Efforts to make Athens more attractive to visitors and more engaging for its residents are gaining speed, and Katie Birk wants to be a part of it.
Birk joined the city in February as tourism and cultural resources coordinator.
“This town is coming back to life with its downtown facade program, the Texan being revitalized and now there's life after dark,” she said. “There's live music and its cultural roots are returning. That's what excited me to come to work for Athens.”
Birk grew up north of Chicago and attended Iowa State University, where she received a degree in animal ecology with an emphasis on wildlife care.
That was a skill she used at Black Beauty Ranch for six years.
“That was one of my first passions — the love of animals”
At college, she also studied architecture, which is valuable on her current job.
“That's where my interest in historic buildings kind of came from,” Birk said.
Birk left Black Beauty Ranch to become executive director for the Ben Wheeler Arts and Historic District Foundation, which was similar to a chamber of commerce for the unincorporated Van Zandt County town.
Brooks Gremmels revitalized the community several few years ago.
Gremmels, who died in 2014, created art galleries and shops and two restaurants where live music was played, and a library.
“He was the start of it all,” Birk said. “Up until he passed away, he was the moving force for Ben Wheeler. It just kind of kept its momentum after he passed. They have their quirky events like the hog festival and bar stool races.”
Birk's job had many responsibilities, among those serving as tourism coordinator for the town.
“There were a lot of different jobs, but it was fun,” she said.
Ben Wheeler was a nice transition from animal care to the type of work she's doing now.
She became interested in the Athens job when she saw the opening on Facebook.
“I've lived in Athens for about seven years,” Birk said. “And the job offered other challenges I haven't had before — one being in a government position. This is my first time I've actually worked for a city.”
She also likes that Athens has a downtown facade program.
“I feel like I've lived in this town for several years and have kind of watched it come back.”
And there's no such thing as a typical day on the job, Birk said.
“One day, I may not have that many meetings, so I kind of work on behind-the-scenes stuff, advertising campaigns, business plans or booking talent for the Texan,” Birk said. “But a lot of times I could come into the day with a blank slate and it could be filled by noon.”
She's helping work on a business plan for the Texan to be presented to the council.
“We do want to make it into more of a community space,” Birk said. “My personal goal, and I think (City Manager) Elizabeth (Borstad) shares this with me, is we want to have a concert every month, with two of those being big ones.”
Birk replaces Adrianna Hinds, who was in that position for less than three years.