It had been an emotional week, a changing of the guard, if you will. Vicky Dowd’s last day as the Mayor’s secretary was Friday, March 31st, and on the 30th several hundred people gathered at her retirement party. Athens City Councilman Jimmy Gill, who was so sadly taken from us a year ago, used to refer to Vicky as “L’il Red,” and her contribution to our city has been incalculable for decades. God bless you, Li’l Red; enjoy your retirement, and thank you from all of us!

Before Vicky said “adieu,” she had spent several weeks getting long-time City Hall Clerk’s Office employee Kim Glaze up to speed as Kim prepared to become the new secretary. Mayor Ronnie had her come in for our usual Monday appointment. It was Kim’s first day and one for celebration. The weekend had been full of good things, which I will get to in a moment, but as we talked, I realized that in Kim I was experiencing something truly rare. She is someone who is a “home-town, home-grown, Athens, Sweet-Home-Alabama gal,” and all her life, all she wanted be someday was, as she said with a dear smile, “the secretary to the mayor.” All I could do was exclaim, “Really?!” I was thankful that he was temporarily on the phone when I realized that my outburst could have been misconstrued to mean something along the lines of, “Why would anyone ever want to do that, especially with Marks as mayor?” I meant no disrespect toward Wm. Ronnie Marks, I was just stunned that I was sitting at the table with someone who had set a goal long ago, worked hard toward achieving it, and now was literally living the dream. Fulfilling such a precise dream doesn’t happen very often, and I was impressed. Goal setting really DOES work, and Kim is the proof!

For several years, Mayor Ronnie has been a part of the Unsung Heroes Scholarship project, and this past weekend was their annual banquet. In addition to celebrating scholarship funds raised for students, there are also a number of service awards given to deserving members of the community. The 2017 scholarship winners are Elsa Marin, Desi Fletcher Jr., Mantayvious Henderson, Shannon O’Neill, Olivia Breeding, Sierra Shores, Jordan Russell, and Bryan Smith. The total amount raised for scholarships through the generosity of churches, businesses, clubs, foundations, families and individuals was $4,211. The evening ended with live, toe-tapping music, but Mayor Ronnie’s day wasn’t over yet. It began with Coffee Call at the Vets’ Museum, and after the Unsung Heroes banquet, he went to the Courthouse to light the lights for the month of April, which is National Autism Awareness month. The color for Autism Awareness is bright blue, and that color will shine each night until the end of the month. On hand for the lighting was Todd Tomerlin who is active in the Autism community in Alabama and the father of a 17-year-old son, Gage, whose story is on the front page of this edition of Athens Now.

It was Kim’s first day and a hoppin’ day for Mayor Ronnie and me, but we needed to take time to pray. So we did, and then it was time for Kim and Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Mayor Ronnie came zooming in, having just welcomed utilities workers from several states who were beginning their first day at a conference at Leak City. “I talked to them about working hard and having fun,” he said. He then added, “Those two ladies, the ones that turned 103 and 104 that I spoke to last week, you know what they said is the secret to their long life? ‘Make sure you have fun every day.’”

The mayor talked further about how risky it is for cities to take the “love approach” toward growth and wholeness, because people tend to look at love as soft and maybe spineless. The “love approach” is thought to be inappropriate. “The question is,” he said, “Why is it that love is out of place to talk about at the political level? Because we have political rhetoric and budgets, but a city is about far more than repairing streets,” he said. He finished with, “We run the risk of getting stuck at the bottom of the triangle.” By that he meant, never moving past having a city be safe and functional.

Enter the effect of the arts and festivals in the life of a city. “It is difficult to justify the role of the arts to some people,” the mayor said. We talked about how, for example, refurbishing the Scout House, to the point that it even has a sound studio, could have a huge ripple effect. Kids could learn music, a skill that has been shown to help increase SAT scores. They could be part of a team. They could bring beauty to the community while building community. The sound studio could be one of the many outstanding small indie studios in North Alabama that rival anything in Nashville for a fraction of the price, and that would bring revenue to Athens. The question is how does that concept make sense when “the potholes are screaming?” As always, it is about balance, something with which all of our elected officials grapple.

We just had a successful 25th anniversary Poke Sallet Follies, this past Tuesday we had a St. Patrick’s Day dinner celebration at Athens State University, and once again a tour group from India is going to be visiting us because they love our city so much.
Besides setting aside funds to repurpose the Scout House, we also need to take personal responsibility when it comes to making our city lovable on an individual or community basis. City Councilman Chris Seibert recently spoke of a challenge set forth at Rotary to “Take 10 minutes to put your phone down. Slow down, walk your do.” We could stand to return at least once a week to rocking on the front porch and actually visiting with each other. “Visiting,” in the Southern sense, is a lost art that could use a revival.

Peter Kageyama, author of For The Love Of Cities, puts the need to make a city more lovable this way: “Government is not responsible for legislating happiness, but smart communities make it a little more likely to happen by their policy decisions. Communities have embraced the notion of becoming more creative and innovative because they see the economic benefits of those characteristics. So, too, should enlightened cities recognize that happiness has economic benefits; happier citizens are healthier both physically and mentally, live longer, and enjoy more success at work.”

It was clear that there was a weight on the mayor’s shoulders, and that was the number of people who are battling cancer or families who had experienced unexpected deaths in their families. He had gotten a call in the wee hours of the morning about yet another loss. So, we took time to pray for them, and then it was time for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

If you look at the “City Nutrition Pyramid” that Peter Kageyama uses in his book, For The Love Of Cities to describe a town’s total healthiness, you will see an unfamiliar word, “conviviality” just below the word “fun,” and both of them are at the top of the triangle. Conviviality is defined as “the quality of being friendly and lively; friendliness.” This is not to imply that friendliness and/or fun are more important than public safety, but when a city is able to have fun safely, it is an emotionally nutritious city, one that is indeed lovable.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of Poke Sallet Follies, one of the most fun events of the year, and it is fun with a noble purpose. Twenty-five years ago, PSF was born out of a desire to raise funds for the Council On Aging, and to nearly everyone’s surprise, it has grown into quite the formidable fête – one that comes with a delicious three course dinner. This year Mayor Ronnie will be reprising his role as Deputy Barney Fife, and he and Sheriff Mike Blakely will be doing a classic television skit from back when people thought Mayberry was a real town. It is the one where Barney tries to demonstrate to Andy that he knows the Preamble to the Constitution.

In addition, there are about 75 people who are actors, 25 of whom are children, all from diverse backgrounds as well as countless people behind the scenes. There are directors; lighting and sound folks; prop masters; costumers; stage managers; and the people who write the skits, film the “ads,” and cook the food. Forgive me if I have left anyone out! “Each year, we wonder how it is going to all come together,” said the mayor, “then it does. We have a great time, and we start thinking about how we are going to do it again next year.” He also told me that Poke Sallet raises thousands of dollars each year for the community, thus making it a “nutritious event” in the realm of financial support for an important service.

Here’s an example of what Athenians are willing to do in order to pull Poke Sallet off. City Councilman Joseph Cannon was filming one of the “ads,” and production had gotten a bit behind schedule. They were running out of time, and they needed to get it filmed. Joseph jumped into deep, cold water on a day when it was 30 degrees outside as part of the ad, and thankfully, they didn’t need more than one take.

Over the years, Mayor Ronnie has been a two-headed alien, a man covered with a contagious rash, a man who had somehow managed to “catch” pregnancy, a pirate, a biker, Barney Fife, and more, and says he “might not have talent, but tries to inject some joy.” He also told me that one of the more fascinating acts this year is a pantomime that is back lit behind a curtain, and performed only with feet. “It was amazing,” he said, having come in fresh from the dress rehearsal. “I don’t know how she does it.”

So, why is fun important to and for a city? According to Peter Kagemaya, “…we don’t love places because they are merely functional and safe. When we start including the higher aspirations of community into the mix; comfort, conviviality, beauty and fun, we begin to make places that are beyond merely livable and may ultimately be lovable.”

The Home & Garden Show is coming up, and it is largely about beauty. The Corporate Spelling Bee certainly comes under the category of “higher aspirations,” i.e., the preserving of the integrity of the English language. The recent fun and successful Chili Challenge fits the category of comfort, most specifically comforting those who are passing and their families. “We have many things going in Athens that make it lovable, and we need more,” he said. I agreed, and am confident he will get his wish.
Then we prayed, and it was time once again for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

What makes a city “healthy?” It is a blend of things like economic development, public safety, fun, functionality, and more. Oftentimes it is intangible. Peter Kageyama, the author of For The Love Of Cities on which this series is based, took an idea made famous by American psychologist Abraham Maslow, and tweaked it to illustrate “the healthy city.” Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” is a pyramid designed to illustrate human behavior. Basically it shows survival needs at the bottom taking up the most space and what are known as “meta” needs such as spiritual, relationship and personal growth needs at the top. The concept is perhaps best illustrated by how you would behave if you are out in the desert without water. All you’d be thinking about is finding some before you die of thirst, and in that moment you don’t have the time or inclination to ponder the meaning of existence, let alone execute your life’s purpose. You are just trying to survive. So it is with cities.

Kageyama puts a city’s functionality and safety at the bottom and works up to the top where he puts the category of fun/interesting. “You have to take care of the potholes, and people have to be kept safe,” said Mayor Ronnie, “but that can’t be your only focus.” He talked about what a success the Chocolate Walk had been, as well as other projects. “Those are what bring and build the energy, and makes a city “lovable,” he said. And, it goes without saying that all of it demands being in balance, a never ending challenge.

Mayor Ronnie showed me his dog-eared copy of Kageyama’s book, and quoted the following: “Just as money alone does not make for great [human] relationships, we need to consider some other, non-financial elements. Elements that often don’t find their way into discourse about city building such as fun, playfulness, sentimentality, improvisation, curiosity and discovery.” He also added his own category, and that was “art.”

“High Cotton Arts and Little Red Schoolhouse are so important for our city,” Mayor Ronnie said. “So is restoring the Houston Library. We need to bring Houston back as a residence, a museum, and a library,” he added. “And, we have to continue to take down deserted buildings. That’s important, too.” Mayor Ronnie lent me his copy of the book, and I found something interesting, and not at all surprising. According to a study conducted by Gallup from 2002-2006, the cities that have the most “attachment,” in other words, people who have a passion toward and involvement in their city’s total success, also have the highest GDP, or gross domestic product. The stats show that our city is thriving, and sadly we have neighbors to the west and south that are struggling. It seems that this is the mark of a healthy city, one where people value it and fight for its well being, and that’s a fight that never ends.

Mayor Ronnie read to me some more and was firm in his resolve to have Athens avoid the mistake of ever settling for something that is often described as “good enough for government work.” “It is one of those cynical expressions that we can all relate to because we tend to think of government work as banal, uninspired and workman-like at best. We have equated government work with the least common denominator and the lowest acceptable standard of performance.”

“We’ve got to remove that from our thinking,” Mayor Ronnie said and added, “It’s just not acceptable.” I nodded, and then he showed me something that made my day. Somehow Peter Kageyama has been tracking our articles and took the time to write a thank you note. He is interested in visiting Athens, and I hope that will happen soon. We prayed and thanked God for all the ways He is blessing Athens and asked for the wisdom to make it shine even more brightly as a “healthy, lovable city.” Then it was time for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali ElizabethTurner

It was a gorgeous spring-like day on the Athens State University Campus, and the Chamber of Commerce sponsored luncheon and speech was sold out. Mayor Ronnie Marks opened by saying that he was going to make us uncomfortable by talking about love, and he quipped that he had instructed Security to not allow anyone to leave out the back. Clearly it was a bit early to be talking about Valentine’s Day, so what was the reference? Peter Kageyama’s book, For The Love Of Cities, which we have been talking about in the last two Ronnies. I could hear people around me murmur just a touch when he quoted the following from the book, and that was that according to Kageyama, in most cities, 40% of the residents feel unattached to their city, (In other words, it’s just a place to sleep, work, and eat), 36% are neutral, and 24% feel attached and are involved. I think it’s safe to say that in Athens the percentage of those who feel attached is higher than 24%, but as the Mayor told the crowd, “Seven out of ten feeling unattached is unacceptable, and we’ve got to do better.”

He gave examples of loving the city, and people who do just that. As many tributes as there have been to the late Jimmy Gill, I heard a catch in the Mayor’s voice that moved me as he said that he regretted not bringing Jimmy by ambulance to see the new City Hall before Jimmy passed. The Mayor told us that Jimmy wouldn’t hear of it, and kept saying, “I am going to get better, and I’m on the ballot.” Mayor Ronnie added that Frank Travis had done a splendid job of stepping into Jimmy’s place, and chuckled as he said the city’s Facebook site had gotten thousands of hits when Frank and the cast of “Arise And Build” had invaded City Hall with their a cappella version of “Sunday Mornin’.”

He also spoke about the Mayor’s Youth Commission’s response to the $18,000 worth of broken windows at Trinity, perpetrated by three young kids. The MYC students invested some of their surplus Dekko funds to help repair the windows, and the community at large raised more than enough to do the repairs. It was noteworthy that he read Raven Warner’s letter written to the perpetrators decrying their actions, demonstrating that sometimes kids can be the most effective of all in remonstrating other kids. “It takes lots of little things to make the big effort,” he said. It was “For The Love Of Cities” in action.

So, what about the pie charts, the graphs, and the line item components of our fiscal health? Once again, we have a million dollar surplus, we were able to put $1.7 million toward road repair, and in 2017 Washington Street is going to be repaired all the way from Hwy 72 to Hwy 31. $817K will go toward badly needed neighborhood road repair. We are going to take possession of a new fire truck this spring, (replacing the one that was purchased in 1987). We have found funding for the new high school. Progress is being made regarding the abandoned Pilgrim’s Pride plant, and the hope is to make the whole area into a park, with a place for dogs and their owners to enjoy the beauty of Athens.

“There is still much work to be done,” he said, and illustrated his point by saying, “If you are emotionally involved in a relationship, you put a lot in it.” I think it’s safe to say, judging by the smiles that I saw, folks left feeling more attached to each other and our city, and then it was time for Ronnie and the rest of us to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

For the past 20 years, Sweet Home Baptist Church has hosted a service to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, and per usual, there was standing room only. Mayor Ronnie was there, as was Athens City Councilman Frank Travis, Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson, Limestone County Commissioner Ben Harrison, and others. The Round Island Male Chorus “raised the roof,” as they always do, as did the Athens High School Choir.

And, as much as remembering the legacy of Dr. King was the focus, it became far more about the future of Athens as proven by what’s going on with our kids. The annual MLK Essay contest has gone from having 50 contestants last year, to more than 400 entries this year. The theme was “Advancing the Dream: A Nation of Freedom and Justice,” and the 1st Prize winner for the high school division was Raven Warner.

An excerpt from her essay is being featured in her mother Jackie’s column, “The View From The Bridge”. Tanner High School student Chadarius Townsend was the recipient of the 1st Annual Jimmy W. Gill Youth Leadership Award, and the whole day, including the earlier gathering at the Event Center, and the parade around the Square illustrated the truth of the following quote made by Paul Kageyama, author of “For The Love Of Cities”:

“When we have an emotional connection to our place, we are less likely to leave it, and far more likely to champion and defend it in the face of criticism.”

As we met for our time together on Tuesday, we talked about the importance of loving Athens for the special place that it is, as well as our concern for our nation. “We need to focus on healing our nation, and that starts in our city,” said Mayor Ronnie. “And, if we don’t get our kids involved, we won’t grow,” he added.

The building of the future of Athens, and the healing of our nation depends on leadership. One of the things being done is to give kids a chance to become true leaders. “The Chamber Youth Leadership Program has the kids developing business plans,” said the Mayor. He was also happy to add, “And, three of the kids who participated in the essay contest are in the Mayor’s Youth Commission.” He also talked about the role that Spark Academy and the Renaissance School play, and how they are meeting the needs of kids in a different way.

As always, he encouraged people to talk about what needs to be fixed, “in a respectful way, of course,” he said with a chuckle, and said, “We will get the potholes fixed.” We talked about Kageyama’s book, and how it was affecting us, and he made me laugh out loud when he said, “If I don’t invest in this community, I am an idiot!”

It was time to pray and thank God for all the good in the town we love, which we did, and then, Ronnie rolled on out of the office to his next labor of love.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Our first meeting of 2017 began by Mayor Ronnie showing me the book he had received for Christmas from some of the City Hall staff, and it’s a sure bet that it will be the topic of several “Ronnies.” It’s written by Peter Kageyama, and I read eagerly while he made his morning rounds. The book is called For The Love Of Cities, and the subtitle is “The love affair between people and their places.” It was voted one of the Top Ten books on urban development and city planning in 2012, and a good read for anyone who loves our amazing Athens. Mr. Kageyama presents some statistics with regard to being genuinely attached to one’s town, as opposed to being neutral or unattached, and he makes a compelling case for the goal of leadership to be one that brings energy to a city, and I don’t mean oil. I think it’s safe to say that the City of Athens experiences an unusually high level of attachment on the part of its citizens, and I know for a fact that the Mayor only wants to see that increase.

We have just finished up what was a wonderful year, with much being accomplished, and much to look forward to. “For the first time in the history of Athens, we have been able to spend a million dollars on improving our streets,” said the Mayor. That has been in part because several years ago the City Council had the foresight to set aside three million dollars as matching funds for improving streets, just waiting for ATRIPP money to be released. And, there are still several ATRIPP projects that are in the offing. The hope is that the next major project will be improving Washington Street, which goes all the way from Hwy 72 to Highway 31.

He talked about his vision for 2017, and said that recently he “had sent a note to the City Council. I said, ‘We have 46 months left in this term, and we need to build Athens into a place people love.’” I then asked him, “What does that look like, building a town that people actually love, without it being “squishy?”’ He showed me some charts of Kageyama’s, definitely not squishy in nature, but will have to be addressed in a future column. What he did say though, to illustrate his point was, “Have you ever been in a room that felt dead, or a church, or a meeting…..or a city?” Without naming names, we both have a town that comes to mind with this kind of discussion, a city we don’t like to go to and that has such amazing, yet squandered potential. He wants the people of Athens to honestly be able to answer the question in the affirmative: Is Athens convivial? That is, is it a friendly, enjoyable place, one that feels alive?

Here’s the vision:

  • Keep the momentum going with economic development
  • Successfully negotiate the landfill contract
  • Work to convert the eyesore that is Pilgrim’s Pride into a central park, a dog park, and a place that all Athenians in the downtown core can enjoy, as well as visitors
  • Continue to tear down unsafe structures
  • Continue to work on ATRIPP projects

If you are interested in hearing more about our city’s plans, projects, and dreams for the future, Mayor Marks will be giving the State of the City address on Tuesday, January 31, 2017 at the Athens State University ballroom. We talked about the amazing times in which we live, we prayed, and then it was time for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Mayor Ronnie Marks, Limestone County Commissioner Mark Yarborough, and I met at the “not new, but definitely improved” Limestone County Courthouse, which is due to open back up for business by the first of the year. Having grown up in a remodel that lasted more than 20 years, I can appreciate what it means to have “wrangled this thing to the ground and tied up all four of its legs.” I can say with a full heart it is going to have been worth the wait. The Courthouse is the embodiment of understated elegance, within and without.

Any remodel is going to have its own set of nightmares, and the Courthouse is no exception. There were structural deficiencies that didn’t show up in the old blueprints, 18 inch thick walls to deal with, antiquated wiring and plumbing, marble topped steps that could no longer be used but were ultimately rescued, and the need to increase the building’s structural soundness and resistance to natural disasters. There was also the need to get the IT capabilities of the Courthouse up to speed for all the technological needs of the 21st century.

Commissioner Yarborough sat on the afore-mentioned marble topped steps and said, “It’s been a labor of frustration, love, and aggravation. Some people love it, some hate it. They’ve worked on it for 20 years,” he said with a relieved sigh, and added, “we’ve had it for two, and the only thing left is to put up the blinds, put all the furniture in place, and hang up the art.” He laughed when he talked about his own sense of color and decoration, and wanted to make sure that people knew that the reason the interior is going to look so good is because of the hard work of Judge Jimmy Woodruff, Trish Black, and Liz Anderson.

There are several things I learned as a result of this tour. Did you know that the original base for the Confederate statue sank with the Titanic on its way over here to Athens? Did you know that the Courthouse has gone through several remodels, including in 1939 during FDR’s administration? Did you know that the Courthouse also used to house the jail? I looked at the spot that used to keep all of Limestone’s miscreants behind bars as well as what used to be the sheriff’s office and thought, “My, how times have changed.” A decision has been made to hang the brass plate that commemorates Judge Horton’s landmark decision regarding the Scottsboro Boys case on the outside of that courtroom, rather than where it was on the interior north wall. The reason is that more people will be able to see it, irrespective of what is going on inside the courtroom.

Mark told us more. “We are now connected to the Blue Line,” he said, which is the software system that is linked to Montgomery that gives instant access to all the records that pertain to any judicial case. Also, the outside street lights have outlets in them now, which will make our many outdoor festivals and events that much easier to power up.

On a decorative note, there are some high-tech additions that blend in well with the goal of maintaining the building’s historical significance. The Rotary Club, Spirit of Athens, and Tourism went together and chipped in money for an outdoor lighting system which subtly lights up the columns at night time. While it has the ability to show all kinds of colors, it will largely be used to commemorate holidays as well as the colors of local schools who may have just won a championship. There is also an art display system that will make it possible to change out art seasonally with very little labor. Security throughout the building has been increased, and at some point, Mark hopes that eventually there will be funds to open the original west side staircase access with all the necessary upgraded security measures, but that’s not in the budget yet.

I watched as the Mayor and the Commissioner talked about bringing this project to a close. It has not been easy for either of them. “We have restored and preserved our Courthouse, and not everyone has been able to do that, including Huntsville. We’ve not always agreed on everything,” said Mayor Ronnie, and Mark nodded when he finished our time by saying, “but working together just makes sense.”

And then it was time for Ronnie and Mark to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

12-2-2016-8-58-02-amFor this edition of Athens Now, Mayor Ronnie wanted to use his space to re-introduce the people of Athens to an old friend, Melanie Barksdale Newton. Melanie hit the ground running about a month ago as the new director of Spirit of Athens, and is overflowing with experience, ideas, and a love for the job as well as our town.

Melanie was born and raised here, and graduated from East Limestone High School. Her husband’s careers took their family to Orlando and Virginia, and they came back home to be near family. Her husband Tom is a technology project manager, who is also a dramatic playwright and theatre actor. Melanie is a Certified Master Gardener, and her career has included coordinating the volunteers at the Huntsville Botanical Garden and business development for a Google partner company. While at the Garden, she was also involved in the opening of the Purdy Butterfly House, as well as the Children’s Garden. The Newtons have a son, Hunter, who lives in Florence, is a chef, and also has an exotic plant and animal aquarium business. Tom and Melanie are the proud “parents” of three shelter furr babies: Max, Boo and Sallie. Melanie is no stranger to public service, as she is the daughter of Gerald Barksdale, who served as Limestone County Commissioner, and she grew up around people who were passionate about making Athens and Limestone County the absolute best.

12-2-2016-8-58-40-am

Mayor Ronnie had hoped to be able to join us for the interview, which was over a delicious omelette at LuVici’s, but couldn’t get away; so he called in his enthusiasm and said, “We’re thrilled to have Melanie back here. She brings a lot to Athens, and we want her to know we support her. The Spirit of Athens does so much for the community, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Melanie “schooled” me as to the scope and function of Spirit of Athens. “There are four points,” she said. “They are: organization, promotion, design, and economic vitality.” As part of the Alabama Main Street and Main Street USA organizations, the purpose of SOA is to preserve our historical town, while making it culturally and economically vibrant.

“You can revitalize a downtown core, but you also have to find ways to make it sustainable. We can do that best by taking what’s already here, and finding ways to make it better,” Melanie told me. One of the things she would like to see is more support of the Athens Saturday Market, which would allow the market to be open more months of the year rather than just during the peak summer months. As a Master Gardener, she knows there are cold-frame veggies such as kale and beets that could be sold, and of course the wares of the various artisans are never out of season.
We talked at length about the role of gardening in the community, and what some other cities and corporations are doing to use gardens to teach entrepreneurial skills and especially reach out to kids. We agreed we would need to get together again to brainstorm.

Melanie also would like to see more “lofting,” that is, people renovating the lofts above the old commercial buildings on the Square for residential purposes. Loft living requires a sizeable investment, at least at first while getting things up to code, but people who live in a downtown core tend to make 40% of their everyday purchases locally, which is a boom to the economy of Athens. They also do a lot of walking, which is the lifeblood of any downtown core, historical or otherwise. “We also want to see every storefront filled with niche business and have Athens become a shopping and dining day trip destination for cities within about a 100 mile radius,” she said.

Melanie is currently working on the Sippin’ Cider Festival to be held in Downtown Athens on December 10th from 5pm to 8pm. Visit Athens’ downtown merchants and restaurants to taste and vote for your favorite cider; do a bit of shopping; and enjoy roasting marshmallows, live music and children’s activities.

Our time ended all too quickly, but not without an adventure. I dragged her with me to WKAC for her first ever radio appearance on the Tennessee Valley Spotlight, and she was a natural. Both Rex Davis and I asked her a lot of questions for which she had not had the chance to prepare, and you would have thought she had been doing it for years. Rex told her to be sure to come back anytime, and then, it was time for Melanie to roll. Welcome back, girl!
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

11-18-2016-2-35-19-pm“Hey, Ali Ali,” Mayor Ronnie called out as he rolled in for our usual appointment, moving a mile a minute. We compared notes with regard to our respective weekends, and as is often the case, he whipped out his sermon notes from church. “Oh, we talked about the seven deadly sins in church,” he said, “and you and I need to talk about sloth.” I nearly laughed out loud, as the man who could easily be crowned as Athens’ version of the Energizer Bunny is not the first person I would think of when it comes to the term “sloth.” He said, “Actually, I think everyone struggles with sloth,” and I had to agree, albeit reluctantly, and we determined to “squash sloth.”

11-18-2016-2-35-28-pm

We celebrated the fact that over 150 Athens citizens showed up for the first annual “Let’s Move Athens,” which was a 1.5 mile walk held at the Athens High School track. Its purpose was to empower people to raise funds and awareness for various organizations, and get some exercise while they were at it. We also talked about various projects that were being sponsored by local churches, and the need to reach out beyond our church walls into the community all year long.

We moved to the topic of the city’s role in supporting NGOs (non-government organizations) and the process involved in approving and auditing the funds designated for the outfits that range from making our town look beautiful to providing much needed resources for various projects. As always, I was both fascinated by what I was learning, as well as thankful that our City Council calls for an uncommonly high level of accountability when it comes to dispensing funds to NGOs.

“When we do the annual budget, we take care of the departments first,” he said, and added, “Usually we have around $500K left over for other agencies and projects.” He showed me the budget print-out carefully prepared by Annette Barnes that shows the agency, the amount, whether or not they would receive funds in this cycle, and more.

11-18-2016-2-35-43-pm

If you are seeking financial support from the city for your organization, you submit a proposal. If approved, you must submit a quarterly audit, and if you don’t submit the audit, you are not approved for the next quarter. “There is no such thing as just throwing money at an organization,” he said, and told me that one of the requirements for each NGO is that they must recycle.
Some of the agencies included in this year’s budget are the Alabama Veterans’ Museum and Archives, Learn to Read, Birdie Thornton, the Mental Health Center, Tourism, the Beautification Board, the Family Resource Center, and more.

“We believe that supporting these organizations is important and speaks to one of the most important aspects of a good city, and that’s quality of life,” he said. “But people need to understand that everything about it is going to be done with transparency and accountability.” Those two words are not just “buzz words” to him, and he also let me know that each organization needs to state its purpose and mission with each proposal, no matter how many times they have been previously approved. The long-term effect is something that is a network of support, almost like an entity that has tentacles, except they are positive and life-giving.

We prayed for our city and our country, and then it was time once again for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner