Awesome Towns for Entrepreneurs: A Spotlight on Athens, GA

Allow Athens, Georgia to re-introduce themselves. Cradled in the bucolic foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Athens is home to everyone from the University of Georgia to R.E.M. and the B-52s.

With a small-town feel and plenty of heart, “the Classic City” is rooted in history while providing a thrilling place for new businesses to flourish. Ranked sixth in the nation for most jobs added (USA Today), Athens saw an increase of 4,632 jobs in 2017 alone. The newest company to bring jobs is Wayfair, the online home goods retailer which added 500 positions to the region.

The city is also home to major advanced materials manufacturing and biotech companies, including Accurus Aerospace, Caterpillar, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, as well as a growing number of technology startups.

Restored Victorian mansions dot the city’s prolific downtown, and Athens boasts a whopping 15 designated historic districts on the local registry. On top of that, downtown Athens has everything from hip rooftop bars to nationally recognized restaurants including 2019 James Beard semi-finalists, The National and Five & Ten.

No stranger to a good time, Athens has six award-winning breweries and over a dozen live music venues, such as the world famous Georgia Theatre. Originally bought by the YMCA of Athens in 1889, the theatre was the home of the University of Georgia Bulldogs basketball team, the Masonic Temple Association of Athens, and a local furniture store, until it was finally converted to a music venue in 1977. Since then, the Black Lips, Dave Matthews Band, Beck, and the Police are some of the many bands that have graced the stage.

It’s impossible to mention Athens without the celebrated University of Georgia. Ranked as the second greatest college football town in the country by Sports Illustrated (2019), the Georgia Bulldogs are one of the most revered teams in football and everyone in Athens knows it. The University of Georgia is also a highly regarded public research institute, ranking in the top twenty of public universities and in the top fifty national universities (U.S. News & World Report). With such a renowned university and community that prides itself on innovation, it’s no surprise that Athens is considered one of the best college towns for startups in the country.

Simply put, Athens has it all. From their trendy food and music scene to the stunning foothills that surround the town, Athens is the place for anyone who wants to build a new and exciting business.

Why Athens, Georgia (GA)?

Community partnerships are the foundation of Athens’ approach to economic development. There are dozens of partnerships, incubators, and civic programs dedicated to helping new and established businesses thrive. Plus, the Athens business and civic community excels at making big, bold ideas shine—maybe you’ve heard of the 1996 Summer Olympics?

  • Startup City – Athens saw a 55 percent increase in business license applications in the last five years. Their talent pipeline is fed by the four colleges that call Athens home, including the University of Georgia.
  • Affordable Living – It’s not just during the summertime; the living is easy in Athens all year-round. The cost of living in Athens is almost 15 percent below the national average and home prices are over $10,000 less than the statewide average.
  • Cultural Destination – A cultural destination of the south, Athens has hundreds of bars and restaurants, a rich live music scene, swanky art galleries, and more.
  • Brilliant Workforce – Almost half of residents in Athens hold at least a bachelor’s degree (U.S. News & World Report 2019), making it one of the most educated towns in America.
  • Unique Public-Private Partnerships – The University of Georgia was the number one producer of new products among all universities, with over fifty new products developed in 2017. The University’s Innovation Gateway works to commercialize this research and has resulted in over 175 new startups. Three out of four of these startups stay in Georgia, with many choosing to invest in Athens.
  • Lifelong Living – Athens was named the best place to retire by Forbes (2019). With access to big cities like Atlanta, beautiful museums and gardens, senior-oriented classes and educational experiences, and temperate weather, Athens is a place to put down lifelong roots.

Five Businesses to Watch in Athens, Georgia

Creature Comforts Brewing Company

Rated as one of the best new breweries of 2016 by USA Today, Creature Comforts Brewing Company resides in a 13,000 square foot historic warehouse in downtown Athens. Eagle-eyed viewers can catch a glimpse of their pilsner in Avengers: Endgame.

  • Founders: Chris Herron, Adam Beauchamp, and David Stein
  • The story: Two University of Georgia graduates come back to Athens to renovate a former Chevy dealership-cum-Snow Tire Company-cum vacant historic warehouse into an award-winning brewery. As if a major historic renovation and national recognition wasn’t enough, Creature Comforts is also known for their robust community partnerships with local arts nonprofits, hosting the Athens Farmers’ Market, and providing an exceptional employee benefit program, not to mention their dynamic approach to sustainability.

Bear Hug Honey Company

Bear Hug Honey Company provides honey and beeswax products to customers in Athens and across the country. With an in-house “honey bar” offering both raw and infused honey, Bear Hug Honey Company provides customers the opportunity to taste and learn more about the world’s most popular pollinators and their products.

  • Founder: Sam Johnson
  • The story: Founder Sam Johnson discovered his love for honey and honeybees when he started volunteering at farmers markets in 2006. After graduating with a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Georgia, Johnson moved to Savannah to work for Savannah Bee Company. Fast-forward ten years to 2017, when Bear Hug Honey Company was open for business in downtown Athens.

burton + BURTON

The nation’s leading supplier of wholesale party and floral supplies, gift baskets, and balloons, burton + BURTON was founded in 1982 by a husband and wife duo with a big idea. Customers can choose from pre-designed gifts and supplies or place their own design.

  • Founders: Maxine Burton and Robert Burton
  • The story: Maxine Burton had a brilliant idea, and it had everything to do with balloons. It was 1982, and she was working in the back room of the wholesale florist distributor co-owned by her husband, Robert Burton. Customers were calling Flowers, Inc. Wholesale to inquire about silver foil balloons, a relatively new invention that those outside of the balloon industry refer to as “mylar”. These balloons were dynamic; the material allowed for messages or designs to be imprinted on them. This small realization sparked an idea that would change the floral industry forever. She soon founded Flowers, Inc. Balloons, which would go on to become burton + BURTON—one of the top gift and supply wholesalers in the world.

ArunA Bio

Raising $5.3 million from angel investors in 2018, ArunA Bio is starting the next chapter of their cutting edge approach to biotechnology. One of the first companies to commercialize a product of human-derived pluripotent stem cells, their latest innovation focuses on using naturally occurring biologics known as exosomes to repair diseased cells and treat different neurological disorders.

  • Founder: Dr. Steven Stice
  • The story: Dr. Stice has created several biotechnology startups and was recruited to the University of Georgia by the Georgia Research Alliance. He is an internationally-recognized expert in pluripotent stem cell biology and is a fellow with the National Academy of Inventors. Prior to founding ArunA, Dr. Stice co-founded Advanced Cell Technology, which was one of the first companies to advance to human clinical trials using pluripotent stem cells.

Kindercore Vinyl Pressing

As one of only twenty vinyl record pressing plants in the country, Kindercore Vinyl Pressing pays homage to the rich music history of Athens and the Kindercore record label. Their vinyl records are unique for using a plant-based material, as opposed to PVC, and providing a revolutionary sustainable approach to vinyl pressing.

  • Founders: Ryan Lewis, Cash Carter, and Dan Geller
  • The story: The founders of Kindercore Records, Ryan Lewis and Dan Geller, are stalwarts of the Athens indie music scene. The invention of cassettes and CDs purportedly was the death knell for vinyl; Kindercore’s first cassette compilation, released in 1996, sold out in just a week. Yet vinyl managed to survive with sales in 2018 reaching the highest level since 1988 and finally outselling all other forms in 2019. Vinyl’s resurgence in recent years has shown that it’s superior sound quality has outlasted both the CD and cassette. However, few pressing plants survived those intervening years and starting up such an endeavor requires a tenacity that only few possess.

Lewis met Carter, introduced him to Geller, and the three hatched a plan. It took two years to find the investment needed to purchase equipment and open the plant. The hook was an opportunity to test a plant-based material for records, as opposed to the usual PVC. In 2017, Kindercore Vinyl pressed their first record and the rest, as they say, is Athens music history.

Local Resources for Entrepreneurs

The future’s looking bright in Athens, so it’s no wonder that new businesses are moving there every day. With a perfect mix of southern charm and bold ideas, Athens is a livable and affordable city that has access to cutting-edge research, unparalleled music and food, and a passionate community. For entrepreneurs looking to be a part of something special, take a look at some of the community partnerships and opportunities below.

  • University of Georgia Small Business Development Center (SBDC) – Run by the University of Georgia, the Small Business Development Center is available to new and experienced entrepreneurs seeking resources and business training across a variety of topics.
  • Athens Area Chamber of Commerce – The Athens Area Chamber of Commerce provides support to local businesses through advocacy, policy, developing community partnerships, and providing additional training and resources. Some of the many networking opportunities they host are Women in Business, the Small Business Breakfast Club, Pancakes and Policy, and Business After Hours.
  • Georgia Department of Economic Development – The State of Georgia has an agency dedicated to economic development and is the one-stop shop for resources related to state tax credits or minority-owned businesses. The agency also maintains a list of incubators and university research connections to encourage competitive and innovative partnerships.
  • Athens Downtown Development Authority – With a focus on Athens’ downtown business district, the Athens Downtown Development Authority provides grants and micro-loans to key businesses.
Bree Nicolello
Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron pans.

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