Project Plant Co-Founder Leaving Athens More Beautiful Than Ever

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When the city looked "like nothing was going to happen" and needed a facelift, in came Project Plant. 

For the past 30 years, Project Plant, co-founded by Alvi McWilliams, has helped to bring life to the City of Athens. Now 45 years after coming to Athens, McWilliams has decided its time to return home and perhaps continue the work in Portland, Oregon.

Sitting down with the Messenger, McWilliams recalled the bustling university town that was growing fast when she, along with her husband, moved to the area in 1969. 

Not too long after there were some changes, not necessarily for the better noted McWilliams. Fires in the downtown area caused buildings to be taken down, covering the spaces with wooden fences that became the target of graffiti. 

In 1984, there were "three pits" on Court St. where businesses had once stood and according to McWilliams it looked as though nothing was going to happen in the area with the economy down. 

That is when McWilliams and a few others in Athens founded Project Plant. 

Through the beautification process — which focused initially on the downtown business district on Court Street — expanded to the entryways to the city and featured colorful flowers and landscaping that have welcomed visitors and residents alike into the city. 

"It was a way to boost the spirit of the place and send a message that the people of Athens really cared about the town," said McWilliams.

The group's mission was "to revitalize the central business district and improve civic and economic vitality." Starting with 16 flower baskets on Court Street made by the industrial technology class at Athens High School, the group did just that. 

Throughout the years, Beacon School and and others have helped the group with planting and installation. Grant funds and donations sustain the project, helping to pay for materials and contracts that help care for and maintain the multiple gardens. Financial support is raised in part through a newsletter sent out each year to residents of the city. 

Today, Project Plant plants and maintains gardens at many spots throughout the city including the most visible flagship garden in the traffic island near Bob Evans on East State Street. 

In addition, the group cares for the garden at the Athens County Visitors Bureau and the Athens Library, as well as the entry ways to the city along Columbus Road and Route 682 among other areas. 

It has not always been smooth sailing as McWilliams recounted some of the unique challenges that come along with having gardens in the middle of busy streets. From trucks running through the garden along East State Street to the rabbit who made its home on the traffic island, the group has seen a little of everything including a marijuana plant growing in one garden several years back.

McWilliams has also served the city as a member of the Shade Tree Commission for a number of years, helping the city to receive the designation of being a "Tree City" for the past 24 years. 

"It's been a pleasure, adventure and education," said McWilliams of her 30 years with Project Plant. "I've met wonderful people. It's a great way to learn about the city and the people in the city."

"It leads to communicating by plants, with a network of gardeners sharing plants and advice. We are all playing in the beautiful garden of Athens," she added. 

Returning to her hometown, McWilliams hopes to in time become involved in volunteer work at a park near where she will live as well as the local library — and of course do a little gardening. 

Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl recognized the contributions of McWilliams earlier this week, proclaiming July 14 as Alvi McWilliams Day. 

"It was a real honor," said McWilliams of the recognition by the mayor. 

"We are going to miss you," said Wiehl, adding that the work of McWilliams had added social and community value to the city.