“It’s the first time I’ve felt truly comfortable to share what’s in my heart,” Shirley Daniel said as she left the cafeteria of Cedar Shoals High School on Thursday night.
Daniel and her husband, Valdon, a well-known local educator who retired some years ago as principal of Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School, were among the dozens of people who attended last week’s series of Focus on the Future Workshops, part of the Envision Athens initiative to chart a course for community development over the next two decades.
More interestingly, though, Daniel and her husband were among a number of minority residents who attended the five workshops last week, the fruit of a conscious effort to bring a diversity of voices to the planning effort.
Envision Athens is a $244,500 planning initiative aimed at ferreting out the issues and opportunities facing the community, in part through asking people, as happened with last week’s workshops, to talk about what they want Athens to be in the next 20 years.
The majority of funding for Envision Athens is coming from the Athens-Clarke County government, with other dollars coming from the Athens Housing Authority, the Clarke County School District, the University of Georgia, Athens Technical College, the City of Winterville, Georgia Power, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Northeast Georgia, Piedmont Athens Regional hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital.
Most of the money — $190,000 — will go to Columbus, Ohio-based consulting firm planningNEXT and an associated consulting firm, Rhode Island-based Ninigret Partners. The remaining dollars go to facilitation services provided by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, to printing and meeting venue rental expenses, to a post-planning celebration, and as seed money for a 2018 review of progress on the plan.
Envision Athens began much as similar planning efforts have begun in Athens and elsewhere, by gathering together representatives of major local institutions, the business and civic communities and the local government. But the effort’s original 20-person steering committee, representing those who traditionally have had seats at the table, insisted on assembling a group that was more widely representative of the community, both demographically and geographically.
As a result, the steering committee expanded to 38 members, and the majority-female panel now includes black and Latino representatives.
Additionally, last week’s workshops were scheduled for various times of the day, at various locations throughout the community — and in some cases included child care — to ensure that a wide variety of community residents could attend. Each of the workshops attracted dozens of people, and at the end of last week, an estimated 700 to 800 people had talked with their neighbors about the future of Athens.
Steering committee members were deeply involved in last week’s workshops, serving as leaders of the small-group tables where people gathered to discuss the future of Athens. Steering committee members helped open discussions at the tables, and assisted in compiling their groups’ thoughts for further analysis by the consultants.
And while race was a subtext for some of those discussions, it was, as Shirley Daniel noted, handled in a constructive way.
Willie Bolton, who retired two years ago as warden of the Athens-Clarke County Correctional Institute, was another of the black voices heard during the workshops. At his table during a Wednesday workshop at The Classic Center, the subject of race was framed in terms of addressing community issues, he said.
“The conversation kept coming around to the fact that we need more diverse problem-solving,” Bolton said.
There was, though, some disappointment that the workshops attracted few Latino participants. Graphic evidence of that lack of participation could be seen in a map that traveled among the workshops, on which participants were asked to place stickers to mark their homes and workplaces. The northeastern quadrant of the county, where much of the local Latino population is concentrated, had noticeably fewer stickers than the rest of the map.
Along with demographic concerns were concerns about geographic representation. Jeff Snowden, owner of a local advertising firm, said he attended a Wednesday workshop to ensure the interests of people outside of intown Athens — traditionally a locus for community activism — were represented.
“This is a big city with a lot of people,” Snowden said as dozens of people gathered at The Classic Center. “On my street, it’s cops and social workers” and other people outside of the academic and professional circles that define many intown residents, he said.
Asked at the end of the 90-minute session whether Envision Athens seemed any different from other community-wide planning efforts, Snowden said, “I want to hope so.”
Broadly speaking, Snowden said, “We have to get past this ‘two Athens” mentality’ which views intown Athens — roughly the intown area inside the Athens Perimeter — and the rest of the community almost as two separate places.
Each of the five workshops began with an almost hypnotic invitation from a planningNEXT consultant that went something like this: “Think about Athens-Clarke County in five, 10, 20 years … Think about what it will look like … Think abut housing … about wellness … Think about your grandchildren. what will they inherit from you?”
Wandering among the tables at the workshops, snippets of overheard conversations addressed a host of issues and concerns.
There were conversations about big-picture issues like economic development on the county’s eastside, about a rapid transit link to Atlanta, and about the possibility of extending sewer and other county services beyond their current limits.
There were other conversations about creating more greenspace in the community, about extending public transit further into the county and maybe into some surrounding counties, about setting up training programs aimed at increasing the diversity of local leadership, and about the need for affordable housing in Athens.
As a next step, planningNEXT will take the array of ideas expressed during the workshops — the data can be traced to the individual table where a particular idea was discussed, according to consultant Jamie Greene of planningNEXT — and assemble them into various categories, such as housing, environment and safety concerns.
That distilled information will be presented to the community during a two-hour “summit” scheduled for April 20 at The Classic Center, where the public can react to it, giving the consultants some idea as to whether they’ve heard the community accurately. Two months later, another workshop will be convened to begin the process of developing the plan.
The Envision Athens process began in October, and is expected to take a year to complete.
Framing the goal of the effort, Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson, who is co-chairing Envision Athens with local businessman Bob Googe, owner of the Jittery Joe’s coffee enterprise, began one of the workshops by noting that is has been more than 25 years since voters decided to unify the city and the county.
“For 25 years, we’ve been a unified community, and we need to start acting that way,” she said.