By Josh Akeman
Nearly 150 local leaders of various types gathered at Peachtree City's Dolce on Friday to begin discussing the future of Fayette County.
Virginia Gibbs, President of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, has been leading the way in establishing what she calls the "Fayette Community Visioning Initiative."
Last October, the Chamber took around 40 people on a Strategic Leadership Visit to Williamson County, Tennessee, a county where leaders made a concerted effort in the 1980's to come together and plan for its future and has since flourished.
"The trip to Tennessee was a major catalyst, crystallizing the importance of Fayette initiating a process to bring the community together and develop a common vision for our future," Gibbs said.
Williamson was chosen for many traits which parallel Fayette County.
The County of 185,000 has been growing rapidly, even in a recession, at a 10% clip that leads all Counties in the state. It is also Tennessee's wealthiest County, a home to many wealthy individuals, including celebrities. More importantly, it has continued to grow its industry and jobs, and is therefore seeing an expanding youth demographic as families settle there. Over 20-percent of the population is 19 or younger, a contrast to the often discussed "aging population" of Fayette County.
Like Fayette, healthcare is a predominant and growing industry, and Williamson also actively courts corporate growth, with companies like Nissan and Verizon already providing thousands of jobs at their corporate headquarters.
Three other counties made similar trips to Williamson last year alone.
Gibbs said everyone who participated in the trip is supporting and participating in Fayette's Community
Visioning Initiative, and more have joined in. She believes now is an ideal time for this initiative to begin.
"It appears to me that this is really the perfect time to do a visioning process. Between Pinewood's arrival and our county coming out of the economic downturn, I think there are many, many exciting things coming together right now," Gibbs said. "We go into this knowing that while no community is going to agree on everything, I think that we will come out of this with a number of overarching themes that we as a community do feel strongly about. I think it's those things we will focus on and move forward with."
On Friday, two consulting firms presented their plans for helping the county settle on a vision. After discussion, the steering committee chose to go with Market Street Services, which will help in providing research and analysis to provide a clear picture of where the county is and where it could go from here.
Mac Holladay of Market Street Services said in his presentation that his firm produces reports in "plain English" and provides "actionable plans" rather than "boilerplate studies." He said the firm has worked with communities around the country in thirty-three states, including many communities around Georgia.
Research will include two days of interviews and focus groups with local organizations and individuals, two community leadership meetings, and an online survey for Fayette County citizens. After data is compiled, Holladay said a "competitive assessment" will be conducted in which Fayette County will be compared against three "outstanding" communities across the country, after which a vision plan with implementation guidelines can be developed. The whole process could begin in November and be finished by May, Holladay said.
Trey Ragsdale, co-chair of Fayette County Visioning steering Committee, said the most important element of the whole project will be getting the wider community involved.
"The million dollar question is how do we bring everyone to the table," Ragsdale said, "86 percent of people in the country never go to community meetings."
The hope is that technology can facilitate that involvement. Mind Mixer, a website designed for this purpose, will be used to engage citizens and draw input into the visioning process.
The steering committee will also be organizing kickoff events and community round tables in the near future to encourage involvement.
"I think what we do want people to know is there are going to be lots of opportunities for engagement either in person or through surveys. We're going to try very hard to be as inclusive as possible," Gibbs said.
The initiative is still just beginning and Gibbs said most of the community engagement will likely begin after the first of the year.
In the meantime, the chamber has set up on e-mail account at email@example.com for anyone with questions or interest in becoming involved with the Fayette Community Visioning Initiative.