ATHENS, Ala. – Athens Main Street issues the following annual report for 2020 and look ahead to 2021.
Early in 2020, downtown Athens had an approximately 90% occupancy rate, retailers reported strong sales, and restaurants were steady during the week and were packed on the weekends. Athens Main Street had six or eight separate serious inquires on finding buildings to open new restaurants. Athens Main Street’s design team was busy helping our merchants with signage and façade assistance. In February, we held a record-setting Chocolate Walk.
Then in March, COVID-19 struck our community. While some community organizations took it to the house for a few weeks, Athens Main Street chose not to, because all of the success in 2019 was at risk. The Athens Main Street board was great to pitch in, and we went to work. We knew things were about to get very bad for our merchants. Main Street America advised that downtowns across the nation would see a 25–35% business failure rate and possibly the same for local nonprofit Main Street organizations.
Preparing for pandemic
On March 14, one day after Ivey declared a state of emergency, Athens Main Street contacted Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks and asked permission for designated parking spaces, which allowed us to institute curbside pickup for any of the merchants and restaurants that wanted to stay open. We ordered signage and sandwich boards and delivered them to anyone that wanted one.
A few of the merchants not only instituted curbside pickup but direct shipping and home delivery. Several merchants also created or updated websites and e-commerce.
The Athens Main Street promotions team pulled together to help with social media, from videos, live Facebook sales and graphics promoting that we were still open, which all worked well. Data showed people were home and online all the time.
Individually, our retailers have around 1,000 to 2,000 followers on their business accounts. Between Athens Main Street’s three platforms, we have a following of more than 10,000 people. Our analytics showed we reached hundreds of thousands of people.
The promotions team created the FACES campaign to remind everyone that our small businesses are made up of their neighbors, friends and families. These are the people that support your ball teams, sponsor your events and employ your kids.
We also did a number of shop local campaigns. One campaign that did exceptionally well is the “This Place Matters” campaign. We shared images and videos of our iconic places and traditions. These reminders were vital to remind people to shop in Athens first.
During the first several months of the pandemic, the state of Alabama would issue new state health orders and information. Athens Main Street, with help from Main Street Alabama, Main Street America and local officials and merchants, worked to gather and share information. Athens Main Street board president Shane Black was key in helping our merchants understand new updates and information.
As the restaurants were allowed to open back up with only 50% capacity, we knew expanding the outdoor dining footprint was vital. Mayor Marks was instrumental in getting the outdoor dining expanded. Athens Main Street rented temporary barriers that were needed due to adhering to state Alcohol Beverage Control regulations.
In addition, Athens City Schools loaned us tables to put on the Courthouse lawn. They were a huge hit. We had to give back at the end of summer but fundraised enough to buy new ones, and now they are permanent.
During the summer, we celebrated restaurant week and promoted all of our restaurants. As merchants got ready to reopen, Athens Main Street passed along best practices in how to open safely, but we knew we needed something compelling to get folks who may have become comfortable in their own homes ordering online to come back to downtown.
This is when Athens Main Street formed The Square Arts & Entertainment District. We researched other successful entertainment districts, met with the City Council, Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson and Mayor Marks. With the unanimous vote by the Athens City Council, The Square Arts and Entertainment District opened June 19.
Our Design Committee, especially Scott Smith, was instrumental in getting everything designed. Smith and Mark Brooks with Optimal Geo sponsored the first round of blue cups. In addition, they sponsored the umbrellas you see all around town.
Mayor Marks and the City Council recognized the success of outdoor dining and agreed to make it permanent. They worked with a local ironworks company design and install permanent barriers, which the city funded. It all came together to make a lovely statement of a vibrant downtown.
Athens Main Street looked to try new things to bring folks downtown at a more measured pace, such as our “Win the Window” contest, held over a two-week period. In the midst of all this, Nutrition on the Square opened, The Broken Brush Art Studio expanded, and Square Clock Coffee and Epiphany Boutique moved to Jefferson Street.
Athens Saturday Market had a very good year, in terms of the number of farmers, artisans, patrons, and sponsors. The market committee created a gathering spot with lovely hand-painted furniture and food trucks every weekend.
Limestone County Commission built new tables for our vendors, replaced the electrical and installed much-needed fans. We were able to continue providing our farmers and artisans a place to sell their wares while following COVID-19 protocols.
While we accomplished a lot of good, we didn’t go without some bad. We lost four businesses downtown. Merchant sales were affected by the temporary closure at the start of the pandemic. We knew we needed a good, strong holiday season to help end the year on a good note.
Our first holiday event was the Christmas Open House, held the weekend before Thanksgiving. The weather was great, and merchants reported a good weekend overall.
After that, Athens Main Street partnered with several community organizations to host the annual Christmas parade. Blake Williams, who led the Christmas in Limestone County committee and is on the Main Street promotions committee, made sure merchants were set up for success through advertising and promotions. The County Commission live-streamed the parade from the historic courthouse lawn and reached people from all over the country.
Our last Main Street event of the year was our 10th annual Sippin’ Cider Festival. We were also blessed with great weather for this event and had a great crowd. Many merchants ran out of cider while welcoming multitudes of out-of-town or first-time visitors.
Thanks to a grant from Athens Utilities and TVA, we were able to secure additional marketing to attract more people to downtown Athens. Our advertising efforts reached more than half a million people.
We would not be where we are at without our generous stakeholders who include the City of Athens, Limestone County Commission, CDPA, Martin & Cobey, Hand Arendall, Morell Engineering, Cast Products, Ming Commercial Real Estate Group, Bryant Bank and some very generous private donors.
If you think Athens Main Street has made a difference in our community, please support us. You can financially contribute to Athens Main Street, you can advocate for downtown, but most importantly, shop and eat downtown!
Lastly, just to leave you with a few exciting announcements, the focus of our Design Team beginning in 2021 will be the renovation of the UG White Alley. We have raised funds to create a beautiful throughway, with a hardscape walking surface, planters, tables, chairs, murals and lighting.
Additionally, we hope to create the trailhead of an audio tour that will share stories of our Downtown. In February, Main Street will host Chocolate Walk. This spring, we are looking forward to hosting a spring arts festival throughout downtown.
We are hoping by summer, we can again hold Fridays After Five in conjunction with Tourism’s Summer Concert series.
Be sure to like and follow us on social media and bookmark our website, athensmainstreet.org, so you can be the first to know when details are announced. If you have any questions, reach out to Athens Main Street Executive Director Tere Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org.