Live, Work, Play Cities
Nine cities have found the key to attracting newcomers
Trailblazer: Thomasville’s bustling downtown
City of Thomasville
Increasingly, local governments are focused on the complete package of business and lifestyle benefits to attract newcomers. Cultural amenities and opportunities for healthy activities go hand-in-hand with business-friendly environments. Long-abandoned sites are being revitalized, there’s an increased emphasis on greenspaces and downtowns are enjoying a rebirth. The results are more livable towns offering virtually something for everyone.
In collaboration with the Georgia Municipal Association, Georgia Trend takes a peek at nine cities that exemplify the total Live, Work, Play approach. These cities are grouped by population size – Large (more than 25,000), Medium (5,000 to 24,999) and Small (fewer than 4,999) – and their advantages include everything from outdoor recreation, theaters, museums and concert venues to city-owned utilities, public-private partnerships and affordable housing. All are designed to appeal to visitors, residents and employers seeking that perfect combination known as quality of life. – Mary Ann DeMuth
Big Cities: Living Large
By Suzanne Northington
Athens, a city of old and new, looks to the future while also embracing its traditional civic values. Long known as a haven for nature lovers, retirees, students, artists and bikers, the college community has no intention of abandoning these identities.
The town is proud of its hiking trails. The winding 42-mile network weaves through downtown and hugs the Oconee River. With the continued construction of the Firefly Trail, it’s slated to get even longer. The multi-county trail starts in downtown Athens, following old railroad lines to Greene County. “Being pedestrian and bicycle friendly is an absolute priority in this community,” says Robert Hiss, assistant manager of the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government.
Downtown Athens pulses with life from dawn to dusk and even late into the night, made livelier by a recent boom in student housing. Since 2013, four mixed-use residences have been built, which include more than 100,000 square feet of retail and office space. With more students thronging the downtown streets, restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses have followed to serve them.
Artistic expression seems to be at the heart of what it means to be an Athenian. “Art is not what we do,” says Hiss, referring to the community’s diverse offering of visual and performing arts venues. “It’s who we are.”
Perhaps inspired by the example of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Athens also sees a new identity emerging as a catalyst for entrepreneurism. “Studies show that entrepreneurs like to work in pods so they can talk to each other,” Hiss says. To nurture these businesses, the city plans to build collaborative office and incubation facilities.
From earning its place among the nation’s best college towns, according to several surveys, to being named one of the best places to retire by Forbes and Southern Living magazines, Athens truly offers something for everyone.
If you want to know where Columbus’ heart lies, you need only look to the Chattahoochee. Once the hub of the city’s commerce and trade, the river is today a draw for living, working and playing.
“The Chattahoochee River is the centerpiece of our urban culture and ecology. We are truly a riverfront town,” says Lisa Goodwin, deputy city manager, “and we are working to make it even better.”
To realize this vision, the city has devoted considerable resources to improving the iconic waterway. Two dilapidated dams – a vestige of the textile mill era – have been removed. In their place are new plantings and wildlife that promise to improve the ecology of the river.
The restoration has allowed the river to develop new attractions. “What is now drawing people to Columbus is whitewater,” says Goodwin, noting that the river has been called the longest urban whitewater rafting course in the world.
RiverWalk, a pedestrian walkway along the riverfront, has finally been completed. It’s part of the larger network of urban greenways, the Dragonfly Trail, so named because dragonflies are attracted to clean water. “Columbus is a clean water community,” says Goodwin.
These changes are vital if the city is to keep young people from leaving. Not too long ago, the city was losing its millennials. Its reputation as a blighted mill town caused many to flee for greener pastures. “Within the past five to seven years, that’s shifted,” Goodwin says. “More millennials are staying.”
Columbus is also making a mark in animal welfare management. Its Save-a-Pet Program has slashed the euthanasia rate from 80 percent in 2010 to less than 13 percent today. Yet the initiative did not involve a large budget, but simply a shift in priority. “It’s not about spending money,” Goodwin says, “but about changing practices.”
The last planned city of the original 13 colonies has redefined public-private partnerships to create a Renaissance environment attractive to businesses as well as arts and outdoor enthusiasts.
When it comes to quality of life, LaGrange is a city with big aspirations. For a start, the west Georgia community has extensive cultural and recreational amenities, including the LaGrange Symphony Youth Orchestra, Lafayette Society for the Performing Arts and a Summer Concert Series that has featured Willie Nelson, the Temptations and the Beach Boys.
What explains LaGrange’s ability to think big? “It’s about great leadership,” says Meg Kelsey, city manager. “We have a great chamber of commerce and great council members.” LaGrange College has also been a major force in attracting arts and culture to the city, she says.
LaGrange is also serious about business as evidenced by Site Selection magazine’s ranking of the city as Georgia’s No.1 micropolitan area (having less than 50,000 residents) for job production and No. 1 in the state for business for the past four years. Since 2016, the city has attracted more than $1 billion in new investment, including Great Wolf Lodge and Sentury Tire USA. These two projects are expected to create 1,600 jobs.
Yet towns can’t be successful if they ignore quality-of-life issues, Kelsey observes. That idea is motivating the city’s new plan for 29 miles of multi-modal urban trails, dubbed The Thread. The trails will connect neighborhoods with downtown and commercial centers.
Clearly, LaGrange envisions itself as the complete package in attracting families and businesses to its growing community.
Mid-sized Cities: Abundant Advantages
By Mary Ann DeMuth
With 123 restaurants, 182 retail stores, two Smithsonian-affiliated museums, the Grand Theatre and historic sites such as the Etowah Indian Mounds, Cartersville residents have enviable big-city leisure amenities coupled with small-town Southern charm. The city also abounds in outdoor recreation opportunities with Pine Mountain hiking, walking trails, parks and athletic programs that attracted more than 3,000 youth and 1,000 adult participants last year.
According to Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini, the promise of an active lifestyle and cultural connections are among the reasons the city has such a diverse industry base.
“We’ve got more than 140 industries that call us home – from Shaw Industries to Anheuser-Busch to Beauflor – so there’s a lot of job opportunities and things to do when you’re not working,” he says. “That’s what makes us special – we’ve got a lot of things going well for us.”
One of Cartersville’s unique advantages for businesses and residents is the city-provided gas, water and electricity.
“In 1904, the city started generating its own power,” Santini says. “Prices for our gas and electric systems are consistently below what the larger companies charge, so we’re providing a tremendous value. Of course the water quality is there, otherwise companies like Anheuser-Busch wouldn’t be located here.”
Santini says the city excels in responsive service to its utility customers, and the revenue generated helps keep property taxes low. Close collaboration with surrounding Bartow County in recruiting businesses and quality jobs also makes for a great atmosphere in which to live and do business.
“When people are thinking about locating here,” he says, “they see we have an environment where people work together and get along.”
Decatur prides itself on creating a quality-of-life balance for residents, business owners and visitors. The city has received designations as a Walk-Friendly Community by the U.S. Department of Transportation and as a Bike-Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. It’s also an enthusiastic supporter of the national Safe Routes to School program with more than 35 percent of its children walking or biking to school daily.
Citizen involvement is an important contributor to Decatur’s unique character. Roughly half a dozen resident advisory boards enable those who live there to be involved in planning the city’s future.
“The boards help us take a good look at things like affordable housing and some of the steps we can take to allow people to stay in Decatur and not be priced out,” says Mayor Patti Garrett.
Affordable housing initiatives include creating 500- to 1,100-square-foot residences on small plots of city-owned land and offering them via lottery to city and Decatur schools employees. Garrett says this project is designed to show developers that smaller units at lower price points can work financially. Other efforts to offer affordable housing options include a transit-oriented development that has apartments and designated units for senior citizens adjacent to the Avondale Estates MARTA station, and planning for a similar development near the East Lake MARTA station.
“With three MARTA stations, it’s logical to have housing with walk-out-your-door transit access,” Garrett says.
Transit options for commuters and a focus on promoting small businesses contribute to Decatur’s attractive work environment. Its local businesses also benefit from the three sizable festivals each year as well as year-round events that draw crowds into the city.
“We’ve really worked very hard over the past several years to make Decatur a place where people want to live, work and play because of the quality of life here,” Garrett says.
The city known for its tranquil beauty and fragrant roses is gaining recognition for promoting a healthier lifestyle for its citizens. Spurred by 5th graders working on a class project, Thomasville’s leaders several years ago began a movement to improve community greenspaces for recreation. The result is a multi-year plan for the city’s parks and greenspaces developed through public engagement.
“In the early 1990s, the community voted to financially support recreation with 21 percent of the countywide local option sales tax,” says Steve Sykes, Thomasville city manager. “Today we are focused on passive parks and a community bike and walk trail connecting these parks. The long-term benefit of an active community is a healthy community – both socially and physically.”
Sykes says that when the 15-mile trail is completed in 2020, it will connect all 17 of the city’s parks. He says the investment dovetails well with Live Better, a local partnership among healthcare, government, schools and businesses to raise awareness about the benefits of a healthier lifestyle. Led by Archbold Medical Center, Live Better received the prestigious Community Leadership Award from the Georgia Hospital Association.
Public recreational opportunities, along with cultural venues like a new amphitheater, are among the amenities that attract businesses to Thomasville. In addition, Sykes says the top-notch medical facility is a strong draw when companies are looking to relocate.
He describes Thomasville as having a “forerunner or trailblazer spirit” that has pushed the city to excellence. “Today, we are strong financially, having very little debt, a fully funded pension plan and levy no property tax for public services,” he says. “We are able to focus our resources on quality-of-life initiatives and projects.”
Small Towns: Family Friendly
By James Calemine
Located near the Alabama line, Summerville has thrived as a popular summer spot in the Northwest Georgia mountains since the early 1900s. Although the rustic town once revolved around the Chattanooga and Columbus railroads, tourism is now an essential part of the economy.
One of the main draws is the home of the late, world-renowned folk artist Howard Finster and his art environment, Paradise Garden. Finster’s legacy is also honored downtown at the Open-Air Plaza, where concerts and special events are held, and through Summerville’s Coke Bottle Art project, made up of nine 10-foot-tall Coca-Cola bottles painted by local artists and displayed on the downtown streets.
“We are a Main Street Community grounded on the four-point approach to downtown revitalization: organization, design, economic restructuring and promotion,” says Main Street Director Susan Locklear. “Our Main Street Program hosted over 29 free festivals this past year. We take pride in being ranked one of Georgia’s Top Five Safest Cities, Purple Heart Community, City of Ethics and Tree City U.S.A.”
The city has also seen a flurry of new businesses in the downtown area, a trend that is expected to continue. Plus, Summerville is home to Mohawk Industries, the second-largest employer in the county. Its local facility is undergoing a $150-million expansion and provides more than 500 jobs.
“I have lived in this community my entire life,” says City Manager Tony Carroll, “and am delighted to be part of it and see the progressive changes in every aspect of our growing city into a thriving place to live, work and play.”
Situated just east of Atlanta in Newton County, Porterdale was once a thriving textile mill town. After the mill closed in the 1970s, however, Porterdale endured a rapid decline.
But like many small towns around the state, a renaissance has bloomed over the last several years. For Porterdale, that revival is rooted in unique housing and lush river trails.
“Walter Davis bought the decrepit mill and turned it into lofts, and that was the turning point,” says Mayor Arline Chapman. “New people came in and started to look at the houses and buy the houses and fix them up.”
As more people made Porterdale their home, efforts to revitalize the town’s facilities gained traction.
“We made the Porter Memorial Gymnasium an outdoor entertainment center,” she says. “So it’s one of the jewels now in the city.”
Porterdale’s strong city leadership focused on creating an economic future grounded in natural, cultural and arts resources amid the historic buildings. At least 500 original Porterdale homes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
And those folks in the historic homes have plenty of ways to play in the city. “We’ve got the Yellow River Water Trail involved,” says City Manager Bob Thomson about the city’s direction. “We became an official water trail as recognized by the Georgia River Network. We got a scholarship with the Conservation Fund. We’ve won a Georgia Trust [Preservation Award] of excellence for the gymnasium.”
Porterdale’s revival of the housing market, the arts and its work on the Yellow River rank it as one of the more desirable Georgia cities in which to live.
“Over time, it’s just become a model little city,” Chapman says. “It’s a wonderful mix of arts, culture and history.”
Chickamauga rests in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains about 20 miles south of Chattanooga. It’s a family-friendly city that boasts sidewalks, a highly ranked (seventh in the state) school system and the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the oldest military park in the country and a huge tourism driver.
“We strive to provide a safe and crime-free, Mayberry-like environment that offers many amenities and historic attractions for the community to enjoy, where the only time you see the police chasing someone is during a game of touch football with the local kids,” says City Manager Michael Haney, who grew up in Chickamauga. “It’s a blessing to live in such a peaceful and welcoming community that offers the relaxation, beauty and the safety that most cities can’t match.”
As well as being a friendly town, Chickamauga is an affordable community with many benefits from a municipal government that provides police services and electricity and water utilities with the lowest rates in Georgia. The city also maintained a zero millage rate on property taxes for 17 years.
“Over the years not many things have changed in this city,” says Mayor Ray Crowder. “This is where you can feel ‘southern hospitality’ [is] not just words from the past.”