Tokar to pilot course for Alpharetta's prosperity

New development director optimistic about Alpharetta’s economic future

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ALPHARETTA, Ga. – Barely two months into his new job as Alpharetta’s economic development director, Peter Tokar is already shaping a new direction for the city’s development. That’s his job. Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle said Tokar “is bringing new ideas to the table and the experience to help us achieve our goals in an aggressive timetable.” Tokar was recruited because he seemed to have the perfect qualities that not only make him a good recruiter of small businesses but someone who can turn around and represent the city well in corporate boardrooms as well, Belle Isle said. “Our goal is to create an environment where our businesses can thrive. Peter has new ideas and innovations that will help us do just that,” the mayor said. Tokar took over a position that had been vacant for months and a department that had no real budget. That has changed. The 2012 City Council has given him a war chest of $500,000 to begin his efforts (albeit $200,000 was deferred until mid-year) to make Alpharetta the Technology City of the South. Coming from a similar position in a city of similar size, Davie, Fla., near Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Tokar said he had a similar goal, but the starting point is much better here, he says.
What were your first impressions of Alpharetta when you came here?
TOKAR: I thought this is such a great community. I pulled off Ga. 400 onto Windward Parkway, and it is so beautiful, clean and new. It’s a wide, well-landscaped road with major corporate buildings almost hidden with the beautiful landscaping. For a city this size, there is a lot here.
What surprised you the most about the city?
TOKAR: As I got to know it better, its businesses and especially the technology ones, I was impressed by its daytime population of 120,000. That’s an impressive statistic. It tells me there are enough businesses here to support the things this city wants to do. You take a snapshot of Alpharetta, and it’s almost an economic developer’s dream. There is a strong corporate presence here, and a strong cluster of 900-plus technology companies. Add to that the major developments under way such as Avalon, the City Center revitalization and North Point Mall’s response to all of that. There is great opportunity for corporate recruitment here, and no shortage of business projects that are interested in Alpharetta. I had a full plate the first day I came to work.
Do you think you have the resources to compete for national development projects and corporate relocations?
TOKAR: The city has put a lot of resources into the economic development effort. Even with the temporary augmentation of the [development] budget, there is a lot I can do right now with the budget at hand. And the city is dedicating its resources in all the right places. The city has created a Technology Advisory Commission, which will be huge in keeping abreast of the types of new technologies that will be coming up just over the horizon. Rebranding the city as the Technology City of the Southeast is joining the perception to the reality. Alpharetta is properly positioned for developing an even greater technology footprint here. It’s putting its resources into revitalizing the downtown, which will not only create a gathering place for the city’s residents, but create an environment that will attract the Generation Y young people – my generation – to come here to work. That is a good template for attracting new businesses here and retaining the existing businesses we have. It makes no sense to go to so much trouble to attract new businesses here, if we don’t pay attention to our existing ones. Many of those businesses here are already our best resource for attracting new business. I walked into a good situation where all the groundwork has been laid.
You mentioned the revitalization of the downtown, but some residents seem to be having second thoughts about the city and especially the downtown changing drastically.
TOKAR: A lot of that has to do with properly communicating with the public exactly what is happening. And there is an ongoing effort with the residents to communicate and educate the public what the effects and benefits are for the whole community. The City Center will be an enhancement to the quality of life for the residents. But it does represent a certain degree of change. And anytime there is change, not everyone likes it. The city leadership needs to be clear and concise why the change is necessary and that it is beneficial.
A lot of the disruption seems to be over the idea of putting apartments over the retail stores. That was the only real objection to the entire Avalon project. Is it necessary in the City Center?
TOKAR: What the residents have to understand is the difference between multi-family and single-family living. It is not a social implication, but social change. The Generation Y folks have adopted a different philosophy on living. People used to move to jobs, and then find a home that might be some distance away. People today want livable, walkable environments where they live, play and work. These are not just the post-college age workers. These are people in their late 20s and early 30s who like to live at Atlantic Station, Midtown and Little Five Points in Atlanta. As this city grows, it must take a hard look to see if it is just a place where people work or where they live, work, play. To retain the strongest community, we need a balance of both. I know I’m a Gen Y’er, a single guy who could afford a house. But I don’t want one, and I don’t need it. My one-bedroom apartment is what I want. I want to enjoy the community and being a part of it.
Are we making the right choice in especially recruiting technology companies?
TOKAR: It is always smart for a community to identify what it is first. Technology companies organically grew up around Alpharetta because it was attuned to its needs and at the right time and place had the fiber-optic cable already embedded and the power grid to support the kind of technology companies want. Every growing business today is using the newest technology. And the companies that are developing the new technologies are at the forefront of all of this. Then you have the Georgia Tech Advanced Technical Development Center, which is an incubator to create opportunities for new technology companies. The partnership with the Technology Association of Georgia and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce creates new relationships that can spur growth. Coupled with the new branding of the city as the Technology City of the Southeast, and you are defining what and who you are, both to yourself and to the world. You always want to update your image periodically. A city is always a work in progress. It has a unique identity, but how you present changes.