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!
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.
Discuss Newton County's rail-trail opportunity with friends and neighbors and someone will surely raise concerns about the economics of such a project. I've written recently about the positive effect trails have on the local economy from increased tourism spending and stronger industry recruitment tools. But, what about that federal deficit? By accepting and spending federal grant money, aren't we contributing to runaway spending in Washington and heaping crippling debt onto our children and grandchildren?Well, not exactly.The two federal earmarks awarded to Newton County in 2008 and 2009 for the railroad corridor acquisition were provided under the Transportation, Community, & System Preservation (TCSP) program of the Federal Highway Adminstration (FHWA). The other grants Newton County currently holds for construction of the Eastside and Turkey Creek/Yellow River trails were awarded under the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program of the FHWA.Both programs reimburse states and local governments for certain transportation-related projects from the Highway Trust Fund (HTW), which is
funded through users fees in the form of taxes on gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, LP, tires, truck & trailer purchases, and heavy vehicle licensing.The term "Federal Highway Aid" is a misnomer, since the "aid" provided by the federal government is simply a redistribution of taxes collected from the states. And, as in most such systems, the redistribution favors some states and punishes others. The winners (debtor states) receive more federal aid than the taxes paid by that state's residents. The losers (donor states)
receive back in federal aid less dollars than what state residents contributed.Since 1956, when the Federal Highway Trust was created, Georgia has been a donor state, receiving back only 84% of the money paid into the fund. Meanwhile, New York has received a 113% return on taxes paid. In 2009 alone, Georgians paid an excess of $206 million into the fund vs. the amount received back in federal grants.
(For a writeup describing the inequities of the current system, see this piece
from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)I could readily support a system that allows states to keep our highway taxes local and not have them redistributed by
the federal government. But, that is not the system in effect today. Those who advocate "giving back" the railroad grants do not understand this money comes from the Federal Highway Trust and is allocated by law to the TCSP and TE programs. If not used on a project in Newton County, it will be used on a project in another Georgia county, or even in another state. And, why should Georgians pay to build a rail trail in New York state? I guarantee you THAT won't bring tourism dollars to Newton County.For more information on the Transportation Enhancements program, click here. For more information about the Transportation, Community, and System Preservation program, click here.
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!
Sunday morning, I drove to Hiram, Georgia to ride with some friends from Nashville, in town for the weekend to bike the Silver Comet Trail. They needed to be on the road to home by 1 pm, so we rode 18 miles out to Coots Lake (almost to Rockmart) and then back. It was an overcast morning, and we were starting our ride east of where the most populous sections of the Comet run through west Cobb County. But, we still had plenty of company on the trail.It had been over a year since I'd made it out to ride the SCT, so I enjoyed being back on everyone's favorite rail-trail in these parts. Just like all of my other visits, I was struck by the diversity of people who use the trail. We saw triathletes out for morning training rides mixing in with elderly couples out for a stroll. We witnessed families biking together in no particular hurry mingling with joggers out for a morning run. We met people walking dogs and friends just sitting and chatting on the many benches along the trail. It was a "slice of life" journey that never grows old each time I pass that way.
My friends talked about their 100-mile ride on Saturday, which took them across the Alabama state line, onto the Chief Ladiga Trail, and back. As I have seen on past journeys, they too met up with several Boy Scout troops on excursions to earn their 50-Miler Merit Badge
.Back home that evening, I tried to recall the surroundings of the trail and what kind of areas we passed through. What I realized, was my only real recollection was of the trail itself. Except, perhaps, the unforgettable smell of the water treatment plant we passed! :-)
Curious, I checked the satellite views on Google Maps to see just what had been near that section of trail. I was surprised to see residential neighborhoods, industrial plants, schools, forests, and farms. Surprised, because you rarely notice these things from the trail itself. Partly, I guess, because the treeline buffers so well, and partly because you're so caught up in your own ride, that only the beautiful vistas from the bridges and overpasses are enough to jar you from your immediate focus. I bring this up, because I know some folks worry about privacy living near such a trail. I think if they would visit the Silver Comet, and see it from a trail users perspective, they might see that issue differently.I also share this story to highlight another benefit we tout so often about trails... the economic impact. My friends were part of a group of 15 riders from Nashville's Harpeth Bike Club. They drove down from Tennessee for the weekend.
Four stayed Friday night and the other 11 stayed both Friday and Saturday night. Between hotel stays, meals, snacks, entertainment, gasoline, and supplies, they easily spent over $3,500 as a group for the weekend. And, I couldn't help but notice the cars in the hotel parking lot with bike racks and license plates from other states. The Silver Comet is an economic engine for Cobb, Paulding, and Polk Counties. You can see that everytime you visit.My only lament from the weekend was that I had to drive 125 miles and nearly three hours round trip to enjoy the rail-trail experience. If only there were someplace closer to Newton County with a railroad waiting to be turned into trail... Hmmm...
I've spent a large chunk of the last three years talking to the people of Newton County about trails and greenways. I've chatted with friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers -- in groups and one by one -- explaining why developing walking and biking trails will be good for Newton County. Over the years, I've amassed quite a large volume of data from case studies, research, and success stories of other communities. But, as compelling as the facts and figures are, I was reminded while speaking to the Covington Lions last week that, in the end, it's still personal.I can quote statistics about people who walk or bike for transportation, and how our roads make that more dangerous than it has to be for them. But, what really matters is Jimmy from Butler street who bikes past my house
on the sidewalk several times a day, often carrying a bag of groceries or something from the drug store. It's illegal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in Georgia, and I worry about a car exiting or entering a driveway striking Jimmy. But, he is afraid to bike in the street.There's also my neighbor who walks several miles to/from work each day at Riverside Nursing home. They lost their car when her husband lost his job building houses. And, there's my legally blind neighbor who rides an adult tricycle to/from the library and the Square, and who can't wait to ride to Ingle's on her own when the Eastside Trail is finished beneath the bypass.Truth be told, people are walking and biking all around us everyday. Most times, we don't even see them -- focused as we are on the other cars we jostle with on the roadways. That's a major reason why an average of 20 cyclists and 150 pedestrians are killed on Georgia roadways every year.
Just this week, Newborn's 90-year-old Mayor, Roger Sheridan, narrowly escaped serious injury when struck by a car in downtown Covington.You may not see fellow citizens who travel by foot or bike, but slow down long enough to take a look along the overgrown and littered shoulders of each of our state highways passing in and out of Covington. There you can see the evidence
of their existence in the well-worn, packed dirt footpaths they have worn. Look long enough, and you'll also see the makeshift memorials -- the tattered wreaths and faded bouquets that mark the spot of a loved one's untimely demise.No. It's not about the numbers. It's personal.Likewise, regarding the health benefits of trails,
I can quote you all the figures from the CDC and other health agencies about the obesity epidemic that threatens our young people. I can tell you with much dismay that 32% of our youth are overweight and 17% are obese. I can tell you health officials warn us children born today will be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents. But, again those are numbers. It's personal. It's the story of my college friend Robert who moved away at the end of the 1990s a 320+ lb man and showed up several years later a fit and healthy 180 lbs, all thanks to riding a bike. Or, I can tell you about the young African American woman I saw out walking with her son on the Arabia Mountain Trail in Lithonia. Mother and child we both significantly overweight and
laboring to climb a small hill. But, this mother was making the commitment it took for she and her son to live a healthier life. And, that trail was her pathway back to that existence. For her, it was personal.I can rattle of stories for hours about the economic impact of trails and greenways. I can show you the academic and government studies that demonstrate how trails attract tourist spending,
provide the incentive for new businesses, and lure major industry. But, instead, I like to think about Frankie Pence, the one-woman tour-de-force behind Frankie's Italian Restaurant along the Silver Comet Trail in Rockmart. Her restaurant is a must-see destination for anyone riding the trail, and her relationship with the regulars and newcomers who stop in hungry from a bike ride or hike is genuine and personal. If you want to see what kind of businesses a trail can generate, go see Frankie.I'd still love for you to take the time to read the facts and figures, but don't let that get in the way of what matters most. It's personal.
They say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I've ever known.
That opening from Billy Joel's song Summer Highland Falls sticks with me. I'm not sure what Billy meant to convey, but the lyric reinforces my belief there's nothing to be gained by dwelling on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These may turn out to be good times or bad times years from now, in some historian's rear view mirror. But, for me, they are only my times. And, whether by divine purpose or simply the hand of fate, here and now is my one ride on the merry go round.
I thought about "these times" often this past week, as we all do, reading story after story about the monumental challenges facing federal, state, and local leaders as they wrestle with shrinking revenues, reduced budgets, and a stagnant economy. Good or bad, one thing is certain: these are tough times. They are tough times for families to make ends meet, and they are tough times to advocate investments in our future.... such as a trail system.
But, saying these are "my times" is not just acknowledging the luck of the draw. It's about ownership. It's believing we take the cards we are dealt and we play the very best hand we can. And, I believe, even in times like these, the winning hand is the one that builds a foundation for better days we hope and/or believe lie ahead. Good things do not come to those who wait. They come to those who create a world in which good things are inevitable.
Following the Dec 7 vote by the Newton County Board of Commissioners authorizing a grant request for the Eastside Trail that may require $100,000 in matching funds, I had a frank discussion with a fellow citizen. This gentleman was clearly troubled by this action and felt the timing was all wrong in light of the county's budget woes. While he accepted that trails might foster economic development to benefit the county, his analogy was basically that this was no time to go elephant hunting, when we needed to save our nuts to feed the hungry.
I took his argument to heart. But, I countered with my view. The problem now is there simply are not enough nuts to feed everyone. Our explosive population growth and the skew towards a residential tax base -- with too little revenue to fund basic services and not enough good jobs to go around -- has put our county in a bad place. We cannot rely on our available store of nuts to feed us until better days are here. We must act now to foster economic development and attract commercial and industrial business to our community. (I was pleased to see that, despite all the challenges he faces, our new Governor has put economic development at the top of his short list of protected funding. It's a tough sell in a down economy, but it truly is our only hope.)
Trails are not magic. A 10-foot-wide strip of concrete won't change the world, nor will it reverse our economic fortunes over night. But, they are an important element in an overall economic development strategy to right our tax base and generate new revenue streams for our local economy. The tourism impact of walking/biking trails is well documented across the nation. And, increasingly communities are using greenway trails as a lifestyle draw for major new industries. Chattanooga recently landed a $1B investment from Volkswagen of America that will create more than 2,200 new jobs. And, part of their package to close the deal was a major park and trail system the city and county built on the site of the new industrial park. In a competitive landscape, these are the things that set one location apart from another. These are the indicators that tell a potential new industry that they can recruit and retain professional talent in one community better than in another.
Yes, these are tough times. But, they are my times and they are your times. May we continue doing that which much be done to bring us once again to good times.
The State of Florida is so sold on the economic benefits of trails and greenways, they established a State Office of Greenways & Trails
within the Department of Environmental Protection. Earlier this year, that office reported over 4 million visitors to Florida's trails in 2009 and acknowledged $95 million in economic impact. (Click here
to see the formal resolution.)Most, if not all, cyclists headed to bike Florida trails must pass through Georgia on the way.
(Airlines charge outrageous fees to carry a bicycle as luggage.) In these challenging economic times, Georgia would do well to promote our existing trails -- like the nationally renowned Silver Comet -- and invest in extending those trails to become a destination for outdoor vacationers and adventure cyclists. And, Newton County is perfectly poised to be the east metro link in that chain of connected trails from the Chief Ladiga in Alabama, to the Silver Comet in west Georgia, to the Atlanta BeltLine, through DeKalb and Rockdale, to our community and beyond.We'd better hurry, though. As the resolution clearly states, Florida is moving boldly ahead with hundreds of miles of greenway trails.
We can't afford to keep falling behind.Stay and bike Georgia first!
Newton County Trail Path Foundation, Inc was incorporated in 1997 by a group of people advocating an extensive multi-use trail network through Newton County long before I ever considered this a cause I could champion. Yet, there are those who know I am a cyclist and assume I must be interested in trails and greenways for my own personal use. The truth is, however, I was not a trail proponent until about two years ago.
As a road cyclist, I had little use for off-road biking and walking trails. I had everything I needed on the fantastic country roads stretching across Newton and surrounding Jasper, Morgan, and Walton Counties. This rural landscape is a bicycle rider's dream. That all started to change, though, in the Fall of 2008. That October, I and five fellow cyclists set out on a ride on the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga Trails, from Mableton to Anniston and back. -- 184 miles, all on trails paved over converted railroad lines..
I'd ridden the Silver Comet twice before, but only on short segments within Cobb County. This was different. Leaving the congestion of Cobb County behind, we made our way through towns like Hiram, Rockmart, Cedartown, Piedmont, and Jacksonville. The scenery was incredible. The mix of users along the trail changed as we went along. From joggers, triathletes, and dog walkers in Cobb, we soon made our way out into the hinterlands. Before long, we were seeing Boy Scout Troops on a weekend hike or bike, couples making a vacation journey, and locals out for a Saturday/Sunday ride. All along the way, we met Georgians in Alabama and folks from Alabama in Georgia.
In Piedmont, AL, we stumble into a Fall street festival, complete with bands, face painting, bake sales, and the like. And there we were, joining right in. We ate a full lunch at Frankie's in Rockmart, and we hit plenty of convenience stores and fast food stops in town after town, fueling us along our journey. Including our overnight stay in Anniston, I figured we spent over $600 in total , or $100 a night per person.
Already a member of the Covington/Newton County Tourism Advisory Committee at the Chamber of Commerce, I was anxious to tell our story. To me, the opportunity was clear. In the months after that journey, I began researching and found community after community where trails and greenways had directly translated into tourism spending, profits for local merchants, and increased revenues for local governments. I even found communities that had landed major new employers by recruiting industries that values walking and biking trails as an amenity to retain employees.
I've been an advocate every since -- solely because of the much needed economic impact. Since that time, as I encourage more and more people of all ages to bicycle, I'm seeing the increased need to provide safe places to bike and walk in Newton County. But, the beauty is we can build these places for our citizens, and generate economic prosperity for local businesses at the same time. It's a win-win.