Russell Edwards, 33, works as an attorney in Athens. He also co-owns and operates Agora Vintage on Broad Street with his wife Airee.
On the phone before the interview, I explained to him my interest in local businesses and Katelyn’s interest in fashion. He thought the interview would be most effective if we walked around downtown Athens to physically see what stores and buildings he was referencing. The interview was really more of a dialogue to learn about the downtown.
Katelyn Umholtz and I introduced ourselves, and the interview didn’t really formally begin as much as he shook our hands and said, “I have a great story idea for you.”
We exited Agora and darted right towards College Avenue.
E- Edwards, A-Ansley, K-Katelyn
E: Something I find interesting, and that hasn’t been reported on is the story of property ownership downtown. Take Heery’s for example, owned by Rusty Heery. He owns many buildings downtown and is a local business owner. Now take this building (pointing at subway). Beautiful building masonry owned by Fred Moorman who owns very many properties downtown. So you got Rusty Heery, Fred Moorman, and Fred owns this building here. Do you know the Fred building?
A: Yes, I actually have a group of friends who occupy the entire 7th floor. Also, my grandfather was president of the board at Southern Mutual years ago
E: Yeah, that used the be the Southern Mutual building then Fred bought it and put the name “Fred” on it (laughs). So he owns that, he owns this (subway), and a few of those bars down there. You’ll see “Fred’s Historic Properties” everywhere. He’s got a lot of loft apartments.
Then you’ve got this business here [Masada]. Irvin Alhadeff is the current owner, and I believe it was begun by his father possibly. It dates back to the early 70s. Irvan is also a major property owner downtown. He’s a business owner and property owner just like Rusty Heery. He owns Étienne Brasserie, The Place, and several other major places downtown.
So the story here is that you’ve got these land owners who have owned these buildings for decades- some of them inherited them from their families. Now there’s not much space for local businesses. As all of the residential new developments come in, the property values go up, the property tax goes up, so rents go up. This makes it harder for the small guy.
This building here (corner of College and Clayton) is in terrible condition as you can see. It’s owned by a lawyer in Atlanta. He’s a younger guy who inherited it I believe from his family. It’s full of local businesses like Wuxtry and Native American Gallery, but just look at it. The appearance is just so poor. I mean, they’ve got windows boarded up. This is the center of the downtown commercial district and it’s rotting away. The College Avenue facade of the building almost collapsed. It’s really pitiful, like you can’t even put a coat of paint on it? So, that’s another aspect of this story. There are absentee landlords who don’t care about the upkeep of their properties, but they just want to collect the rent. That building is owned by Howard Scott who is probably the fourth major property owner in the downtown area. He owns that building and many other of these buildings and student apartments downtown.
So, that brick building next to it is beautiful and is owned by two retired UGA professors who live in the loft. That used to have Flirt on the bottom floor, but now it’s moving out and it’s going to be a new store that’s a project of Red Dress Boutique. It’s gonna be called Fringe, so that’s an example of a very vibrant local business that’s branched out of Athens, but is still bringing money into the local economy.
A: (To Katelyn) That would be something really cool for you to look into for the fashion side of the downtown beat.
E: And that’s kinda what we did at Agora because we started at the location down at Clayton and Pulaski. We sold that local business to one of our longtime employees and opened the store we have now on Broad. So, you always have this sort of balance between new, younger local entrepreneurs trying to expand and then the already established local property owners who are just trying to collect rent from their assets. Those two businesses are constantly playing off each other.
The Red Zone that’s locally owned, it used to be across the street in the Urban Outfitters space. That’s sort of an interesting scenario- Encore was located on Clayton, but the rent increased and so they moved to the parking deck area. Then the Red Zone moved there and Urban Outfitters took the Red Zone’s old location. You can see how people kinda hopscotch around to try and find rent that they can pay.
A: Actually we were talking about this earlier. Even students are having to move out of downtown because of rising rents and into neighborhoods. Which of course makes the rent in the neighboorhoods rise and you have people there that struggle to find affordable housing as a result.
E: Right, it shows you how large of an effect that policies downtown can ripple all across the community with housing and business.
Well anyway, what other things are y’all interested in? I think that the property ownership is a really interesting story that hasn’t been reported on. People don’t really know who owns these buildings.
A: That’s something I was taking note of in my head as you were talking. This is such an untold story but all the focus today is with new local businesses coming in and how the community relationships are changing. Is there animosity with small business owners towards big chains? How’s the entire culture of the consumer changing?
E: Yeah and there’s a lot of different sides to that I can talk about. What else?
A: Your wife told me about the Walmart that was going to move downtown and how there was a coalition to stop that. Do people now feel that it was for nothing with big businesses still making their way into downtown?
E: Yeah well I think an important thing to note is with the influx of more residential units in town it means that it’s going to be able to support more businesses and the small guys in the market. In my opinion, it’s not necessarily the case that more local businesses will close because of new chains coming. There is more business sort of happening. With more people here the market is growing. So, the hope is that the growth will support everybody.
We were really concerned about Walmart because they don’t play well with other businesses. They seek to drive out other businesses. But Starbucks has been next door to Walker’s for how many years now? You know there’s some businesses that are chains that can coexist with local business and be fine and just sort of draw attention to the area. I’ve talked to some local business owners who thought that it was perfectly fine that Urban Outfitters was coming downtown, because with more people that like to shop there may stop into their store as well. But the concern that I express the most is that people come to Athens and visit Athens because of the local business. It’s something different, because it’s an existing historic downtown area that has unique places to shop. You know?
There’s only so much you can sell to local Athenians because it’s a fixed market. The more we can encourage tourists dollars because tourists are excellent they don’t burden our services they just inject money into the economy. So as a community we should be very conciencious of how we present the downtown area for tourism. Compare us to Asheville. Somebody who comes to downtown Athens is not gonna look and say “Oh wow, they’ve got subway! Oh wow, they’ve got Urban Outfitters!” You know they can get that anywhere. So what’s so great about Athens.. oh we’ve got Tim Stamey at Native American Gallery. Come over here Tim!
A + K: Hi!
E: I’m doing an interview with these two about local businesses and the downtown district. Tim’s a local business owner with his wife, Jane. They own Native American Gallery. One thing about local business owners too, you’ll find that they’re much more invested in the community. They live here. They work here. It’s not like a corporate office somewhere else.
Passerby politely interrupts and asks for a good spot for lunch. Edwards recommends The Place.
E: So for example, I’m a local attorney downtown and there was a gentleman who lived on the street outside of Tim’s store.
S (Stamey): Actually it was more in the area outside the Red Zone.
E: Tim basically rescued this man and took him off the street. He got financial power of attorney, found him a home..
S: He got him a pro-bono attorney for me.
E: Got his Medicaid and payments set up. Put a roof over his head. You know, that’s something that a local business owner would do. Somebody who’s here as a part of the community. Living and working here everyday.
S: Yeah he was a 70 or 72 year old teenager (laughs). You know, you just can’t be on the streets that old. It took a lot of us [local business owners] and it’s amazing how many people started helping out. People saw what me and Russell were doing more and more. And he had a lot of health issues. It kind of snowballed, it was a big, big undertaking, but he lived three years longer with his health issues. He had a roof over his head.
A: That’s really commendable.
S: Well, should I say his name?
S: Rusty Buford.
K: Yeah, were not publishing this.
S: I think we called him our “Champion of Hope.” (laughs)
K: Now would you say that local business owners such as you guys tend to come together in a moment like that?
S: Absolutely. I went up and down the street and everybody seemed to know him. I asked that they help and provide like a character letter about him. How he was harmless out here. Local businesses wrote letters for me and Russell, so when we went before the housing authority to get him housing there was 12 people I think in that meeting. People went down there and showed up on his behalf. They were all from downtown, well, a couple of them were students I believe.
E: Yeah, right.
S: Everybody knew him and another key part of it was Horton’s pharmacy. They had all his prescriptions because of his health issues. I got to know them very well, and they were very helpful. It was not easy. I could have never done it by myself. There were so many people who helped.
K: Now, my side of the story is more on the trend of vintage, and I didn’t know if you could talk to me about that or if I should wait for Airee.
E: Yeah, sure.
(Tim briefly talks to Russell about fixing up the building referenced before)
A + K: (to Tim) Thank you so much. It was nice to meet you.
E: See Tim, is a tenant in this building who’s doing all of the work to get it refurbished, because the owner is… you know. Tim’s the one that’s taking time out of his day to go to the Historic Preservation Commission and get approval to replace windows. Which really, the owner of the building should be doing that, but anyway.
But yeah, what did you want to ask me about that?
Katelyn questions Tim about Agora and vintage fashions.
Notes to take away from their dialogue:
Started Agora in 2002, sold it a year ago last December. Original store was a co-op. Always a great market for secondhand goods. People are smart and want to make their dollar go further. Trend of secondhand shopping has increased in the past couple years. People want to buy American made- it feels better. Sustainable to shop secondhand.
Most of the vintage shops downtown are locally owned. Shopping at local businesses keeps the money in the local economy. The owner will want to share with local charities or eat at local restaurants. It’s a self sustaining economy.
A: I quickly just wanted to ask about you and about your specific relationship to Athens. How long have you lived here or worked here?
E: I’ve lived here since 2007. I moved here to go to law school and graduated in 2010. Been here ever since. Got married to Airee in 2011.
Trucks start roaring, so we decide to move spots. Ask if he wants coffee, but we all have had some. Start walking back to Agora.
A: You found yourself quickly consumed with the community of Athens and the local businesses. Was that because of Airee?
E: Yeah, I got to know Airee. I just enjoyed supporting local businesses, I don’t know what it was. I went to school in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s hard to put into words; the feel you get shopping at a place where you get to know the owner. I started shopping at Agora and I got to know Airee. We became close and started dating. I ran for U.S. congress to represent this district, and I got to know a lot of people that way. At the same time, I was active in the local democratic party, and have been active ever since. I have a radio show every week on Thursdays- today 3 o’clock. I’ve helped a friend of mine get elected to the state house and he’s my radio co-host. Spencer Fry, he’s the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity. So yeah, I’ve found it very fulfilling to just become a part of the local businesses and local charities. There’s a lot of opportunity in Athens for young people to take a stake in the community. You’ve got these older establishments forces at work, and there’s a lot of opportunity for a young person to come in an just say, “I wanna do this.”
A: What’s your radio show called?
E: It’s called Reppin’ Georgia. It’s on every Thursday from 3:00-4:00 p.m. on 14.70 AM, a local urban station with mostly black radio. 95% of our listenership is black. A lot of gospel music. It’s current events, local and state politics. Right now the Georgia state legislature is in session. We talk a lot about what is happening down in the capital. Mostly with public education right now because there’s so many new laws and education policy. That’s a huge part of the state budget. The state budget is about $46 billion. Half of that comes from the federal government, half of it comes from state taxes, and about $20 billion of the budget goes towards education. About $13 billion going to K-12 and $7 billion going to higher education.
K: So have you always had a strong, activist spirit even before you fought for Walmart to not move in?
E: Yeah I think so. The Walmart fight came after the fight for congress. Airee and I became close campaigning for President Obama. We canvased together and went door to door. I would do little things when I was in law school. I was in this group called the Equal Justice Foundation that raised money for law students. In the law school rotunda, well there’s like three founders. One of them is Thomas Cobb who was a confederate general that helped found the law school after the Civil War. He wrote the only legal treatise that defends slavery. There was a portrait of him in the rotunda wearing full confederate regalia, and me and three of my fellow law students met with the dean one day and said, “You know, there’s another portrait of Thomas Cobb on the third floor where he’s just wearing a suit. He looks like a lawyer. Let’s just switch those portraits. You don’t have to remove it or take it down, let’s just switch them.” So she moved them. Things like that I think matter. If you’re a black person looking to go to law school and the main entrance to the law school you see a confederate general, it doesn’t send the right message.
So yeah to answer your question, I’ve always been conscious of what people could do to make the community a better place.
A: I have no more questions. Is there anything we missed or should have asked that we haven’t?
K: Yeah, were still learning.
E: I don’t think so. Y’all did good. We covered a lot of information.
Go back over the idea of ownership downtown and all of the public records about property owners.
We thank him and part ways.