City DopeNews

City Dope

Gamechanger: The Athens-Clarke County Mayor, commissioners and senior staff were in high spirits last Friday after voting to approve financial and partnership arrangements related to the freshly announced agreement with heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar to locate a major new factory on the border of Clarke and Oconee counties. And who could blame them? The plant and its suppliers will bring thousands of jobs and millions of annual tax dollars to ACC within a few short years, putting a huge, desperately needed jolt in the troubled local economy. But the news came as a great symbolic victory, too, for a government that has sometimes been accused of being backwards on economic issues. When the question of what this development says about the idea that ACC isn’t “business-friendly” was posed to Mayor Nancy Denson, ACC Manager Alan Reddish and several commissioners following a festive photo-op outside City Hall, Commissioner Andy Herod quickly summed up the day’s consensus: “It says it’s nonsense.”

There are certainly more than a few other communities in the United States that will vouch for that this week, after they were beaten out for an industrial boon so significant that we can probably set the over-under on days before a presidential visit just as soon as a groundbreaking date is announced. This, despite a regulatory approach that robustly protects irreplaceable local character and the natural environment (Commissioner Kelly Girtz made the point that Caterpillar is well aware of ACC’s strict environmental requirements, including those governing stream buffers, and chose to spend its money here anyway). Commissioner Alice Kinman observed that the groundwork for this windfall was laid by the work of past mayors and commissions, and that’s certainly true. To put a finer point on it, we should take note that this great good fortune has come, through an exceedingly selective process, to a city that has been shaped by many years of careful policymaking and deliberately set priorities; the Dope will refer you to Kevan Williams’ Athens Rising column for a detailed exploration of how that should inform other ongoing economic development conversations in this community.

As for this one, though, the talk—and the work—has barely begun. The whole Caterpillar deal came together in less than two months; the plant, we’re told, should open in less than a year. In the meantime, there’s plenty to be done to ensure that it has the maximum positive impact on the community. The sputtering local economic development mechanism will be required to spring into high gear immediately in order to attract as many of Caterpillar’s suppliers as possible to this county, as opposed to neighboring ones. Reddish confirmed that the plant’s production jobs will all be filled locally, and Athens Tech and the Athens Community Career Academy will begin training for those positions as soon as possible. That’s great, but it’s going to take more to ensure that the benefits of this enormous new asset can reach those who are deeply mired in Athens’ gnawing poverty. Denson says Caterpillar has been assured the county’s public transit system will accommodate workers who can’t drive to the plant, which will help.

But what we’re talking about is the need for a massive mobilization of local resources, starting immediately with a refocusing of the attentions of ACC’s government, nonprofits, churches and anyone else here who sees this as an opportunity not just to boost the overall economy, but finally to do something serious about our disgraceful economic inequality. It’s going to be a busy year.

Turd in the Punchbowl: Speaking of local disgraces, ACC’s delegation to the Georgia Legislature continues to flaunt its absolute disinterest in even pretending to be responsive to its constituents in any ways that don’t reflect the most unprincipled partisanship imaginable. When Rep. Chuck Williams, a Republican from Watkinsville, stated his intention to support the local reapportionment map overwhelmingly supported by the ACC government and citizens’ committees—despite the fact that such support would fail to take advantage of an opportunity to reorganize said government against its wishes, just because its current elected officials are mostly Democrats—there was briefly hope that the rest of the delegation might be shamed into some semblance of legitimate representation of this community.

What a joke. It now appears likely, as anyone in touch with current political reality should have expected all along, that the Republicans and Keith Heard will go ahead and blow up Athens’ system of government just because they can. One possible scenario has them waiving the delegation’s long-held unanimity rule, if necessary, and submitting to the full Legislature a completely re-drawn map that divides ACC into 10 geographical districts and eliminates “superdistricts.” The problem, of course, is Doug McKillip—the desperate creep and former “progressive Democrat” whose Facebook page now assures us he will “stand up for states’ rights by opposing the Obama Agenda“—and it’s indicative of the larger problem that has rendered today’s Republican Party incapable of governing at all.

Just as Republicans in Washington are precluded from proposing or supporting policies that are remotely sane for fear of being rejected by the party’s increasingly extremist base—and risk being defeated in a primary by the next Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle—the flamboyantly conservative poses now being struck by McKillip, including his cynically calculated hostility to relatively liberal ACC, must now be aped by the likes of the once-reasonable Bill Cowsert. That may be inconvenient news for the citizens of Clarke County, who would just as soon remain in control of their own local government, but in the long run, we’ll be fine (see above item). It’s seriously bad news for the Republicans themselves, who will continue to decline in legitimacy and influence so long as they keep embracing aberrant freaks like their repellent gang of presidential candidates and sinister clowns like McKillip. For now, wish ’em luck sleeping at night—and regaining their credibility with the spherical-Earth crowd.