To paint the wall, or not to paint the wall?

On a slow day, I like to pick up the pace and talk a nice jog around the town. I have learned during these jogs that for such a, “small town,” Athens has many places that I need to discover. Good, bad or ugly.

A few weeks ago, I jogged across Walker Street and noticed a plain, gray, ugly and deteriorating wall that stretched along the sidewalk. What is ironic about this wall is the fact that ARTS/West, an art facility that serves the citizens of Athens as part of the City of Athens’ Arts, Parks and Recreation Department, is located nearby. I look at these walls and I can only think that they beg for some kind of transformation that only Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb can perform on The Today Show.

On Monday night the City and Safety Services Committee listened to proposals on issues ranging from snow removal to an art project. I did not know that the art project in particular would affect the same wall that I came in contact with a few weeks ago.

That wall that is considered an eyesore may get its makeover, or at least a fresh coat of paint.

The Athens City Council listened to a proposal from local artist and Ohio University student Jolena Hansbarger to transform the wall for Athens Beautification Day in the form of a mural.

Hansbarger wants to paint Greek mythological figures such as Poseidon along with multiple constellations in her current plans for the mural.

Councilman Kent Butler, D-1st Ward, is a member of the City and Safety Services Committee and supports the proposal.

The Athens City Council discusses matters relating to the ARTS/West mural on February 8th, 2016.
The Athens City Council discusses matters relating to the ARTS/West mural on February 8th, 2016.

“I embrace art outside of an art complex,” said Butler, who also stated that the proposal is privately funded and would not require city money.

The mural would allow residents of Athens to take part in its creation by being the artists themselves and painting the design that Hansbarger put forth in her proposal. Yes, this includes children, and Hansbarger knows that she may need to add some extra hours fixing the potential mistakes those novice painters could make.

“I don’t expect them (children) to paint inside the lines of my design, so I plan on working to fix those problems,” said Hansbarger.

Now children who aspire to be the next Picasso may not be the only problem with the mural, but elderly citizens who see the project as a distraction for the neighbors of the wall brought up objections to the committee.

Multiple residents brought up the potentially controversial subject material, the glow-in-the-dark paint (proposed to be used), and the location of the mural as potential headaches for neighbors.

At the same time, Councilwoman Michele Papai, D-3rd Ward, does not think the wall serves the best interests of Athens residents due to its mythological subject matter and the question of ownership of the artwork once the mural is finished. Papai expressed concern that the city would have to use public funding to keep the wall maintained after the mural begins to wear out or the wall experiences damages.

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson brings up a point during the Athens City Council meeting on February 8th, 2016
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson brings up a point during the Athens City Council meeting on February 8th, 2016

Councilman Patrick McGee, I-At Large, proposed an alternative to the Walker Street wall for Hansbarger to paint the mural.

“I wish there was a portable wall that can display this art for not just the west side, but the entire city,” said McGee.

McGee thinks that the art would best serve Athens if it travels around the city for all residents to see and not just the residents that live near the permanent wall.

Tensions were never high in the room, and each member of the council treated each other with respect. There was never an instance when I thought the council meeting would turn into an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, which is what I would expect from an Athens City Council meeting. They were talking about art tonight, not war.

I learned a lot about the city I live in during the hour that I sat in on the meeting, making it clear to me that these meetings mean a lot to me. Will I sit in on every meeting from this point on? Probably not, but I will surely make an effort to go to more council meetings, or at least appreciate the work these government figures do for their citizens.

As to the proposal itself, the Committee will revisit the matter next week. Until then, I will still be walking by that ugly hunk of concrete on Walker Street when I take a jog around Athens.

City Council’s plan to Replace Athens Community Pool Remains Uncertain

Athens City Council began discussing an ordinance that would bring a new community pool to the city Athens back in 2014. At a meeting Monday, February 8,  one thing has become clear: the waters are uneasy and tensions have risen between members of council about what the best course of action is.  City Council is no closer to a decision today then they were two years ago. It’s time to calm the waters of the  community pool issue and make a decision. Any decision.

Ordinance 0-02-16 was introduced by First Ward Representative Kent Butler, authorizing engineering services for an outdoor municipal swimming pool. The ordinance also allows Athens City Auditor, Kathy Hecht, to borrow a $500,000 bond to do so. No decision was reached Monday.

City Building Athens, Ohio
City Building located in Athens, Ohio.

Council knows they want a new pool for the community, but they don’t know much else at this juncture.

Right now, the project cost remains uncertain, the most basic elements of this project (indoor or outdoor) remain undecided, and the mayor is “praying” that the pool will open by next summer. I think it is safe to say the notion that the new pool with be open and fully functional by summer 2017 is laughable and nothing short of a pipe dream.

With this in mind, I have just one request for City Council , a request for progress. Make decisions, stick to them, and move forward with what will inevitably be a very time consuming, arduous process. Give the people of Athens a new pool, a pool without leaks and rusted pipe pieces.

The biggest doubter of the project is Third Ward Representative Michele Papai, who commented,

“I have to tell you, my confidence in the process has waned over the past year. When I see outdoor pool I wish it would say outdoor aquatic center,” Papai said. “It really doesn’t include a lot of what our community asked for. The bottom line is the fairness to the voters. It’s difficult for me to back this ordinance. The wording of this ordinance isn’t specific enough. I think we put the cart before the horse.”

Both Representative Patrick McGhee and Fourth Ward Representative Christine Fahl echoed the remarks of Papai.

McGhee said, “I see no reason to rush this, I completely agree with everything Councilwoman Papai has said.

Similarly, Councilwoman Fahl said, “I don’t have a lot of confidence. I think the planning process that’s been presented to the public has been very confusing. The plan is too amorphous. The planning committee hasn’t served us well, maybe we haven’t asked enough questions.”

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson was equally concerned about the project due to the varying financial implication of the decision to construct an outdoor pool versus an indoor pool. Specifically, the financial burden of an indoor pool likely requiring paying employees year-round as opposed to paying employees seasonal wages as is customary with an outdoor swimming pool.

For Patterson, action, whatever it may be, should be taken quickly as the current pool is rapidly draining money. The cost to repair the current pool to keep it open just one more year is at least $150,000.

“We’ve been holding back on the citizenry for something that they’re already paying taxes for,” Patterson said.

Multiple Athens residents also spoke at the meeting, voicing the concern that there is no real plan in place. They are growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of transparency on the part of City Council, saying that the numbers for the project just do not add up. They asked the council to come up with a plan and disclose it to the public where they can provide their input.

Many councilmembers mentioned the importance of planning. They said that multi-million dollar projects like this one, which is expected to cost “around” seven million dollars, needs a well thought out plan and a significant amount of time. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have much of a plan, they are running out of time, and the project is surrounded by uncertainty. And sadly, if you missed the meeting you will be hard-pressed to find coverage. The Athens City Council Twitter (@CityofAthensOH)  provided sparse coverage. On the bright side, Ohio University’s WOUB has you covered with all the up-to-date coverage.

As a student at Ohio University, and a temporary resident of Athens, the utter confusion and disheveled nature of this pool project is concerning. What is even more concerning though is how little progress has been made week after week, confusion still persists.

At the January 19 meeting Ken Butler said, “This is solely for an outdoor pool, which may be controversial for some,” said Councilman Kent Butler, who presented the ordinance.

Similarly, on the 19th, Councilwoman Jennifer Cochran said, “The public has been led to believe that all options were on the table and now we’re essentially saying “no, this is only for an outdoor pool.”

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson was quoted at the January 19 meeting having said, “I’m pretty firm, personally, about moving this forward, getting things going,” Patterson said. “We’ve got an aging, failing pool…and I’m praying we can keep it going and be open in the summer, I really am.”

As a resident of Athens who will probably never even swim in the multi-million dollar facility I would just like to see some concrete decisions made. What I mean by that is: I don’t care if the pool is indoor or outdoor, I just want a decision to be made and stuck with. The reality is that there will be supporters and opponents regardless of what type of pool is created. You cannot please everyone no matter how hard you try.

Athens Economics: Why there are so many bars

For a business looking to thrive, it doesn’t get much better than Athens, Ohio. The college-town vibe and young demographic make the area a hotspot for any type of restaurant or business looking to make a dent in the local economy.

But instead of diversifying the town with various establishments, nearly 20 bars and pubs are squeezed into the 1-mile radius of Athens’s Uptown. For some of the rowdier students at Ohio University, the seemingly endless bar options is a positive. But for some local officials and residents, a city with potential growth is limiting itself to one type of establishment.

Athens City Councilman Kent Butler, D-First Ward, said he often hears concerns from local residents about the number of bars on Court Street, adding that many often push for a diversification of businesses.

“I’ve heard people with families and children say they avoid Court Street at certain times because of the atmosphere,” Butler said. “When I went to school here, Court Street had a more friendly feel; it was Smalltown, USA. That was largely what attracted people here.”

Though the heavy bar scene might inhibit families and non-students in Athens from enjoying some of what the city has to offer, Butler said the number of bars isn’t the issue. The issue is the fact that alcohol revenues go to the state, not Athens’ local government. So in a city with a large number of bars, Athens is making money only from general taxes the bar owners pay, not from total revenue.

“We have a binge-drinking culture just like any other college town,” Butler said. “If (Athens) were to have a tax on alcohol, then we would be able to empower the resources in the community to better deal with the behaviors and after-effects of drinking.”

Knowing that college communities were suffering economically, Gov. John Kasich used to send college towns in Ohio impact fees upwards of $50,000, but Butler said Athens now receives about $20,000 each year.

“We spend about $16,000 on Halloween alone for the extra law enforcement and precautions to make sure it’s a safe event. That’s not including all the fests and events the rest of the year,” Butler said. “We’re woefully underfunded right now.”

An even larger problem: Butler said Athens has surpassed the maximum amount of liquor licenses it’s allowed to give to businesses.

“The State Liquor Control issues the permits and they tell you how many you’re allowed to have in a community, so I don’t know why we’re above the limit when they issue them,” Butler said.

According to the Ohio Department of Commerce’s web database, 86 liquor permits have been issued to businesses on Court Street since 1991. Eleven requests have been rejected. Five requests are pending — three of which are for Chipotle Mexican Grill.

From OU’s standpoint, a school notoriously ranked among the top party schools in the country, one could argue that a heavy bar scene fuels the fire and promotes a drinking culture.

Vice President for Student Affairs Ryan Lombardi acknowledged the idea, saying he would like to see a better balance between bars, restaurants, and other types of shops.

“There is strong evidence to support that environmental factors such as the density of bars and alcohol-related establishments contribute to a high-risk drinking culture,” Lombardi said in an email. “I think a good balance between the various types of establishments would have a positive impact on some of the negative outcomes that we see from high-risk behavior.”

According to the Ohio University Police Department’s 2014 Clery Report, which details crime statistics at OU and its branch campuses annually, there were 183 liquor law arrests on OU’s Athens campus in 2013. There were also 426 disciplinary referrals for liquor law violations in the same year. However, those numbers are not limited to just OU students.

The Ohio Revised Code states that one ground for refusal to issue a liquor permit is “that the number of permits already existent in the neighborhood is such that the issuance or transfer of location of a permit would be detrimental to and substantially interfere with the morals, safety, or welfare of the public.” With more than 500 liquor-related violations, the lines for what makes issuing a permit “detrimental” are unclear.

Despite the number of alcohol-related arrests among students, Butler and Lombardi don’t support a “no bars” approach to the city.

“Completing the bar shuffle was a right of passage,” said Butler, a 1992 OU alumnus.

Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl also wants to see fewer bars in the city, but argued that establishments that serve alcohol have the best shot at staying in business.

“Hardware stores don’t come in and agricultural feed stores won’t come either, so what would you want to replace (the bars) with and who would shop there? It’s nice to say we want to have a Macy’s or high-end retail stores, but who would shop there?” Wiehl said. “Even restaurants like Salaam or Fluff get liquor licenses to get more people to come.”

Since there’s such a demand for alcohol in a city full of college students — more than 22,000 students in Athens during the 2014 academic year, according to OU’s website — some bar managers say they never feel threatened or feel the need to compete with other bars.

“There’s never really any animosity between the bars,” said Jenny Alu, bar manager at The Pigskin Bar & Grille. “We like to get business, but its not one of those things where none of (the other bartenders) hang out or are mean to each other.”

Jesse Stowe, bar manager at Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery, said they don’t compete with other bars either because “It’s all unique here.”

“We have our own niche because we’re the only place in town that creates our own beer,” he said.

Regardless of the concerns from local residents and the possible negative implications a booming bar scene could have in Athens, the number of bars in Athens won’t be dropping significantly any time soon.

“In the dog-eat-dog world of Court Street. Some things do better than others” Wiehl said. “Eateries with alcohol do the best.”

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Xander Zellner is a senior at Ohio University studying journalism. Find him on Twitter at @xanderzellner.