Every day when I drive through downtown I am amazed by what I see — new high schools, multi-million-dollar private clubs, town homes under construction from the $700,000s everywhere you turn. Frequently, I read through the newspaper, and low and behold, there it goes again — “$38 million luxury fitness facility planned for Alpharetta.”
As I write this column, Alpharetta has not one but six new restaurants waiting to open in City Center.
Our schools are all ranked extremely high, and our SAT scores rival or surpass those in the Northeast. There are more new cars on our roads than old. Our prep sports teams are winning, and business is good.
By almost any measure, Alpharetta is a city that has arrived.
But, now what?
We know the economy runs in cycles, so we cannot solely rely on continuous breakneck growth to carry our city forward. Our city, like any organization, needs a mission and a shared set of values to be able to capitalize on our good fortune. We need an identity. We need a culture. We need collectively to stand for something, and everyone needs to feel like they are part of something bigger than they are. What good is all the success and affluence if we don’t do something with it other than aspire to more affluence and growth?
Former Mayor Belle Isle wanted to brand Alpharetta as the “Technology City of the South.” Is that really who we are or want to be? Everyone knows that tomorrow, today’s technology is old hat and the world has moved on.
And who wants to be part of group or can personally identify with something called “technology city” anyway?
What about living in a city known for building Habitat homes, or building miles of bike lanes or fostering local food production and consumption or providing for the homeless or disenfranchised, or encouraging alternative uses to plastic or fossil fuels?
How about being a city with a reputation for being a place where seniors can affordably retire and stay fully engaged in the community through city-sponsored or aided initiatives, facilities, and networking opportunities and outreaches?
How about being part of a city whose mission is to figure out how to help its citizens personally reconnect to each other, reengage with each other, and reground their lives with meaningful work — work that fosters a sense of value and community.
Right now our world — including Alpharetta / North Fulton — needs a lot of fixing. The trend line is dark, very dark. Our kids are killing themselves. Our schools are being shot up. Opiate addiction is rampant. Homelessness is accelerating. The sense family, of neighborhoods and social connections are disintegrating, and as a society we are becoming more and more isolated and fragmented.
The high rate of technology growth has far surpassed the rate of social and personal growth needed to maintain balance in our lives and in our environment. Cities and counties budget for and invest in traditional municipal assets such as transportation, recreation and parks, safety and education while investment in soft assets like “connections” among citizens, stewardship of our natural resources, community building and the arts in general have lagged far behind – almost off the radar in many instances. Investment in “social capital” by municipalities has slowly begun to pick up speed in some cities across the country, yet not so much here in uber-successful and affluent North Fulton.
We are at a point — a paradigm-shifting point — where cities must reconsider what they plan, budget for and invest in. The technology tsunami that is driving most of the growth, and all the collateral damage that comes with it, is not slowing down; it is accelerating.
Cities need to lead, not follow in helping reinvent the world. Connecting people to each other in meaningful ways and providing a mission and a culture that allows citizens to belong to something — something good and bigger than they are — can’t be viewed any longer as a discretionary goal or budget line item. Investment in social capital needs to become a fundamental priority, and we need to view it as much of a hard asset as the bricks in the new city hall or 10-foot-wide sidewalks.
We need to be careful about allowing ourselves to paint ourselves into a narrow corner with our thinking. Growth, density, traffic and everything that we frequently associate with “progress” does not have to be something we automatically see as negative — something we must fear, fight or oppose, as long as we are smart enough to convert that energy and the resources that are generated into initiatives that balance the impact of growth and leverage it into creating things we value. We need to focus on using that growth to foster, support, and enable community, relationships, connectivity, and in general make our worlds better, healthier, safer, and more meaningful.
What we do with the growth is the key — not whether or not we allow the growth to occur.