ATHENS — It was a shivering February morning, but several dozen Athens residents and city leaders braved the wintry weather to kick off the renovation of the Athens Farmers’ Market, and the expansion of Doug Gates Park, named for the late city councilman.
Athens Farmers’ Market at Doug Gates Park is on west Green Street, near the heart of downtown Athens. The site had been a farm site for more than 100 years with a cotton gin built in the 1920s.
Initiated by Athens Main Street, renovations on the market pavilion are expected to be finished by May for the beginning of the market season. However, construction will continue in Doug Gates Park over the next 24 months.
The historical site was highlighted in the city’s 2040 comprehensive master plan, as an asset to be expanded and updated.
“And we intend to keep it that way,” said Tere Richardson, executive director of Athens Main Street.
“The Athens Farmers’ Market has seen unprecedented growth in the past five years, and I believe it is because we are a certified farmer’s market, meaning everything sold in the market is grown locally; all of the prepared foods are prepared locally; and all of the artisan vendors handmake everything they sell locally.”
Richardson was accompanied at the ceremony by Gates’ widow Betsy and their family; Limestone County Commission Chair Collin Daly; Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks; Athens Main Street Board member Shane Black; and Assistant State Coordinator for Main Street Alabama Trisha Black.
Black posthumously awarded Gates with the Main Street Hero award. The award recognizes one community leader, public figure or organization who has made an outstanding contribution to the local Main Street organization throughout the year.
“We have great plans to not only beautify Doug Gates Park, but to take Town Creek and beautify it all the way through,” said Marks. “We have great vision and great energy. Thank you Tere, for honoring Doug by naming the park after him.”
The newly renovated farmer’s market will be more than a dedication to Gates’ memory. The new park surrounding it is indicative of the legacy he leaves behind for Athens.
“Doug had a vision of downtown Athens becoming a bustling, thriving, fun place to eat, work, shop, and play, and he worked for years to make it happen,” Richardson said. “I think the best way to honor his memory is by naming a park after him, a park that fosters small business.
“The Athens Main Street Board recognizes the importance of revitalizing historic properties, and none more than Doug Gates. We felt this project would reflect Doug’s passion for downtown which included renovating historic properties, fostering small businesses, and improving parks and trails, all in support of Athens Main Street’s corporate mission.”
Construction on the renovation has begun and Richardson set expectations for Phase I of the project.
“Phase I involves improving the farmers’ market experience by refurbishing the main structure, demolishing the old restrooms and office, and opening the structure up to add capacity, replace the current roof with a painted metal roof; add siding and new vendor tables, and hang Edison string lights down the entire length of the pavilion to create a festive atmosphere,” said Richardson.
Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area granted Athens Main Street the money for the roof.
Athens Main Street has raised more than $78,000 for the renovation but there is still a long way to go.
“Our merchants alley project was 95% funded privately with grassroots support,” said Richardson. “We expect this project to be much the same. We currently have 80 private donors who have contribute to this project in the quiet phase.”
She said the Limestone County Commission built accessible bathrooms, upgraded the electrical in the pavilion, “and all vendor stalls now have fans…”
Richardson hesitated as she looked out at the crowd bundled in their heaviest coats, scarves and gloves. “… As you know, during the dogdays of August, those fans are going be wonderful!”
There will be improvement to the landscaping with trees and indigenous plants; they will fix the existing drainage and elevation issues and make the park grounds more walkable, she said.
“The marquee addition to the new venue is the new Cast Products Entertainment Pavilion,” said Richardson. “That will be a triangular structure built across from the market that will increase the capacity for musical groups and other events including room for a children’s area located in a shaded spot with bright colors and comfortable furniture.”
An entry plaza and walkway connect the pavilion with parking, lined by a donor wall constructed of honeycombs that will capture light and display donor names alongside a biography of Gates.
‘’Art will be an important component of the project,” said Richardson. “The grounds will have three murals. The first will represent honeybees to complement the honeycomb donor wall.
“The second is a word mural. Next market season, the farmers’ market will have a youth market at which time young people will be asked to use descriptive words to describe their experience at the market and park. Those words will be made into a mural.”
The third mural, she said, will be a collaboration with Alabama Real Estate Solutions and will incorporate bright, vibrant colors and farmer’s market icons to welcome people to the park.
Commissioning a muralist for the first of the three murals to be featured at the market and park is next on the agenda.
“All these improvements will accomplish two things,” said Richardson. “They will enhance the farmer’s market experience and attract other organizations to utilize the asset for a wide range of farm-to-table and community events.
“This is our vision. Downtown Athens is the heart and soul of Limestone County and the city.”