Athens thrives with public spaces and façade improvements
State of TN | Rural Task Force
Athens, the county seat of McMinn County, is located along I-75 between Knoxville and Chattanooga. The city is blessed with rich architecture and assets in its historic downtown including the McMinn County Courthouse, Market Park, National Quilt Trail locations, Mayfield Dairies Corporate Headquarters and Visitors Center, and the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum. These assets and several unique destination businesses bring locals and visitors to the downtown for community arts and events, shopping and dining and use of government services. Described as “The Friendly City”, downtown Athens serves as a vibrant cultural center and market place for the community.
Athens and McMinn County are also important to the growing Southeast Tennessee region. Athens is the principal city of the Athens Micropolitan Statistical Area, which is part of the larger Chattanooga-Cleveland-Athens Combined Statistical Area. The community serves as a residential, retail, government services, higher education and manufacturing hub. Community leaders know that redevelopment of their downtown is key to serving these markets by increasing quality of life for its residents.
Tennessee Main Street Designation
In February of 2016, Athens become Tennessee’s 31st accredited Main Street community. Since that time, Athens Main Street and partners have put in place programs and funding for strategic property updates and related community design assistance. They have also launched creative placemaking through the arts and community engagement efforts that are yielding significant community support for downtown development.
Thrive Regional Partnership
Just as the Athens Main Street program was gearing up, the opportunity to partner with a Chattanooga-based regional partnership came about. The THRIVE Regional Partnership is a nonprofit organization that optimizes community development opportunities while preserving what is most loved about communities across the Greater Chattanooga Region. Focusing on shared, regional issues of transportation, conservation of the region’s natural treasures and thriving communities, THRIVE convenes leaders representing 3 states, 16 counties and 1,000,000 people to advance shared regional vision and priorities. In 2012, THRIVE public and private partners launched regional visioning, community engagement and regional goal setting sessions that engaged and educated community leaders in each of the region’s 16 counties. As THRIVE reports were presented and adopted, Southeast Tennessee regional community and economic development organizations and foundations coordinated their efforts and resources to work with willing local communities to implement THRIVE 2055 recommendations. THRIVE leadership teams formed to participate in design thinking sessions and identified community catalyst projects that aligned with local community and economic development efforts. This aligned with Athens’ emerging Main Street program.
In January of 2018, Athens Main Street organized their local THRIVE Committee. The four-person committee included the Athens Main Street Executive Director and community members who completed a ten-month design thinking course. The committee participated in the Thriving Communities accelerator program designed to enhance leadership and community development through creative placemaking. The Athens team learned strategic approaches to leverage their local artistic and cultural assets to spark economic vibrancy from within their own town. These efforts identified several local priorities including the creation of the Athens Downtown Pocket Park as a new gathering place for downtown activities.
In 2018, Athens Main Street applied for a THRIVE Implementation Grant to build upon the community’s ideas generated through the stakeholder engagement process. Based on the community’s request for an outdoor gathering space, leaders applied to transform a vacant lot in the heart of downtown as their catalytic project. This 30’ x 83’ underused space on Jackson Street had been vacant for years. The goal for the project was to encourage and coordinate family-friendly pop-up events that pertain to arts to contribute to the enhancement of economic development of the historic downtown. It was the desire of the community to transform this perceived community liability into a community asset by adding animated landscaping, creative seating, art sculptures and café lighting.
In early 2019, the THRIVE Regional Partnership announced that four cities including Athens would receive $20,000 of seed funding from the Lyndhurst Foundation to implement their project. In announcing the creative placemaking awards, Lyndhurst leaders recognized the work by Athens leaders over the past year to identify ways to build on their arts and culture assets. The pocket park will be a place for public gatherings, art projects, and civic engagement. The community will engage artists, landscapers, and design architects to create a vibrant experience with art installations, interactive features, and pop-up events. A professor of Arts at Tennessee Wesleyan University (TWU) who has been involved with the THRIVE poject since the kickoff is assisting with the design for the park.
Arts Programming and Placemaking
Athens Main Street leaders report that the Thriving Communities program has been the catalyst to spark other projects that are taking place within the heart of the city. In addition to the pocket park, the committee has brought the community together for Civic Saturdays and other projects that animate previously vacant spaces. The beauty of the shared vision has been watching the community come together to help develop and support these activities.
Athens Main Street has also received grant awards for two related projects. In 2018, the Y-12 Community Investment Fund awarded the community $6,000 to create a Historic Walking Tour with storyboards located throughout downtown to share the community’s history and architecture. Athens Main Street also received a $1,300 grant from the Southeast Tennessee Development District/Arts Builds Communities grant for the development of a mural to be painted on a prominent building in downtown. The public art installation will engage artists to present “Athens - The Friendly City” message that will build the downtown district’s brand and provide social media marketing opportunities.
The park project is sparking the creation of a newly designated Arts District which includes the pocket park as the center point of a small triangle area also including the Athens Art Center, TWU and downtown art shops. The design plans will also incorporate the mural design that is being placed on the adjacent wall leading into the park to create a cohesive concept to brand “The Friendly City”. This is the start of branding throughout downtown with murals to be painted on two other empty spaces in the near future.
Façade Improvement Program
In 2016, Athens Main Street was awarded $100,000 in TNECD Façade Improvement Grant (FIG) funding under the umbrella of the City of Athens to assist property and business owners to make physical improvements to the exteriors of their building. Approved improvements include signage, painting, awnings, lighting, windows, doors and entryways that preserve and enhance the historical integrity of each building. Private and non-profit businesses were eligible for grant funding in the amount of $10,000 with owners investing at least 29% of construction costs.
Main Street Athens held community meetings in August of 2016 and January of 2017 to allow property owners within the downtown district the opportunity to apply for the funds. Each applicant had to include an explanation of the improvements, an estimate of the construction costs and photos of planned renovations. An independent selection committee was formed from Athens Main Street Board members and city leaders for project selections. Priority was given to applicants that had need for immediate improvements and could demonstrate long-term economic impact and preservation of the historical integrity of their property. Each selected applicant was required to attend a workshop on the FIG program. After the workshop, applicants submitted final design plans to the Main Street Design Committee and final construction plans to the City of Athens for approval. After delays due to a large fire in the downtown district in 2017, the FIG project is now underway to make improvements to up to 14 properties in 2019.
Economic and Community Impact
Between 2016 and 2019, Athens Main Street and city leaders have created and engaged an activated downtown community of stakeholders that are working to advance their shared vision. THRIVE and Athens Main Street sponsored community engagement has produced a cadre of multicultural and multigenerational leaders who continue to work together on integrated projects. Improvements to public event spaces and properties are signaling community change and providing new opportunities for business growth and expansion.
These arts activities are building on existing downtown businesses, tourism assets and events to increase community participation and loyalty to downtown businesses. In addition, 14 FIG recipients completing improvements in 2019 will leverage significant public and private investment in the district. Four-year combined project results include
Project Leaders and Partners
Athens Main Street – Director – Project Contact
City of Athens
THRIVE Regional Partnership
Y12 Community Investment Fund
Private Community Donors
Tennessee Wesleyan University Arts Department
Southeast Tennessee Development/Arts Builds Community Program
Athens Arts Center
Athens Chamber of Commerce
McMinn County Living Heritage Museum
E.G. Fisher Library
McMinn County Rescue Squad
Grace House Community
Community Artist League
Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development
For project information contact the Athens Main Street.
TNECD Tennessee Main Street and Façade Improvement Grant Programs
Downtown revitalization is a critical component of successful rural economic and community development. TNECD encourages revitalization and adaptive reuse of commercial buildings in downtown business districts through the Tennessee Main Street and the Façade Improvement Grant (FIG) programs that provide technical assistance and funding for improvements to put vacant and/or underutilized buildings into productive service as economic drivers. Tennessee Main Street program resources along with the TNECD Façade Improvement Program funding work together to help communities revitalize their downtown districts and create new businesses through the Governor’s Rural Task Force and Tennessee Rural Economic Opportunity Act of 2016 and 2017.