ATHENS — There’s a vibe that prompted Rodney Cottingham to open a restaurant on U.S. 72.
“Athens has a small-town feel,” Cottingham said after his restaurant opened Nov. 12. “People are so friendly. I like it.”
Cottonjohns, a burgers, chicken fingers and fries eatery, is the latest in a rash of new locally owned restaurants opening in the city. Nearby neighbor Picasso’s opened a month ago in the location near Starbucks where Burrito Express was so successful. Burrito Express moved west down the highway to a bigger location across from Wal-Mart.
Los Trojas is the most experienced newcomer, opening three months ago in the Publix Shopping Center.
Owner Milson Perez hopes to open New Texas Pizza Buffet in about a week on South Jefferson Street just off the courthouse square, another of Athens’ growing areas.
Jennifer Williamson, president of the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce, said she has seen an increased interest from potential restaurant and retail developers.
She was unable to say how much interest or who is showing interest.
Mayor Ronnie Marks said he believes the surge of new locally owned restaurants could be the beginning of major growth in restaurants and retail similar to one recently experienced in Decatur.
The city’s crossroads of U.S. 72 and Interstate 65 is particular attractive.
The area has exploded in recent years because restaurants don’t have to depend solely on local residents.
“U.S. 72 is the perfect location because of the traffic flow,” Cottingham said.
Perez is opening New Texas in a location where he most recently closed a Mexican restaurant.
He said the Mexican restaurants had too much competition in the city, while he believes a pizza buffet offers residents something different.
When Matt and Michelle Crawford returned from Charlotte, N.C., to north Alabama, they had their choices of locations for Picasso’s. He chose Athens because of its possibilities. He sees the overflow of growth from the Madison-Huntsville area taking hold in Athens.
“Athens is in the realm of progression that it’s beginning to grow so much and attract new businesses,” Crawford said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
Crawford said he saw a chance to get in early on that projected growth and provide an American grill in casual fine dining that isn’t available in Athens.
The city is so new to selling alcohol, approved in 2003, that there are lots of restaurant opportunities, he said.
“We’ve had great response,” Crawford said. “Athens needs something like this.”
These new owners pick uncertain times to open a restaurant, which Crawford said costs at least $60,000 to $80,000. The Associated Press reported recently that key sales trends are starting to slow in the quick-service restaurant industry.
Analyst Paul Westra told AP that restaurant revenue from stores open at least a year fell in October by his firm’s measure, which demonstrates several months of slowing performance. He expects this measure will fall again in the coming months and that kind of slowdown matches what happened in 2007 that later proved to be a harbinger of the U.S. recession.
“We reiterate our view that the U.S. economy is likely already in a recession,” Westra said.
Crawford and Cottingham said Athens’ growth potential made it worth risking a new business despite the nation’s shaky economy. Crawford said north Alabama hasn’t been hurt as much economically as the rest of the country.
Perez said he is not worried about the economy because he believes he is offering a different menu that residents want.
Cottingham, who is from Decatur, said Athens officials were cooperative and helpful in the start-up of his business. He is hoping to eventually open another restaurant in Decatur.
Crawford said the biggest thing city officials could do to help his business is recruit more retail businesses that would keep residents from leaving Athens and going to Madison, Huntsville or Decatur to shop and eat.
“Leakage is an issue we are trying to address,” Williamson said. “We need to make sure we have the retail, groceries and gas that people want.”
Marks, who took over as mayor two years ago when Dan Williams was elected to the state Legislature, said economic development is a major priority as he begins his first elected term in office.
He sees a city with lot of room for growth.
The city has two Interstate 65 exits, one at U.S. 72 and another one newly built at Tanner, with great economic potential.
The north end of the city off U.S. 31 has vast areas of undeveloped property. The downtown area is also undergoing a revitalization.
“We could easily double our population to 40,000 without any change to our borders,” Marks said.
Marks said he is forming several committees with the chamber and Spirit of Athens, a group focused on downtown, to work on retail development.
Retail and restaurant growth is necessary if the city’s quality of life is to continue to improve, he said.
“We need to decide what our retail needs are,” Marks said. “Do we need a sporting goods store or a men’s store? We don’t want to take away from our existing businesses, but we do need more development.”
Crawford said he would like to see a mall and a clothing store like T.J. Maxx.
Marks said there are also opportunities for restaurants.
He would like to have a second steak restaurant and an Italian restaurant.