2006 Cities of Excellence – Decatur

Fiscal Fitness and Hearing Voices Awards - Medium City Winner
Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd and Peggy Merriss|!!| City Manager

A short time after Decatur leaders learned the city had nailed top honors in two separate Trendsetter Award categories, Mayor Bill Floyd was sitting in the local Starbucks musing on a possible connection between stretching the public dollar and encouraging more public input in government.

“I’m not sure the two are directly connected,” says Floyd, over the pounding of jackhammers and the roar of construction equipment grinding by on the downtown streets. “But I do think if you do one really well, the other is more likely to follow.”

Actually, Decatur did both really well, according to the two panels of judges who were struck by the community’s ability to register huge savings in the cost of downtown improvements while generating a widening role in local government for merchants and citizens.

Later, while strolling the busy downtown streets, Floyd pauses at a construction site. “When you’re trying to build a seven-story condominium on a quarter-acre lot, there will be noise,” he says, raising his voice above huffing engine noises and thumping pneumatic hammers. Construction on condominiums and the MARTA station, along with other downtown works-in-progress, has meant the narrowing of streets and sidewalks and the loss of available parking ? not exactly embraceable ideas for Decatur’s retailers.

Yet, to downtown merchants and residents, the noise is the sweet music of progress, and the inconveniences are but a prelude to the better days that lie ahead.

It’s the latest installment of an effort that began 13 years ago as simply putting a few benches and some trees downtown. Back in 1993, Decatur’s leaders developed a downtown streetscape improvement master plan, with considerable ideas and suggestions from the local citizenry. The plan called for widening sidewalks and adding street lamps, trees and benches, using funds from transportation enhancement (TE) grants.

By the late 1990s, downtown had become an attractive area in which to stroll and shop, and it was growing more attractive for private investment. Additional streetscape improvements were planned, but the dependence on government funding foretold a lengthy process; frustrating for a city in a hurry.

A simple zoning ordinance adopted in 1999 gave new impetus to the downtown beautification plan. In that year, the city established specific design standards and, most important, required private developers to pay for streetscape improvements as part of their construction costs.

To date, the city has seen $5.2 million invested in streetscape projects, with TE funds representing $2.7 of the cost and private investment bearing $1.5 million of the total. Such creative financing left the city of Decatur responsible for less than 20 percent of the final cost, freeing up funds for other city projects and speeding the process along.

On The Right Path

Money saved on streetscape projects has been invested in a network of pedestrian and bicycling paths fanning out from Decatur’s MARTA station and central business district into single-family neighborhoods, schools and county offices.

“When you ask a private developer to do some things that are going to cost him money, that are going to make our tax dollars go further, then he has to see how that’s going to benefit him,” Floyd says. “And to do that he has to see the community is going to be involved and the way to get the community involved is to get them to buy into it.” First, though, comes education of the citizenry.

Decatur leaders often remind themselves of an old axiom: “In the absence of information, people will make up their own.” To keep citizens and city leaders in sync and correctly informed, an idea was born to create a crash course in educating interested residents on how government works and encouraging them to bring ideas to the process.

The idea was a popular one in a city whose residents have never been reluctant to share ideas with government. Thanks to local institutions such as Agnes Scott College, neighboring Emory University and its medical complex and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as growing ranks of high tech entrepreneurs, Decatur is home to a large number of residents holding bachelor’s degrees and PhDs.

“We were always sitting around talking about business, traffic, schools, that sort of thing,” says one of those PhDs, Annie Archbold, a Web communications strategist at the CDC. “We were asking, ‘How do we improve the look and feel of the city? How do we keep that base of people who were from here?'” To translate talk into action, city leaders began collecting ideas.

In the late 1990s, as Decatur leaders prepared to develop a map for progress called the City of Decatur Strategic Plan, locals were invited to roundtable discussions to share thoughts on future development. More than 500 people showed up at the moveable think tanks to toss out ideas on improving every facet of life in Decatur. Task Forces were formed to examine the ideas and from those task forces came numbers of recommendations that ultimately resulted in redevelopment of the Decatur MARTA station, the Decatur Downtown Streetscape Master Plan, an Athletic Facility Master Plan and improvements at the old Decatur Depot.

Involved Citizenry

At about the same time, efforts to directly involve citizens in the improvement of community life resulted in Earth Day projects to clean up new city greenspaces and a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event that put volunteers at the homes of many elderly residents to make repairs and clean up yards. The effort produced 1,422 volunteers contributing more than 4,100 hours of work. By 2001, the city’s leaders and citizens had formed Decatur 101, a five-week course, ” … designed to introduce residents to the Decatur governing process.”

Students in Decatur 101 tour city buildings, meet city staffers and participate in planning and budget exercises. Graduates have volunteered to serve on city boards and commissions, have become neighborhood leaders and even run for elected office. For many of the recentlyarrived townspeople, such inclusion has softened the stranger-in-a-strange-land effect.

“One of the problems in government is the disconnect between government and its citizens,” says assistant city manager for economic development Lyn Menne. “We created a generation of people who saw their role as citizens as being consumers. But, really, the citizen is an owner; they are the stockholders, the shareholders in a community. And those shareholders are growing in number as Decatur’s downtown pays big dividends.

Hundreds of new downtown residents have already moved into recently built five- to seven-story condominiums, and another 300 are expected within the year. In the context of urban living, these numbers might not sound impressive, but to a small city these arriving residents are important.”

If you take 150 condo units with 300 people and put them in the middle of Buckhead, then nobody notices,” Mayor Floyd says. “But if you get those 300 people walking around Decatur on a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon, it is very noticeable and it makes a difference.

“Decatur’s assistant city manager puts it in the language every downtown merchant is sure to understand. “I attended a conference recently where a study pointed out two important facts about life downtown,” Menne says. “If you bring a job downtown, then the worker in that job will spend about $3,000 a year in the downtown. But bring a new resident and they will spend three to four times that amount downtown in a year. That’s why putting residents downtown is so important.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features