rather than do all that, let’s continue with design now and get a better idea of what we’re looking at and possibly go forward next year; or maybe not, we’ll see,” said Burchfield. “I know Main Street wants to proceed quickly. They don’t want to see any more delays to it and we’re trying to be mindful of that, too.”
Another funding possibility would be to allow Main Street to campaign for private donations toward the project, according to Sumner.