After years of fostering sustainability and education, the West Broad Garden and Farmers Market’s days are numbered. The property, owned by the Clarke County School District, will be revamped to provide what has been described as more urgent necessities for local students.
On Sept. 12, the CCSD Board of Education approved a plan to renovate the community garden and farmers market at the historic West Broad Street School property to a multi-use early learning facility.
The $10 million plan will renovate the existing 10,000-square-foot Minor Street building to include a health clinic, community meeting room, historic preservation area and “Student Success Center.”
Spearheaded by Superintendent Demond Means, the plan also accounts for the addition of a 27,000-square-foot building to provide early learning classrooms, a multipurpose room and a kitchen. The garden and market will cease to exist under the plan.
According to the plan, the classrooms would expand the district’s pre-K program, which due to limited space has historically been “forced to turn away scores of students.”
“Research shows that when you provide early childhood education opportunities ... it does help increase student learning throughout their primary elementary school years,” Means said of the project.
The $10 million price tag for the proposal comes from Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) funds, which is expected to raise $112 million in education funds from 2016-2021.
The half-acre garden at the site has been in use since 2012 as a community garden and weekly produce stand. Other vendors also attend the weekly market to sell handcrafted items and prepared food.
Through an agreement with CCSD, the Athens Land Trust has educated students on sustainable agriculture through the Young Urban Farmers program. ALT’s agreement with CCSD expires Sept. 29.
In a press release, the ALT thanked the District for its partnership over the years and said it is looking for “suitable alternate sites” for the program.
The school itself is a vacant 19th-century building that once housed black students during segregation.
“I can’t talk to a person in this community that was here through the Jim Crow years ... that doesn’t hold that building and what it represents in high esteem,” said District 3 board member Linda Davis.
The vote passed 4–2, with board members Kara Dyckman, Charles Worthy, Linda Davis and LaKeisha Gantt in favor and John A. Knox and Greg Davis against. Frances Berry was out of town and Patricia Yager abstained. Tawana Mattox recused herself because she works for the Athens Land Trust.
Skeptics of the plan have cited the fact that the property is located in a high traffic area and is next door to a nightclub that sells liquor. State law prevents sales of “distilled spirits” within 200 yards of a school, but Means isn’t worried about state approval.
“There are always obstacles and challenges that will come up with any construction project. This one is no exception,” Means said.
District 8 board member John Knox opposed the plan due to “weaknesses” in the proposal, including the lack of “supporting documentation” related to the creation of the health clinic and the indefinite cost.
According to Knox, a November 2018 draft estimated a cost of $6.765 million for 14 classrooms. By August, the cost rose to $7.4 million for 20 classrooms. When the proposal came up for a vote this September, the board was told “as few as five” classrooms for early learning might cost up to $10 million, Knox said.
“As a member of the school board, I should be frugal whenever possible in terms of spending the taxpayers’ money,” Knox said.
Knox also cited questions about “whether the project is going to pass muster with regard to some laws and codes” as a reason for his disapproval.
“We’ve been told [the answers] have to come later,” Knox said. “I don’t believe that. I think as a board member overseeing millions of dollars in taxpayer money, that I want those answers before I vote yes.”
Davis views the renovation as a step toward telling the story of education in Athens and bringing “the loss of history” to light within the black community.
“This has to be a collaboration with the entire education community, and with our community as a whole to make sure everybody’s at the table and everybody’s view is represented,” Davis said.
Despite not voting in favor of Means’s proposal, Knox said he’s in full support of moving forward with the renovation as a member of the school board.
“We’ll fight like cats and dogs up to the vote, but once the vote is taken, we’re all on board, according to our board policy,” Knox said. “From here on, let’s do it, let’s make it right and make it possible.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated the West Broad Garden was started in 2010. The ALT began its community agriculture program in 2010 but the garden was not established until 2012. The Red & Black regrets this error and it has since been fixed.