Chamber of Commerce asks for $1.9 million for workforce development plan

The Athens-Area Chamber of Commerce is requesting the ACC Commission provide $1.9 million to start a new workforce development initiative Commissioner Dexter Fisher calls “a game changer” for Athens.

The commission is also considering permitting an affordable apartment complex for seniors on Atlanta Highway, accepting an agreement with Piedmont Athens Regional about ambulance performance data and approving a collective bargaining agreement with the Professional Firefighters of Athens‐Clarke County. They’ve also reversed a previous decision on limiting public comment.

Table of Contents

Athens Achieves
Affordable senior housing on Atlanta Highway
Rules for public comment
Firefighter collective bargaining agreement

Athens Achieves

UPDATE (6/5/24): Athens Achieves passed 6-5, with Commissioners Melissa Link, Tiffany Taylor, Jesse Houle, Carol Myers and Ovita Thornton voting no. Mayor Kelly Girtz broke the tie in favor of the program.

The commission is considering a workforce development plan put together by the Athens-Area Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with local businesses, educators and other community stakeholders. The plan, called “Athens Achieves,” has a goal of creating a pipeline of skilled workers to meet the needs of Athens businesses in the immediate and long-term.

David Bradley, president of the Athens-Area Chamber of Commerce, told the commission at a recent work session that ”crafting a valuable workforce is the most effective way to combat generational poverty, to grow our economic vitality and to expand well-paying, fully-benefitted jobs that allow all Athenians the opportunity to fund the quality of life they desire.”

Bradley is asking for $1.9 million in seed capital to create an online portal for job seekers, to support the development of academic and leadership skills in the Athens workforce and to create pathways towards employment. This will involve the creation of a new nonprofit to hire and train navigators who can match those looking for work with the available jobs or training opportunities. The nonprofit will also hold career fairs, including a focus on “second chance” employment for those returning from incarceration.

The mayor and commission is working in parallel on a similar plan as part of the local government’s Business Development and Workforce Support Task Force. This plan, which will be complete later this year, was originally conceived as a bottom-up approach to workforce development, including support for worker-owned cooperatives, union organizing and advocacy for living wages. 

The two plans now appear to be in competition for the same pool of funding, which comes from the federal American Rescue Plan.

Dexter Fisher
Commissioner Dexter Fisher

Athens Achieves is a more traditional workforce development program developed by a large group of community stakeholders over the past two years. It has strong support from some commissioners, including Fisher.

“I truly believe this will be a game changer for our community,” Fisher said at last week’s agenda-setting meeting. “We talk a lot about poverty in this community. The best way to get out of poverty is first of all to get the training and find good paying jobs…I think it’s the right thing for us to do as a commission.”

Other commissioners were less enthusiastic about the proposal. Commissioner Ovita Thornton seemed to indicate that she would not support any new workforce development initiative, saying that there were six such programs already in existence in Athens.

“We are putting money out there with no real accountability,” Thornton said. ”I really did expect something different [from this plan].”

Houle expressed a desire to wait on giving approval for Athens Achieves until the local government task force plan is completed so that the two could be compared.

The commission will vote on providing the seed funding for Athens Achieves on June 5.

Affordable senior housing on Atlanta Highway

Some affordable housing may be on the way if the commission approves a request from Blue Ridge Atlantic Development to build a new apartment complex on Atlanta Highway near Target. Their plan is to build 68 units of one and two-bedroom senior housing, made affordable through a partnership with the Athens Housing Authority. 

The developer told the commission that they intended the apartments to be affordable for seniors making between 30% and 70% of the area median income. The one-bedroom apartments would rent for as low as $385 a month and up to $1,057 a month on the high end. The two-bedroom apartments would rent for between $456 and $1,262 a month.

ACC Assistant Planning Director Bruce Lonee said that Athens Transit would serve the apartment complex in some capacity, perhaps through a new or relocated bus stop or through the existing stop near Target.

The ACC Planning Commission has recommended approval of the development in a unanimous vote. 

Rules for public comment

Commission meetings have often run quite long in recent years, in part due to commission rules that allow anyone to speak at voting sessions for three minutes on any topic. Commissioners have been faced with long lines of speakers on topics that they feel at times are not directly related to their work in local government. 

For example, protesters have packed meetings in recent months calling for a resolution in support of a ceasefire in Gaza. In addition, right-wing agitators have been a constant presence since the killing of nursing student Laken Riley in February. Earlier this month, a right-wing street preacher caused a major disruption and then forcefully resisted a police escort out of the commission chamber, leading to his arrest.

In response, the local government is installing enhanced security at city hall. In addition, the commission suspended their rules so that they could limit public comment this month. These changes may have seemed sudden to some observers, but commissioners have been discussing them for months.

The commission was preparing to adopt new rules to ban protest signs inside the commission chamber and to limit public comment to two minutes per speaker, down from three minutes. They would also require those wanting to speak on a topic not on the commission’s agenda to sign up in advance of the meeting.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

Yet, when it came time to vote, Commissioner Patrick Davenport spoke against the new rules for limiting signs and public comment, calling for further discussion.

“It’s a disservice for our constituents…to reduce the amount of minutes that they speak,” Davenport said. Then he added, “I think signs are freedom of speech.”

Thornton agreed, saying “The time things got a little hairy, it wasn’t the three minutes [that was responsible]. It was when folk got out of control, more so. They can get out of control in two minutes.”

Despite coming to an agreement on this topic at a recent retreat, most commissioners sided with Davenport to deny the public input changes. Only Houle and Commissioners Allison Wright and Mike Hamby voted to limit public input, with Commissioner John Culpepper being absent. 

Houle told Flagpole that their reasoning for voting to push the changes forward was simply so that the commission could stop talking about it as a body after spending a lot of time to come to a compromise.

“I’m tired of talking about this topic ad nauseam for years,” Houle explained. “We should be talking about affordable housing, but instead we’re talking about whether people should be able to speak for two or three minutes.”

At the next commission meeting, signs will again be allowed and public comment will be back to three minutes per person, unless the commission suspends their rules again.

Firefighter collective bargaining agreement

The Professional Firefighters of Athens‐Clarke County and ACC management have come to an agreement regarding salaries and working conditions in the ACC Fire Department for the next fiscal year. 

The most significant change in the new contract involves shortening the current 28-day work cycle to 14 days for the purpose of overtime calculation. It also establishes a labor / management committee to facilitate problem solving and allows firefighters with grievances to have union representatives assist them throughout the complaint process.

ACC Manager Blaine Williams is requesting that the commission apply these new rules to all ACC public safety departments to maintain parity and to preserve morale in the police department and other agencies. The total cost of the new contract will be at least $600,000 once the benefits are extended across these other agencies.

Help APN continue covering local news for the Athens area!
Please consider becoming a member or giving a one-time donation via PayPal.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *