Cobb CIDs: No Time Like the Present
Cobb CIDs are moving forward with projects that nurture livable communities.
Between the twin specters of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession, investing in community development might be considered a hard sell. But if the past is any indication, the next couple of years could actually be a good time to be in the community improvement district (CID) business.
A CID is a geographic collection of businesses that voluntarily self-taxes to fund improvements within the district, such as infrastructure projects. There are three CIDs in Cobb County: Cumberland, Gateway Marietta and Town Center.
In 2009, similar to the era of the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression, the federal government passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It included $48.1 billion in funding for transportation infrastructure projects, not only building roads and bridges but providing jobs and helping jumpstart the economy.
It’s an idea once again gaining traction in Washington and one looked upon favorably by the Cobb CIDs, which exist in large part for the purpose of taking on large infrastructure projects in partnership with others to improve transportation.
The Realm of Control
Rumblings of a federal stimulus package with an infrastructure component would be welcomed by the Town Center CID, an area that sits in North Cobb along I-75 between the Barrett Parkway and Chastain Road exits.
The CID made great use of the 2009 funding and could do so again, says Tracy Rathbone Styf, the CID’s executive director, citing the Skip Spann Connector over I-75 as an example of a project that was queued up and ready to go during the Great Recession when ARRA funding became available.
“We were able to fast track and get that project done in a two-year period, which was phenomenal for the district and region as a whole,” she says.
“We want to make sure we’re still being as forward thinking as we always are, so when we do come out of the [current] recession we have projects that are shovel ready and that we can get to work on right away,” she says. “Being ready for the unknown seems counterintuitive, but at this point it’s our only choice because we know that we will get through this as a community and a country, even if we’re not 100% sure of what it looks like on the other side.”
Styf says her focus is on the things inside her realm of control, like a mid-year check of the budget to determine whether any adjustments were necessary.
“We’re moving forward with our master plan update,” she says, ticking off an extensive CID to-do list. “We’re moving on a number of corridor studies. We’ve received funding from the ARC [Atlanta Regional Commission] on two different projects, so we’ll be working together with them this fall.”
Funding is a critical piece of the puzzle. CID projects don’t move forward until they are fully funded, and budgets are based on tax revenue.
“Many of our funding partners that we’re working with are having to reevaluate their budgets at the county level, based on Special Purpose Local Option [Sales] Tax [SPLOST] revenue, at the state level based on the state budget, then at the federal level based on the economy and the recession,” Styf says. “So we’re looking at some of the studies and the master planning projects that we can continue to do at the local level, the CID level, and move those forward.”
In terms of new projects, the CID received two grants from the ARC. The first is a $160,000 grant (with a 20% match from the CID for a total $200,000 investment) to study the heavily trafficked Bells Ferry Road Corridor, including traffic flow, sidewalks, a trail and a bridge that crosses over Noonday Creek. The request for proposal will be put out this month, and the study will take anywhere from six months to a year.
“Looking at the Bells Ferry Corridor and where it connects to Chastain Road, Big Shanty and Barrett Parkway is really important for us in long-range planning,” Styf says. “I know Commissioner JoAnn Birrell [District 3] has widening and a replacement bridge on Bells Ferry on her list of projects for the 2022 SPLOST. It seemed like an ideal time for a study of the entire corridor.”
The second ARC grant will study sidewalks and walkability, updating a 2015 gap analysis and creating a comprehensive inventory of sidewalks (size, condition and location) throughout the CID.
But the biggest project on the horizon is the third phase of the South Barrett Reliever, a four-phase project that aims to ease traffic and provide drivers with an alternate route around heavily traveled Barrett Parkway. The CID expects the third phase of the project to be fully funded by this fall and received some good news about funding for the project.
“We received word from the state, GDOT [Georgia Department of Transportation] specifically, that at this time capital projects that already have monies committed will not be impacted with the budget cuts,” Styf says. “We are currently securing the last pieces of right-of-way, and we will move to construction later this year. We’ll be on track for completion in early 2023.”
A feasibility study for phase four of the project determined that it would be “feasible but expensive,” Styf says.
Not all CID projects center around transportation, however. Thanks to partners at the Town Center Community Alliance, the CID is adding trail enhancements to phase two of Aviation Park, located at the end of the runway at Cobb County International Airport, including a unique public display – a full-sized retired plane will be installed vertically.
Newly added chimney swift towers and other public art along Noonday Creek Trail are small but immediate reminders that the CID isn’t just about building roads and conducting feasibility studies.
“We really do take a long lens for what the area will look like beyond the curve,” says Styf.
It’s been business as usual, or as usual as possible, for Caroline Whaley, executive director of Gateway Marietta CID, situated between Delk Road and the South Marietta Loop along Franklin Gateway Road. The newest of the CIDs in Cobb, Gateway Marietta has been around since 2014. In that time, the CID has expanded twice to include property owners just south of Delk Road as well as additional property along Franklin Gateway.
Whaley was keen to keep momentum going after the CID applied and was accepted into the ARC’s Community Development Assistance Program (CDAP) earlier this year. CDAP provides planning and technical support for specific projects. Gateway CID’s project will study adding wayfinding signage throughout the CID but most importantly examine placemaking in the Blanche Drive Underpass area, which connects the CID’s commercial district to a residential area.
The project received a $60,000 Livable Cities Initiative (LCI) grant, which with the CID’s 20% match brings the total investment to $75,000. The project kicks off in November, and while the financial amount might seem small, the effect could be enormous.
“We’re asking, ‘How can it be not only an overpass, but a connecting point between the CID, encouraging pedestrian movement, encouraging people through the area to go to the commercial area on Roswell Road or the commercial area on Frey’s Gin Road and Cobb 41,’” says Whaley. “It’s going to be a fantastic opportunity for bringing in the community. That’s one of the great things about an ARC study. It’s not done in a silo. It involves the entire community to get all the voices in what’s happening. So as the Franklin Gateway area continues to develop its community feel, I see this as a great way for all the stakeholders to have a say and a part of what is developed in the area.”
A market analysis conducted by the Bleakley Advisory Group in 2019, confirmed much of what the CID already knew about the types of industries located in the district, which include the Atlanta United FC practice facility, The Home Depot’s technology center and the local brewery Red Hare Brewing Co. The analysis also helped address how to set priorities to maintain momentum and marketing to other industries and businesses looking to relocate. Understanding the district’s identity and priorities is crucial as the business environment fluctuates.
“One thing that came out of the study was asking how do you thoughtfully expand your footprint,” Whaley says. “What directions do you need to be heading? At this time, we do not have expansion plans for the near future. I think most [people] are looking to see what the horizon looks like for the next few months. We want to be respectful of the current times.”
Connectivity and Character
The state’s first CID, Cumberland in South Cobb County, is home to the Cobb Galleria Centre, Truist Park and The Battery Atlanta, as well as businesses, parks and residents. Pre-pandemic it was one of the busiest commuter areas in the region, and once the pandemic has passed, traffic help should be on the way in the form of the long-anticipated Akers Mill Ramp project.
With all of the funding for the $44.2-million project in hand, construction is slated to begin next year with an opening date sometime in 2023. The project will connect the Akers Mill Road ramp to the I-75 reversible (managed) lanes.
Pre-pandemic, “the reversible lanes save commuters anywhere from an hour in the mornings to an hour and a half in the evenings,” says Kim Menefee, executive director of the Cumberland CID. “GDOT was very supportive of helping us get the final funding of the ramp because we have more than 100,000 commuters in the district daily.”
In addition to commuters, the area has become increasingly residential. According to a 2019 economic impact study, the CID is home to nearly 29,000 residents. The study found that “the residential population within the district is growing at 1.6 times the rate of Cobb County and faster than the Atlanta region as a whole.”
The increase in residents brings an increased focus on livability. The Cumberland Core Loop (CCL) – a three-mile, multimodal path connecting the CID – is a priority project addressing issues of mobility and connectivity for everyone in the district, especially its residents. The CCL will feature expanded, dedicated bike lanes, walking lanes and space for an autonomous shuttle.
Recently, the CID received ARC funding for the first segment of the loop that goes through the core of the district – through the Galleria, connecting to the pedestrian bridge crossing I-285 to The Battery Atlanta.
“We’ll work over the course of the next year to start our design process,” says Menefee. “Then we’ll work with Cobb County as well as any other funding partners to work through all the design components. We have 38 miles of connected trails already constructed within the CID. This loop would use some of those trails and enhance them, make them more user friendly. It’s something we think will add connectivity and character to the district.”
And though they haven’t started raising funds yet, another connectivity project Menefee is excited about is a partnership with the city of Smyrna to build a pedestrian bridge from the Smyrna side of Cobb Parkway to The Battery.
“It’s what we deem a safety project,” she says. “Cobb County police and the county are very supportive of this initiative. Crossing Cobb Parkway is definitely not easy. This [bridge project] gives us a much-needed access point for fans and for those who want to visit The Battery even when there’s no game.”
Beautification, building and maintaining greenspace has always been a tenet of the Cumberland CID. A concept plan for the rehabilitation of the Paces Mill/Palisades Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) was approved by the Design Advisory Board of the National Parks Service this summer, allowing the CID to move to the design phase of the $11.5-million project.
Among other features, the plan calls for adding enhanced river access, improving trails and picnic areas and adding a visitor’s center. The final design phase of the $11-million project will begin this fall. The CID will fundraise, working to secure federal parks-related grants.
The final phase of the popular Bob Callan Trail, a four-mile paved, multi-use trail, will extend the trail northward to Terrell Mill Road, where it will become part of a network that will ultimately reach Kennesaw Mountain. Construction is expected to begin this year. As part of the project a new trailhead will be located on Windy Hill Road, adding recreational amenities and lending character to the area.
There’s no doubt these are unusual times, but Menefee says whatever challenges lay ahead – economic or health crises – the goals remain the same.
“We want to enhance the community,” she says. “To make it the most attractive place to operate a business, to work and to live.”