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2024 State of the Community Address from Mayor Kelly Girtz full text and video

Welcome to the 2024 State of the Community address, my friends. There is so much that connects us, and those connections resonate throughout our shared experiences in Athens. This is true of the full array of work we do together, from our appreciation of the creative spirit that draws so many here, through our shared joy and struggles.

Among the most prominent connections I need to note from the outset of our time together today is our shared pain from those we have lost to violence, and our desire for our safety. From a promising young nursing student in Laken Riley, to a child yet to enter elementary school in Kyran Zarco Smith, to Willie Jewell, a longtime resident continuing to give to the community he loved, we mourn these losses,

and ask ourselves how such a set of tragedies can find a response on the local level.

As we wrap our arms around each other in love and support, here in the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government we will continue to lean into making this an ever-safer community through every means necessary. While we cannot account for all national, global and cultural forces pushing against our desire for healthy lives, we will continue to enable our community with high quality support. This includes providing the police department and other public safety units with the tools they need. This is what we did last year when we acquired ballistics analysis equipment to rapidly identify munitions used in crimes, which have been used to successfully to initiate 88 investigative leads over the last year. This is what we did this year when we initiated a real

time crime center to aggregate information quickly and bring arrests before violent actors could bring further trauma to our community. And this is what we will do this year as we further build out our camera array and enable our police department to access otherwise distant park and trail spaces more easily. And to those from anyplace who would do harm to others here, I ask that you look at our track record. If you inflict damage on our residents, we will capture you, and we will do this quickly.

Let me be clear about our work, and let you know that we continue to start our safety efforts emphasizing proactive initiatives. Every effort will continue to be made to prevent trauma and pain in the first place by ensuring that healthy, supportive systems are put into place. This is what we have done through continued funding of our Neighborhood

Leaders program that connects residents with resources, preventing and healing fractures in Athens, including closing nearly half of the gap in under-utilization of supplemental nutrition programs available through the Department of Family and Children’s Services. A few short years ago, as a community we were leaving over twenty million dollars a year on the table, but through the Neighborhood Leaders program, we now draw-down almost nine million dollars in these publicly available benefits each year. Hungry families are desperate families, and eliminating hunger is an important public safety contributor.

Similarly, introducing young people to enriching pro-social activities continues to be a huge effort in Athens-Clarke County. This year that includes an ongoing partnership with the Clarke County School District to ensure that every

fourth to eighth grade student has access to the sports programs that have not been universally available in the past. Through this jointly- funded effort, also supported by the University of Georgia Athletic Association, thousands of young people are learning the value of teamwork and developing strong relationships with coaches and peers.

Our partnership with the Clarke County School District will continue with an additional $3MM allocation that we have made, that will bear fruit in the years ahead. Similarly, we have allocated over $2MM to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens and their partner organizations to extend and expand the work they have been doing with a data-driven focus on the places where young people were historically under- resourced in recent decades. Boys & Girls Clubs now have locations open in Nellie B and

Parkview communities among others, and they are drawing upon decades of research into violence prevention from their national parent organization.

Every day, we recognize that just as we handle the challenges of this moment, we have an opportunity to line-up future success for our young residents and the community at large. While I will only be in this office for three more years, I have a strong commitment to enabling future leaders to enjoy a safer, more connected Athens.

Just as resource assistance and youth support contribute to the safety and health of our community, our work ensuring sufficient access to quality housing has the same effect. We are proud of the partnerships we have forged with

the Athens Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity, Historic Athens, the East Athens Development Corporation, the Athens Land Trust, and others, along with the work happening through our own Planning Department.

The Housing Authority has been a key partner in the revitalization of the North Downtown area formerly known as the Bethel Midtown Village and Hull and Hoyt developments. The first phase of redevelopment is opening in a few short months, and the second phase has now received funding in the form of federal low income housing tax credits. That program is the single largest contributor to localities’ stock of new affordable housing across the United States, and in the midst of the supply and cost crisis we are in, I call upon our federal partners to do more for every city in Georgia and across

our nation. For any of you who work in the building trades, or who have simply tried to repair the steps to your front door in recent years, you know how much costs have escalated, and we need a response from Washington that is commensurate with the needs of every community like Athens.

The Housing Authority is also pursuing new moderate-income developments near Athens Tech, and a senior-focused development on Atlanta Highway. Both of these will allow working or retired nurses, teachers, and other professionals to have quality homes near groceries, amenities and public Transit routes.

This year, the County Commission approved zoning and contributed funding for a neighborhood that Habitat for Humanity is

building on the Firefly Trail in East Athens that will allow several dozen working families to own a home, and have their children and grandchildren benefit from home ownership in the manner that research has demonstrated will improve their life-long educational and economic outcomes.

Among several affordable housing collaborations with the Athens Land Trust is the historic Mack-Burney House, and two neighboring properties on Reese Street which would have been slated for demolition, but which we were together able to save through an innovative partnership with the property developer, who has recently submitted plans for re-development of the adjacent former Varsity property.

Through financial and regulatory support of these kinds of projects, we are not only creating new homes, but encouraging a city that allows access to fresh food and walkability, the kind of city that will stand the test of time.

This coming fiscal year, I will recommend direction of a million dollars to initiate what we are calling a “strike fund”. This will allow purchase of properties that are in contested legal limbo, and work with a rejuvenated Land Bank Authority to keep these properties in the hands of working Athenians, rather than lay dormant or exclusively fall into the hands of investors. While the real estate market should produce reasonable profits for those involved, a key role of the public sector is intervening to ensure that regular folks can have a place to call home.

The sharpest edge of the housing crisis is the rise in homelessness that has been experienced here, along with every attractive – and increasingly expensive - community across the sunbelt. With many strong partners in the nonprofit community, we now have a formal Homeless Coalition with a board of care providers and business professionals who can ensure that we are doing everything necessary to provide optimal and focused coordination. The challenging real estate market, along with the severity of chemical substance use and behavioral health challenges mean that this will be an area that needs critical attention for years to come, but Athens is up for the challenge.

Beyond the work we are doing in partnership with affordable housing providers, this is a critical year in our planning and zoning work.

We are updating our land use plan this year to accommodate contemporary needs. This is going to be an effort that requires the entire community’s assistance, and will need an open- minded approach for all Athenians. Just as the nation experienced the change brought by moving from a population that was half rural in 1900, and later had to adjust to the post-WWII population explosion through the 1950s and 60s that brought new neighborhoods from Forest Heights to Green Acres, so today must we be responsive to the housing needs of this era.

All of us become accustomed to the view out our kitchen window when we move into adulthood or become homeowners, and while change is challenging for all of us, encouraging additional homes where people can walk to grocery stores, parks, schools and workplaces

will ensure that we are creating a city that is built to last, for basic human needs, for fiscal responsibility, and for the long term support of our natural environment. There are several public input opportunities lined-up throughout the Spring of 2024. I strongly encourage all of you to become involved in putting in place a sustainable Athens for our children and grandchildren.

Another aspect of our work on safety involves our Emergency Management work through our Fire Department. We have continued to expand our medical emergency capabilities by adding three EMS Captain positions this year, with the goal supporting at least 130 Certified EMTs within our Fire and Emergency Services Department. At this point, 60% of all responses from the Department are for medical

emergencies, and we want you and your loved ones to experience optimal care.

We continue to work toward ever safer roadways, having initiated a local road safety program just this winter, which will contribute millions in design upgrades to roadways and intersection improvements. Our expanding trail network continues to connect people with each other, and with the places they work, study and play. We are approximately two years away from completion of the Clarke County segment of the Firefly Trail that will extend from East Broad Street to the Oglethorpe County line. In addition, we are opening a new Greenway segment this spring that links Carriage Lane and Barnett Shoals Road with South Campus and the core spine of our system along the North Oconee River. This will be an even stronger asset when GDOT replaces the bridge over the

River on Oconee Street next year, allowing Dudley Park to connect directly to the Greenway south of Highway 78 via a trail along with riverbank, connecting to College Station Rd.

Our strong system of infrastructure; not just roads and trails, but also fiber data - - with both locally and federally funded upgrades, along with a strong water and sewer system, allow our Economic Development Department to pursue high-wage employment, as they did with attracting Meissner to Athens last year. This 1600-employee strong enterprise, breaking ground this year, is an enormous addition to our area bio-tech industry, one of the cornerstones of our contemporary economic development efforts. We will strengthen this employment pipeline in 2024 with the addition of the biotech pathway at the Athens

Community Career Academy, allowing local high school students to get on the path to career success in this field early, and aligning with world class efforts at Athens Technical College and the University of Georgia.

Speaking of the University of Georgia, we are delighted that they have been granted the opportunity for a full-fledged medical college, which will be a critical link to success for the entire state, but will be particularly important in Athens’ ongoing role in serving as medical provider for more than 700,000 residents throughout Northeast Georgia. In addition, the research and development that will take place on this campus will invariably spin-off additional private businesses that will thrive in this community that hosts so many peer firms like Boehringer Ingleheim, Ethicon, and many others.

As I speak to you here from the Lyndon House Arts Center, where we are featuring our 49th annual juried exhibition, I also want to not that his year will also see key strides in our creative community and hospitality sectors. This spring, Athena Studios is hosting their first feature film production, and we look forward to decades of successful work there. We will be assisting the film community with location, crew and support service databases specific to Athens.

This summer will see completion of the long- awaited Classic Center Arena, where we will host professional hockey, musicians that currently lack a large-capacity venue, and gatherings that currently need multiple venues to meet, but will now be able to gather in a single space with impeccable acoustics and sigh-lines. The opening of the arena will soon

be followed by a concourse of dining, residences, entertainment and gathering spaces highlighting the river than runs alongside our downtown.

In addition to large scale activities, we continue to work toward ever better efforts at our contracting and procurement, and in the wake of a formal disparity study, will be strengthening our efforts to support minority- owned and woman-owned firms through local public expenditures. Additionally, we are re- vamping our contracting process with nonprofit providers to ease the pathway to partnership with them.

This is all part of our journey to being an even more welcoming and supportive community for all who come here.

When we take part in those activities, we acknowledge the work we still have to do become an ideal community for all residents. That is why we recognize past wrongs like our failure to fully support neighborhoods like Linnentown or The Bottoms decades ago, and now make grants in the name of residents of those places, and fund the forthcoming Black Futures Center. That is why we work with the AARP to become an age-friendly community, where people of every stage in life and ability can get around. That is why we find dignity in the work of the U.S. State Department as they support a few dozen international refugee families in Athens. We do these things recognizing our common humanity, and continue to embrace all persons of goodwill, whether born here in Athens, living here for a few years of academic study, or arriving from

places near and far seeking a better life, as people have done for the entire time humans settled on this land beneath our feet. I will close by thanking you for the warm embrace that you bring to your fellow Athenians; it is not lost on me what a giving and wonderful group of residents we have the benefit of sharing the community with each and every day as we continue to strive to be the place where our work meets the quality of our spiritm.


The 2024 State of the Community Address video from Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz is now available online, on ACTV, and on the ACCGov Roku channel. The 15-minute video provides an overview of some ACCGov and community activities, accomplishments, and responses during 2023, as well as a look ahead to future initiatives.

The video airs on rotation on ACTV Cable Channel 180 and is available on the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government's main Facebook (www.facebook.com/accgov), YouTube (www.youtube.com/accgov), X (www.x.com/accgov), and Instagram (www.instagram.com/accgov) accounts. It is also available on the ACCGov website (www.accgov.com/videos),through the YouTube app on mobile phones and television devices, and on the ACCGov channel on Roku devices.


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