By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
About 40 residents of Atmore and Poarch heard the basics of a plan to foster growth and sustain economic stability within the community during a February 19 public meeting at Escambia County High School’s Hodnette Auditorium.
John Robert Smith and Chris Zimmerman of Smart Growth America (SGA) explained some of the basics of such a plan and explained how analysis of the current situation — augmented by interviews with educational, industrial, government and business leaders in Atmore and Poarch — have worked in the 114 communities in which the national not-for-profit organization has implemented the program.
Atmore is one of just six U.S. communities to receive grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the economic feasibility and sustainability of various growth strategies.
“We’re here to talk about the economic and fiscal health for Atmore because the choices you make in land use and the choices you make about the things you retain in Atmore, and the things you let go, where you choose to make your investment and how you encourage others to make investments all play out over the next 30 or 40 years,” Smith said.
Smith said he encourages elected officials in all communities with which Smart Growth America works to lengthen their vision, even beyond the life expectancy of the respective officials.
“I tell them you can’t have a two-year or four-year vision,” he said. “If you do, you’re selling your folks short. You’ve got to have a 30-year or 40-year vision and, no, you won’t be there to see it, but you’ll lay the groundwork for it, and your vision needs to be of that length.”
He told the local government officials, business owners and others that the program is focused on building communities of which residents are proud and to which people want to relocate.
“It’s all about how we build the places we call home,” he pointed out. “Smart Growth America tries to help shape the quality of the place, and that place shapes the lives of the people who live there.”
He explained that the concept under which the program is implemented is not a new one, that it employs the same basic principles that were used as far back historically as the city of Pompeii.
Chris Zimmerman, an economist with SGA, talked about the nation’s changing population, of which Baby Boomers and Millennials are now the driving economic force. Each group, he explained, has different wants and needs.
He also talked about the particular wants and needs of each demographic, telling those in attendance that today’s economy is driven by technology and a need for skilled employees.
“Instead of chasing smokestacks, today’s industry is chasing talent,” Zimmerman said. “We heard that today from industries in Atmore.”
The economist also noted that today’s young labor force desires a walkable environment, as opposed to a car-dependent one, a fact that makes the development of downtowns a vital part of meeting that need.
Asked during a question and answer period if the Smart Growth America team was here to devise a master plan for Atmore’s future growth and sustainability, he said it was only the tip of the iceberg.
“This is more of a preliminary to a master plan,” he said. “This is like the thinking you’ve got to do. If you want a master plan for your community, this is what you have to do.”
Smith said the team, which was to host a brainstorming session for an invited group of community leaders during a six-hour session at Atmore Public Library the next day, gleaned a lot of information during the series of interviews conducted earlier in the day.
“We learned a lot, gathered a lot of insight,” he said. “We will dig into these issues during the workshop. We don’t want to make you do anything; we want to show you what’s working across the country, in cities large and small.
“This is about Atmore finding a vision for the future and seizing it, and we’ll provide what we believe are the next steps.”