Sunday, December 16, 2007

Natural Resources

Over the weekend, I was struck by the similarities between our energy situation on a national level and our water situation on a state level. Consider this:

  • Both water and oil are in short supply right now, causing politicians and others to advocate all sorts of silly solutions. On one side are the conservers, who focus only on using less of said resource. Using more will harm the environment. On the other side are the suppliers, who want more at all costs, and are willing to do anything to bring more that resource to the economy.
  • Our economy, at least in Georgia, will not run without ample supplies of both. Everything, from our farms to our factories to our electricity depends on oil and water.
  • Others will fight for them. Alabama and Florida are fighting us in court for water. All kinds of countries will fight for oil and energy, and these skirmishes will get worse in the future as prices go up and industrialization proceeds in other nations.
  • We ignore our dependency until forced not to. We then hem and haw about fixing "it," but then either the drought breaks or costs go down and we ignore it.
While oil and water repel each other when combined, the similarities to our debates about their use and their impact on our economy are remarkable.

Frankly, we use way too much of both. But my broader point in this post is that a strategy that advocates only one approach (for example, conservation and not more exploration) won't cut it in either case. We need to store more water. We need more reservoirs. We also need to use a lot less. Same for oil. In fact, I believe the one of the two greatest threats to our country is our lack of energy independence. We need to prepare for the future, and take our medicine in small doses by becoming less reliant on oil, or someday someone will force us to take the whole dose, and it will be very painful for our economy.

Georgia is in a similar situation with water, and has been for a long time according to today's AJC, which quotes former Oconee County Commission Chair Wendell Dawson. We need to implement a plan now, and it needs to involve more reservoirs. But it also needs to address growth; egregious usage needs to hit people -- including homeowners -- in the pocketbook. We need to mandate low-flow everything and all sorts of water saving strategies. Not because it won't start raining again, but because eventually, there will be another drought. And even if there isn't, Georgia will continue to grow, and we will need the water. And who knows, we might just lose that legal battle with Florida and Alabama. Lets take a little medicine now instead of dealing with the disease down the road.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Demise of High Shoals

In reading Thursday's Oconee Enterprise, I had mixed emotions about the possible dissolution of North High Shoals. In one sense, it is a tiny government operating on less than $100,000 per year. From a larger policy level, a weakness in Georgia is its plethora of local governments who often stumble all over each other and don't cooperate, and prevent things from getting done.

But there is a side of me that fears what could happen to this charming community on the banks of the Apalachee without some degree of local control. With a new elementary school locating nearby, the community is poised for growth. What path will it follow? Do the residents want to have a say in local rezonings and development? Or is their city council worth it given the trouble it seems to find consistently?

Either way, if the contentions of some of the new elected officials are true -- that the community is being dissolved because the current mayor and council are unhappy with election results -- this is the wrong reason. Let the voters choose if they want to be a community any more.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Transportation Ideas

I've had several questions and comments regarding my earlier post on the legislative meeting and transportation needs in the region in particular. The big point is this: Northeast Georgia has major transportation needs, and we can't say that transportation is an "Atlanta problem" and ignore it during the session. Here is my "top 7 list" of transportation ideas that would help Oconee County, Watkinsville, and in some cases the greater region.

1) Upgrade University Parkway (316) to limited access. Without this investment -- sooner rather than later -- an upgrade could become cost prohibitive as land costs increase. Why is this important? Easy, consistent access to Metro Atlanta and Gwinnett is increasingly important to many businesses in our region, especially if we want to recruit businesses who rely on the Atlanta airport or biotech companies that will work closely with researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech. Also, without the upgrade, we run the risk of the highway becoming another version of Highway 78 -- featuring backups at each light and an ugly Snellville-style streetscape that ruins the entry into Athens. If we don't get this road fixed, we all may be looking back wishing we had taken the "toll road" deal years ago rather than sitting in traffic today.

2) Get the train on track. I have long said that Athens to Atlanta is the place to start with commuter rail in Georgia. You have strong two-way traffic at all times of day. Destinations at both ends of the track, and strong stops in between who go to job centers in Atlanta, Gwinnett and Athens. Special events that can support weekend (and weekday) travel. If the Lovejoy line is put in place (the bird in hand approach given the federal funds allotted), I have no doubt it will fail, and probably put the nail in the coffin of commuter rail in Georgia. Commuter rail in this corridor could also partially mitigate the need for an upgraded 316, although both still need to be done.

3) Improve the Epps Bridge "Village" area. Some plans are underway, but this area is crying out for stronger streetscapes, an integrated street grid, and stronger urban planning guidelines. Plans to bridge the loop at Jennings Mill and perhaps from Daniell's Bridge Road to behind Home Depot are important, but to ensure the health of this commercial node long-term we need to bury utility lines, dress up the streetscape, put strong urban planning guidelines in place that ensure quality buildings and signage, and brand the area as a destination. Without strong planning and focus, this area will go through the boom-bust cycle common in many strip retail centers, and we will be looking at empty or recycled storefronts by 2015 as stores leave for the new shopping center down the street. Fiscally, if we can increase the taxes generated from this area rather than spreading development up and down University Parkway, everyone is a winner. Oconee and Clarke also need to consider some joint planning on this area as it spills back across county lines and other development occurs.

4) Continue to invest in our town centers. Downtown Watkinsville, Bogart, Bishop and other small regional communites are logical places to focus transportation dollars and denser housing and structures. These communities -- if they plan and execute correctly -- could become models, and if local counties will cooperate, could become receiving zones for TDRs and/or density bonuses that will help preserve rural land. For this model to work, these communities will need more than wide roads -- they will need sidewalks, bikelanes, and other infrastructure. Watkinsville's recent funding for streetscape is a great example of this kind of investment.

5) Get the train on track part II: The rail line from downtown Athens to Watkinsville is underutilized and could be an incredible resource on many levels. On campus and in Athens, it could be double tracked and serve as an incredible people mover (much of campus is an easy walk from the rail line as it runs along East Campus Road and Milledge) from the Classic Center to Whitehall Forest. Further south, one could add a hike-bike rail trail next to it and you could have an easy bike route or incredible recreational amenity for commuters and others and still allow rail traffic adjacent. Eventually (I know, it is hard to believe now, but look 20 years ahead) commuter rail between Watkinsville and Athens could preclude the need to widen roads like Simonton Bridge, Milledge, etc. which are unique gateways to Watkinsville and Oconee County as they currently sit. There has been considerable excitement about this concept in the past, but one roadblock or another has always emerged. Real estate and rail companies are becoming more sophisticated (see here and here for examples) about the value of rail easements -- we need to secure this corridor (and lease it back to the rail company short term, if need be) sooner rather than later.

6) Get better air service. I was truly excited about the possibility of a regional airport in Barrow County. Unfortunately, it looks like it has been shot down by local opposition and a lack of vision in Atlanta. But the bottom line is that if we want to recruit big business out here, we have to have respectable air service. Right now, you can't get here without a private jet, and even some of them can't land in Athens. A regional passenger airport in Barrow could handle the North Metro market, and serve as a catalyst for accomplishing items 1 and 2 by bringing more federal dollars to this region.

7) Get unified. Our legislators at the state and federal level need to encourage our local leaders to come up with some priorities and go to work for them. I have no doubt Sen. Cowsert, Rep. Smith and U.S. Rep. Broun could deliver some goods, or at least get things started for the region. But without a concerted, focused push from business and government leaders in Barrow, Clarke, and Oconee (as well as the Univeristy), we can't expect our elected leaders to make transportation a priority.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Whatever Happened to the World's Fair (and more)

A few news items and takes from near and far:
  • Whatever happened to Worlds Fairs? Remember them? If you were a kid in the late 1970s/early 1980s, you couldn't miss them, especially when one came south to Knoxville, Tenn. of all places. And who could forget the sunsphere (pictured right), which still stands in Knoxvegas? In my seven year old brain, a World's Fair was somewhat on par with the Olympics, until, well, ummm... I never heard of one again. Until today. Much to my surprise, the World's Fair is still going strong, just overseas. Coke is sponsoring one -- in China. Wikipedia edifies here. Sometimes I love the internet.
  • Unfortunately, World's Fairs and other iconic 70s and 80s events in the South don't usually make "I Love the 80s." Maybe we need a special "I Love the 80s" Southern edition that would also include things like Dukes of Hazzard, airbrushed t-shirts, Fall Guy re-runs, the robotic voices in the trains at the Atlanta airport, Kenny Rogers, junkyard derbies, go carts, the Herschel Walker phenonmenon, the world of Sid and Marty Kroft, the Bo Jackson phenomenon, Power 99.7, etc. What would make your list?
  • The Georgia Club Tour of Homes was a spectacular event. Wonderfully organized. More than 800 in attendance. And some gorgeous homes. Check out this article, which gives a pretty good overview of some of the homes. Personal highlights included some incredible basements (poker tables, media rooms, pool tables, bars galore), millions of dollars of original art, some great UGA football memorabilia, a train set suspended from the ceiling, and a gorgeous courtyard homes.
  • Oconee County is spending $25,000 to replace 39 toilets and 6 urinals with low flow models. That's $555 apiece. Seems a bit pricey to me, although plumbing costs are a bit out of hand these days. Maybe just institute an every-other flush policy?
  • Jim Wooten nails it in this column when it comes to taxes. If Republicans want to tax, just come out and do it. Don't hide behind bait and switch tactics. Don't tag on user fees. Just say what you need the money for and see if the electorate will pay for it.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Is Watkinsville Ready for More Downtown Lofts?

"A ha" moments can happen anywhere. Mine came while I was getting my haircut earlier this week.

The hairdresser lives in a residential neighborhood in Watkinsville, although she works in Athens. She related to me her challenge to find a "cool" apartment that was reasonably affordable ($800 a month), anywhere in Athens or Watkinsville.

We are about to get apartments in Watkinsville -- they will be traditional, garden-style apartments with siding, etc. I'm going to reserve judgment until they are built, but I don't think they are going to hit the best part of the market.

What Watkinsville needs is loft-style residential that is an easy walk from the downtown restaurants and shops. Dan Elder rehabbed an old building and created two loft apartments at 10 Main Street which were quickly leased. With our dining district in full swing, the arts scene at OCAF, the concerts at Ashford Manor, and the Saturday Farmer's Market, we are primed for downtown lofts.

Our new codes allow for residential atop retail all along Main Street, and allow a urban-style, old fashioned product. This could happen in an old building that is rehabbed, or in a new structure made to look old. Either way, I have no doubts that the next person to create this environment is going to find some pent up demand for the product.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Georgia Club Tour of Homes This Weekend

The Georgia Club Foundation is hosting its tour of homes this Sunday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Beneficiaries are many, including several with strong Oconee ties. These include Extra Special People (ESP), Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), Peace Place, Project ADAM, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), Statham Library and The Tree House. Click here for details.

Tickets are available in a variety of locations, including The Georgia Club, Barrow County Chamber, Coldwell Banker Upchurch Realty (Athens), Hamilton Financial (Snellville), Heery’s Too (Athens), North Georgia Bank (Watkinsville), Oconee County Chamber, Sidestreet Boutique (Monroe), The Peoples Bank (Statham and Winder), Total Design Resource (Hoschton), and United Community Bank (Snellville).

Please plan to attend this wonderful event and support the non-profits in our community.

Recap of Friday's Legislative Update

Last Friday I was fortunate enough to attend the Oconee Chamber's legislative update with State Rep. Bob Smith, Sen. Bill Cowsert, and Congressman Paul Broun Jr. It was an interesting session. Cowsert and Smith agreed that water, taxes and transportation would top the list of key issues for the state legislature this year, with both of them also focusing on the MCG/UGA partnership at the Navy School. Surprisingly, both Smith and Cowsert feel like Speaker Glenn Richardson will emerge a "winner" on the GREAT plan whether it passes or not. I disagree, but won't belabor the points I have made in earlier posts.

The most pointed discussion came when school board members David Weeks, David Williams and Chris Franklin challenged Sen. Cowsert to return austerity cuts to the schools and updated them on the situation in our local schools, where they are fighting hard to maintain the level of excellence the community expects. Sen. Cowsert made some solid points of his own about funding growth.

The one issue that was underplayed when it came up was transportation. Sen. Cowsert called this an "Atlanta problem." It's not. Its a growth problem, and all growing communities in the state need help with transportation dollars and strategies. And while Atlanta does have its issues, I would contend that a healthy Atlanta is absolutely critical for the health of this region, and most of the rest of the state. My wish list: more aggressive local funding for sidewalks and repaving, an upgraded 316 (or at least a long-term plan for doing so), improved air transportation options, and commuter rail from Athens to Atlanta. The last three of these could be economic engines for this region. This is also an issue where Rep. Broun can help us, but he did not address it.

Overall, these dialogues are very positive and important for the community, and it was great that Oconee hosted one.

Also, on a matter related to my previous post, the Athens paper also shares the news about Watkinsville's streetscape funds here.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Watkinsville Gets Funds for Streetscape II

We received official word today that Watkinsville has been awarded $442,000 to extend its streetscape project towards OCAF, Rocket Field and the Board of Education and along Highway 15. This new effort will likely include new street trees, landscaping, street lamps, and sidewalks in these areas. Along Highway 15, the improvements will run from Barnett Shoals Rd. to Depot Street (in front of Krimson, Athens Seed, etc.)

This is huge news for our little city, as the funds are equal to roughly 1/3 of our annual budget. As visitors to Watkinsville know, our last round of streetscape improvements -- completed last spring -- made a tremendous impact on the beauty and walkability of the city, and were on full display at Saturday's highly successful Christmas Parade. The map below shows the completed Phase I area and what is proposed for phase II.

Most of these funds are federal dollars (distributed by the state) that require a match from the city. Many thanks to State Rep. Bob Smith and State Sen. Bill Cowsert for their support and tireless advocacy on our behalf. Thanks also to the Jaeger Co. for their technical assistance on the plans, and for the images shared here.

Before and after renderings of Rocket Field are followed by similar renderings showing the area in front of the Krimson Cafe. These will be very nice changes for these areas.

Athens and UGA also got $440,000 for the extension of the Greenway. This is exciting news, as an extended Greenway will do nothing but increase use, especially with a closer link to the residential areas of campus. I run with a group of guys who enjoy the Greenway for our Saturday long runs. Full press release follows.


GDOT Announces Transportation Enhancement Funding Awards

ATLANTA – State Transportation Board member Bill Kuhlke, Jr., of Augusta, today announced the recipients of Transportation Enhancement (TE) program funds for Fiscal Year 2008 & Fiscal Year 2009 for the 10th Congressional District.

The TE program is federally-funded and was originally established in 1991 by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The program was continued by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy For Users (SAFETEA-LU) in 2005. The Georgia DOT’s Planning Office manages the TE program in Georgia.

“I’m delighted to announce these grants,” Kuhlke said. “We received a great many excellent applications from communities and organizations in the 10th District. Unfortunately, we could not fund them all in this grant phase. These which are being funded showed great local government commitment to improving their community’s quality of life and their local elected leaders and state legislators are to be commended.”

The TE program’s goal is to enrich the transportation experience of Georgians through specific types of enhancement projects. The kinds of projects funded by the TE program include multi-use facilities such as walking and biking trails and paths; streetscaping and landscaping projects in cities and towns; historic preservation of transportation-related facilities like railroad depots; and scenic preservation of views and scenic byways.

This year, the Georgia DOT received a total of 285 eligible applications representing combined requests for more than $176 in federal funds from all 13 congressional districts. In this selection round, $54.6 million in federal funds are available for Fiscal Years 2008 and 2009 for distribution statewide.

Up to 80 percent of the funds being used for these projects have been provided by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), with the local government funding the remainder of the total project cost. The local government project sponsor is responsible for implementing the TE project and obtaining federal reimbursement from Georgia DOT.

To aid in the project selection, the Georgia DOT relies on an extensive in-house technical review and the Transportation Enhancement Advisory Panel, which was formed in 1992. The advisory panel group of professionals, representing statewide expertise in the various TE project categories, evaluated each application and forwarded its recommendations to the State Transportation Board for final selection of the funded projects.

The selected projects in the 10th Congressional District are:

• $440,000 to the University of Georgia Board of Regents for a greenway connector in Clarke County – a pedestrian/bike trail across the North Oconee River linking the University of Georgia’s River Trail with Athens/Clarke County’s Oconee River Greenway, advocated by State Senators Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, and Ralph Hudgens, R-Hull, as well as State Representatives Bob Smith, R-Watkinsville, Keith Heard, D-Athens, and Doug McKillip, D-Athens;

• $500,000 to the Town of Grovetown in Columbia County for a one-mile extension of the Euchee Creek Trail from Harlem-Grovetown Road to Reynolds Farm Road, advanced by State Senator Bill Jackson, R-Appling, and State Representatives Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, and Ben Harbin, R-Evans;

• $500,000 to Elbert County for interior renovation of the Rock Gym/Armory which is being converted to a regional conference and welcome center, promoted by Sens. Jackson and Hudgens, as well as State Representative Tom McCall, R-Elberton;

• $238,880 to the Town of Union Point in Greene County for the rehabilitation of a 1962 gasoline station to be used as a welcome center, supported by State Senator Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, and State Representative Mickey Channell, R-Greensboro;

• $500,000 to the Town of Demorest in Habersham County for a pedestrian network streetscape project in the vicinity of US Highway 441/Central Avenue and Georgia Street, advocated by State Senator Nancy Schaefer, R-Turnerville, and State Representative Ben Bridges, R-Cleveland;

• $500,000 to the town of Braselton in Jackson County for a streetscape project on State Route 53 through the downtown area, advanced by Sen. Hudgens and State Senator Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, as well as Rep. McCall and State Representative Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson;

• $400,000 to the Town of Thomson in McDuffie County for the rehabilitation of the circa 1860-Thomson Depot for use as a community center, promoted by Sen. Jackson and State Representative Sistie Hudson, D-Sparta;

• $442,000 to the City of Watkinsville in Oconee County for the extension of its pedestrian network to link the central business district with the commercial and arts&park districts, supported by Sen. Cowsert and Rep. Smith;

• $600,000 to Augusta State University in Richmond County for the development of a multi-use trail and historical and archaeological interpretative displays through the school’s campus, advocated by State Senator Ed Tarver, D-Augusta, and State Representative Barbara Sims, R-Augusta; and

• $80,000 to the City of Tignall in Wilkes County for the construction of sidewalks and recreation areas being lost as the result of an economic development expansion, advanced by Sen. Jackson and Reps. Channell and Fleming.

Kuhlke said the support of the various legislators listed above was key to their respective projects’ successful funding.

More information on the TE program and applications are available on the Georgia DOT Web site. ---

CONTACT: David Spear – 404) 657-6952