Businesses and nonprofits are gearing up for the first-ever West Fest, a combination community and business expo.
Akademia will have a tent at West Fest, and visitors will be able to dart next door to the brewpub for festival goers-only specials. Night Owls will also be some of the first to sign up for Akademia’s new loyalty program.
“I think the West Fest is a great idea to get people out there and bring some visibility to businesses,” said Lindsay Brannen of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce.
Inspired by other area business groups and the 100-Mile Yard Sale, which draws thousands each fall to a giant yard sale that stretches from Unadilla to Quitman, Georgia, the West Fest will be part rummage sale, part nonprofit expo, part business spotlight and full-on community fun.
“We’re looking at bouncy houses … we’re going to be doing Touch-A-Truck. We’ve got a fire truck and police truck, a tractor or two,” said Denise Ricks, Athens West member and coordinator for West Fest. “We’re looking at hopefully getting five or six food trucks. It is all on the focus of ‘meet your neighborhood businesses.’”
Resettling the west
West Fest is the first step in a coordinated attempt to bring more visibility to this area of Athens. Right now, the west corridor is “not a huge hub of growth” for the Chamber, but Brannen wants it to be.
“It’s a great location right off the Loop,” she said. “At one point the mall was the anchor to why that was such a great location. I think it will be what revitalizes it as well, hopefully in the near future. It’s a lot of property, a big ol’ chunk of land that could draw tourism dollars and the rest of [the west side] would just explode.”
Ricks said in the 1990s, when Georgia Square Mall first opened, it drew many Downtown businesses to the west corridor — and now that there is a new shopping plaza on the Oconee Connector, it’s the west side dynamic that’s changing.
“I just started talking to businesses about getting together. We got together about four years ago and we started meeting on a monthly basis,” Ricks said. “My goal is to have this become the cool side of town.”
Ricks said the group hopes to see a flyover from Epps Bridge to Atlanta Highway — right now, the way the roads are planned, motorists can only go directly from Epps Bridge toward downtown on Atlanta Highway. There’s an extra turn or two off Epps to get to take a left, out toward Akademia. They would also like to develop a west side park.
“There’s potential for even more because there’s so much space,” said Aimee Cheek of the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a good blend of residential and commercial.”
That space on the west side was perfect for Akademia. Co-founders Matt Casey and Morgan Wireman found the former Musician’s Warehouse building had the size, parking, outdoor space and adaptability to meet their needs.
“As we took a closer look at the west side, it became more attractive due to the limited number of restaurants and dense residential housing,” Casey said. “I believe the economic importance of this area is undergoing a transformation. First of all, it is the largest and longest main corridor leading into Downtown, and one that for years has greeted all visitors from Atlanta and the South. With the growth of Epps Bridge, this area appears to be taking on more of an industrial identity rather that the predominantly retail identity it held for years.”
The west corridor, which stretches down Atlanta Highway out past Downtown and also includes the Timothy Road area, is home to a plethora of businesses and fun spots that don’t always get the same visibility as the Downtown and UGA areas of Athens.
“As our department has grown over the years, we’ve been able to focus on new and various parts of Athens that we haven’t previously been able to, and so we are excited for what the west side has to offer,” Cheek said. “I think the space on the west side allows for a large tourism attraction project. I don’t know what that looks like, but I know there’s physically space for it, whether that is an existing building that may come into disuse later on.”
Cheek said more than $292 million is spent in direct domestic tourism — including food, transportation, lodging, retail and recreation — in Athens-Clarke County, according to numbers from 2016. Casey believes Akademia brought more people out this way since it opened in October, and said he believes the economic impact of the brewpub has yet to be fully achieved.
Stopping the rumor mill
Much of the focus on what will happen to the west side has been on Akademia’s next-door neighbor, Georgia Square Mall. Rumors abound as to what will happen to the massive retail space, an anchor tenant in this area of town.
Monica Hawkins, marketing director and specialty leasing manager of Georgia Square Mall, said there’s nothing they can do about rumors except stand firm that the mall isn’t going anywhere — its owners are figuring out the best way it can serve shoppers’ needs and remain a fixture in the community given the new ways people shop.
“When I was coming up, [the mall] was the center of entertainment. That was the hanging out spot. You wanted to go to the mall whether that was to grab a bite to eat at the food court or go window shopping,” Hawkins said. “Malls are now going through a phase of repurposing. The shopping patterns and trends are changing, so I think too, the mall experience is changing as well.”
Georgia Square Mall has been part of the Athens West group for a couple of years, and Hawkins said when the idea of West Fest was brought up, she immediately volunteered the mall as a place to host it.
“This would be a great way for businesses to come together and say ‘hey, we need to support each other. We need to make sure that we’re being great neighbors,’” Hawkins said. “I think everyone that’s a member of Athens West Corridor is taking great pride in this event. We’re psyched. I think the West Fest is the first step in a long line of different things that are going to be coming from the group, but also from the businesses.”
Athens West Fest
Saturday, June 2
Georgia Square Mall
10 a.m. to 2 p.m.