Three Ohio University students biking on Athens’ Hockhocking Adena Bikeway (photo by Michelle Waters)
Ohio Life | Best Hometowns

Best Hometowns 2022: Athens

This college town in southeast Ohio thrives with a welcoming atmosphere, appreciation of the arts and inspiring community collaboration.

The burst of color inside Passion Works Studio immediately evokes a cheerful spirit, made only more so by the pleasant greetings from artists at work. Vibrant paintings cover the walls, and various sizes of Passion Flowers are displayed throughout the space.

The colorful, three-dimensional metal flowers are the signature of this collaborative community arts center that is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2023. The works are made using upcycled aluminum printing plates from the Athens Messenger that are first cleaned and painted by women who are in active recovery from addiction. Then, the artists at Passion Works add their own creative flair before the petal shapes are cut out and assembled — each made in the same color palette and shape, yet completely individual.

“Each one celebrates the spirit of the makers,” says Passion Works Studio founder and executive director Patty Mitchell. “We’ve made over 35,000 of those flowers.”

The nonprofit studio provides independence and creative employment opportunities for people with developmental differences, with a core group of 32 working artists and 10 additional staff members. In addition to crafting the flowers, sculptural pieces and murals, Passion Works Studio is deeply integrated into the Athens community, from decorating the Nelsonville Music Festival to working with students at Ohio University.

“At Passion Works, we say all the time we want to make visible the spirit of Athens,” Mitchell says. “Whether it’s music or visual art or dance, there’s a space to do it here.”
      Artists working inside Passion Works Studio in Athens (photo by Michelle Waters)

Passion Works Studio in downtown Athens is known for the Passion Flower — a vibrant, upcycled piece of art. (photo by Michelle Waters)

That spirit means encouragement and mentoring rather than competition. That’s especially true in the arts, which are intrinsic to the local culture. This easygoing town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains fosters a creative spirit, and a vibrant community of musicians, artists and makers call it home.

Since it was established in 1804, Ohio University has shaped Athens. With an enrollment of about 19,000, which is reflected in the city’s population of nearly 24,000, there is a strong connection between campus and community.

Among the benefits for locals is access to the college’s performing arts series and the Kennedy Museum of Art. Events throughout the year, such as the Athens International Film + Video Festival, Ohio Brew Week and the Athens Community Arts & Music Festival, bring residents and students together. The city’s Uptown area offers live music, and a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area runs from May through August.

“It’s been pretty intentional with making sure we are recognizing and embracing each other,” says Mayor Steve Patterson.
      Downtown Athens courthouse and brick street (photo by Michelle Waters)

Athens’ Court Street is home to its courthouse, as well as many popular restaurants, like Bagel Street Deli and Big Mamma’s Burritos. (photo by Michelle Waters)

A number of recent municipal projects have improved life in the city. One example is the Richland Avenue Pedestrian Passageway. The $3 million project, which was made possible through joint financing and cooperation between the city and university, elevated the road to create a safer passage for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross Richland Avenue, a vital gateway into Athens that passes through the west side of campus.

“It completely deconflicts it, so traffic can continue to roll up town on Richland Avenue, and pedestrian traffic doesn’t have to worry about trying to cross over a busy city artery,” Patterson explains.

The ongoing construction of the Baileys Trail System is an exciting development for Athens County, with 31 miles already open. Once complete, it will offer 88 miles of premier mountain-bike trails. The Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, which stretches from Athens to Nelsonville, provides 22 miles of flat, paved trails.

Another big project coming to fruition is Marietta’s Memorial Healthcare System’s construction of a four-story emergency room hospital, which will bring 160 additional jobs to the area. While Ohio University is still the top employer in the city of Athens, others include Quidel Corporation (a manufacturer of diagnostic healthcare products), OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital, Athens City School District, Kroger, Walmart and even Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery, which employs 110.
      Tap handles at Jackie O’s and and local honey for sale at Athens Bread Co. (photo by Michelle Waters)

Tap handles at Jackie O’s and and local honey for sale at Athens Bread Co. (photo by Michelle Waters)

After opening its original Uptown brewpub in 2005 (originally known as O’Hooley’s), Jackie O’s added the adjacent Public House restaurant in 2009. In 2013, the Taproom and Brewery opened, massively expanding production and distribution. (The brewery is a recognizable presence on the Ohio craft beer scene.)

In 2010, Jackie O’s founder and president Art Oestrike bought a farm to grow some of the produce used at his businesses. The farm’s offerings range from asparagus, leafy greens and tomatoes to peaches, pears and pawpaws. As the home of the Athens County Area Beekeepers Association, the farm also has 12 honey-producing hives.

“All our food is made from scratch, and we utilize local providers as much as possible,” Oestrike explains. “It’s a lifestyle. We’ve been doing it for more than 10 years.”

The brewery’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond food, as well. There are 298 solar panels on the roof of the taproom, providing about 40% of the business’s electricity demands. This fall, Jackie O’s made the switch from using recycled plastic rings for its six-packs to a new option that is biodegradable and compostable.
      Bartender making cocktail at Athens’ West End Ciderhouse (photo by Michelle Waters)

A bartender makes a cocktail at West End Ciderhouse. (photo by Michelle Waters)

Embracing sustainability and the local-foods movement is a way of life in Athens. There is unwavering community support for the Athens Farmers Market, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Natural, organic and regionally produced goods can be found at the city’s independent grocers, The Farmacy and Kindred Market (where a board next to the door reads, “We are currently stocking 671 local products and counting”).

A favorite eatery for residents and students alike, Casa Nueva has focused on fresh, seasonal ingredients from local purveyors in its Mexican-inspired fare since 1985. Village Bakery & Cafe is a pioneer in green business practices. Fluff Bakery supports local farmers, businesses and nonprofits. Athens Bread Co. adopts sustainable baking practices, reduces waste and donates extra loaves and pastries to Athens Food Rescue. And that’s just a sampling of the altruistic spirit found in this beloved small town.

“We support local at all turns as much as possible, because we are all here together,” says Oestrike. “Athens feels very strongly about supporting our neighbors.”

More Best Hometowns 2022:
Athens | Bellefontaine | Kent | Perrysburg | Versailles