Athens, Georgia has earned itself a reputation as one of America’s best college towns. With a flourishing hospitality industry, a myriad of attractions for fans of both the Bulldogs and local arts alike, and a relatively cheap price tag, Athens earns a large percentage of its income from tourism. The city’s shift from a funky, off-beat destination for creatives into a hub for investors and entrepreneurs around the South has had major implications on Athens’ economy and locals—many for the better, some with questionable consequences.
The first “F” in Athens’ big three—football—may be the most important for its economy. Athens and the University of Georgia began primarily as institutions of agricultural work, with the University serving to educate young landowners. While the University of Georgia was founded in 1785, the Bulldogs football team did not exist until over 100 years later, when Dr. Charles Herty assembled the team in 1892 for a game against Mercer.
Since 1892, the Georgia Bulldogs have won the National Championship title eight times, famously clenching the honors two years in a row in 2021 and 2022. Due in part to the renowned coaching of Kirby Smart and the Southeastern Conference’s inspired legacy, the Bulldogs have inspired a cult following. Dawg fans regularly flock to Athens many autumn weekends, ready and able to fuel the city’s economy while watching a game.
Visit Athens GA reported in 2022 that tourists visiting Athens spend $434.7 million each year. Although the economy’s various successes and difficulties may have impacted those numbers somewhat, the fact remains that tourism is a mammoth industry driven in large part by the sports fans that lodge, eat, drink, and celebrate in Athens during each fall semester.
Due in part to the Bulldogs’ ability to draw a crowd to Athens, the city is an attractive place to be a business owner. Athens has over 200 bars and restaurants, and has the highest number of bars per capita in the entire United States (80 in one single square mile in 2019). As the University and town expand to accommodate its ever-growing incoming classes, new jobs in the service industry are regularly available for those seeking work. The cost of living in Athens, however, is somewhat more expensive than other comparably-sized towns in Georgia and is creeping higher over the years, which may limit a wage worker’s ability to settle in the city.
As Athens becomes more popular with tourists, individuals too may feel excited about entrepreneurial opportunities. One way in which individuals participate in the increased demand for lodging is by offering their properties as short-term rentals, often through platforms such as Airbnb or VRBO. For families who travel often or live part-time in Athens, converting their home into a short-term rental can be an efficient means of accumulating passive income during the times when their home would otherwise sit empty. Some Athenians, however, feel that an overabundance of short-term rentals in their neighborhoods disrupts their way of life and drives housing costs unreasonably high.
Following complaints from residents of Athens’ Five Points neighborhood, Athens-Clarke County government officials are considering new regulations which would limit out-of-town landlords’ ability to purchase and operate short-term rental homes in single-family neighborhoods. The proposed regulations, which are likely to pass, would allow landlords a two-year sunset period to operate before enforcement goes into effect. Many residents resent the “overly generous” sunset period, complaining of the continued disruption and impact on their communities.
Despite the complications that accompany the demand for comfortable accommodations, however, Athens is undoubtedly a city on the rise. Online Athens reported that nearly two dozen new restaurants opened in 2023, and construction of new apartment buildings seems ever-present for anyone who regularly drives downtown. Although we Athenians were hit hard by the latent consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Athens’ growth shows no signs of slowing.