On February 7, Athens-Clarke County commissioners decided in an 8-2 vote to issue a year-long moratorium on the majority of prospective new bars downtown as well as most plans for new apartment construction.

Specifically, the moratoria would prevent the institution of all bars with a potential occupancy of 50 or more people, and any sort of housing made for “multi-family residential use.”

The decision was made less than a week after Athens Mayor Nancy Denson and engineering and program management company Rosser International came to agreement on a $90,000 contract calling for a “high level assessment” of the downtown Athens environment.

This assessment will put particular emphasis on health and safety concerns brought about by Athens nightlife activities, particularly the nightly cramming of hundreds of people into the eighty plus bars which can be found up and down the streets of downtown Athens.

University of Georgia associate professor of financial planning, housing and consumer economics Diann Moorman said the ban on new bars has been a long time coming. In the 10 years she has spent in Athens, Moorman said she has seen a gradual shift towards a more family-friendly downtown area.

“I think the tone and the image of the downtown campus area is changing,” Moorman said.  “I think it’s improving, and I think it’s getting better, and I think that’s what the goal of this moratorium is.”

Moorman added that the main targets of downtown housing firms are college students looking to be close to the Athens party scene. She said the increased amount of downtown student-housing leads to the need for more bars. The positive feedback loop the process creates is likely the reason for the inclusion of apartments in the moratorium, Moorman says.

Moorman said she saw similar problems to what Athens is experiencing when she was an undergraduate student at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The downtown area in Ames was geared towards college partying until the local government there decided to make some changes, including shutting down the university’s annual spring celebration.

After that, Moorman said, many of the poorly managed bars in the area closed down as well. Downtown Ames became more family oriented, and Moorman says she hopes something similar happens as a result of the moratorium in Athens.

Moorman still remembers her first experience with a downtown Athens bar when she and her husband were invited by her neighbor to visit Flanagan’s on Clayton Street. Her initial impression was not a good one.

“We were like ‘I think I need to go home and take a shower’,” she said. “It’s not the cleanliest of bars downtown.”

Jason Leonard, the owner of Flanagan’s, refused to answer questions about the moratorium in person saying he would “rather stay away from that.”

And while Moorman said she was optimistic the moratorium is “a good first step” towards shifting the focus of the downtown scene away from drunken debauchery and towards creating a family-friendly environment,Tyler Stalvey, assistant manager at Washington Street bar Boar’s Head Lounge said he does not see a change coming anytime soon.

Stalvey said the high volume of bars already operating in downtown Athens will make the ban on new ones largely ineffective in terms of making the area more appealing to a more wholesome crowd.

“If you have a family in Athens you probably don’t want to live downtown,” Stalvey said. “I really don’t see that changing.”

With about a quarter of Athens-Clarke County residents being college students and the average age being just 26.2 according to the official Athens-Clarke County website, shifting the focus of downtown away from a student-oriented environment may be a bit of a lofty goal.

Moorman said when downtown area at Iowa State made a change, establishments which served food as well as alcohol were the ones that thrived, and she could see Athens going in a similar direction.

Fuzzy’s Taco Shop is a business that general manager Ethan Austin-Keating describes as “more restaurant” with the bar working as “an addition.”

Austin-Keating said he’s not sure what sort of effect the moratorium will have on his and other similar businesses, but he is fully in favor of a more family-oriented downtown Athens.

“The more families the better,” he said. “We appreciate those kind of customers.”

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