For 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.
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