Presenting the 2004 Cities of Excellence
One city of 88,000, at the epicenter of urban sprawl, is setting environmentally conscious standards. Another city of 2,000, in the heart of Georgia’s vast rural poverty belt, is displaying an urbane sensibility with its devotion to cultural arts. One city, the fastest growing in the Southeast, was inspired by a Rocky Mountain creekside park 1,400 miles away and another, with a population of 2,900, has bred fame and fortune on an international scale.
This year’s Cities of Excellence, the fifth group of cities honored by the Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia Trend Magazine, might be the most diverse yet. They are miles apart geographically, demographically, even philosophically, each distinct in its own way, yet very much alike in the desire to succeed.
For the fifth consecutive year, a panel of judges has selected 10 cities that truly stand out as excellent places to live, work or play. The four cities described above are, in order, Roswell, Colquitt, Canton and Vienna. The other six are Hinesville, Norcross, Sandersville, Smyrna, Social Circle and Swainsboro.
As always, judges awarded points in 14 different categories: administration, citizen participation, community and economic development, cultural/arts, education, environment and natural resources, fiscal management, infrastructure, intergovernmental cooperation, planning, public safety, recreation and leisure services, social services and technology/innovation.
In Canton, judges especially liked the downtown theater. In Hinesville, leadership seemed to stand out most – not surprising for a city adjacent to a massive Army base. The panel liked everything about Sandersville, especially the volunteer effort that has taught 2,500 residents how to read. They liked the fact that Smyrna has the state’s only city-owned library, and they loved the way tiny Social Circle has reached out to become a regional leader in economic development and planning.
If you get in your car and take off down the road, starting from Canton, our northernmost winner, you’ll have to drive about 850 miles to visit all 10 of this year’s Cities of Excellence. Or, you can pick up the current issue of Georgia Trend.
Going With The Flow
In Canton, where addresses are multiplying faster than confined rabbits, city planners are combining the region’s natural riches with municipal artistry, guiding the transition from sleepy small town to thriving metropolis. They’ve preserved and enhanced the city’s quaint urban aesthetic with a parade of projects that addresses quality of life issues and connectivity.
Their latest and greatest is the ambitious Etowah River Greenway, a linear park that will run through the city connecting parks, residential communities, the downtown business district and the busy shopping complex at Riverstone near Interstate 575.
Canton is a city determined to be proactive, not reactive, to the pressures of rapid growth. Long before the U.S. Census Bureau labeled Canton the fastest-growing city in the Southeast, the Cherokee County seat was planning for its future. Leaders organized a planning and zoning department; a major thoroughfare study was created and an overlay district approved. They created enterprise zone tax abatements for job generation and affordable housing creation, adopted community design standards and started an impact fee program that actually received full endorsement by the local Homebuilders Association.
Canton had annual population growth of 18.7 percent from 2000 to 2002, when its citizenry expanded from 7,709 to 11,338. It now exceeds 12,000 and is the most desirable location in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. Canton was among region leaders with almost 700 new housing units built through October. Such growth was expected, in fact desired, and Canton was not about to get caught with its plans down.
“We tried to use logical foresight in putting the right tools in place,” says Jo Ellen Wilson, who has served on the Canton City Council since 1991. “We looked at cities that have gone through rapid growth periods. We didn’t want sprawl and we understood that density must be located within the city. We determine our boundaries for growth and plan accordingly.”
Mayor Cecil Pruett, a salesman by trade, has sold the city on his vision. While the commercial growth has been intense near the I-575 exits, Pruett has concentrated on working from the inside out. “We made the commitment early on to save the heart and soul of downtown,” he says. “And it all started with the theater.”
The historic Canton Theatre sat empty for decades, collecting pigeons. So the city bought and renovated the building for $1.2 million. Now the venue stays busy year round with a variety of professional live shows.
“The theater has been a blessing, and it took a bold move to get it going,” says Mac Miller, a chiropractor who chairs the Downtown Development Authority, which has oversight of the 170-seat theater. “Before the theater project, downtown was sort of dying. All of the restaurants, shopping and other projects around Riverstone took some of the thunder away. It was bothersome for those of us with businesses downtown.
“From Friday afternoon through the weekend we could roll the sidewalks up because there was no activity. But the last few years, to our delight, quite a few new shops and merchants and professionals have opened for business. And people are hanging out on the weekends.”
The city spent $4.1 million in state and federal grant money for revitalization that includes streetscape improvements and six miles of sidewalks, with streetlights, throughout the town. To further heighten connectivity options, Canton provides free transit services to residents, including a trolley that runs from the downtown business district to Riverstone. The trolley will expand its route to service The Bluffs, a high-tech business park being developed by Technology Park Atlanta that’s expected to bring 15,000 jobs to the area.
Pruett even has an idea to help bring those employees to Canton without choking an already crowded road system. For the past several years he’s been pulling together county and city governments to explore a commuter rail system linking Canton with Marietta, 23 miles away.
But it’s the Etowah River Greenway that seems to be giving Pruett the most satisfaction, something he started working on the minute he got into office, something he’s been thinking about since before he was mayor.
“I saw a film about Boulder Creek Path in Colorado,” says Pruett. The 7-mile path in Boulder is a picturesque urban park that goes through the heart of the city, right up into the mountains.
“It was beautiful. I was very impressed,” says Pruett. “I thought our city should do something similar. The Etowah River has been running through Canton since the beginning of time.”
The city purchased about 90 acres of sod farms on either side of the river. The 30-acre first phase of the project, recently completed, has walking trails and a natural amphitheater. Soon the city will break ground on an $8.5 million community center adjacent to the greenway. When it’s completed, the $20 million greenway will be 4.5 miles long, connecting passive and active recreation areas. It will run the length of the city, allowing walkers, bikers and skaters to stroll or roll across town, from the central business district, to the Riverstone shopping complex, or maybe home to the 300-unit Canton Mill Lofts.
“And this is just the beginning,” says Canton City Manager Benny Carter. “The mayor and the council have been looking to the future with a clear vision of what they want the city to be. These are invigorating, exciting times. I think we have a lot to look forward to.”