Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Touchdown for Transplant

If you met my dad, you’d probably think what most people think- this guy’s pretty normal. But what most people don’t know is that he has four kidneys, only one of which is functioning, and it’s 85 years old. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. When he was 21, my dad’s kidneys began to fail, and his mother donated one of her kidneys to him in 1985. By 1992 this new kidney also failed, and he had a second transplant, this time receiving a kidney from his father. To this day, my Dad is still living because of that one, 85-year-old kidney, a living memory of my grandfather who is now deceased.

Most can imagine that an organ transplant is a very complicated surgery. The first in Georgia was performed at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta more than 40 years ago, and the majority of these surgeries are still performed in Atlanta; however, someday these sorts of procedures and groundbreaking research might be occurring here in Athens at the medical school.

Not only complicated, but organ transplant surgeries are also extremely costly. Emory estimates that the average kidney transplant costs between $25,000 and $150,000, with post-surgery medications ranging from $700 to $2,000 per month. Coming from a family with a very modest income, you can imagine how two surgeries like these could break the bank.

Luckily for residents of Georgia, there is an organization dedicated to the financial, emotional and educational support for organ transplant donors, recipients, candidates and their families. It’s called The Georgia Transplant Foundation. Founded in 1992 by a kidney transplant recipient, The Georgia Transplant Foundation helps Georgia residents throughout the organ transplant process, providing a mentor project for new transplant candidates, educational programs, career development services and financial support.

Each year, the Foundation hosts several events to raise funds and awareness about its cause. This year, it will team up with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Children’s Tumor Foundation and the University of Georgia’s College of Education to host the third-annual

Hosted by former Bulldogs David Greene, Matt and Jon Stinchcomb, “Countdown to Kickoff” will feature a golf tournament at UGA’s championship golf course, a Bulldog-themed auction and party, a fan festival and an autograph session with current and former UGA and NFL football players. Guests will get the chance to meet and talk with NFL dawgs, Georgia football legends and the 2008 team who will be on hand to run drills, throw passes and sign autographs throughout the afternoon.

The golf tournament will take place Friday, July 18, beginning at 9:30 a.m. with a shotgun start at 11 a.m. Later that evening at 7 p.m. will be the Sick ‘Em Auction and Awards Reception at The Classic Center. The following day, Saturday, July 19, will feature the fan festival and autograph signing from 3 to 6 p.m.

Visit the “Countdown to Kickoff” Web site for more information about buying your ticket today to support several great Georgia causes.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is the Gambler Coming Back to Athens?

According to today's Wall Street Journal, Kenny Rogers and his lady are planning a return to the Classic City.

This article details plans for Rogers -- a country icon of the 1970s and 1980s -- to sell his Atlanta mansion (pictured) and return to his "ranch" outside of Athens. I'm not sure if this is the one he used to live on near Winterville and Colbert called Beaver Dam Farms. Through the years, Kenny built a beautiful home and golf course out there. In the early 2000s the farm was sold to some speculators several years ago who then partnered with the Classic Center -- or a different location. There has not been much news about Beaver Dam Farms in recent months, so perhaps he has repurchased his former home.

Either way, welcome back, Kenny! It's good to see another country musician returning to the Classic City after time away -- once the Classic City gets in your system, you can't get it out. Let's have a Six Pack to celebrate!

P.S. Photos of the Rogers' Atlanta home and grounds are above. Note also that the referenced slideshow on the top photo does not work.

UPDATE: The AJC is reporting that Kenny's new home is on a 150 acre estate in Nicholson, just up the road in Jackson County. He describes it to AJC reporter Julie Hairston as "kind of like Disneyland with animals." Other details aside from the new home include a seven-acre lake stocked with fish and five miles of groomed trails for walking or biking.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Newsweek Thinks Highly of Athens High School

This week Newsweek came out with the list of the top 1300 high schools in the US. Walton High School of Marietta scored the highest of any Georgia school at 106. Clarke Central High School came in at a cool 1055. As a product of the Georgia public school system I was proud to see the state have so many high schools on the list (my alma mater was 272!) but acknowledge that we have a long way to go. As we end this school year I would like to applaud all the dedicated teachers out there who are working each day to better their schools for the kids- not for a position on a list.

To Market, To Market to Buy Some Fine Art

Watkinsville touts itself as the Artland of Georgia, and that will definitely be the case this weekend during the 13th Annual Southworks Artist Market featuring more than 60 artists.

Southworks, sponsored by the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation (OCAF), brings talented artists from across all media together to exhibit unique paintings, sculpture, wood, folk art, glass and jewelry. It's a smorgasboard of visual and textural interest. On top of that, musicians from all different genres play on two different stages, and food vendors ensure you won't be shopping on an empty stomach. And the juried exhibition in the OCAF gallery is always an amazing selection of work from across the country - which also includes the Director's Exhibit of work by Margaret Morrison.

I'm a longtime fan of Southworks, being a collector of pottery and other local art. The festival gives me an opportunity to see work from some of my favorite artists - and check out new faces. I'll be looking forward to...

Folk Art: Peter Loose - I first met Peter Loose when I was in high school and he did a guest lecture at a Young Artists Conference. A naturalist, Loose's work brings a vibrant whimsy to the animals portrayed in his work, whether on canvas or a kitchen cupboard door.

Glass: Loretta Eby - I'm a huge fan of Eby's work. She is a master of glass blowing, renowned across the country for her work. Enjoy items as simple as Christmas ornaments or one of the intricate metal and glass sculptures she creates with her husband, self-taught sculptor Jeff Jackson. Also, she's a personality you won't want to miss.

Pottery: Yukiko Marable - Marable's pottery has an Asian flare, and for those who have a preconceived notion of what Southern pottery looks like, prepare to be surprised.

Pantings: Jamie Calkin and Elizabeth D'Angelo - Calkin's distinct watercolors of local landmarks make him a familiar favorite among Athens area residents. If you don't make it to Southworks, you can pick up his prints at a lot of area galleries or just take a gander at them hanging in a multitude of area restaurants and shops. I first saw D'Angelo's work at Southworks. Her large-scale approach is hard to miss! D'Angelo's paintings tend to be a big look at a little detail - like the interior of fruits. Shown left is her painting Actinidia Melandra (Kiwi) (oil on canvas 48" x 48").

On top of my old favorites, I'll be on the lookout for new ones. I'm particularly interested in The Hairy Potters & Norma. Perhaps I'll be adding a Hogwarts-inspired work of art to my collection.

Watkinsville's declaration of being an epicenter of art is well-deserved. The town has embraced the artist community and taken pride in promoting their creative talents. Athens undoubtedly has a wonderful art scene, but if you've never taken the quick drive over to Watkinsville, this weekend is the perfect time to do it. The collaborative efforts of OCAF, local leaders and entrepreneurial artists has created a thriving economic and cultural asset for the community. While you're downtown, be sure to check out some of the other great Artland destinations like the Chappelle Gallery and Town Center Fine Art. Whether you walk away with a pot, a painting or a funnel cake, I guarantee there's an exceptional cultural experience in store.

Putting it on your weekend itinerary?
Saturday, May 24 and Sunday, May 25
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Free parking
34 School Street, Watkinsville

Friday, May 9, 2008

Dawg Food Gives the Right Bark for Eats

Ever since I started school at UGA in fall 2005, my favorite characteristic of Athens has been its wide array of restaurants. Really. You can order anything in this town.

It took me a little over two years to figure out how I could thank the Athens restaurant business, and I finally found a way. In my social media class this past fall, I created Dawg Food, a blog about my dining experiences in Athens.

I thought Dawg Food would be an appropriate title, given the demographic and the area-wide obsession with Georgia athletics, and it has been quite the learning experience.

When I first started Dawg Food, I searched and searched for a Web site that mentions and reviews Athens restaurants from a real perspective. Of course, the Flagpole and the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau contribute their fair share of restaurant information, but I didn’t find exactly what I wanted.

This told me it was my time to step up and give back to the culinary community that had filled my tummy so many times. Originally, I started Dawg Food for the UGA community, but I have slowly developed an older, more “townie” following.

People ask me, “So what do you do with it? Do you just eat and then write about it?”

I could answer with a simple “yes,” but I tend to want to make my job sound more important.

In addition to just “writing about it,” I also try to take pictures, video and interview employees. Blogs are an effective way of bringing a business off the page, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

Wouldn’t it make you want to go to Jot ‘Em Down Barbeque if you could see an interview with one of their cooks? What about a detailed picture of blackened salmon from The Basil Press? Did you know the Bluebird Cafe serves apple butter?

I get a lot of criticism for my “too niceness.” People say I need to be more critical in my reviews. So, I have desperately tried to provide a more well-rounded view of my dining experiences- good and bad.

Just like Athens Inbox, I believe the Athens community has some qualities that set it apart from any other small town, and I want others to know about it.

So, the next time you’re hungry or are feeling indecisive about where to eat, check out Dawg Food! If you go to one of my restaurants, go back to the Web site, and write about your experience. I always welcome user comments.

Since I’m interning at Jackson Spalding this summer, you will most likely see posts from lunches with the JS crew. Stay tuned for some great reviews!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Get a Case of Road Race

This year my father will run the Pearchtree Road Race in Atlanta for the 27th time. I have accompanied him on a few occasions but have a long way to go before catching his personal record. Needless to say running is in my blood.

Although I’m not particularly good at any specific distance I have participated in a variety of different races. Having had my fill of 5k races in high school cross-country, I began branching out after college searching for more than a basic run. I have crawled through a 50 yard mud pit with my partner in grime at the Atlanta Muddy Buddy. I hiked, biked, canoed and flat out wandered my way through the seven-hour North Carolina Adventure Race in Charlotte, N.C. And with Dad by my side I ran a couple half marathons to test my distance endurance, but have yet to conquer 26.2 miles in a full marathon. The modern marathon commemorates the run of the soldier Pheidippides from a battlefield at the site of the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C. Yet somehow Athens, Ga. has yet to host a modern day marathon.

There may not be a marathon in Athens, but the city is certainly not lacking road races through out the year. University clubs and organizations host dozens. Students and residents alike come out in support of AOP’s Race for the Roses and Hoop Girls’ Do-it-for-Broph 5k run/walk, to name a few. Outside the University you can run for the kids, run for the dogs or run for the cure depending on your preference. Coming up on May 23, you can run for special needs programs of the Barrow County schools in The Georgia Club’s Front Porch Footrace 5K Run and 1K Fun Run/Walk. The Inbox crew will have several runners (and walkers) enjoying their Friday afternoon on the streets of The Georgia Club celebrating the beginning of summer.

If you would like to participate in a race in the Athens area check out Classic Race Services’ race calendar.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hurry, Hurry… Read all about it!

Barnett’s, an Athens tradition since 1942, is closing. It should not come as a surprise to most, the days of the traditional newsstand have long passed – in fact, I’m almost surprised that this landmark of downtown Athens has stayed open this long. Atlanta's 11Alive has a segment on the store on their website.

Before I go into the dynamics of why it is shutting its doors, I want to tell you what Barnett’s means to me. Midge Gray and her former husband Tommy Easterling bought Barnett’s in 1972. Around that same time, they hired my dad as their accountant, so I’ve grown up around the place. I can remember stopping by and walking around on Saturday mornings before or after having breakfast with my dad at the Grill. As a boy, the place was a pantheon of information. I would always gravitate to the middle aisle and pick up a Sports Illustrated and read of the exploits of my hero, Mike Schmidt or read the Georgia Football media guide. Behind me was a world of paperback books, some crisp and new while others had the yellowed pages from years of shelf life. Up at the front, dad would be talking to Midge while I perused the candy aisle and wondered what was behind that wall of cigars that was “Adults Only.”

By the time I was in high school, Barnett’s became a place of employment. My job was a simple, four-part process:
- Empty the 20 or so crates of new magazines
- Place them on the rack
- Remove the old issue from the shelf
- Count the old issues and put them back in the crate
This happened twice a week, once on Monday for the weekly publications and again on Thursday for the others. That is when I got to know Carl Smith. Carl was a unique man. My first day there, I got my education on the “Adults Only” section. It was simple. “Bryan, we do not judge people based on what they buy,” he said” “As long as they are old enough to purchase it, everything is for sale. Just don’t let people linger back there too long…” That’s what I liked about Carl, he didn’t judge people by what they bought, one man’s money was just as good as the next. I chuckle when I think of all the guys that would come up with a Barely Legal sandwiched between a Newsweek and GQ, like we wouldn’t notice. Carl didn’t care though; he’d just take their cash, say a nice word and slip their bounty into a paper bag. Barnett’s may close on May 18, but it lost its soul two years ago when Carl died.

Once I moved up to work behind the counter, I saw the richness of downtown Athens. Monday mornings would bring in the businesspeople of Athens, buying their Banner-Herald, AJC, New York Times or Wall Street Journal. As the day wore on, we’d get students trickling in (always leaving their bag at the door, just as the sign said) buying the now obsolete blue-books or a Coke. Throughout the day, people would come and go, lingering, browsing, reading and sometimes buying. As the evening approached, we’d start to get the townies buying cigarettes and the music mags. It was never a dull place.

As Elrod Sims said in the Banner-Herald the other day, “The day of the newsstand is a bygone era, and it's a part of Americana that is going to be gone here once Barnett's is closed. I feel like Barnett's was a social place ... where you could go in and (find out) what was going on in downtown."

Which brings me to the closing of the doors. Some will point to a declining economy as the reason Barnett’s is leaving us, but that’s not the case. There are four main reasons:
- Magazines/Newspapers –Newsstands on the whole are becoming as obsolete as the eight-track. You see, magazines are sold on consignment, which is why I had to collect the old ones and send them back. Most consumer goods have a mark-up of around 100 percent, which is why retailers can have a 50 percent off sale and still break even or make a little profit. Magazines and newspapers are sold with much less mark-up, and much less risk for the retailer. Typically the markup on a $4 magazine is 20 percent. You have to sell a lot of magazines to make money, but you’re not going to lose a lot since you can send the old ones back. Add to that the fact that the newspapers are now giving their content away for free online and you have a recipe for mediocrity.
- Books – When I worked at Barnett’s, we sold the hottest bestsellers the day they came out. Now, Barnes & Noble can sell the latest Grisham book for approximately what Midge pays for it. It’s a sad but true fact; Midge will do as well leasing her space as she does working the counter every morning.
- Tobacco – The item with one of the largest profit margins in the store is cigarettes. In the 70’s and 80’s, smoking in public was more common and accepted. Now, Americans are more health conscious and cigarettes are not part of the agenda. Add to that the new local laws outlawing smoking in restaurants and bars and you have an equation for healthier populous but bad for the bottom-line.
- Downtown – Downtown Athens is a place you go to eat, drink or shop for clothing and accessories. It’s no longer the central business district where all transactions take place. Even though Clarke County is the smallest in Georgia, the community is split up into areas of town. Some people never step foot downtown for long periods of time, much less drop by the newsstand to pick up a magazine and a pack of gum.

So what do we do? Do we mourn the fact that an Athens tradition is closing or do we celebrate what we had for the last 60-years? I opt for the latter. Let’s make the last couple weeks of Barnett’s the best in its history. Take a moment and drop by. Buy a book for the full cover price. Grab a newspaper (plus tax) and a Coke. Pick up a cigar and take in all the history of an Athens institution, there aren’t many more around.

As for me, I’m going to take my 10-month old son to Barnett’s and walk around. Not because he’ll remember it, but because I will. I want to stroll him through the aisles I walked as a child. I think I’ll invite my dad to join us and we’ll grab some breakfast at the Grill and talk about what used to be…

From Athens to Asia: An Orient-ation

In recent weeks, the Georgia-China relationship has been much in the news. Governor Sonny Perdue traveled to China in early April with a delegation of 40 Georgians to talk trade and make several announcements, and also to celebrate the debut of Delta's direct routes to China.

While the AJC and many other media outlets accompanied the Georgia delegation, Northeast Georgians might still think that the only connection between Athens and China is the outstanding Chinese cuisine at Peking.

However, The Inbox recently learned that of Georgia’s 48 official delegates to China, 7 were from Athens – Maxine Burton (at left in the picture), Michael Burton, Emma Lou Hubbard (all from burton + BURTON); Winston Heard and Julia Menefield of the East Athens Development Corporation; and Steve Wrigley and Arnett Mace from the University of Georgia – and another was from Commerce: Gary Black, who is the president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. Logically, this made The Inbox wonder about other Athens-China connections, and whether there is opportunity for local businesses in China, whether it is from a manufacturing standpoint or a sales standpoint.

Quickly, other local connections emerged:

  • During the trip, the governor announced a partnership between UGA and Tsinghua University, a school of 27,000 students in northern Beijing.
  • Something called the Georgia-China Alliance even lists an Athens street address as its headquarters.
  • Mayor Davison visited China on a recent trip (which the local press then deemed a tourism junket).

This will be the first of a series of posts that will cover the Athens/Northeast Georgia-China relationship and what a stronger relationship with China could mean for this area.

For our first installment we dialed up two top local businesses to inquire about working in and with China, and some keen insights emerged. The two businesses are burton + BURTON, which utilizes facilities in seven countries (including several in China) but keeps its headquarters in Athens, and Tifosi Optics, which manufacturers its "enthusiastic eyewear" at five factories in China and Taiwan but does business worldwide. Tifosi is headquartered in Watkinsville. Summaries are below as well as links to the full interviews with both companies.

burton + BURTON

Founded in March of 1982 by Maxine Burton under the name Flowers, Inc. Balloons® as the balloon division of a retail and wholesale florist (Flowers, Inc.), burton + BURTON is an Athens business success story with more than 350 employees. Since its founding, the company has become the nation’s leading supplier of balloons and coordinating gift products. With an international customer base the company offers more than 15,000 different products which certainly necessitates the need for extensive and flexible manufacturing operations. According to CEO Bob Burton, the company first explored manufacturing in China in 1986, and began production there shortly thereafter. Why?

“Many of the products that we carry are no longer available from domestic suppliers,” said Mr. Burton. “If we wanted to continue to provide our customers with the variety of products they need, we had to find other sources. We also found that China was one of the few places that could meet the demand we were experiencing. Many of our products are very intricate pieces made by skilled artisans [note: see photos]. No domestic vendors can (or will) supply container-loads of hand-blown glass vases, or intricately woven handmade baskets at the competitive prices available from China.”

Bob’s wife and company founder, Maxine, was one of the delegates on the Georgia-China trip. She found it valuable for a number of reasons.

“The interaction with Chinese business leaders during the opening reception for the new Trade Office allowed us to exchange viewpoints on trade and to hear first-hand their perspective,” said Mrs. Burton. “It was also very valuable to meet others from the state of Georgia who are in the imports/exports business.”

Mrs. Burton is also a board member of the Georgia Ports Authority, which offers her a unique perspective on the two way relationship between the countries. She was quick to point out that Georgia enjoys a huge export business with China, and that containers travel fully loaded both ways, making trade with China is a two-way street. This result, she says, is a huge positive economic impact for the State of Georgia.

"It has been very eye-opening to learn the amount of products Georgia exports to China," says Mrs. Burton. "Georgia is a major exporter of forestry and agricultural products, and minerals like kaolin and gypsum. The Georgia Ports Authority has done an outstanding job of attracting business to the State, resulting in increased revenues for Georgia. Thanks to the job the GPA has done, Georgia ports are now the fastest growing ports in the United States."

There have been some lessons learned as burton + BURTON has grown and manufactured more goods overseas, and in China specifically. Consider this comment from Mr. Burton:

"There are significant challenges. Obviously there is the distance. There’s no such thing as a 'I need it tomorrow' project when dealing with overseas manufacturers. Most of our products will spend 4-6 weeks 'on the water' just getting to us. This is in addition to the time needed to produce the goods. There is also the time difference. Our working hours in the US are the middle of the night for the Chinese. When it is 8:00 am here, it is 8:00 pm in China. As a result, we rely heavily on e-mail.

"There’s no such thing as just 'going over to China to start-up operations.' Business owners who don’t spend time developing trusted relationships and learning the way Chinese businesses run will likely encounter major problems. Additionally, there is the learning curve associated with US customs and imports. Confusing trade tariffs and products 'stranded' in West Coast ports due to strikes are just two of the potential challenges we deal with."

But the most important lesson of all, according to Mr. Burton, isn't about business.

"Probably the biggest, and most rewarding lesson learned has been that when you put language, political, and cultural differences aside, our international vendors share many of the same goals as we do. We both want our businesses to be successful and to provide for our families and the families of our employees. We value friendship. We want safe places to raise our children, and a comfortable lifestyle. As we travel the world, and sit down with our international partners over dinner, face-to-face, and talk one-on-one, we see that we’re really not so different. The similarities in our overall goals make it easier to do business, despite the cultural and geographic barriers between us."

Wow. As I said, a lot to chew on, and I would encourage you to read the full interview here.

Tifosi Optics

When Joe Earley and his wife Elizabeth founded Tifosi in 2003 to provide an affordable, high-quality sunglass for the cycling market, he knew he'd have to manufacture his product in China.

"For our product category there is no domestic production for sunglasses," says Mr. Earley, who cut his teeth repping a variety of cycling gear and accessories, giving him unique insights into the needs of retailers and cyclists. "Whether they are $200 or $5, they are all made in China -- it really wasn’t that much of a discussion for us."

Today, Mr. Earley's company employs 16 at its Watkinsville headquarters, and is on a steady growth path. According to Mr. Earley, the benefits of manufacturing in China are many -- cost, quality, speed, etc. But there are challenges, especially on the communications side.

"For the most part, you deal with the factory and while the English is not perfect, as long as you are communicating through e-mail, you're okay," he says. "English is the common language for business, but it has gotten easier with Skype, which allows you to talk to them and show them the product at the same time."

According to Mr. Earley, specificity is the key.

"We’ve had products come in and not be what we expected them to be in production. The bottom line is you have to be very detailed when dealing with Asian production. Every little thing needs to be spelled out, every finite little detail, with absolutely no room for interpretation, especially from an artistic standpoint. The look and cosmetics of things is critical for our product and the judgment of our partners is not the same as an American consumer’s judgment. You can’t leave anything up to chance when specifying things."

Okay, so how does all this benefit Athens? Well, the bottom line is we have two global consumer and business products quietly headquartered in our community. While we might not get the manufacturing jobs we used to, it is doubtful whether we would have these headquarters at all without their ability to compete on a global scale -- there is no way to do that when you are mass producing goods in America that could be produced overseas. Both of these businesses return significant tax dollars and provide top quality jobs for people up and down the economic ladder in the region, from marketing, to administrative, to logistics, to executive level positions. The ripple effects of global consumer and business to business companies like Tifosi and burton + BURTON are enormous and will continue to grow -- as long as their headquarters stay here in the Athens area.

Be sure you read the full interviews with Mr. Earley and Mr. and Mrs. Burton, and stay tuned for future stories where we inquire about the American products the Chinese are using, the UGA-China relationship, what the future holds in terms of Athens-China and whatever else comes up as The Inbox researches this topic.

Many thanks to those who assisted with our research for this post, and please comment or e-mail to let us know if you know of other Athens-China connections, or have ideas on where this might go.