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Shops, music programs hold ground in troubled economy

Local students returning to school this month, likely mean more customers for the area's music shops, at a time when increased patronage would certainly be welcomed.

The shops, and the school music programs they serve, have managed to hold on despite the troubled economy, and the challenges.

Attina's Music Store in McDonough has seen a steady flow of customers this month, according to Zack Zimmerman, an assistant manager at the store. The crowds are thinner, though, than they have been in years past, he said, pointing to the down-turn in the economy as a major culprit, affecting area businesses and school music programs.

School music programs throughout the Southern Crescent have been subjected to funding cuts, as local school boards take sometimes unpopular steps to reduce their budgets, in order to fill gaps in lost revenues.

"It's unfortunate for students, because music is very mentally stimulating," said Zimmerman. "You're kind of taking away some of the culture involved in playing music. It's fun, too. It's almost like taking away recess — at least, in my eyes."

This time of year is a crucial period for music shops, according to Steve Geis, owner of Whole Note Music Store in Stockbridge.

"The months of August and September, we do more then, than we do in November and December," said Geis, who has operated in Henry County for the past eight years.

The music shop owner said about a third of his business deals with school bands. Another third comes from music lessons, while other business stems from non-student clientele.

Geis said he regularly hears discussions on the defunding of school music programs to make up for school budget deficits. "There's always some gossip about what they're going to do to the fine arts," he said. "But as long as there's enough support for the fine arts, music programs should be OK in schools. A culture that has no fine arts is going to perish ..."

The Henry County School System has managed to keep its music programs going, but not without some concessions. Eleven music positions were eliminated from the school system's $284.3 million budget this year, according to Tony Pickett, Henry's executive assistant to the Office of the Superintendent.

Pickett said the individuals affected by the change were absorbed into other positions within the school system. He said K-12 fine arts requirements prescribed by the Georgia Performance Standards curriculum are still being met, despite the change.

"Currently, we have a total of 29 elementary teachers for music and art," Pickett said. "Elementary schools are paired for art and music instruction. They rotate music or art on a weekly schedule — art one week, music the next week."

There have been no significant changes to middle or high school fine arts programs, although school organizations are being asked to supplement the cost for extracurricular transportation at $3 per mile, according to Pickett. "Decisions regarding field trips for band competitions and football games are made at the school level," he said.

Clayton County Public Schools, operating with a $505.8 million budget this year, also has had to reduce funding to its music programs, according to Clayton County Public Schools Spokesman Charles White.

Due to revenue constraints, the overall operating budget for all music programs has been reduced, said White, adding that the reduction mirrors reductions for programs throughout the school system.

"Fine arts teachers and staff are working with what has been provided to make it work — to provide a complete education for the children of Clayton County," said White. He said the school system has not had to cut positions from its music programs, and still offers regular transportation to band competitions and football games.

The continuation of school music programs, though it benefits students most, has provided area music shops with more confidence in their businesses, said John Attina, owner of Attina's Music Store, Inc.

Attina, who has store locations in McDonough, Newnan, and Fayetteville, said his family-owned business has survived more than 40 years of economic ups and downs. He said his parents, Dominic and Mary Attina, opened their first music store in Forest Park, in 1966.

"In the 70s, I can remember being the last real rough time for us," Attina said. "Of course, the [present-day] economy has hurt all of us. It definitely hasn't been as great the last two or three years."

Attina noted that, unlike his parents, his business also has to compete with Internet businesses that promise the product without the one-on-one service. He said the largest potential dilemma for his business, though, is how the economy has affected his customers.

"People are, with good reason, making sure they're going to be OK [financially] first," he said.

Attina is optimistic that music will survive the economic recession, and students will still find an interest in learning and playing musical instruments as nearly half of his business currently stems from school music programs. He said about 90 percent of his business comes from "beginners" in the world of music.

"School band and orchestra is what built our company. That was my father's thrust," he continued. "We like to see kids get their start in the world of music. And people need advise and information about the music and the instruments. I think that's a lot of the reason we're still around."