ROSWELL, ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Alpharetta and Roswell began the year where 2019 left off, sleeves rolled up for business.
Both were plowing through multi-million-dollar initiatives to improve traffic congestion and spur economic development. For the first time in almost three years, the cities had a clear picture of their tax base, and revenue projections showed a steady, healthy future.
That all changed in March when COVID-19 shuttered businesses, including government buildings, and forced the cities’ elected officials to redraft spending plans to weather the storm.
From March onward, city councils held meetings online, most members at home. Alpharetta resumed meetings in the council chambers in the fall. Roswell continued airing its meetings with members separated in offices at City Hall.
Both cities made allowances as the fallout from the virus took hold. Sign ordinances were relaxed, parks were closed to all but trail use, and many businesses were forced to adopt new practices, particularly in the area of take-out.
The City Council approved plans in January to address the nagging problem of parking in its prime business district along Canton Street by converting areas on Elizabeth Way and Canton Street to paid parking. The initiative allowed visitors to pay for on-street parking at a kiosk or through use of a Park Mobile Smartphone application.
Also in January, residents celebrated the reopening of the Roswell Library on Norcross Street. After more than a year’s worth of renovations, the refurbished building features raised ceilings for better lighting, and the Friends of the Roswell Library space has been reconfigured to let in more natural light. Information desks now sit in the center of the building, and both reading and study rooms line some of the walls.
In April, city officials selected a landscape architect and design firm to begin preliminary improvements and developments for the city’s long-anticipated Riverparks Master Plan, especially along the Ace Sand property. The Riverparks Master Plan, passed in 2016, outlines suggestions for improvements along the city’s riverfront parkland on Riverside Road, from Don White Memorial Park west to Willeo Park. The parcel is the only city-owned riverfront property not currently developed as a park and could provide some of the greatest opportunity for a new development, the study states.
Mayor Lori Henry launched a Business Recovery Task Force in late April to analyze how various industries have been impacted by the pandemic, and to determine their short- and long-term needs. The task force is made up of about 20 members, including representatives from local small businesses, city staff, Roswell’s economic development arm, Roswell Inc, and the East Roswell Economic Action Committee.
In June, the City Council passed a heavily pared-down budget for 2021 calling for $144 million in spending, down from last year’s approved $152 million budget. Some of the city’s big-ticket items included $1.8 million for the Historic Gateway Project and $1.4 million for fire vehicle replacement.
The City Council continued reviewing amendments to its unified development code. In July, the council voted, with some members dissenting, to implement an array of restrictions on multi-family and affordable housing. One amendment calls for removing stacked flat and walk-up flat building types from the commercial mixed use, commercial corridor and commercial heavy zoning districts located within the Holcomb Bridge Road/Ga. 400 character area. The amendment excludes the northwest quadrant between Warsaw Road and Ga. 400. Other amendments that passed included one that allows applications for multi-family units only as a conditional use where multi-family currently exists or in select commercial corridors. Another requires properties that contain multi-family units to have multi-use trails.
The City Council continued efforts to encourage redevelopment of the North Point corridor with creation of a tax allocation district early in the year. The TAD, which covers almost 4 million square feet of commercial property, would set aside any future increases in tax revenue it generates into a special fund that would be used solely for capital improvements in that area. Estimates show the district could receive anywhere from $65-$88 million in funding for these improvements over 25 years if the county and school district consent to be a part of the plan. So far, that has not happened.
The city didn’t stop there. In December, the council voted unanimously to apply to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to have a major section of the North Point corridor declared an opportunity zone, a designation that could bring more business to the area. An opportunity zone provides qualifying employers the highest tax credit available through the state — $3,500 per created job with a minimum of two jobs.
In February, a bare majority on the council pushed to increase the local homestead exemption to $75,000. The proposal called for increasing the local property tax rate to make up the difference in lost revenue. Opponents of the plan, including Mayor Jim Gilvin, said the measure provided a break to homeowners while placing an added burden on businesses. The proposal died on the vine when the pandemic forced elected officials to tend to more pressing issues involving public safety and government operations as City Hall closed to public access.
The pandemic also forced cancelation of major events in the city, including the wildly popular Taste of Alpharetta in May and Old Soldiers Day Parade in August. The annual Alpharetta Downtown Farmers Market, which normally runs from April through October, had a delayed start, initially setting up shop in the parking lot at Haynes Bridge Road and Old Milton Parkway. The weekend event moved to the Town Green later in the summer as the city reopened public parks to more events.
The last whisp of controversy on the City Council involved passage of a pay bonus to employees that had been suspended when the pandemic struck. The 7-0 vote in June belied tensions that mounted earlier over whether the city could afford a pay raise for employees that was scheduled to go into effect in April under the 2020 budget.
The city made progress on a host of upgrades to its transportation system. Among them, city officials signed a deal with the City of Johns Creek and Forsyth County in late fall to share in costs for the widening of McGinnis Ferry Road. The cities, which had originally committed to $4.9 million in costs, agreed to each contribute $8.9 million to the project, which has an estimated price tag of more than $60 million.