Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Qualifying Begins and Election News

Local qualifying has begun, and the Oconee Enterprise has the most comprehensive list of local qualifiers I have seen at its new website, and Adam Thompson at the Athens Banner-Herald has an overview of the qualifiers and an interview with chair candidate Sarah Bell here. Some interesting names out there and still some open slots, apparently (don't expect those will remain much longer).

The big news locally has been the number of yard signs popping up for Tommy Malcom, who grew up down the road from me in Northwest Woods. Tommy's surprise decision to challenge incumbent Republican Bill Cowsert in the July primary turned some heads.

Tommy Malcom is a fine man and someone I have known a long time. I applaud him for his service on the school board. We need more young people seeking elected positions, and Tommy is one of the youngest I can remember to get engaged politically (he was elected to the school board at age 22 or 23). I have no doubt Tommy will have future opportunities to serve, and applaud him for his willingness to go after a higher position.

But Bill's legal expertise and the high regard held for him by his colleagues make it clear he will be a leader in the Senate sooner rather than later -- if we keep him in Atlanta. Last night I attended Bill's campaign kick off at the Oconee County Civic Center (good recap here from Blake Aued). In attendance were Senate Majority Leader Tommy Williams, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Karen Handel and Senate Majority Caucus Chair Dan Moody. As you'd expect, these folks spoke glowingly of Bill.

By almost all accounts, Bill has served the area ably, taking leadership positions on the state water plan and a number of other fronts. He has not been afraid to vote against bills favored by his party when he sees a problem with them. He also has a seat on the appropriations committee, which is very beneficial for our area.

Our region needs to take care of state and federal legislative leaders with strong potential and give them the time it takes to earn leadership positions. It is also healthy to have an attorney in Atlanta who understands the Georgia Code and the unintended consequences of laws that are proposed. The best thing for this area is to send Bill back to Atlanta for another four years. What do you think?

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Sprint to Suwanee

Before moving to Watkinsville, I spent six years of my childhood near Suwanee, watching Gwinnett transition from a rural community into a suburban one. My family went to church at McKendree United Methodist (more on that to come in a separate post) and we lived in what is now the Collins Hill school district. It's probably not surprising then that I don't have a natural affinity for Gwinnett and how it has grown -- much of it has been poorly planned, haphazard, and in many ways terrible for the environment, for commutes, and for the overall health of the community. Indeed, a common refrain in Oconee is "I don't want this place to look like Gwinnett." I have said it, and in most cases I absolutely agree.

But this morning I had the good fortune to see the start of the Tour de Georgia in downtown Suwanee. I was invited to watch by city council member Jeannine Rispin (click here to see a photo of Jeannine overlooking the start posted on today's AJC -- it is the first picture in a photo gallery from the start in Suwanee) after I told her I was interested in learning more about what was going on in Suwanee. I wasn't sure what to expect -- I was well aware of Duluth's new town center and how it had ressurected a downtown that had been ignored for more than 20 years. I had heard about some developments in Suwanee, but was not prepared for what I saw.

Just over 10 years ago, Suwanee was about the size of Watkinsville from a financial standpoint and had fewer resources, with no historic downtown or arts community and few historic homes. A rail line runs through the heart of the city, and the growth of Atlanta and Duluth was rapidly approaching (sound familiar?). Today, through proactive, grass roots planning and strong vision, it has grown into a community that has accomplished the following:
  • Created Greenspace and trails: Through a bond issue voted on by city residents, Suwanee has added more than 200 acres of greenspace within its 11 square miles, including a dramatic downtown park that includes a performance arena, water fountain for children to play in, etc. They have also built nearly six miles of multi-purpose walking and cycling trails.
  • Built a diverse tax base: By harnessing the incoming growth and creating quality jobs and industry, the city has grown its tax base and kept jobs and opportunity for cities close to home.
  • Diversified its revenue base: By partnering with the county on SPLOST and accessing a variety of state and federal funding sources, the city has been able to leverage its own dollars and accomplish an enormous amount.
  • Encouraged private investment: By setting a vision, requiring quality projects, and sticking to its codes, the community has recruited outstanding private developers like Madison Retail who have built complex, mixed-use projects. The city has also repaid much of its investment in greenspace by selling adjacent parcels to private developers.
  • Engaged its residents, visitors, and businesses. From its thorough website to a community-driven planning process to its slick marketing materials, its obvious that this city makes a commitment to communicating to residents, businesses, economic development prospects and employees.
  • Created a downtown: Unlike Watkinsville, Suwanee had no downtown to speak of 15 years ago. The decision was made to build around a new town green (see the pictures above and below). Long term plans call for these types of buildings to surround the green on all three sides -- today, they already include stunning tri-plex condos with rooftop terraces, single family homes, and a variety of shops and restaurants (including Five Guys) with plentiful parking, trees and great views. I came away feeling lucky that we have such a strong existing downtown already existing in Watkinsville.

Today, the city of Suwanee has a full police force, their own city manager, planner, economic development director, and more. These efforts to define itself rather than allowing the community to be defined have clearly paid off for its citizens. As I stood atop a three story condo and took in the families, state leaders, world class cyclists, retirees, vendors, and others enjoying their morning at the Suwanee Town Center, I was inspired to come back to Watkinsville and Oconee County and apply some of these lessons as we grow. Because we will grow -- and we have to do it right.

All in all, it was a spectacular morning and a great opportunity to learn about how another city -- with citizen involvement and strong leadership -- has been able to create a wonderful living environment.

If you have seen other small communities that Watkinsville can learn from, please comment or e-mail and let me know -- would love to learn more.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Alma Mater

It doesn't exactly fit into local politics, but in a previous life, I was a collegiate athlete. I attended Berry College and we competed in the something called the NAIA. What is the NAIA? It is a smaller, less bureaucratic version of the NCAA that mainly features small private schools, some Canadian schools, religious schools, etc. At the time, there were programs like Liscomb, Birmingham Southern, Belmont, Kennesaw State, and other reasonably high-profile institutions (note that some of these programs have since gone so far as to have made the NCAA tournament in basketball and have won national championships in other sports).

Today, most of the respected academic schools have fled the NAIA for the NCAA, either Division I, II or III. Division III technically does not allow athletes to accept scholarships just for athletic performance. There are many reasons schools have moved away from the NAIA -- low eligibility requirements, difficulty scheduling NCAA teams, declining prestige, lack of awareness, difficulty recruiting, less competition -- and Berry is now having a debate on campus about making the move.

Predictably, the coaches don't want to change. They like it where they are. Also predictably, the academic side of the institution wants to change so that Berry is affiliated with more "like-minded" institutions (read: better academic schools).

My take: I have been saying for years that Berry needs to leave the NAIA. While I'm not privy to all the considerations that Berry and its board of trustees must consider, this is a pretty clear cut issue for me. The NAIA is a joke to many athletes, coaches, high school students, etc. Lax eligibility requirements and virtually no enforcement allow schools to "buy" athletes who have competed professionally or who are 30+ years old. When I was running, I had to compete against a mercenary program from Life College (a chiropractic school in Marietta) that included a former professional track and field athlete from Germany, a 30+ year old marathoner, an athlete who was kicked out of a Division I program for accepting prize money, and a Kenyan who ran on the European track circuit. It was ridiculous.

So where to from here? Frankly, division III makes the most sense. Now that it has the Cage Center, Berry needs to move quickly to align itself with the institutions with whom it competes for academic and athletic talent and find a way to provide need or merit-based grants to athletes as well. It won't be easy, but it is the right thing to do long term for an institution near and dear to my heart.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Local School Board Candidates

There will be significant turnover on the Oconee County Board of Education in this year's election. Board Chair Chris Franklin is not running again, nor is David Williams. Tommy Malcom is running for state senate. Mack Guest, who was appointed when Tom Porter resigned due to a personal move, will be up for election. David Weeks will run for board chair and is probably the odds-on favorite. The board is also moving to staggered terms with this election.

One candidate I'm excited to see running is Chuck Toney, who is running for Post 4. Chuck is running for David Williams' seat, and would make an outstanding addition to the board. He has been involved in a variety of school initiatives through the years and has a broad perspective on a number of issues. He was interviewed by Tim Bryant on Tuesday (move to 14:00 into the segment) and had some interesting comments.

Our school system is a great asset for Oconee, and is one of the best in the state by nearly every measure (am excited that my daughter will be a Colham Ferry Mustang next year!). The education I received in Oconee was second to none.

My only fear about school systems in general is the potential for "leapfrogging" into agricultural areas with new school sites, speeding up development in rural areas and increasing pressures for subdivisions, since many parents like to send their kids to the "new school." This story from New Urban News offers a great look at how some systems have decided to plan their schools with the broader community in mind, and some of the potential benefits, including significant savings in terms of land acquisition, transportation, etc. It is a positive news that the School System is strongly considering maintaining its board offices in downtown Watkinsville, which is centrally located to most of the schools and offers a lot of convenience for those who office there as well.

My preference would be for new schools -- especially elementary and middle -- to be more community-focused rather than mega-sites that create traffic nightmares. The school system should focus on joint planning with the county, cities and private developers so that our schools are located in areas designated for growth on future land use plans and integrated into our community as it grows rather than being an engine for more subdivisions. While Oconee has done a pretty good job with this so far, as our system and county grow closer planning will be critical.

As for education itself, I'll leave that in the hands of the pros like my wife and my Mom, who have spent years taking care of the students of Oconee County and know a whole lot more about that than I do.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ashford Manor

Details are out about Ashford Manor's Summer Concerts on the Lawn Series, one of the best events in town on certain Monday nights from Spring to Fall.

GDOT Drama

Many in this area may not think the ongoing drama at the Georgia Department of Transportation impacts us.

But it does.

The longer GDOT remains incompetent and inefficient, the longer it will take to fix transportation problems in Northeast Georgia, Atlanta, and the rest of the state. And fixing transportation with a variety of solutions -- including rail -- is critical for the long term health of this region.

As for the specific situation in Atlanta right now -- the GDOT Board Chair falling for GDOT commissioner Gena Abraham -- I don't have a problem with it. Both are unmarried. They reported the relationship and nothing improper occurred. That said, I can understand how state representatives who were punished by Speaker Glenn Richardson for voting for Evans will be unhappy that all that was for naught.

All that said, I have met Commissioner Abraham several times and have been quite impressed -- I think she is indeed the best hope to bring GDOT into the 21st century and rebuild confidence in it among elected officials and the Georgia public.

4/24 UPDATE: Interesting story from yesterday's New York Times.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Shout Out

Thanks to Pete for the shout out for Voice of Moderation in today's Flagpole. And to answer his question, yes, I think there are more moderates on both sides than most people realize -- many just get sick of the rhetoric and choose not to participate in the dialog, whether it is local, regional or national.

The progress we are making in Watkinsville is proof that people from a variety of political persuasions (right, left and middle) can work together to get a lot done when you're willing to just focus on doing the right thing and you have a shared vision of where you want to go.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Had the opportunity to see the last round of the Masters on Sunday thanks to my friend JMac, who came up with an extra badge. First time I have been since 1996, the last year Tiger missed the cut (I think). Here's what I noticed:

  • Obviously, the golf was spectacular. Was particularly impressed with anyone who could approach par in Sunday's conditions.
  • A lot of Yankees attend the Masters.
  • There was not a weed anywhere. The amateur gardener in me was blown away by the beauty of the place, although a little more variety in the landscape could have been a positive.
  • Most of those guys are true athletes. Guys like Boo Weekley and John Daly are becoming rarer and rarer.
That's all for now, but a neat afternoon.

Friday, April 11, 2008

More Business

Dory's Hearth and Home will re-open in Watkinsville at the end of the month in what looks like a much larger and upgraded space. Congrats to one of Watkinsville's most well known retail businesses! Details above for those who can read sideways (can't figure out how to turn the picture in blogger).

Back from the Dead

Okay, four months is long enough. Today the Athens Banner-Herald was kind enough to publish a letter from me on NBAF. I can't say how frustrating it is to watch people in our community use hyperbole and inaccurate information to sidetrack good jobs from coming to our community. Are there issues to discuss and consider about NBAF? Sure.

But to try to tie up NBAF over mysterious "power plants", threats to the Botanical Gardens, and year old economic impact studies that have been refuted, as Athens FAQ does, is just silly.