Last Saturday, Newton Trails board members and a few invited guests gathered for a half-day planning retreat to refocus on the vision, mission, and critical goals and objectives of the organization. You may wonder how much a group can accomplish in four and a half hours, but with preparation and a good facilitator, we covered much more ground than you might imagine.
Among the valuable outcomes of that intense effort are a new vision and mission statement. Granted, these are only words, but personally, I found the shift in focus to be quite profound. Let me put it out there first, and then I'll tell you why.
We envision a healthy, vibrant, prosperous community connected to one another, to nature, to our history, and to daily life through a system of greenway trails.
To promote, develop, and sustain a connected system of trails that supports a vibrant, healthy, and prosperous community.
The first difference I hope you'll recognize is the focus on outcomes: health, vibrancy, prosperity, and connectedness. These are the things that matter. Even I have to confess staring at a 10 to 12-foot wide ribbon of inanimate concrete leaves me wondering "what's the big deal?" It's the lives being lived there that matter. We don't just pave dirt, we bring places to life and people together.
The second key difference is that we've taken ourselves out of the trap of carefully fencing off organizational roles and responsibilities. When pursuing outcomes, we do whatever we have to do and can do to realize them. If a local government is willing and able to maintain a particular trail, then we support them in that effort. If no one else will maintain it, then our mission says we need to find a way. We act, though, not out of a scripted set of responses, but from a passionate caring about the end results.
To promote a system of trails goes beyond advocacy; it means selling the community on the benefits before construction, but also putting emphasis on making sure people are aware of, using, and benefiting from trails once they are built.
To develop, of course means to plan, design, and construct. To sustain encompasses the maintenance required to keep a trail in great shape, but it also goes further to make sure the trails are visible, accessible, well-used, and appreciated.
We're working on the goals, objectives, and strategies to accelerate the rate at which we realize this vision for Newton County. Key among those strategies will be getting you -- our supporters -- more engaged and actively helping. So, it's very important this new vision statement speaks to you.
Let us know what you think.
On Monday, Atlanta Business Chronicle columnist Maria Saporta published a great blog post titled "More cycling, walking and green space will make Atlanta a more competitive and livable city."
In that article, Saporta shared comments from national experts visiting Atlanta last week for two separate events: Park Pride and the Cities for Cycling Road Show. Across both events, and in presentations by many speakers, the common message was clear: walking, biking, and public green space are vital to our region's long term growth and prosperity.In another Monday report, Saporta recapped a talk by developer and Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Chris Leinberger. Saying "Hot-lanta is No Longer Hot," Leinberger delivered a pointed wake up call to Rotary Club of Atlanta members
. In a talk heavy on examples of how other cities are outpacing our region in every key economic indicator, he criticized Atlanta for investing in "yesterday's economy and not tomorrow's." In particular, he stressed the importance of transit and creating "walkable urban spaces rather than drivable suburban spaces."
“That’s why Atlanta has flat-lined,” Leinberger said. "It only has five walkable urban neighborhoods while Washington, D.C. has more than 40."These experts were speaking of the metro Atlanta region, which reaches well into the western fringes of Newton County. But, the sounding alarms should be heeded by leadership across all of Newton County.
Like the state and the metro region, we must stop building yesterday's economy and lay the groundwork for the economy of tomorrow. Ironically, while our county has fallen far behind in yesterday's framework, we have certain advantages if we embrace the coming model. Leinberger alluded to one such advantage when describing the "experience economy" built on tourism, which he called "the biggest industry on the planet." Newton County has an edge there, but now is when we must exploit it. And, as we have said many times, greenway trails are great tourism attractions with proven economic impact.Thankfully, some Newton County leaders are recognizing the urgent need for better walking and biking facilities in area. To that end, the cities of Covington, Oxford
, and Porterdale (C-O-P) have launched a project with the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission (NEGRC) and Newton Trails to examine current facilities and identify priorities for improving walking and biking. Mayors Ronnie Johnston, Jerry Roseberry, and Arline Chapman are all actively engaged, along with County Commission Chair Kathy Morgan. This is a huge step forward in recognizing what the Regional Walking and Biking Plan
already shows -- that C-O-P is a critical focus area for the region.You can make a difference by responding to a questionnaire the city's are conducting through NEGRC.
A paper version of the survey is being mailed in this month's utility bills, but you can take the survey now online
. We have leaders willing to chart a new course; show them you have their backs by taking the survey and making it clear the people of Newton County are ready to embrace the future.We can do this!
In difficult economic times, it's easy to understand why some Newton County residents can't imagine investing in greenway trails for walking and biking. "Maybe later," they say. "But, now is not the time." On one level, I get that. But, on a deeper level, there is an assumption things will simply get better with time. And, there is every reason to believe that is no longer a given.Last week, University of Georgia economists at the Selig
Center for Economic Growth issued a dire forecast for Georgia's economic recovery
this decade. According to the report, the Georgia economy will not return to pre-recession employment levels until 2020. More important than the timeline for recovery is the underlying message of what it will take to achieve it. For years, Georgia's economic growth outpaced the rest of the nation, fueled by technology, housing, and finance. But, the tech bust of the early 2000s and the real estate collapse of the late 2000s has meant a drastic and sudden reversal of fortunes in our state. The message from UGA's economists is that we must rethink growth strategies and recalibrate around a new set of drivers for the Georgia economy of the 21st century.And now you're probably asking "what does this have to do with walking and biking trails?"According to Maria Saporta, in her Atlanta Business Chronicle blog, it has everything to do with walking and biking. She shared her perspective on what the UGA forecast means to Georgians in an article published Monday titled "After decades of growth, Georgia now facing a whole new economic reality."In Saporta's view, Georgia has been coasting for years on past glories. And, in this century, we have lost our competitive edge. Looking at US cities faring best this decade, she sees a common thread for economic vibrancy: places that appeal to college-educated youth.
"Because they can choose where they want to live," Saporta writes. "Young people are picking cities and states with great amenities — communities that offer a high quality of life for them — walkable live, work and play neighborhoods with sidewalks, bicycle lanes, parks, transit and a thriving arts and cultural scene."Maybe those arguing "now is not the time" for building greenway trails and parks
are right. Perhaps, as it turns out, the time to do so was yesterday!
Not only must Georgia compete with other states and Atlanta with other metro areas for growth, but Newton County must go toe-to-toe with the rest of Georgia. If not this, then what? What is our strategy for creating a place tourists want to visit and small businesses and growth industries want to call home?
Perhaps yesterday was the time to act, but we are where we are. And, there's no time like the present.
No Trail Talk Blog posts in over a month... Wow, am I ever ashamed. While I'm seldom -- OK, never -- at a loss for words, it does get tiring telling the same story over and over. Then, along comes a video like the one below to snap me out of it. This, my friends, is what it's all about...
Over 100 miles of greenways and off-street walking and biking paths, a successful and growing public bike share program, and an outdoor community filled with people from every walk of life -- out connecting with nature and with one another. It takes vision and leadership to create what cities like Minneapolis have today. You might think we lack that kind of vision in Newton County. Well, yes and no.
..In 2008, the Newton County Board of Commissioners adopted an updated Comprehensive Plan/Community Agenda for the two decades leading to 2028. That plan, available here, is filled with clear, pointed statements about the importance o
f walking and biking to the community and the need for better facilities. "Though the County has a bicycle plan, the need remains for more multi-use trails for walking and biking," reads the section on Transportation Opportunities. And, the Transportation Strategies section includes an item calling on the County to: "Expand pedestrian and bicycle facilities within recommended activity centers as part of all new development, and in support of the County Greenways Plan."The section on Natural and Cultural Resources states: "
A greenspace plan, which identified opportune areas for trails and greenways, was created shortly after the County’s April 2000 Comprehensive Plan Update. This plan has stimulated greater levels of interest in trails and greenspace as both community assets and tools for natural resource preservation. Further efforts should be made to implement the plan and keep it up-todate. The County has purchased several tracts of land for preservation, but more can be done."The plan is filled from front to back with repeated references to trails and greenways in nearly every character area and development node. To reinforce this point, we've accumulated an inventory of those references. You can find it here.Remember, the Newton County Board of Commissioners adopted this plan unanimously, on a motion made by Commissioner Mort Ewing and seconded by Commissioner Monty Laster. The City of Covington has very similar strategies and plans in its Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2007. The vision has always been there, supported time and again by citizen input. What has been lost is the connection of our Commissioners and our Council Members to that vision.These are the questions you need to be asking those running for election or reelection to these posts. Do they remember the vision, and are they willing to work hard to make it a reality? The choice is simple. We can
aim for the top, or we can fall aimlessly to the bottom.
Sometimes, in Newton County, it's hard not to feel we're living on a different planet or in a parallel universe, separate from the all the other communities we hear about. A good example is this news story about the Tweetsie Line Trail between Johnson City and Elizabethton, in northeast Tennessee.
, then watch and listen as elected leaders, business development professionals, small business owners, and residents share enthusiasm and excitement about what the trail will mean to their community. Imagine for a moment the Newton County community united in the same way around the Norfolk Southern railroad opportunity.
It's hard work, but we have to keep telling the stories. Nationally, there are more than 1,600 rail trails covering over 19,000 miles of converted railroad. It's happening somewhere everyday... Just ask the people in Johnson City!
Buckhead Community Improvement District CEO Jim Durrett announced Tuesday night his group will co-sponsor the planned Georgia 400 Trail through Buckhead. (Read about it here
This is huge news. But, to explain the significance, I need to make sure readers know what a Community Improvement District (CID) is. As allowed by the Georgia Constitution
, when enabled by counties and/or cities, a CID is a geographically defined district where commercial and industrial property owners vote to impose an additional property tax on themselves. The proceeds are collected and used to fund construction and maintenance of infrastructure within the district, as directed by an elected board of directors. Those investments can include water, streets, transit, parks & recreation, storm water, etc. In effect, CIDs are governmental entities in the eyes of Georgia law and they have the ability to tax, as well as to incur bonded debt against their future revenues.The Buckhead CID is but one example of the many CIDs operating throughout metro Atlanta. Gwinnett County has four CIDs, DeKalb County has several, as do Fulton and Cobb.
In Buckhead, businesses pay an additional 3 mils on their property tax. In Gwinnett, each CID collects another 5 mil. The following video gives a good overview of the role of CIDs in driving Georgia's economic prosperity.
The first important point is: CIDs prove businesses value infrastructure that benefits the community at large, and they are willing to invest in it. Contrary to some lines of thinking, low taxes are not always the answer. These districts voted to increase their taxes to meet glaring needs and achieve a better overall outcome for the region.
The second important point is: The Buckhead CID recognizes greenspace and bike/pedestrian accessibility as important elements of a thriving business district. They see the trail not as something for use "by a few" but as a central element of what makes the region attractive to business. This supports our assertion that greenway trails are very much an economic development investment and a driver of community vitality.
Warning: This blog post contains graphic facts and figures and, as such, may not be suitable for persons prone to emotional decision making and/or those easily swayed by fear-based appeals. Apologies for that. But, I've been told more than once that "facts don't matter" when discussing a position these days. I believe differently, and I suspect you do too. If nothing else, you need clear, relevant facts to persuade your friends and neighbors. But, you will have to focus.
So, here goes...
I love going public about trails -- speaking to civic groups or setting up a table as we did at Chimney Park Saturday. It gives us a chance to listen to what really matters to people. And, Saturday, we had a great discussion with a young woman who appreciates the health benefits of trails and greenways, but who also wonders if we can afford to spend money on them when our schools are facing such challenging times. (With three youngsters in tow, she clearly had a vested interested in the health of our school system.)
So, really. How, in good conscience, can we suggest spending money to buy a railroad and build a trail, when our school system is forced into serious measures to make ends meet?Charlie Sheen... William & Kate...Sorry, just making sure everyone is still with us...So, About those Facts & FiguresWe advocate trails for many reasons, but a major element of the business case is the economic development impact
. To understand what that means for the Newton County School System, consider the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville, CO. (To read the full story, click here
). Leadville saw a 19% increase in sales tax revenue following the opening of that trail. What would a similar boost mean for Newton County and especially for our schools?Newton's 7% sales tax consists of 4% for the state, a 1% local option sales tax (LOST) split between the county & cities, a 1% Special LOST (SPLOST), and a 1% Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST). Over the past six years, the Newton County School Board collected an average of $10M per year through the ELOST. So, a 19% increase would yield another $1.9M per year to go towards running our schools.
Across the board, the county, schools, and local governments would realize $5.7M in additional revenues each year, without raising taxes a single penny!If you
wonder whether a 19% increase is realistic, consider this... From 2001 to 2010, the Newton County population grew by at least 61%. (Note: The county is challenging that the 2010 population is actually higher than what was reported by the latest census.) Over that same time period, sales tax revenues grew by only 24%. Our growth in commercial and industrial property did not keep pace. If our sales tax revenues had grown at the same rate as our population, we would have added another $8.4M each year to our sales tax proceeds.Or, consider the 2008 economic development study commissioned jointly by the City of Covington and Newton County. (Access the plan details here.) That study reported Newton County residents spend $1.5 billion annually on retail purchases, but that Newton County businesses take in only $750 million. The net effect is $750 million of retail leakage to neighboring counties. We forgo $22.5 million in sales tax revenues on that
leakage -- $7.5M of which would go to our schools.No matter how you measure it, our county is significantly disadvantaged when it comes to our retail economy. It hinders our recovery and makes us especially vulnerable during economic downturns. Trails are not the only answer, but they are a proven and vital element to creating a tourism drawn to boost sales for existing businesses, create new businesses, and attract major industry. For many more examples, see our Economic Benefits Research Summary here.
Hey, you stuck with me! I told them facts do matter!