Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Oconee Most Prosperous County

Despite all the bad news about the housing market, Oconee County apparently is faring well by many measures, as it was ranked no. 1 by the DCA in terms of the state's most prosperous counties according to an Associated Press article.

Articles like this help us remember how much we have to be thankful for in Oconee. We all get frustrated at times with the pace of progress (too fast? too slow?), the bad economy and the toll it is taking, and decisions we don't like. But when you step back it is apparent that this truly a special community.

We have a wonderful mix of talented professionals, dedicated artists, hard working public servants, skilled educators, outstanding students and other driven individuals and families whom we can thank for making Oconee County what it is today. And that is certainly something to be thankful for. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Homebuilding Depression

Okay, sorry for the lax posting. There has been a lot to blog about and I have been too busy to really go after it. A few thoughts:

NBAF: Bad loss. Everyone has weighed in with their opinion (blogosphere, Athens Banner Herald, Flagpole), and overall I don't think our situation out here is as bad as everyone thinks. I will say this: those pointing at the state package are largely right, although FAQ certainly played a role. I don't put a lot of stock in the workforce and research coordination arguments. The bottom line is that in these processes, decision makers are looking for reasons to eliminate a community. Note that community opposition was probably an easy one to point out to an angry elected official who calls you about the decision.

Holiday Cheer:
Last weekend was a huge one for Watkinsville. The tree lighting and Christmas parade on back to back days, with thousands of folks downtown on Saturday morning. The Christmas Parade is an annual highlight and thanks to all for coming out! The Oconee Leader has some great pictures up on its website. Major kudos to Maridee Williams and the Oconee Enterprise for all their efforts to coordinate and promote the parade, which has to be one of the best in the state.

On a related note, consider shopping locally this Christmas. In downtown Watkinsville alone, you can find unique gifts at the Chappelle Gallery and the seeming-to-be-reopening Circa Antiques. My wife and mom love gift certificates from Emma Laura, and Dory's and other spots in Watkinsville have a lot to offer. Restaurant gift certificates from Le Maison Bleu, Girasoles, Big Easy and Mirko's are also great ideas.

City Council: Tonight's meeting was interesting. We had several small business licenses before us, including one for a new dried flower, antique and art store in the buildings John Byram has renovated downtown. It will be called Stone Soup. Girasoles is changing its name, and there is also a strong potential for an indoor skate park to be added in coming months if we can work through our codes. We are also updating our solid waste management ordinance -- good stuff.

Recession: Okay, the housing market is terrible. But throwing good money after bad by building more as detailed in this AJC article is a terrible idea. Yes, the banks need to lend. But does anyone really believe that there are not enough homes on the market in most areas? Housing is a very clear "supply and demand" market. Building more for the sake of building more makes no sense. Kind of like Detroit building more cars it can't sell. It just isn't sustainable.

As for sustainable, in general, American government, business, and consumers have been spending more than we have been earning for years. It makes no sense to go on spending without a plan to start paying off the debt -- Lee Shearer covers this on his blog.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Major UGA Investment in Oconee

Who would have guessed that Oconee County would soon house one of UGA's most successful athletic programs?

Not me, but it looks like High Point Farms in Bishop will soon be the new home for the UGA Equestrian team according to the Athens Banner-Herald and UGA's official web site. This is great news for Oconee, and based on a message at the High Point web site it looks as if they will be relocating as well and staying in the area.

When I was the editor of the Campus Carrier in college, I had my run-ins with the equestrian team (they didn't think I gave them enough coverage, and I probably didn't). Now one of those riders is the coach at UGA, and has certainly represented our alma mater well. And I must say after attending a competition earlier this year with my daughter, I came away very impressed with the poise and skills of these young women and their horses. I would certainly be proud to see my little girl ride for UGA some day.

UGA Equestriennes
, welcome to Oconee!

Photo Courtesy of UGA Sports Communications

Monday, November 24, 2008

SNL

It's rare that I actually watch Saturday Night Live these days. It's especially rare that I see it live on Saturday night. This past Saturday was an exception, as I was up reading when it came on. At some point during the show, I thought I must have dozed off as "Zell Miller" suddenly appeared on Weekend Update to discuss the Chambliss-Martin run-off. It is amazing that a Senate race in Georgia is getting so much play. It also makes me think that Team Saxby probably wishes they had taken this race a bit more seriously early on so it wouldn't have come to this.

You can see the clip below; Blake Aued at the Athens paper blogs about the segment here and also discusses the Martin fundraiser in Cobbham last night.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New Oconee Economic Development Web Site

After hearing that Barrow County has unified and rebranded its economic development arm, the Barrow Area Economic Development Authority, I was pleased to see that Oconee has upgraded its own business development and economic development website. Be sure to check out www.businessinoconee.com when you have a chance. This is a strong upgrade over the previous local economic development site. Kudos to local director of economic development Rusty Haygood for getting it done (Rusty also mentioned that there are more upgrades to come to the site)!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

City Council Update

Had a relatively short city council meeting tonight. Interestingly, we had 4 new business permits on the docket despite the down economy, including two new small businesses on the main street corridor. One of those stores will offer a variety of green and natural products, including cleaning products, at Town Center.

We are voted to drop the fee for sign permits through the end of the year in an effort to help small businesses limit start up costs -- our own mini-incentive program, I suppose.

In other items, we also discussed potential impacts of LOST revenue drops on the city, but overall the financial picture in Watkinsville is strong. Other items discussed included a new pick up truck the city purchased for the Oconee County fire department, the delay of the Mars Hill Road expansion, and some controversial fire wood selling along VFW Drive. We had a typical crowd there, and no huge issues.

We also had a called meeting on Monday night where we tackled recommended allocations for the city's percentage of potential SPLOST revenues. This will be Watkinsville's first time participating. We are considering allocating these funds -- an estimated total of nearly $3.2 million over six years -- towards sewer lines in the industrial park, sidewalks, road improvements, greenspace acquisition, recreational facilities, and public safety (new vehicles and technology). We are also still taking public feedback on these options, so feel free to weigh in here, send me a note, or send an e-mail to city hall.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

How do we keep sending this guy back to Washington?

For his latest trick, Rep. Broun compares the President-elect to Hitler, once again making our district the butt of national jokes (remember the cow patty?)

Look, most people in the district aren't crazy about the politics of Sen. Obama. I get that. Frankly, I have real questions about his political philosophy and approach. But I think most Americans, at this point, certainly recognize that the majority has spoken and are taking a wait and see attitude.

Update: Rep. Broun has issued a clarifying statement that at least better explains what he was trying to get at; it makes some sense although it is way too long and rambling. Read it here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hope

I am hopeful.

I am hopeful President-elect Obama is every bit the leader my democratic friends tell me he will be.

I am hopeful his communication skills herald the arrival of a great leader who will inspire Americans to care, strive, sacrifice, lead and achieve.

I am hopeful that fiscal realities will temper the ambitions of his party to overplay the hand they were dealt last night.

I am hopeful conservatives will temper their vitriol and give him a chance.

I am hopeful we have a transformative figure in the White House.

But most of all, on this day after the election, I am simply hopeful.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting

Instead of voting early, Susan and I both waited until the actual election day to vote. Election day is always exciting -- the energy of democracy on display! It is a beautiful Georgia fall day for voting and the energy and excitement were palpable.

Susan, Aaron and I got to the polls at 7 a.m. this morning and there was a line well out the door at the Watkinsville East Precinct (City Hall). While Aaron is too young to vote, I thought I would take him along on the way to day care -- probaby not the best idea but he did fine. It took about 25 minutes to get through, and everything was very well organized. One of the poll workers (who also happened to be one of my favorite teachers from OCIS days, Mrs. Hansen) informed us that over 50% of registered folks had already voted.

Oconee is famous for high turnouts (in the last presidential election, I think we had the second highest turnout in the state) and it looks like things might be headed in that direction again. If this morning's lines are any indication, there is going to massive turnout for this race. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on the city council race between Joe Walter and Luke Bishop. Normally, turnout is pretty low for council seats, but with this many people voting, the numbers could be high and the name recognition that comes with being from an old Oconee family (the Bishops) could help Luke's cause.

How were things where you voted? Long lines? Short lines? Anything else worth reporting?

Monday, October 20, 2008

New Entries in Downtown Dining

Had the pleasure this weekend of trying out two new restaurants in Watkinsville.

On my rainy day off on Friday, I tried out Miss Gail's for lunch. Unfortunately, Gail was almost out of BBQ chicken and had run out of salmon, which several people had come in for specifically (maybe this is the signature entree?). I went with the veggie plate (good fresh tomatoes, middling mashed potatoes, outstanding squash casserole, good green beans) which was pretty good overall -- about what you would expect for a meat and three. There was a good crowd there, and the service was very friendly.

Of course, anyone who has been in Watkinsville for any amount of time can't go to "Miss Gail's" without recalling the previous denizen of the building -- Aunt Gail's. I never ate there and knew it by reputation only. My most vivid memory is actually of Aunt Gail herself coming to Bell's Food Store when I worked daytime hours during summers in high school and college in the early 1990s. I'm kind of ashamed to admit it now, but bag boys and stockers would all "go on break" as soon as she came near the check out line because she always had huge amounts of food and no one wanted to bag those giant industrial-sized cans, bundles of turnips and giant sides of ham hock, etc. Bagging those groceries and then loading them up was an accident waiting to happen in the days of paper bags. I seem to recall her sometimes even asking us to load up her stuff in boxes because she would buy so much (I think this was pre-Sam's Wholesale days). I ran into Aunt Gail recently at the Oconee Farmer's Market and made my confession about avoiding bagging her groceries -- she was non-plussed.

Anyway, back to our story. Miss Gail's is open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. Owner Gail Wiley also deserves a big pat on the bag for the attractive landscaping and nice outdoor seating area that has been added on.

A more innovative concept is David Weeks' newest entry in the local dining scene, Shishkabobby's. Located in the former Gautreau's space in Town Center on Main Street, the restaurant has a bit of a Barberitos' feel -- same chips, dip station, trash cans, order set up, etc. This isn't surprising as David is the franchisee of several local Barberitos.

The food we had was pretty good, but I definitely didn't feel like I had enough guidance from the staff to maximize the experience. With a new concept, the order taker needs to be ready to offer some suggestions; I also suggested to David that they put some "favorites" together so people can have some guidance on food and side combinations that work well together.

I wound up ordering a melt but my unfamiliarity with the menu made me regret the mix of toppings I chose. Offerings include wraps, melts, salads with salmon, steak, chicken, and veggies, all grilled on skewers and a variety of fresh sides. An interesting concept that I hope catches on in Watkinsville. The more fast casual places, the better. This is a great place for families to go (our kids loved the spacious dining area and laid back atmosphere), and I hope to return and explore the menu a bit more soon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What a Weekend

What a weekend! Watkinsville was on display, and what a show.

First of all, many thanks to my brother Kevin and his band of volunteers from Oconee State Bank, who pulled off the 35th annual Scarecrow 5K without a hitch. This race has always had special meaning to me, as I ran my first road race at the Scarecrow 19 or 20 years ago this year.

I'll never forget Shawn Lomanaco and me finding the entry form in the Fall Festival brochure that went home with us from Oconee County Intermediate School (now Colham Ferry Elementary). After trying to think through how far 3.1 miles was (approximately to the Golden Pantry and back was our thought process) we decided we'd try to run. Once our parents were convinced (none of us had ever heard of a "road race" so we had to do some homework in those pre-internet days), we began our pre-race training, which consisted of a solitary 3 mile run around Northwest Woods two nights before the Saturday morning affair. Shawn showed off his superior talent, finishing in around 20 minutes to win our age group. I, unfortunately, finished in 21:47 and threw up at the finish. Faster times were to come, as the core group that ran this race and a few others started the first cross country teams at Oconee County High School in 1990.

Unfortunately, slower times were to come and they did yesterday. But I did enjoy a great run with old high school teammate and great friend Jonathan Murrow. And I also was able to run along with Phoebe as she completed her first ever one mile fun run in 12:47. Not bad!

After that, the family went to the Fall Festival downtown. You couldn't have asked for better weather. I think every kid in Oconee County was there. As always, I saw lots of old and new friends from Oconee and Athens. It was a picture perfect day, and the vendors and attendees all seemed happy despite the fact that we were competing with UGA's Homecoming game. Check out some pictures on Dan Matthews' blog here.

Later that evening, I volunteered with the clean up crew. I am always so thankful and surprised every year by how many people volunteer their time and energy to assist with the Festival -- this spirit is one of the things that makes Oconee County so great. In what seemed like no time, Rocket Field and the surrounding areas were picked clean of trash and debris, vendors were gone, and as quickly as it had arrived, the magic of the Festival was gone. Rocket Field is a bit worse for wear due to rain on Friday, but otherwise, everything looked great. If you have a chance and the inclination, be sure to thank Charles Grimes, Mike Lewis and others at the Chamber of Commerce for their annual labor of love.

After clean up, I picked up dinner for our family. I was struck by the energy that was still apparent in town. UGA fans were eating downtown and basking the afterglow a homecoming win. Teens dressed in their homecoming finery were eating at Mirko Pasta. A special event was being held at the Overlook, and the other restaurants looked full. In short a beautiful evening and all in all, quite a Saturday in Watkinsville.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How Much Change Do We Need?

As the national election nears, I am beginning to reach the conclusion that Barack Obama is likely our next president. While I don't agree with most of his policies, I have to admit it will be nice to have a well spoken, confident president who obviously has a strong intellect and has given considerable thought personally to a number of issues. While there are entrenched supporters on both sides who are locked into their decision, as the economy continues to wobble this plays to the strengths of Obama and Democrats in general. In short, odds are against McCain gaining enough undecideds to win.

Despite the early lift she offered, the bloom seems to be off the Palin rose among the undecided as she continues to avoid substantive interviews with the press and plays an attack dog role for the McCain campaign, which solidifies his base but does little else.

But what makes me increasingly nervous is the possibility of an Obama presidency coupled with a Democratic "supermajority" in the Senate.

A key theme in this campaign has been change. The understandable aversion of both conservatives and moderate Republicans to the failed policies and government growth of the Bush years is no doubt pushing many to sit this one out or vote for "change." But just how great is your tolerance for change?

I found this Wall Street Journal article insightful. It previews the Democratic agenda if Obama is elected along with a supermajority of Democratic Senators. While this is still likely a stretch, it could be a nightmare for those of us in favor of less government and taxes. Here's an excerpt:
"Though we doubt most Americans realize it, this would be one of the most profound political and ideological shifts in U.S. history. Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven't since 1965, or 1933. In other words, the election would mark the restoration of the activist government that fell out of public favor in the 1970s. If the U.S. really is entering a period of unchecked left-wing ascendancy, Americans at least ought to understand what they will be getting, especially with the media cheering it all on."
And another:
"In both 1933 and 1965, liberal majorities imposed vast expansions of government that have never been repealed, and the current financial panic may give today's left another pretext to return to those heydays of welfare-state liberalism. Americans voting for "change" should know they may get far more than they ever imagined."
Be sure to read the article if you are a moderate and undecided about your presidential or senatorial choices. Issues on the agenda once a supermajority is in place include a variety of initiatives that include unions, universal healthcare, wealth redistribution, tax increases, carbon trading, etc. (see the graphic).

As I have always said, the best governance -- although often the most ugly -- occurs when the legislative and executive branches are controlled by different parties. This allows for the natural give and take and compromise (gasp!) that creates healthy legislation and better reflects the opinions of a majority of Americans. What do you think?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debate Humor

A friend passed this along.... thought it was quite relevant to the current political climate and similar to the debates we have seen so far.

It also takes me back to my childhood TV viewing days. My brother and I loved Batman and Robin.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Time for County to Move on Downtown Real Estate?

While the economy and real estate market is weak, it should be a good time to pick up key properties for those with strong balance sheets. While I don't always agree with ex-BOC Chair Wendell Dawson, he is spot on in one of his recent posts at Another Voice from Oconee County -- the county should indeed move to acquire as much property adjacent to the existing courthouse as possible if they can negotiate a decent price with the sellers. With most of the properties having sat on the market for 2+ years, there should be some negotiating room.

Bottom line is that with the growth needs forecast for the courthouse, downtown acquisitions make sense. And there could very well be other needs in the future as the library and other public facilities age.

And even if county services don't fill up the spaces, property with sewer located in downtown Watkinsville is about as good a real estate bet as you can make in Oconee right now.

Positive Privet News in High Shoals

Privet. I despise it. Especially the Chinese kind that is amazingly invasive here in the Southeast.

So I was pleased to hear about this effort in New High Shoals -- despite all the other ongoing drama in our neighbor to the south -- to help citizens eradicate this pesky plant. If only there was a similar solution for invasive bamboo.

I wish the leaders in New High Shoals would put together a few more simple "blocking and tackling" initiatives like this one. It might help remove the focus from infighting at council meetings and perhaps unify the citizens around a few central ideas. It's amazing what a few park clean up days and other citizen driven efforts can do to bring a city together and give it a common purpose. I often drive through High Shoals and think about what potential it has with the beautiful falls, the river, the small reservoir, a brand new elementary school, and more. There are a lot of small towns that would kill for these assets.

However, back to reality, perhaps Watkinsville can borrow the "Weed Wrench" for our next clean up at Harris Shoals park, which has plenty of its own privet and invasive species to deal with.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Special Events

This is a great time of year in Northeast Georgia for those who enjoy being outdoors. In case you missed it, the weather is great and there's something going on for everyone. Here's my recommended itinerary for the next few weekends in greater Watkinsville (which includes Athens):

This Saturday: Kick off the morning with a brisk run or walk at the Scarecrow 5K and 1 mile/run walk at Watkinsville First UMC. This is the kick off for the annual Oconee County Fall Festival. Then take your family to the festival, which is one of the classic Oconee County events -- go early if you want to see the Dawgs kick off against Vandy or go late if you want to avoid the crowds. If you have kids, park at Harris Shoals Park and ride the old fashioned tractors downtown. And if you're so inclined, check out the Don Smith exhibition at OCAF while you are in the area.

This Sunday: While the weather is perfect, take a hike or enjoy a walk at Harris Shoals Park, The State Botanical Gardens, Heritage Park, or on the Birchmore trail in Athens. If you have kids, let them splash around in the "big creek" or try the big slide at Harris Shoals park -- my kids love it!

Next Saturday: Dust off your bike and take part in the Jittery Joe's Metric Century ride from the Watkinsville Jittery Joe's, which benefits the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity. Depending on which distance you choose, recharge with a nice late breakfast at the Big Easy or lunch at the Krimson Cafe. If you prefer a more low key start to the day, check out Art in the Garden at the Botanical Gardens. Then enjoy watching the Dawgs beat LSU from the comfort of your own home (time TBD).

Next Sunday: Oenophiles will enjoy the OCAF Wine Fest at Ashford Manor from 3 to 6 p.m. Endurance athletes will enjoy the 4-mile Jack-o-Lantern Jog at Sandy Creek Park in Athens at 2:30; kids under 10 can participate in a costume contest at 1:45 and then jump in the kids race.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Tax Man Cometh


This week's Oconee Enterprise has a front page story on the tax assessor's office and the 640 protests it received that defies belief. Check out this quote and the excerpt that follows:

"People thought that with the economy on a downslide, their taxes would go down. Only house values have held, so taxes have remained much the same or edged up," Skinner explained. These days it is possible to buy a house in Oconee, which many could not afford before, because developers are reducing the prices on new houses considerably and homeowners, eager to sell their property, are reducing prices." In other words, Oconee County houses are holding their value.

What? The story just said that in the market, prices are being lowered, and this is obvious to anyone who is looking at new homes in Oconee. The only one who sees the value holding is the government.

A quick look at the handy Q-public site shows that the houses that are selling are indeed doing so for more than they were a few years ago. This makes sense. Only someone who is desperate is going to sell their home for less than they paid for it.

But overall, sales are down (according to the Enterprise, which cites this as one of the slowest years for real estate sales in a long time) and that is the key. There is nothing that I can find in the assessor's office methodology that measures how many people either 1) choose not to sell because they don't think they can get the value out of their homes 2) have to leave their house on the market for a long time to get the value out of it or 3) put their homes on the market and never sell it because they can't get the asking price.

Here's my example. Earlier this year, a rental property I own in Watkinsville was reassessed aggressively for the second year in a row. The first year it was understandable -- I had made significant improvements to the property, particularly inside. The housing and rental market were strong.

The second year, I had done little to the house and there was noticeable softening in the local market. I sent a letter of protest referencing the busy street it was on, an abandoned home next door, and the lack of comparable product. The tax assessor's office promptly sent someone out to look at the property and guess what -- they "discovered" a patio that had been there since the home was built more than 30 years ago, and they actually increased my assessment. Unbelievable -- I was punished for protesting!

When I talked to the assessor, he asked if I thought I could sell it for the assessed value. The year before, sure. Now, with tight credit, conservative banks, etc? I told him I doubted it.

Look, as a city councilman I understand the pressure on local governments in a very real way. The state is basically abandoning local governments at almost every level, whether it is education, infrastructure, etc. The latest target is transportation, where the GDOT board has decided that rather than lay off any of its bureaucracy, it would rather abandon the Local Area Road Paving (LARP) program, which is critical for local goverments. Thank goodness legislators are declaring that idea DOA.

In short, the pressure on the board of education, county, and city to maintain a certain level of service is tremendous. But the assessments in Oconee, in my opinion, are out of control.

The most plausible reasoning I have seen for holding the line on assessments was in the Dallas Morning News last spring. Their point is that the impact of declining property values runs about one year behind because assessors pull previous years comps to establish values. These lower prices are then reflected on the next year's assessments.

But I don't think we'll see lower prices in Oconee. I think we may have a market that stays quiet until prices come back. And this should be taken into account in assessments. It isn't about what sells, it's about what isn't selling.

Local leaders -- or state legislators if need be -- need to consider a change in methodology to account for a lack of buyers in the market, or expect an even larger taxpayer revolt -- next year, 640 protests may be a drop in the bucket.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sad News


Word arrived today that Jim Shearon had passed away. I was shocked.

I didn't know Jim as well as many in Watkinsville. I do know that he along with Dave, Mario and Louise have been wonderful additions to our community and truly have made a difference on so many levels in Watkinsville and the region. Jim's gift for design was amazing and evident if you ever stayed at Ashford Manor or visited Maison Bleu or Sweet Retreat. His creativity and work ethic were also a constant -- simply put, Jim was a force! I remember him being one of just a few to ever make it through an entire city council budget hearing and still being awake enough to offer support as well as outside the box ideas for improving Watkinsville. We often heeded Jim's advice.

Julie Phillips wrote a nice piece on Jim here. Two things that struck me about her piece -- Jim was definitely a straight shooter. You always knew where you stood with him. And he and the rest of the Ashford Manor bunch also have the wherewithal and talent to work anywhere in the world. Our community is a much better place because they choose Watkinsville.

Jim, we miss you already and know that you are now in a wonderful place. God bless and rest in peace.

Failout


This is why people are so jaded about politics. The Senate has the courage to actually pass the bill, and then we learn it is full of crap like tax breaks for makers of wooden arrows and rum producers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Unbelievable.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Don Smith Exhibition Coming to OCAF


Artwork of the late Don Smith, one of this region's most talented local artists, will be on display at OCAF starting on Friday. Don's son Kirk is a good friend of mine (Kirk is also probably mortified to be mentioned in a post so close to one about David Brooks), and I love his Dad's stuff -- eclectic, classy, and often truly emblematic of the unique culture of Athens and the surrounding community. Don also collaborated with Watkinsville artist Roy Ward on Churches, one of several great local books that Dr. Ward has been involved with.

Anyway, find out more information here, and be sure to stop by and check it out. There is an opening reception Friday night.

Brooks Beast

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists, along with Tom Friedman. Many thanks to reader Leanne who pointed me back to David -- I have had a busy two weeks and have not had time to read his columns lately. I did so tonight, and was struck by the wisdom in each of them.

In his column today, he calls out and explains in clear detail the necessity of a bailout plan, and more importantly, the necessity for true leadership in Washington. He correctly analyzes that most house Republicans somehow think they will benefit if this thing doesn't pass, and says that they "have once again confused talk radio with reality." Amen.

One of his earlier pieces takes a close look at McCain pre-campaign. While the odds against Sen. McCain seem to increase everyday (especially in the wake of his failed gamble on the bailout package), this column reminds me why I liked him in the first place.

The other earlier piece is a forward looking piece that describes the financial markets and challenges America faces down the road as we work to get out from under the piles of debt we have sold as we have run up deficits. Since I am in the middle of Homestead right now, much of it rings true. Lets hope we aren't too strapped financially in the wake of bailouts for whoever wins this next election to step up to the plate.

The fact is, it is 2008 and America has yet to really get ready for this century. Our economy, our educational system, our infrastructure (transportation especially), and our energy situation desperately need a tune up, and perhaps an overhaul.

I have often said that perhaps hard times will force America to make these necessary changes -- however, as hard times loom this doesn't seem very appealing. Do we still have the strength, the wisdom, the steel in our spine to make hard choices and compete? To be the best? Because this century we are truly competing -- with the whole world.

Or will we choose to be soft, to depend on a benevolent government and to be content with mediocrity in our institutions, our governments, our businesses, our childrens' education?

I don't think most Americans are content to settle. I know most people in Oconee County aren't content to settle, and will work hard in their own way to support their community and their nation. But I do believe most Americans want a leader who will challenge them to do more than spend money to support the economy, who doesn't shy away from asking them to sacrifice, who will inspire them to greater heights, and inspire pride in our nation once again.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Momentum

Congress doesn't get it. There are times you don't listen to Rush, Hannity, and even your constituents (especially when they are whipped into a frenzy by the aforementioned talk show hosts and they know less about the details than you do). There are times when you show leadership. Today was one of those times, and they missed the boat.

While people may have been concerned about the nature of the bailout, I pity congress when people begin to blame them for job losses and decimated 401(k)s. To be sure, there were flaws in the bill. On any bill this size, there will be. It was rushed, and perhaps more time should have been allowed for review and vetting of the bill.

The focus now has to be on a better bill and better communication. Here's my six step formula for success:

1) Don't make promises in terms of timing for a new bill; this just sets up unrealistic expectations and messes with the market.
2) Don't align the bill with President Bush (or Nancy Pelosi, for that matter).
3) Don't give the Tresury Secretary cart blanche.
4) Don't trust leadership to deliver the votes.
5) Listen to the people and address their key concerns.
6) Explain how this crisis will soon impact everyone's pocketbooks in ways much more significant than a tax increase.

The downside of allowing this economy and our banking infrastructure to slide further is tremendous. The downside on this bill -- while potentially large -- is unknown and frankly far in the future. Congress needs to do something. History will not look kindly upon them if they do not get their act together soon.

Perhaps more information will emerge in days to come that will change my mind about the need for action -- I certainly am not a fan of rushed decision making except when absolutely necessary, and I hope congress is right and I am wrong in this instance. That said, I certainly hope that Congress is hard at work in the meantime to come up with a new bill and that investors in our momentum driven market hold together until then.

P.S. Leading the charge for classless communication on this effort was our own Rep. Paul Broun. While some of his points may be valid, his graphic imagery strikes one as anything but classy. I'm so glad my own representative is unwilling to eat cow feces (yes, you have to read it to believe it).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Suspension

Talk about backfiring.

While his shot in the dark VP choice Sarah Palin obviously gave him a lift, Sen. John McCain's most recent gamble just comes off as silly. While I see the logic in trying to seem presidential and serious about the economy, the reality is that most Americans would agree that bringing the two presidential candidates back to D.C. for a few days of "hard work" in the Senate would do nothing but distract from a critical effort to work through an incredibly complex bailout plan. The plan itself is necessary on some level to stabilize markets, but it is critical it be structured in such a way (if possible) that it doesn't bail out people who borrowed more than they could and banks who irresponsibly gave them the money. Whether bundled mortgages can be "unwound" and cleaned off the balance sheets of financial institutions without ending all sense of personal and corporate financial responsibility, I have no idea.

And given McCain's history with bank regulation, I don't really think he's the expert you need on hand to deal with the issue. I have been a lukewarm supporter of McCain through this campaign. But the reality is only a few hail mary passes are going to turn out to be completions, and he already had one. This one has fallen incomplete.

McCain desperately needs a compelling message at this point beyond Sarah Palin. He has to find a way to communicate around a few winning issues, articulate a responsible economic plan, and get back to what made him a special candidate -- his willingness to advocate ideas outside the norm for Republicans, find the middle, and not try to appeal to the "dittoheads" and Hannity fans out there. He got them in the fold with the Palin selection.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Magic of Small Towns

Jason Winders doesn't think there is any magic left in small towns.

I disagree.

That said, I don't necessarily disagree with a lot of the points in his article, just that it is a sweeping generalization. Yes, there is poverty in many smaller communities. There are drug issues. Some are lacking in opportunities.

But I would argue that there is magic left in a lot of smaller communities. A quick drive to the communities that surround Athens would yield some interesting examples. The merchant who knows your name. The downtown that fights to survive -- or even thrives. The bed and breakfast that hosts world class concerts on an old family estate. The entrepreneur who finds a way to make it big in a small town. The pastor who keeps his flock downtown and his church growing. The neighbor who prefers the kindness of others to the "kindness" of the federal government. The retiree who comes back to restore the old homeplace. The families who stay -- despite being able to find more opportunity elsewhere -- because they want their children around family and the values of their church, their community, and their friends. The rural scenery. The quiet.

Indeed, I often feel like much of the anti-growth dialogue in this region is a natural and instinctive reaction by many -- old and new alike -- seeking to protect and preserve the essential "smallness" of their community, their area, or their town. If people didn't feel so passionately about that lifestyle, why would they invest so much energy to fight change that often clearly brings the higher wages, the industry, and the opportunities that are missing in so many smaller communities? They like things the way they are.

The bottom line is that just like there are good cities and bad cities, good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, you can't generalize about small towns. They are evolving, as they have for hundreds of years (check out the history of Arcade if you want to see this in action).

Some will fade, some will go away, some will "grow away," and some will retain their identity. Life will get harder in some, and easier in others. But I would argue if there is "magic" anywhere in America, it is often found in its small towns. After all, if Boo Weekley had grown up in a city or suburbia, would he have galloped down the first fairway at the Ryder Cup? Doubtful.

And yes, they will always remain a part of the American political narrative. Too many Americans have roots there, or imagine they do. Few people yearn for a "faster pace." Most don't seek out more traffic. And while there are some who will, most of us don't necessarily want to accept that petty crime is going to be part of our life, as it is for many who live in larger cities. There is a reality behind the symbolism of the small town in our political dialogue.

All that said, the scary part about our culture is that due to a number of factors, life in a small town doesn't necessarily imbue the neighborly characteristics we expect. The values and ethics that were once more rigorously instilled and enforced by neighbors in a smaller community are often superseded by the rot that can be accessed online or on television, or even in the human soul. Whether you're in a big city or small town, certain values -- honesty, courage, tolerance, respect, kindness -- should be American hallmarks. Regardless of geography, all too often they aren't, and that's too bad.

P.S. Kudos to Mr. Winders for starting a thoughtful conversation.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Go Dog Go!


When my daughter was younger, one of her favorite books was Dr. Seuss' Go Dog Go.

My favorite part was always at the end. After all their "going," the destination of the dogs is finally revealed -- It's a Big Dog Party! She always thought that was great.

Well, as it turns out, we have our own "Big Dog Party" here in Watkinsville called Grace's Birthday Party. It's a unique canine celebration that celebrates the life of Grace Shearon, who resided with the Shearons at our very own Ashford Manor. Last year more than 250 canines and their human friends found their way to Ashford Manor for the event. It benefits the UGA Vet School.

Press release follows.

WATKINSVILLE, Ga., June 17, 2008 – Watkinsville has again gone to the dogs as more than 600 canines and their two-legged companions will dress in their finest Mardi Gras costumes and gather at Ashford Manor Bed & Breakfast on Sunday, Sept. 21, to celebrate the tenth annual Grace’s Birthday Party. This Mardi Gras themed masquerade will raise funds to support the Grace Memorial Foundation at the University of Georgia’s Veterinary Hospital as well as a host of other local animal advocacy organizations. The party will last from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and will be held rain or shine.

Guests will enjoy a fun

-filled day of doggie games, costumes, contests, refreshments and more – along with some fun stuff for humans too. A highlight of the party will be the prominent display of artist Peter Loose’s portrait of “Mardi Gras Grace.” All dogs attend free, while adult humans pay $15 and children pay $5.

Jim Shearon, a proprietor of Ashford Manor, began the tradition almost a decade ago as a birthday celebration for his beloved Airedale Grace. Just months before her planned second annual birthday party, Grace was diagnosed with cancer and sadly did not live to see the occasion. Rather than mourn his companion’s death, Shearon decided to celebrate her life by continuing to host the party and fundraiser to honor Grace and collect money for animals in need. The party’s success continues to grow each year, attracting hundreds of pups and their pals.

“It is always sad to lose a companion, but this party is a fun way to celebrate Grace’s life while raising money for several great canine causes,” said Shearon. “People and their pups come from all over to this event, and even though they may not know each other, they all have something in common – they’re dog people.”

Last year, approximately 275 canines joined more than 350 of their human companions to raise more than $17,000 for local charities including the Oconee Regional Humane Society, Oconee Animal Control, Athens Area Council on Aging Home Delivered Meals Program, Southeastern Guidedog Institute and University of Georgia Small Animal Teaching Hospital G.R.A.C.E. Fund.

Beyond the fun and games, there is also a silent auction featuring valuable items, services and vacations donated by local individuals and businesses. “The support we’ve received from local pet lovers has been tremendous,” said Shearon. “Businesses and individuals alike are eager to help in any way possible, and we are certainly grateful for their contributions.”

For more information on Grace’s Birthday Party and the Grace Memorial Foundation, visit them online at www.gracesbirthday.com.

About the Grace Memorial Foundation

The Grace Memorial Foundation supports the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine Small Animal Teaching Hospital’s G.R.A.C.E. Fund by providing assistance to clients who have demonstrated financial need. Funds are available to assist with medical procedures for dogs suffering from illness or injury, or who are in need of routine care. The Grace Memorial Foundation also provides assistance to the elderly and those recovering from illness by providing food and routine care for their companion dogs.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Perspectives on Rockets, Golf, Pottery and Politics

A few takes on current affairs and events local and national:
  • Good story from Blake Giles in this week's Oconee Enterprise on the local economic impact of golf. His point about how golf helps raise funds for charity is certainly a good one -- while there can be too many golf charity events, the overall impact of the sport in the region is pretty amazing.
  • Another neat golf tidbit -- UGA alum Brendon Todd, who led the Athens Regional Foundation Classic until a last round collapse, won last week's Nationwide Tour event and will likely be on the PGA tour next year. He has had a very successful first year on the Nationwide Tour. Brendon got his shot when the Athens Regional Foundation gave him a sponsor's exemption into their event, where he performed well and was able to secure entry into more Nationwide Tour events. Congrats to Brendon and kudos to the Athens Regional Foundation for helping this young man's dream come true. (Full disclosure -- my company does the PR for the ARFC).
  • On a totally separate matter, the McCain campaign is getting dangerously close to overplaying its hand by limiting Sarah Palin's interaction with the media. I'm glad she's talking with Katie Couric next week. Her interview with Charles Gibson was not sterling -- it was solid in most places but not being able to articulate the Bush doctrine is pretty bad and her unqualified response inviting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO makes me nervous. Palin doesn't need to be something she isn't in these interviews (swing voters don't expect her to be an expert on foreign policy) -- she needs to be herself and be somewhat accessible to balanced reporters. And no, Sean Hannity doesn't count. Neither will Bill O'Reilly.
  • Back to the local scene, I've gotta say last weekend's Friends of the Oconee County Library Book Sale was awesome. You could get a bag of used books for $3. They had rare books and first editions for incredibly low prices. Definitely something to put on your calendar for future years. Even Sunday afternoon, there were still huge crowds looking for books. Whoever says the printed book is in danger is dead wrong. Newspapers.... perhaps a different story.
  • Also Sunday, I visited Perspectives. As always, the art was wonderful. Unlike past years, the prices weren't. WHOA! For some reason, it seemed like everything was 30-50% higher than in years past. I walked into Rocket Hall expecting Watkinsville art prices (maybe a slight premium) and felt like I had traveled to Atlanta. I was also suprised that top local potters like Jerry Chappelle and Rebecca Wood (R. Wood) apparently were not participating.
  • Still, visiting Rocket Hall (known by us kids of the 80s as the Booster Club Gym) always evokes special memories -- I can still smell the popcorn, feel the stickiness of Skittles and Sprite spilled on the floor, and feel the cold temps in the gym as we stripped down to shorts for games and practice. Angry parents, tired refs, manual scorekeeping, no 3 point shot, creaky floors, and bad basketball made for some great times. I can also remember getting run out by the Watkinsville PD after "sneaking" in the gym during Christmas break (thanks for those keys, Donnie B.!). Good times.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Land of the SPLOST

At our last city council meeting, we discussed the potential impact of SPLOST revenues on the city. Unlike many other communities, in past SPLOST issues, Oconee County's municipalities have not received any of these sales tax revenues. That is all set to change if the next SPLOST passes, where Oconee's municipalities will get a share of the revenue based on their percentage of the overall county population.

The city of Watkinsville would be slated to receive more than $3 million over the life of the penny tax -- a solid infusion that would make a world of difference to our community. Projects being considered -- but not finalized -- include additional sewer lines in the Watkinsville industrial park, greenspace acquisition, significant improvements in our existing parks, new sidewalks, necessary road repavings, police vehicles, and other capital equipment costs.

In a city with a budget as small as ours, these funds could make a huge difference. For our other (and even smaller) cities in Oconee, it could be even more transformative. The City of Watkinsville will be holding a public hearing to discuss options for use of SPLOST funds in more detail and to hear from citizens what they want. Stay tuned for those dates and more information!

Biotech Future

The Athens Banner-Herald included a fascinating round table discussion on the future of biotech in the Northeast Georgia region in Sunday's paper.

First of all, a pat on the back for what is a very substantive article; these kinds of roundtables on a variety of key industries in Athens would be great for readers. I also think it is great that they included the perspective of Mike Wanner and Frank Milward, who both offer valuable private sector perspectives from both the small and large corporate sectors.

I thought Milward's point about agriculture being a key towards the end was particularly salient. Given our state's history and our continuing reliance on agriculture (both plant and animal) I often wonder why we don't focus our biotech investments more aggressively into those areas. Indeed, one of our most unique local biotech start-ups involves genetic crop modification. Our state is a leading exporter of poultry and pork, as well as other row crops.

It just so happens that we have a fading federal institution in Oconee County called the "Experiment Station." Its original purpose was agricultural innovation and experimentation, but some in Washington believe its work is done. We can't defend the status quo forever, especially with a congressman who does not believe in earmarks. This area needs to articulate a future vision for this space.

Since those in the article and elsewhere are decrying the need for laboratory and incubator space, wouldn't it make sense to have an agricultural innovation incubator/biotech hub atop the hill on "Experiment Station" road adjacent to Highway 441? Preserve the surrounding greenspace for experimentation. Across the street you'll find Gainesville College and adjacent is UGA's horticulture farm. How about we take the buildings -- or add new ones -- and create a 21st century complex that could revitalize the mission of the station and accomplish its original goal -- to provide better crops and agricultural products to Americans through cutting edge research through a joint public-private investment in research.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Saxon Vs. Broun


Bobby Saxon, the Democratic candidate for the 10th congressional district seat currently held by Paul Broun Jr., attended our Watkinsville City Council meeting tonight. I had heard about Saxon from some folks, but had not met him yet.

We talked briefly prior to the meeting, and then again afterward. Based on what he told me, I came right out and asked him the obvious -- if you favor a strong national defense, are conservative on most values-based issues, and frequently disagree with the national party, why are you running as a Democrat? He explained that he grew up poor, goes to church and feels it is his duty to take care of the poor, and that Republicans aren't committed to assisting the poor at all.

"The Democrats don't make the distinction between those who are poor and those who are sorry, and that is too bad," he said. He added that at least they are considering the poor at all.

I can respect that reasoning, even if I don't totally agree with it. We had a wide ranging coversation; some highlights below:

  • We discussed the idea that sometimes in politics, pragmatism has to triumph over principle in order to accomplish anything.
  • When asked about his favorite past politicians, he listed folks like Lincoln, Reagan, Jefferson, and Sam Nunn.
  • He is an Oconee County native (grew up on Flat Rock Road). Lives in Jackson County now. Has been a small business owner.
  • He has served our nation for 8 years as an enlisted man. He has had an overseas tour of duty and has worked in the Pentagon. After 9/11 he gave up a lucrative business to re-enlist as a reservist and has been stationed in Baghdad. He has had top-secret security clerance and seemed very up to date on national security issues.
  • Sees immigration as a homeland security issue.
  • Supports drilling and a strong alternative fuels effort to end dependence on foreign oil.
Overall, I walked away impressed with Bobby and look forward to learning more from him about what he'd like to do if sent to Washington.

Then I hopped in my car and noticed an e-mail -- apparently Rep. Broun announced today that he is unwilling to debate Saxon in Athens or anywhere else in the district, apparently. This is just weak. I guess there is just too much baggage to contend with, and perhaps a front runner doesn't feel the need to debate what many perceive as a long-shot challenger. If you ask me, if you believe in what you stand for and are representing our district in Washington, you shouldn't be afraid to put it on the line, whether it is against an opponent in a debate or with anyone else, regardless of the setting.

If Saxon can meet enough people in the district between now and November to overcome his lack of media dollars, and if there is a strong Democratic push as a result of the Obama energy, this could be a race. Saxon makes a good first impression and is going to appeal to a lot of conservative to moderate folks in the district, especially those who pay attention and have concerns about whether Broun's ultra-principled but ultra-conservative approach in office is indeed what is in the best interest of this district.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Palin Factor


It's been a week and a half since John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. As I expected, she has withstood the scrutiny and has had a truly transformative effect on the presidential contest, turning what looked like a landslide for Obama into a close race.

The two best write ups I have seen on how this has worked out come from David Brooks in his "Surprise Me Most" column and Camille Paglia at Salon.com (how often do these two get joined at the hip?). Be sure you read these if you are into some navel gazing about this year's election and the state of the nation. Brooks' basic point: that with the Palin choice, McCain took over the role of "most surprising campaign" from Obama and earned the momentum and embrace of independents hungry for change. A key excerpt:

"If I were advising the candidates, I’d tell them to double down on weirdness. Obama needs to occasionally criticize his own side. If he can’t take on his own party hacks, he’ll never reclaim the mantle of systemic change. Specifically, he needs to attack the snobs who are savaging Sarah Palin’s faith and family. Many liberals claim to love working-class families, but the moment they glimpse a hunter with an uneven college record, they hop on chairs and call for disinfectant. Obama needs to attack Bill Maher for calling her a stewardess and the rest of the coastal condescenders.

If I were McCain, I’d make the divided government argument explicit. The Republicans are intellectually unfit to govern right now, but balancing with Democrats, they might be able to do some good. I’d have McCain tell the country that he looks forward to working with Congressional Democrats, that he is confident they can achieve great things together."

Whether you agree or not with her levels of experience or qualifications, no one can argue that the gamble hasn't already paid off politically for Sen. McCain. In a Kasparov like move, he instantly changed the narrative of the campaign, energized the party base, intrigued (at least) women across the country, earned space on main stream talk shows, increased photoshop sales, and forced Sen. Obama to take deep breath, shift resources to battleground states, and go on the offensive by becoming more negative. Even Oprah has taken a hit.

What is fascinating is that McCain is actually being eclipsed by his running mate. Apparently, more people are showing up to see her than him, and more Palin signs are in evidence than McCain signs at joint rallies. If I were a Republican strategist, this would worry me. Republicans also need to be careful about overplaying the "media bias" card -- while some was in evidence, this can't be used as an excuse for not allowing her to be interviewed by some of the most respected members of the national political press.

I will also say this -- her official politics are well to the right of mine, although she has shown a willingness to compromise that is impressive. With a Democratic Congress, a Palin-McCain administration could engage in just the right amount of change that will help move our country forward without forgetting where we come from and our tradition of self-reliance. I have always said that most healthy policy is passed when the legislative and executive branches are in different hands, and I hope that will be the case next year.

Since I first posted my first review of the Palin choice, a lot of my democratic friends have asked me why. Most were stunned by the choice, and I think the vehemence of the liberal/democratic reaction showcases their underlying fears and their need to tear her down. A STRONG, ARTICULATE WOMAN? REPUBLICANS? A WOMAN WITH AN INFANT? SOMEONE UNDER 55 WITHOUT GRAY HAIR? They weren't counting on this.

Big media types, government employees and those committed to Sen. Obama also simply don't understand the appeal of someone so close to normal to the vast majority of independent and undecided voters in this country. They also don't appreciate the number of decisions that the mayor of a small- or medium-sized town has to make, never mind a governor, when they belittle her experience.

Since it's college football season, I'll put it like this: The score is 21-17 with 1:00 left in the 4th quarter and one team (let's just call them the Donkeys for fun) are ahead of their hated arch rivals, the Elephants. The elephants have had two defensive touchdowns and a field goal and haven't looked good all day. It's a miracle they're still in the game. Their fans just want to return to their tailgate. The 'phants have the ball, but it's on their own 20. Hopeless, right? Well, with the Palin choice the Elephant quarterback just threw a 75 yard bomb that gets them to the Donkeys' five with :50 left in the game. The Donkeys know the Elephants will probably get the touchdown and maybe the win. The Donkeys will need to get the momentum back with one of their own miracles, or play ridiculous defense.

So does the Obama team have a good return man? A hail mary left in the arm? My advice to them -- avoid Palin. Focus on McCain. Don't go after the strength of your opposition. Go after the weakness. You aren't going to beat Sarah Palin. Ironically for Republicans, the weaker politician is our presidential nominee. Fortunately for Americans, if McCain is elected, we will have a good president in office.

9/16 UPDATE: Peggy Noonan reached the same conclusion (three days later) -- the Obama campaign must focus on McCain!!!!

Friday, August 29, 2008

From City Council to Governor to VP?


Okay, it isn't local. But I have to say I really like McCain's VP choice for a number of reasons, and not just because she got her start on a small town local city council.

Sarah Palin is a Republican who actually has worked to shrink government, fight corruption, and have a common sense approach on energy, unlike most of our more national figures. She is also a refreshing change from the typical "two old white guys" approach of the Republican party.

She's a regular person who grew up playing high school basketball and running in road races with her family. She eloped with her husband because they did not have money for a wedding. She now has five kids, including a four month old. Indeed, up until she became pregnant she was still running 7 to 10 miles per day -- check out this story for more detail on her workout regimen! The real challenge for her won't be the vice presidency -- it will be keeping her fitness and raising healthy children in the D.C. environment!

All that said as a city councilman, a struggling off-and-on/ex-runner, and a parent, I can appreciate all that she seeks to balance in life and think that perspective is certainly helpful to have at the highest levels in D.C. I think this unexpected choice could be the boost McCain needs to make this into a real contest.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Watkinsville Woodyard


Adam Thompson wrote an interesting story about the Watkinsville woodyard for today's paper. The story is pretty accurate in its description of the situation, although I wish the ABH would have posted the years of correspondence we have had with Mr. Callaway regarding the appearance and condition of his property so readers would have had some context on how long this has been going on. But what I found most interesting about the story was the reaction it generated -- many people calling the council elitist, etc. Lets walk through the facts:

  1. Various mayors and city councils have been trying to get Mr. Callaway to clean up his act for more than 10 years now. This goes all the way back to the days of Mayor Sammy Sanders and Mayor Toby Hardigree. Incidents included illegal burning, vehicles in the road, obstructions of the sidewalk, etc.
  2. We have given Mr. Callaway multiple chances to just run a reasonably clean operation for years, and he couldn't keep it together. In fact, he operated for a year without a business license while the council waited for him to clean up. We have tried multiple types of "carrots" to get Mr. Callaway to clean up and unfortunately finally had to resort to a stick.
  3. At the end of the day, keeping old vehicles in various states of repair, unsecured wood, etc. was a liability for Mr. Callaway and the city as long as we knew it was going on. Something had to be done.
As for the comments after the article, I find these (and countless others in the Athens paper and elsewhere) one of the more disturbing aspects of "journalism" today. While papers search for "eyeballs" and use comments to measure the reaction to the story, those offering the "commentary" hide behind a shield of anonymity and are given free reign to spew venom and make whatever accusations they want in the name of "interactive" journalism. If only these people had the courage to at least attend a city council meeting, come to a planning meeting and contribute something positive, call and discuss their concerns in person, or even run for office...

The fact is, the vast majority of the citizens in Watkinsville expect to have a clean city. They don't want old vehicles littering yards and businesses. They enjoy the mix of history and new development. They want speeders to slow down and appreciate a responsive police force.

The mix of businesses in the city is as good as it has ever been (especially considering the economy), with everyone from traditional downtown merchants to auto parts stores to a full industrial park. We're not perfect, but I don't think anyone can accuse us of not listening to our constituents. As we grow, we'll continue to listen. We also know you're not going to please everyone in this business, especially in an area that is changing like ours.

Photo Credit: John Curry, Athens Banner-Herald

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Fellow blogger Johnathan McGinty has moved to Oconee and offers some interesting observations about his transition....

Links and Thoughts

A few interesting tidbits from this week so far.

--The Athens Banner Herald's editorial suggesting the state end local assistance grants was an interesting read. This editorial from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation provides more detail. My suggestion is that these grants be available only to counties and municipalities of a certain size. Cities like Bishop, High Shoals, Bogart, and many others have budgets of less than $200,000 per year and occassionally have needs that would break their budget. Lets reserve these grants for the sewer line that might secure local industry for a town, grants and loans for historic preservation, in Georgia's smallest municiplaities, etc. While a piece of this $6 million per year pie is a drop in the bucket for many of the state's larger municipalities, for countless smaller cities these are a huge benefit. And they are a miniscule amount of the state budget. The bottom line: Tighten up the guidelines, and send the grants to our smallest cities. And lets be honest, there are a whole lot of state agencies that can use some belt tightening, despite the moans and groans that come with budget cuts.

--When you read the Oconee Enterprise this week, pay careful attention to a story in which the tax assessor's office floats the idea of raising the minimum acreage standards for conservation use taxing purposes. In my opinion, this is another attempt by the tax assessor's office to backdoor a tax increase as they have been doing through overly aggressive assessments for several years now (Here's who it typically works -- Commission: we lowered your tax rates! Tax Assessor: Congratulations, your home has increased 10% in value in the middle of a real estate recession! So your taxes go up anyway). Then juxtapose this article with Kate McDaniel's editorial about preserving Oconee's rural landscape. The fact is, the two things Kate cites (NBAF and the Georgia Transmission Corp's power lines) will have much less impact on the rural character of Oconee than this proposed tax policy change. NBAF is in Athens and while it will indeed impact a stretch of Milledge that leads to Oconee, the idea that it will change land use in Oconee is flawed. The power lines are being run to support regional needs, not local needs, including the commercial corridor along 316 and Atlanta Highway (full disclosure: GTC is a client of my company's). However, few things impact land use like tax policy. Increasing the tax burden on rural land, which requires little if any services, does nothing but incent the owners of that land (even if just a 10 acre "gentleman" farm) to do something different with it -- sell it, put a business on it, develop it, etc. Why shouldn't rural land in a conservation use have lower tax rates, regardless of parcel size? The bottom line: If Oconee wants to keep our rural areas, we need to make sure the fundamental economics work in a rural landowner's favor, and that local government is not sending one message on a land use map and saying something entirely different with the implementation of its tax policies.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Oconee Election Analysis and Growth

Lee Becker has completed what has to be the most detailed local election analysis in state history. He maps correlations and voting patterns between candidates and teases out some interesting facts. The big take away supports my contention all along: that this election was about growth, not alcohol. Most voters -- especially those in South Oconee -- seem to want to slow down the growth train in a major way.

I have been thinking a lot about growth lately, since I have been driving to Atlanta a bit more than usual (driving through Atlanta and Gwinnett always makes me think about growth, good and bad). A conclusion I am reaching is that there is something about a consistent, sustainable rate of growth that leads to more healthy communities (defined primiarly by sustainable and stable neighborhoods, long term value, and non-deteriorating commercial nodes). Perhaps in Oconee we need to see out our historic growth numbers -- 4, 5, 6% or whatever -- and seek to match that, both in terms of population growth and lots platted.

Almost every area that I pass through that has had abnormally rapid growth also sees a rapid decline years later. Even within similar geographic areas, this occurs. A great example is Gwinnett, which had the growth wave march outward 20+ years ago. Cars clog roads and students clog schools. Governments are then forced to permit high-density apartments and questionable commercial to "balance the tax base." It seems that after one generation of families (or 20+ years), deterioration of those neighborhoods begins. Similar trends can be seen in areas in South and West DeKalb, eastern Rockdale and Douglas County.

Fundamental principles in neighborhoods that seem to stand the test of time are high quality residential building standards, quality landscaping, established infrastructure (rather than building infrastructure after traffic was already bad), and neighborhood schools. You can also see these principles at work in Athens, Gainesville, Rome and other cities. Thoughts?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Gang of 10


Earlier this week I offered up some kudos to Sens. Isakson and Chambliss for actually working on a compromise (gasp!) bill that will make real progress towards energy independence. Today, in an op-ed in the AJC, they offer some more detail on their efforts.

It is apparent they are taking some heat over this as a result of attacks from talk entertainers Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Neal Boortz who want to hold up progress on energy in order to score points for John McCain. (Side note: I really wish Sen. McCain could find a way to score points on the issues).

Johnny and Saxby -- stick to your guns. Get something done. This isn't a campaign issue. It is an economic issue for the vast majority of Americans and Georgians, and contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of Republicans who recognize it will take more than just "drilling here and drilling now" to wean ourselves from our addiction to foreign oil.

NBAF

Yesterday I attended the NBAF Public Hearing and spoke in favor of the project. In my opinion, the risks are few and are far outweighed by the need for stronger national and economic security in the agricultural area.

One of the fundamental localized disagreements is over the impact of jobs -- however many would come with NBAF -- and their importance to our community. Given the new data that emerged yesterday, the economic case for NBAF is incredibly strong. Among the lower paying jobs are $43,500 for administrative assistants. Given the comments of homeland security officials and veterinary experts yesterday, the security need for NBAF is also incredibly strong, and Athens and UGA have the right mix of researchers and location to serve our country.

I agree with many that the Milledge Avenue location is less than ideal -- it will certainly change the character of that cherished stretch of road forever. I do not believe it will have a notable effect on the Botanical Gardens, certainly no more than the aroma of the sewage treatment plant just down the river from the Garden on a hot summer day. All that said, sometimes we all have to give up a little bit of what we enjoy about our community for the greater good. In my opinion, this is one of those times.

At the afternoon session, those speaking in favor of the project outnumbered opponents 25-12; I would say the overall crowd was evenly divided. For whatever reason, I was the one speaker at the afternoon session who got to engage in a bit of debate with an audience member (details here and here). From what I hear, the evening session was a bit more energetic and more opposition was there. Apparently there were a few more speaking against the project than for it, but not by a large margin.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Links and Thoughts

A few links and thoughts for the day:
  • Regular readers know I am passionate about energy independence. This issue hits the U.S. globally (national defense, economic competitiveness) and locally (economic impact, lifestyle changes, etc.) This editorial from the Washington Post nails it, calling for the need to conserve but to drill as well. A key point the story makes that is easily missed: "The strongest argument against drilling is that it could distract the country from a pursuit of alternative sources of energy....No, the United States cannot drill its way to energy independence. But with the roaring economies of China and India gobbling up oil in the two countries' latter-day industrial revolutions, the United States can no longer afford to turn its back on finding all the sources of fuel necessary to maintain its economy and its standard of living." Even conservative Rep. Jack Kingston blogged about this editorial today, although he left out the ANWR part of the equation.
  • I also applaud Senators Chambliss and Isakson for being a part of the gang of 10 who are practical Republicans willing to compromise to get something accomplished on the energy front. To the Hannitys and Limbaughs and Boortzes who would rather watch blather about inflating tires, driving a hybrid that gets 18 MPG and in general use inaction on energy as an club to win the election rather than get something accomplished, shame on you. This approach is a sad commentary on how desperate Republicans are to beat Obama. Interesting coverage and commentary here and here. Transcript of Chambliss v. Boortz here.
  • It came out earlier this week that Mississippi is in the lead in the NBAF race because of some political shenanigans. Most people think this is bad news for Athens' chances (or good news in general, depending on your perspective). But did it not occur to anyone that this information was likely leaked for a reason, perhaps by another competitor in order to hurt Mississippi? My suspects would be Kansas and Texas, in that order, who have little community opposition and the strongest mix of political and technical strength among candidates. If the NBAF decision stretches past the election, the news of a Bush appointee meddling with the process will likely kill Mississippi's chances.
  • Go Jim Wooten. Or should I say go John Witte Jr. Thoughtful editorial and an amazing look at one of the most devastating trends in our society today -- that of one-parent households. An excerpt: "Without question, when 38 percent of children are born to single women and to men who are most likely walk-aways, serious changes in the law, in the media, in the conversations on campuses, and in the middle class and in churches, are required. Adults deserve every protection of the law —- until the moment they conceive. Then the law's obligation shifts to the interests of the child ...."
  • Newsweek and Time have both run big pieces lately on the end of the South or what is happening in the South. As always seems to happen, they fall to quickly into generalizations and Newsweek chooses to lead with the old "Southern angst over the civil war" approach. Lets face it, there are a few who still think about the "War of Northern Aggression." Well, maybe a few is too strong. Much too strong. The fact is, the vast majority of the South has moved on. Way on. Sure, we still have our issues down here. But what sets the South apart these days isn't race or an old legacy. It's pace. It's tradition, whether black or white. It's a certain energy and state of mind. It sure isn't a bunch of worrying over the lost cause that's got the South thinking a little bit harder about his presidential election than ones previous -- it's issues like energy independence (which hit our auto-driven, air conditioning society particularly hard), the contrast of growth and poverty, educational opportunities, and much more.
  • Speaking of the South, it took some serious guts for Rich Rusk to pen this piece on Moore's Ford. His group has done a lot to try to bring closure to this tragedy, and deserves credit. But he's right -- the re-enactments have transformed into a spectacle and are no longer necessary. But I have a feeling they will keep occuring as long as 1) the media keeps covering them and 2) no arrests are made in the case.