Community Engagement Center for Strategic Relations Manager Elizabeth Sanford of the Atlanta Regional Commission, who facilitated the retreat, gave rules for the council to put their disagreements of current city business aside and drop the titles of mayor and council member for a day.
The Canton City Council prioritized four goals with short-term and long-term priorities during its retreat Friday at the Woodbridge Inn in Jasper.
The goals are:
•Create a master plan for downtown and the city as a whole;
•Improve economic development;
•Continue to reduce the city’s debt; and
•Create a parks and recreation department.
Since the city does not have an updated master plan that gives direction as to where it is headed in the future, Sanford suggested the council spend at least a year receiving input from citizens and various committees to devise a proposed plan.
“Your downtown has so much potential. This effort of making a master plan could be really helpful in creating the downtown you want. People want to go to a vibrant, walkable, fun, artsy area with plenty of options,” Sanford said. “You have to create a vision not just for downtown, but the entire city, so when growth does come, you have a plan for it.”
Councilman Bill Grant said the city tends to think about the downtown area as how it already exists instead of what it could become.
“We need to think about the future. The character zones we want to see in South Canton, the Bluffs, or anywhere else so we know what to attract to those areas and what fits best where,” Grant said.
Sanford asked the council to draw in more citizen engagement when it comes to creating the master plan because it will encourage residents to take more ownership and pride in the city.
City Manager Glen Cummins said the city has already budgeted $30,000 in order to hire a consultant to begin the master plan.
When it comes to economic development, council members agreed the city needs to build partnerships on the state and county level. Grant suggested working with ARC to find development opportunities.
“We need to look at the region, work with county and really look at our resources,” Grant said. “We have to be more collaborative with the people around us because we haven’t always done that as best as we could.”
Councilman John Rust said the council needs to be more available when prospects come in and want to hear more about what Canton can offer.
“The saddest story I’ve heard is that a business wanted us to present ourselves and we didn’t. They decided not to come here because of that. I don’t like the city to lose,” Rust said.
The council agreed to use the resources it has to not only draw in more businesses, but also residential developers.
As the council mulled over ways to improve the city and plan for the future, Councilman Jack Goodwin said over the last six years debt reduction has been a top achievement for the city.
Cummins asked as they consider projects and goals, and what if debt reduction hinders one of the goals moving forward.
Council member Sandy McGrew said the city needs to use the certified grant writer, Camille Wehs, and find other sources of revenue in order to fund future projects.
“I don’t think we’re doing enough to access other money,” McGrew said. “There are opportunities to find money elsewhere and we have to take advantage of them.”
Parks and recreation
With the Etowah River Park nearing completion, the council is looking for options on how to manage the activities held at the city-owned park.
Councilman Hooky Huffman said there’s a major need for a parks director now that the city has enough parks and territory to manage.
“We have no designated manager for parks besides a maintenance crew. We need someone immediately to help us get started with scheduling programs, managing the maintenance of parks and coordinating the events and activities held there,” Huffman said.
Mayor Gene Hobgood and McGrew agreed a director of recreation needs to be added.
“We need a department that involves more than maintenance. We need a director that is upbeat and encourages community engagement,” McGrew said.
The council ended the retreat by discussing strategies in order to make progress on the goals. Sanford said the highest priority for the city should be to establish an overall master plan and then take the necessary steps to follow through with the goals set.