By Maria Saporta
Friday, August 13, 2010
It’s no secret that Georgia has been a divided state. For decades, business leaders and politicians have talked about the two Georgias — metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.
But at an all-day event in Macon on Aug. 25, leaders from across the state will explore how Georgia compares to other states and what the different communities can do to help create a common vision.
The forum is the fruit of the GeorgiaForward initiative, an effort launched last July by Central Atlanta Progress to bridge communities across the state.
CAP’s business leaders had become frustrated after seeing initiatives come to a total standstill because of geographic and political divisions in the state legislature.
“We are sitting here right in the shadows of the state, city, county, federal government buildings, and we see a lot of political rhetoric about the two Georgias, the three Georgias, the 10 Georgias,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “For whatever reason, the state has become more and more fractured.”
For the past year, Robinson and GeorgiaForward coordinator Amir Farokhi have been traveling across the state building relationships to try to bridge the various factions.
“As we have gone around the state, we have found some really wonderful, committed people,” Robinson said. “There are great plans in communities all over the state, but nobody talks about how we can roll all those plans up into a vision for the state. No one can tell you about a state plan. There’s a big gap between what people on the ground want in their communities and what the state can articulate as a common vision.”
Back when Joe Frank Harris was governor in the 1980s, Georgia did try. Under the leadership of developer Joel Cowan, the state created the Growth Strategies Commission that set forth a series of recommendations of how the state could grow in a sensible manner.
Interestingly enough, Roy Barnes was Harris’ floor leader in the mid-1980s. When Barnes was elected governor in 1998, he did try to implement the vision of preserving green space in areas experiencing the greatest amount of development.
But a coordinated state vision has not taken hold in Georgia in at least two decades.
Farokhi’s mother is an eighth-generation Georgian from Augusta and his father is from Iran. Farokhi grew up in Atlanta but spent a great deal of time visiting relatives in Augusta, on the coast and in Macon.
“That helped me see the need for a bigger conversation,” Farokhi said of his interest in the GeorgiaForward initiative. “In Georgia, we tend to operate in silos. But other states, like North Carolina and Virginia, have managed to bring together stakeholders together for many years.”
Farokhi said that as he has visited different communities, he has realized that “there’s greater understanding out in the state than our political rhetoric lets on.”
And the GeorgiaForward Forum will try to find consensus between the various sectors in the state — urban, rural; Democrat, Republican; and business, government and civic.
It will host an opening reception on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 24, before the all-day conference. Robinson said that Barnes and GOP gubernatorial nominee Nathan Deal have been invited to participate in the forum and be part of the discussion: “What’s Our Next Governor’s Vision for Georgia’s Future.”
There also will be four “problem-solving” breakout sessions on transportation, economic development, water and education that will take place in the afternoon.
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert will kick off the event, and Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver will introduce the keynote speaker: Anita Brown-Graham, director of the Institute for Emerging Issues in North Carolina.
CAP also has brought together a host of organizations to be part of the GeorgiaForward initiative, including the Georgia Municipal Association, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the community foundations from across the state, such as the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.
Robinson said that while CAP launched the GeorgiaForward initiative and provided funding for the past year, he hopes it will take on a life of its own.
“This shouldn’t be a CAP project going forward,” Robinson said because of his organization’s downtown Atlanta business focus. “We are hoping out of this meeting, there will be a group of key people from around the state who can come together in different ways. The whole idea is to have a group of thoughtful people who can communicate, and out of that come up with a common vision for the state.”
Ideally, Robinson said that this would be an annual gathering of Georgians who would be able to talk about where Georgia is going to be in 20 years.”
For more information on the forum, go to www.georgiaforward.org.