JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Mayor Mike Bodker used the April 2 Rotary Club of Johns Creek/Fulton meeting for a bully pulpit to explain why he thinks a vibrant town center is the missing piece to Johns Creek’s assured success in the future.
The city has accomplished great things in its brief seven-year history. It is the premier residential city in the state with its signature school system, and a new City Council has “taken the reins” at City Hall, he said.
“Now I want to share my vision for the city,” Bodker said. “I want to start a conversation about what will it take to make the city great [and] financially stable now but 100 or 150 years from now.”
A city that is supported with a tax base that is 79 percent residential and only 21 percent commercial cannot expect to grow enough to fulfill such ongoing needs as Johns Creek’s street maintenance deficit (mostly inherited from Fulton County neglect).
The $30 million deficit in road resurfacing when the city incorporated is now a $40 million deficit. The city is working on some short-term solutions, but more is required, he said.
He noted other wants and needs that he hears from the community:
More parkland and green space.
Growing city public safety concerns as the city grows.
Maintaining the city’s “curb appeal” residentially and commercially.
Maintaining residential appreciation in value.
“Without reinvestment in the community, this simply won’t happen,” the mayor said. “Safeguarding the city’s quality of life is the City Council’s job. So we have to find a way to change that trajectory.
“The best way I know is to shift some of the tax burden for all of this away from residential,” he said. “That means our O&I [office-institutional] and retail properties.”
Johns Creek must be proactive and not reactive. The city is already late to the dance compared to sister cities such as Alpharetta, Suwanee, Duluth and Forsyth County.
“While we’ve been talking, these other communities are doing,” he said.
When Johns Creek is talking about improving O&I, Bodker said it centers on Technology Park. That is the city’s “downtown.”
There are other factors holding Johns Creek back from achieving financial stability. A sluggish economy is one. The city’s location is another, lacking easy access to a Ga. 400 or I-85.
But chief among economic factors the city can do something about is what the mayor calls a “young, vibrant workforce” that would be needed to meet the demands of a growing office-commercial and high-tech tax base.
“How do we capture that demographic when they are early in their careers – while they’re still young? We need to look at how Johns Creek can bring the new Millennials to our city,” he said.
This younger workforce is not looking for a white picket fence and a three-car garage. They want a more urban lifestyle where they may want to bicycle to work. They don’t want the “anchor” of a mortgage. They don’t envision one career, but perhaps three or four.
“Many of these young people may have returned to Johns Creek after college to live in their parents’ basement. But we want them to stay here when they find a job,” Bodker said.
The answer, as Bodker sees it, is a town center where people will live, work and play. There are three windows of activity: the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekday group; the 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. group; and the weekend-all day group. Each of these components is a destination driver to feed a successful town center.
That means thinking outside the box and looking at apartments in limited areas such as a town center that would have apartments over retail, and apartments that would go vertical in a town center.
It isn’t meant to replace suburban life in Johns Creek, but to complement it, he said.
“Technology Park is the only place that would allow it [under the Comprehensive Plan], and that’s the only place it would make sense,” Bodker said.
Bodker doesn’t envision the city owning the town center, or even having a new city hall as part of it. And the mayor doesn’t want to get too far in front of the idea.
Rather, he says the next steps involve creating a task force or maybe committees.
“Like I said, I just want to start a conversation. What kind of town center should we have? Will it be pedestrian and bicycle friendly? We need everyone’s input for this,” he said.
Bodker said it was way too early to talk about bond referendums or anything as specific as that, calling it the cart before you even own a horse.
Rather, he would want it part of a re-visioning of Johns Creek that would look at green space and what would make a more livable community. He offered Oklahoma City, Okla., and Austin, Texas, as two examples.
“We need visioning, we need town hall meetings and task forces assembled,” he said.
In short, Johns Creek needs to develop a plan.