It was a classic Decatur moment.
What’s likely to go down as the largest community engagement event in local memory unfolded Thursday evening, January 23, 2020, at the Marriott Courtyard’s Decatur Conference Center.
“I’m amazed at the turnout,” said Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett, as she opened the night’s program before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 600 that included all five members of the City Commission and senior City staff.
The occasion was opening night of the process to update the City of Decatur’s Strategic Plan for the next decade. And even though the start of the program was paused in order to allow the record crowd to sign in and find places in the packed room, attendees used the time to chat with neighbors and to help late-comers locate seats as the room filled.
It was a repeat of the overwhelming response to the opportunity to participate in a similar planning update in 2010. With an even larger pool of registrants and with an impressive influx of new faces.
Most of Thursday night’s attendees had already registered to be assigned to some 70 small groups that will meet three times over the next few weeks for two-hour sessions to hash out priorities for policies and programs for the next ten years. Of those early registrants, about 40 percent were people who weren’t around in 2010.
Here’s a video with veterans of previous strategic planning efforts urging their neighbors, new and old, to sign up for the 2020 process:
It’s worth noting that the Roundtable volunteer effort represents something bigger than “600 people taking an online survey,” said Mayor Garrett. Counting the time they invested in opening night, “that’s 600 people committing eight hours of their own time. That’s 4,800 hours of citizen time pledged towards working together in the service of our city.
“It’s us doing what Decatur has excelled at doing for decades — planning for an intentional future.”
Connecting the Thursday night event with the City’s long history of convening citizens and responding to their hopes and concerns was a key theme of the evening’s program.
“We do what we say,” said City Manager Angela Arnold, who pointed to the City’s “vision-based budgeting” process for prioritizing and funding initiatives identified through the strategic planning process.
Bottom line: Of projects and programs identified in the Strategic Plan created in 2010, 93 percent have been completed or are currently underway.
Every-decade updates of the Plan help the City respond to a changing context for planning that will be influenced not only by what’s happening within Decatur’s borders, but also in the broader Atlanta Metro region and beyond. “We don’t have a drawbridge we can just raise” to avoid impacts from elsewhere, said Angela Threadgill, Decatur’s director of planning and economic development.
Threadgill pointed to the City’s notable growth over the last 10 years. The percentages of higher income and higher educated residents have grown. And the population is older. While the City has added jobs, costs of living, particularly for quality housing, have grown faster than many middle-class families’ incomes.
In high-appeal locales like Decatur, rising unaffordability is a national trend, along with others Threadgill listed in her presentation. Among those rising concerns: the disruptive impacts of climate change.
If opening night attendees needed a reminder of that challenge, it was provided by a group of young advocates who greeted arrivals with calls for more responsive action in the face of the climate emergency. They were encouraged to join attendees inside the Conference Center for the program, and several accepted the invitation.
Integrating challenges, including competing assumptions about their severity and strategies to confront them, is built into the Roundtables’ design. By necessity.
Meredith Swartz, a Roundtables registrant interviewed by Angela Watson for this article on Decatur Patch put it this way: ”As we get further into the conversations, though, the tradeoffs will become more apparent. I think finding that balance between what we want to do and what we are able to do, given that we exist in a larger ecosystem, will be an interesting path to navigate.”
Here’s how the Roundtables provides that path:
Opening night was get-acquainted time for group members, the first step in a lengthy process of community participation opportunities. In each of the next three meetings, aided by volunteer facilitators, groups will explore alternative visions for Decatur’s future, progressively zeroing in on aspirations they agree upon and those they can’t resolve without more information. Those emerging hard-to-resolve topics become the focus of four “202” sessions with invited experts to share research and lessons learned from elsewhere. If there are additional info sharing needs after that, there will be pop-up meetings and other opportunities for targeted input and clarifications.
What’s learned from all these conversations helps shape a presentation and citizen review of draft recommendations. That’s the agenda for a celebratory gathering that wraps the intensive engagement phase of the process. From there, the consulting team and City staff refine the Plan draft that’s presented for further community review and ultimate adoption by the City Commission.
We’ll be reporting on progress throughout the entire project. So come back to this space for updates.
As presented at the Strategic Plan Kick-Off meeting, January 23, 2020.
As live-streamed on Facebook by the City of Decatur.
As of January 23, 2020.
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