Decatur wants residents' vision of city in 10 years

Cities traditionally provide meat-and-potatoes services for residents -- think garbage pick-up or police patrols.

Far from being traditional, Decatur has long sought ways to spice up that menu. A decade ago, the city took the novel step of asking its citizens how to do that.

The city has since checked off 80 percent of the ideas compiled in the 2000 Strategic Plan. Results include a downtown dominated by local merchants, sidewalks and bike paths linking neighborhoods, and even a citywide volunteer program.

Later this week, the city will begin planning for its next 10 years by again asking citizens what should be done.

“The question we have is, if we’re going to be a vibrant community 10 years from now, what has to change and what do we keep doing,” said City Manager Peggy Merriss.

Many cities survey residents or rely on election campaigns to gauge the will of the people as to what the priorities should be. Decatur set itself apart by comprehensively reviewing resident ideas and developing what, in effect, becomes a list of good intentions.

Take volunteering. Residents kept mentioning an interest in donating time and energy to improve Decatur but wanted city guidance on how to do it.

Merriss said few officials had ever thought of that task as a city function. But on review, it became a clear quality-of-life issue, one of those intangible benefits that can keep residents happy and proud.

The city responded by securing a three-year-grant to launch Volunteer Decatur in 2000. Coordinator Lee Ann Harvey has since matched thousands of volunteers with opportunities.

And the one-woman department has blossomed from a service in the recreation department to a key piece in the economic development office, where volunteers can help with large events such as the Decatur Beer Festival that pump cash into local businesses.

Roshonda Carter is one of those volunteers. The 27-year-old graduate student works as a homework helper at Hagar’s House, an emergency shelter for women and children, after seeing the need on the city Web site that Harvey runs.

“The fact she’s there, it mirrors the interest of the people,” said Carter, who moved to the city four years ago. “There are more connections here between the city and the people who live here.”

That’s not to say there aren’t struggles, from the past decade or looking ahead.

Keeping the city’s diversity was a major goal in the 2000 plan. It was to be accomplished with more tax breaks for the elderly, construction of affordable homes and marketing campaigns targeting racial and ethnic minorities.

But perched just seven mile from downtown Atlanta and boasting its own highly regarded school system, the city became a gentrification hot spot.

Affordable condos such as the Talley Lofts were not enough to keep poor, minority and elderly residents from being squeezed out of a city with $300,000 one-bedroom condos downtown and some of the highest property taxes in the state.

Those same factors also kept some from moving into the city at all. Software developer Michael Harbin said his 25-year-old son, David, recently bought a home in more affordable East Atlanta over Decatur.

“As Decatur becomes more popular, it pushes some people out,” Michael Harbin said. “Decatur has worked hard to stop that from happening, but we need to do more.”

Just what doing more could mean will be discussed at the 2010 kickoff event at 6:30 p.m. on April 15 at the Holiday Inn Decatur on Clairmont Avenue.

The city had 500 residents participate in 2000. It hopes to find 1,000 people willing to exchange ideas in four round-table discussions this spring for the new plan.

That work finishes in mid-June and will be analyzed throughout the summer, Merriss said. Residents can follow along on a Web site, www.Decaturnext.com, and should expect the 2010 Strategic Plan by year’s end.

Harbin says he will attend a meeting, just as he did 10 years ago.

“A lot of us have seen that sense of community slipping away,” he said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of something that can stop that from happening.”