Athens Chamber Helps Update the Classic City

Cléa Hernandez

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Athens is experiencing a renaissance. With the steep incline of telecommuting jobs and the close proximity of bustling, big-business Atlanta, the darling of Georgia is attracting a new host of economy-boosting dwellers. 

“The Athens business community is diverse, solid, and positive -- and it’s getting better every year,” says Doc Eldridge, President of the Athens-Clarke County Chamber of Commerce. “At the Chamber, we went from a staff of two people who dealt with the business community to the team of 14 we have today. All come from different organizations, but for the first time in my memory everyone’s pulling in the same direction.” 

For 2014, the outlook just gets better.  Athens’ unemployment rate recently hit an all-time low in five years, according to the Georgia Department of Labor, and continues to have the lowest unemployment rate in the state. A strong industrial base like Athens has, which pays a lot of taxes and creates a lots of jobs, certainly isn’t hurting the situation. The new Caterpillar plant alone has already brought in 400 additional jobs; in the next three years it’s anticipated they will house up to 1400 positions.

“It’s hard to beat a community like Athens,” says Eldridge. “We’re a university city, which makes us almost recession-proof. We’re an hour from an international city, we’re an hour from the mountains, we’re four hours from the beach and ten minutes from the country. We always have a very high desirability rating for people looking to relocate or start a business, particularly those who work with certain technologies or an expertise represented at the University of Georgia.”

What part is the Chamber playing in seizing upon and promoting this new economic growth? Eldridge says that the Chamber will launch some new initiatives this year, but mostly it will work to enhance initiatives that came into fruition in 2013.

One of the initiatives mentioned was the new Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department. “This is a one-stop shop we created for business and economic development,” said Eldridge. “We house the Athens Downtown Development Authority, the Cultural Arts Commission and the Clarke County Mentor program, in addition to, of course, the Chamber of Commerce.” The partnership which gave rise to the consolidated institution was formed between the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, the Chamber, the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Authority and The University of Georgia.

“Whether big business, small business, traditional or art-based business, they all come to this one location,” continued Eldridge. “The decentralization had always been a problem for people in the past. Many weren’t sure where to go or whom to go to.” The Chamber will be making a big push to promote and educate people about the new Economic Development department in the coming year, as well as continuing to streamline the agencies and processes under their new common roof.   

To the delight of all Chamber members and those doing business through it, Eldridge also confirms that a new Chamber website is set to launch by end of first quarter. The planned site will be much more interactive and user-friendly, giving users broader capabilities for reaching out to members and doing business in general. 

New administration changes at the Chamber are also yielding quick results. Christy Terrell from Georgia Power Company, for instance, recently took her seat as the new Chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors. She has already initiated a small business committee that will launch a series of mini-programs for independent business owners. The programs deal with such subjects as marketing, financing, social media and more. 

The Chamber has also been instrumental in developing a new education committee for Athens-Clarke County. “We’ve revitalized an education committee that existed here years ago and never really did much,” said Eldridge. “The new twist will be that we are now dealing with all levels and facets of education, instead of just K-12 in public schools. It’s still our primary concern, but we also have Board representatives from Piedmont College, University of North Georgia, Athens Technical College and UGA. It’s more of an all-encompassing effort to work with area schools and ensure the business community has access to everything they need.” 

About Cléa Hernandez

Cléa Hernandez is a Savannah-based writer and communications specialist who serves up breaking business news for metropolitan Georgia. After earning a Philosophy degree from Fordham University, she forgot how to do everything but write and ask too many questions. So she became a journalist. Since then, Ms. Hernandez has written for local and national publications, non-profits, higher education, marketing firms, and big business. A recent escapee from the northeast hustle, the south summoned her with a whiff of collaborative innovation and authentic new enterprises.