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.

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