Georgia’s Cities Invest in the Future

Nikki Perry

Friday, November 5th, 2021

Listening may be the most important thing city leaders can do when planning for the future.

Canton City Manager Billy Peppers imagines Georgia’s cities to be like the squares in a quilt: each one unique, and some even a little crazy, but all contributing to the beauty of the whole picture.

In his former role at the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, Peppers said he realized that cities, though different, face similar challenges and missions. The formula for success is listening to residents, figuring out what the community values and finding innovative ways to make that happen.

“If you can get your residents passionate about three or four things you’re working toward, everything else will fall in line,” Peppers said.

When the city of Canton asked its residents, “What do you value most?” they came back with a list of eight tenets. In December 2020, Canton City Council approved a “Roadmap for Success,” a set of eight principles to guide city decisions for the next 15 years, along with measurable goals and action items.

A year in the making and backed by substantial community input, this plan is no dust collector. Every developer who approaches the city receives a copy of the roadmap, signs an affidavit acknowledging that they have read it, and is asked to submit a description of how their proposed project contributes to the roadmap goals.

Canton’s “Roadmap for Success” is a snapshot of priorities that many of Georgia’s cities have adopted for the future.

Advancing Regional Economic Success

When in her previous role as planning director for the city of Metter, Mandi Cody was searching for a way to connect the dots in her city’s economy.

“Agriculture is the economic driver in Metter, but how do you connect that to downtown?” she asked.

Food was the answer.

“We can become a foodie destination, building off the farm-to-table movement. We can use the ag resources that we have right here in Metter and Candler County,” Cody said.

She and economic development director Heidi Jeffers worked with Georgia Southern University’s Business Innovation Group (BIG) to create a business incubator focused on agriculture in their rural, South Georgia community.

BIG Director Dominique Halaby said the city worked to “develop a focal area that would galvanize that community and really strengthen the messaging about what could happen in Metter.” Georgia Grown was a familiar brand and concept that people could embrace, Jeffers said. And they have: Even the welcome center on Interstate 16 has been branded with Georgia Grown products and serves as a focal point for the new community identity.

“Agriculture touches everything in Georgia and beyond,” Jeffers said. “It’s about creating good quality jobs here, and that’s what our goal is. Whether it’s a clothing company that uses Georgia Grown products, a florist, a logistics company—they are all tied to agriculture.”

The Georgia Grown Innovation Center’s first client was a hydroponic agribusiness growing

specialty herbs and lettuces. With access to Georgia Southern University and Georgia Grown staff, as well as each other, businesses have flourished in the center. They have found resources for everything from creating a business plan, to university-based research and development, to networking with product distributors.

One year later, participation has far exceeded initial expectations, with 15 businesses in the Georgia Grown Innovation Center and 71 jobs in Metter directly impacted by the program, according to Jeffers. While the center in Downtown Metter provides office space for some, the virtual aspect of the program has expanded its reach across state borders and even into Canada. This opens the doors to new businesses locating in Metter, Jeffers said.

Halaby credits the success of the program to the commitment of the Metter city staff and the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

“Georgia Grown and their commitment to driving activity and awareness of this facility is truly remarkable. That has been the accelerant to the success of the program,” he said.

Leading with Excellence

Now, as city administrator for Winder, Cody has brought her focus on leadership development and community connection to North Georgia. Building on the exemplary customer service provided by the city’s utility department, the Winder City Council created a new Department of Talent and Leadership Development.

“Like a lot of cities, we were facing some succession plan challenges and employee development challenges,” Cody said. “We had some strong leaders at the director level, but building your bench is incredibly important.”

Gwen Rice, who was promoted from customer service manager to lead the new department, has begun a program that trains city employees in soft skills and technical skills. Employees in the “Know Your City” program also learn each department’s role, which has the dual purpose of unifying the city staff and enabling them to provide better customer service.

“If a resident has a request, or need, or complaint, our team member—regardless of what department they’re assigned to full time—knows what to do and how to get that issue resolved,” Cody said.

Cody said that all municipalities, no matter size or location, exist to serve the community.

“We are all in the customer service business. That’s what we do in city government,” Cody said.

Celebrating the Diversity in Our Community

Serving customers is easier if you all speak the same language. Canton’s early census numbers show that 27% of the population is Hispanic.

“There has not been a lot of outreach in the past. But when you’re approaching 27% of the population, it’s critical that those citizens are represented fairly and heard,” Mayor Bill Grant said. “We are successful when every citizen in our city is successful.”

Canton’s goals extend beyond translating government communications into Spanish. Grant said the city is integrating the needs of a diverse community into all the goals of the “Roadmap for Success.”

One of the first projects is a mini-pitch soccer field, the first to benefit from financial and technical assistance from the Atlanta United Foundation. Community members are directly involved in the construction, maintenance and programming for the field in Harmon Field Park, which will replace a makeshift soccer field in the Sunnyside community. That transitional neighborhood is a city gateway that is being revived through initiatives born in the Georgia Economic Placemaking Collaborative through the Georgia Cities Foundation.

“It shows that we are investing in them, and that they have tangible signs that we are putting our money where our mouth is,” Grant said.

Peppers encourages city leaders to find their city’s focus by listening to the needs of all residents, and not just the ones who are speaking the loudest. The aging, youth, disabled, or other marginalized groups deserve to have their needs met, as well.

“You have to listen to people. You have to go into conversations without any predisposed ideas of what you think will come out of the conversation. You have to be able to hear hard things,” Peppers said. “It’s easy for government to overlook issues that may not seem important to an employee or elected official but are very important to residents, and sometimes those don’t get communicated as easily.”

While Georgia overall gained a diverse group of new residents over the past decade, many rural cities lost population. Those city leaders will be challenged to provide government services with fewer resources. Community input, strategic planning and innovative solutions are

essential if those cities are to continue providing value to their residents’ lives. In short, they must break the stereotypes of government.

“Government has to think not like government,” Peppers said.