Vote on Downtown Historic District was Delayed. Why?

Will the commission take action to protect the west end of downtown? What’s gonna be in the prosperity package? And did National EMS really lie to cover up a failed ambulance response? Let’s see.

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0:29 – Vote on Historic District
4:36 – Baby Bonds and the Prosperity Package
6:02 – National EMS and Barrow Elementary

Slight Correction: I may have over-emphasized the importance of the threatened lawsuit in this video. It turns out there were other reasons for the delay as well, most importantly the many property owners in the proposed district who oppose it. FYI.


Historic District Vote Delayed

If you’ve lived in Athens for a while, or even just a few years, you know that downtown looks a little different than it used to. Can Athens’ unique culture survive covered in luxury high rises and corporate chain stores? I think so, but maybe not if it gets much worse. For almost a year now, Commissioner Melissa Link has been working to protect the cultural history of downtown Athens with a new historic district, because she worries that some big changes might be yet to come.

In January, she and other commissioners placed a one-year moratorium to stop the demolition of the Saye building at Hancock and Lumpkin. The First United Methodist Church wanted to tear down that building to put up a parking lot. Seeing this as the first salvo in a larger fight for the soul of downtown, after blocking the Saye demolition, Link instructed staff to create a plan for a new historic district.

The eastern end of downtown is already protected by a local historic district, but the west end is not, even though it’s already been designated as historic by the federal government. The federal historic district extends all the way to Pulaski street, but provides basically no protection since most land use decisions are made at the local level. With the one-year moratorium running out, county staff came back with their plan, which actually extended historic designation past the federally-recognized zone, all the way to Newton Street on the west end and Strong Street on the north end.

This meant that all five downtown churches were included in the proposed district, and they were not happy about it.

Representative of First United Methodist Church: “It’s our opinion that additional local guidelines related to this proposal will halt future advancement critical to our church’s mission.”

Other property owners also complained, which led Commissioner Mike Hamby to compromise with Link on a new proposal that just protected the area included in the federal district. That meant that only two churches would be affected, and it seemed primed for passage at the commission meeting on December 3. But on December 2, something unexpected happened!

(crack of thunder)

Former ACC Attorney Bill Berryman sent a letter to his old employer, the commission, threatening to sue them if they went forward with the historic district! He claimed that his new employer, the First United Methodist Church, felt the district violated their freedom of religion and would cause them “irreparable harm.” As you might imagine, that threw the proceedings into chaos.

Unaware of the looming threat of a lawsuit, dozens of people showed up to this meeting to express their support for the historic district, including former Commissioner George Maxwell.

Former Commissioner George Maxwell: “I’m probably the only person in this room that really knows about the Hot Corner. And it would break my heart to see the destruction going on in other parts of this city would take place in the western part of Athens.”

The commission ultimately decided to delay their decision by up to six months. They also extended the moratorium on demolitions.

Commissioner Mariah Parker: “This part of Athens is as much my home as the place where I physically lay my head at night. I would not be sitting here, behind this rail tonight, if it were not for this part of downtown. I came here tonight to support the CDO that Commissioner Hamby and Commissioner Link put forward. I look forward to supporting that, something similar, six months from now or a year from now, or however long it takes for us to have a public information process that everyone feels comfortable with, but I want to make very clear where I stand.”

I’ll keep you up to date as this progresses.

Baby Bonds and the Prosperity Package

Now for an update on the prosperity package, but stick around for the bit about National EMS after this, it’s nuts! You need to hear about what happened there. Okay, about the prosperity package. The Neighborhood Leaders program that I’ve discussed before was finally approved at this meeting, as were two grant writer positions. But that’s only $1 million dollars in total. What will they do with the $3 million dollars left in the prosperity package? After months of debate, it’s still unclear what that will go towards, but local artist Broderick Flanagan has an idea: baby bonds! Baby bonds are part of Senator Cory Booker’s plan to close the racial wealth gap. The idea is that every baby would get a savings bond at birth to be held in trust by a local bank or nonprofit. On turning 18, they could use that bond to help them get an education, start a business or buy a house. Basically it could be used for anything that helps them build wealth.

Flanagan wants to do a test run of the idea in commission districts 2 and 9, which are the two districts with the biggest African-American population. New parents living in those areas would eligible for a lottery to get access to this program, and he also wants to let high school seniors apply so the test run doesn’t take 18 years to get going.

Will the commission go along with this plan? I’m not sure, but maybe. There’s nothing else that’s currently on the table as far as I know. On the other hand, ACC Attorney Judd Drake feels that it may violate the Georgia Constitution’s gratuities clause. He’s gonna look into that and I’ll let you know what he says.

National EMS and Barrow Elementary

On to National EMS! There was an article published in the Flagpole last week that you might want to check out. Hey, I think I know that guy. Uh… so, in August, a child was having a severe allergic reaction to peanuts at Barrow Elementary, and the school called 911 for an ambulance. They waited for 15 minutes, but that ambulance never showed up! Had better things to do maybe? We still don’t know what happened. I found out about this at a commission meeting in September.

Sam Rafal: “It happened at Barrow Elementary. Child having an allergic reaction. Frantic father came and took the kid to the ER because the ambulance never showed up.”

Commissioner Jerry NeSmith: “I want to close the record a little bit more on a couple things. One is on the Barrow school elementary 911 call from a few months ago. They discovered that the nurse at the school did not dial 911, instead dialed the private telephone number, bypassing 911, calling EMS directly. They looked further into this and found that the School District’s new voice over IP system, in some cases, in some schools does not support 911.”

So… what?? How could schools in Athens not be able to dial 911? It just boggles the mind. I contacted Taylor Duke, executive director of technology services for the school district, and he dispelled this myth immediately, saying of course they could dial 911. The Director of Nursing at CCSD told me the same thing. She said the nurse at Barrow definitely dialed just three digits that day, 911. Why did National EMS say they didn’t? Did they think no one would check? I just don’t get it.

But it gets worse. It turns out that Sam Rafal and Bob Gadd, who are public safety advocates I’ve interviewed before, put in an open records request for the tape of the 911 call from Barrow. For whatever reason, the 911 center had trouble finding it, so they asked National EMS about it. National was the one who handled the call – they handle all our medical 911 calls. Despite of course having a record of the call in their system, presumably, National told the ACCPD 911 center that the call did not exist and they should stop looking for it.

I’m trying to think of an explanation for this, that isn’t like wow, they just made that up. This is the company that handles all medical 911 calls in Athens. What do you do with a company like this?

I go into a lot more detail about National EMS in this video. Or check out my full interview with public safety heroes Sam Rafal and Bob Gadd. If you want to help me do more investigative reports like the one for the Flagpole, please consider becoming a patron by visiting

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