A little more than four years ago, the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce brought together business, community and political leaders to develop a vision for the area and create a plan to achieve that vision. Out of that sprang Believe Greater Dalton (https://www.believegreaterdalton.com) an organization sponsored by the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce that is working on strategies for six areas to improve the community: educational outcomes, housing, entrepreneurship, economic development, downtown development and community pride.

Allyson Coker has served as project manager for Believe Greater Dalton since shortly after its conception, spearheading its efforts to revitalize and reimagine Dalton and Whitfield County.

The Daily Citizen-News recently spoke with Coker about what Believe Greater Dalton has accomplished and what its goals are for the coming years.

DCN: Believe Greater Dalton is now about four years old. What would you say have been its major accomplishments?

Coker: Late last year, we provided an update to our investors on the work of all six strategies of education, housing, entrepreneurship, downtown, economic development and community pride. Despite the challenges of 2020, we continued to make progress toward achieving essentially all the tactical recommendations the plan outlined for each strategy.

The education partnership brought together leaders from both public and private K-12 systems, Dalton State College, Georgia Northwestern Technical College (GNTC), industry and local nonprofits alongside around 100 volunteers to implement a collective impact model for evaluating and improving educational attainment for all of our students. We continue to see our K-12 systems and post-secondary institutions working together in a manner they never have before with a focus on the cradle-to-career pipeline to improve student performance and workforce readiness and ultimately ensure the success of every student in Greater Dalton.

The partnership has teams focused on continuous improvement in the areas of kindergarten readiness, early-grade reading, middle-grade math, high school graduation, post-secondary enrollment and post-secondary completion. In September 2019, we presented a baseline report representing community-level data with annual improvement goals of 3% in each area, and our first annual report is about to be released.

From 2018 to 2019 we saw a 5% improvement in students being served by quality-rated childcare centers, and a 5% improvement in the high school graduation rate. Another key area of progress showed that 70% of Dalton State College 2019 graduates are employed in Dalton and the surrounding area, and 93% of 2019 award recipients from the Whitfield-Murray Campus of GNTC placed in their field of study and employed here or in the surrounding northwest Georgia area.

At the start of the new year, our education team met with both public system superintendents to determine how the partnership could most effectively support them in the next school year after the many challenges they faced in 2020. We decided piloting a literacy-focused volunteer mentorship program at a local elementary school would be the best way to support our systems. Together, we determined to pilot the program at Eastside Elementary, beginning in fall 2021, working with the second- and third-graders. If anyone is interested in being a volunteer mentor for the program, please contact Dr. Stephani Womack at womack@daltonchamber.org.

With housing, the first recommendation of the strategic plan was a comprehensive study of our local housing market. This process began immediately when I started as project manager in 2018, and the study was rolled out to the community in November of that year. The top recommendation of the study was to form a nonprofit development corporation similar to River City Company in Chattanooga to help kick-start our local housing market.

We filed paperwork with the IRS in November of 2019 and were expediently granted nonprofit status in January of 2020. The Flooring Capital Development Corp. (FCDC) was created to help facilitate residential development throughout the county. The FCDC board of directors was making fundraising plans to capitalize the entity when COVID-19 hit and has since begun to explore other ways the nonprofit might be used to help assist the city with neighborhood revitalization. We have identified examples of cities that have had success with similar efforts and are outlining plans to emulate them here.

Our entrepreneurship efforts helped found the Dalton Innovation Accelerator (DIA), a space for entrepreneurship in downtown Dalton. In January, Lauren Holverson started as the executive director of DIA, and she has made great strides in formalizing programming that will be offered to local entrepreneurs and small businesses. Lauren will work with students from the Dalton State College Wright School of Business, which has its first official downtown presence in the space, as an integral part of our entrepreneurship programming efforts.

We have held two highly successful PitchDIA entrepreneurial pitch competitions which have sparked the entrepreneurial spirit this community was founded on. We look forward to the third annual PitchDIA in spring of 2022.

In partnership with the Downtown Dalton Development Authority (DDDA), we worked with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government (at the University of Georgia) on a downtown master plan that was presented to the community in February 2019. We continue to see recommendations from that plan become reality.

In 2020, the "free public parking sign" above the Landmark Building parking deck from the master plan was funded by Believe Greater Dalton and serves as an outstanding example of a public-private-community partnership and collaborative effort. We are advocating for downtown streetscape expansions to begin in the coming year, and we are excited to continue to support downtown events like the "Off the Rails" summer concert series once it can safely begin again at Burr Performing Arts Park. This event attracts thousands of locals and visitors to downtown Dalton every Friday night during the summer and fall.

Through the work of the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority (JDA), since 2018 we have seen over 1,000 jobs and over $400 million investment committed to our community through companies that all chose Greater Dalton as a new home or expanded their business here. These efforts to grow our industrial base in ways that complement our community and add value to Greater Dalton include Hanwha Q-Cells, Novalis Innovative Flooring and GEDIA, a German automotive parts manufacturer. We continue to work with the JDA team on opportunities to assist with much-needed multi-family housing.

As a native Daltonian with a big heart for this community, my personal focus has been strongly attached to our community pride efforts. Too often we are our own worst critics, focusing only on the negative and failing to see all the many positives that make us unique among any other community of our size.

Through social media efforts we launched our "People of Dalton" campaign that highlights the stories of our people -- some well-known and others who are not -- but all work together to tell our beautiful story.

In partnership with the Dalton Convention & Visitors Bureau, DDDA, Creative Arts Guild and the Northwest Georgia Community Foundation, we have developed a new brand identity and community pride campaign that is being launched around it. The tagline "Start. Dream. Thrive." was developed by local firm Girl Creative, and we are excited to begin using it to tell our story to our residents, potential residents and visitors.

In November of 2019 Gratefull Dalton was championed by our community pride team and over 1,400 people came together for a free meal at one table in the middle of Hamilton Street in downtown Dalton. It was a very special day for our community, and we hope with great anticipation that this gift to the community can safely happen again this year on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

All of these community pride efforts communicate that by working together, we are actively shaping our own future.

A lot has been accomplished in a very short time frame, but again I will say, in my opinion the greatest accomplishment of Believe Greater Dalton is serving as a connecting point for collaboration in our community. Prior to COVID-19, this work had become much more than just a strategic plan. It became a movement, and that movement continued despite the challenges of 2020. Our co-chairs and volunteers look forward to continuing to use this platform as a catalyst for positive change.

DCN: Four years ago, a Believe Greater Dalton study found that 62% of those holding a job in Whitfield County that pays $40,000 or more live somewhere else. What is being done to try to get people who have well-paying jobs in Whitfield County to live here?

Coker: The ongoing work of all six strategies is focused on improving our quality of life and making Greater Dalton a great place to live, work and play. We continue to make strides, and in 2020 Dalton was recognized as the fifth-best medium-sized city for remote work in the country, and the best city for remote work in the state of Georgia.

Just this week, Dalton was ranked #15 on a list of the top 25 cities for remote workers in an analysis of 304 U.S. cities. This study looked at "hidden gem cities" with access to a high quality of life, greenspace and high-speed internet connection with an affordable cost of living.

The largest barrier to getting the 62% to live here is a lack of quality housing. We've made huge strides in improving our quality of life, but housing is the big hurdle to getting people who work here to also live here. This is a complicated issue that takes time to figure out, but we are committed to helping solve this challenge through our efforts with FCDC.

DCN: Another study, from three years ago, found 18% of Whitfield County's housing stock was built in the 21st century. Statewide, the average is 31%. We are starting to see new development, both in single-family homes and apartments. Will more need to be done to spur new development in housing? Will it require local government funding for housing development or providing tax incentives for such development? Can you comment on what the success/failure of the TAD (tax allocation district) vote will have on housing development? (The TAD measure was voted down by county residents.)

Coker: Our housing market study determined in 2018 that Whitfield County's housing market could absorb 150 to 160 new, market-rate, single-family homes, and 90 to 100 multi-family units each year for the next six years. We haven't really seen a comprehensive middle-income, single-family neighborhood developed in Whitfield County in 20 years. Meanwhile, Catoosa and Gordon counties have seen many new developments.

TADs in the unincorporated areas of the county are absolutely critical to kickstarting these types of neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the vote against redevelopment powers will be a setback to our housing efforts in the unincorporated areas, but our work will continue.

We've had discussions with numerous developers to bring new housing to Whitfield County. The first few of these developments will require incentives of some description, whether they are traditional tax incentives or access to tax allocation districts.

A new apartment complex is currently under construction just north of Hamilton Medical Center, and it was made feasible with traditional tax incentives. I wouldn't be surprised to see property owners seek annexation into one of our municipalities in order to have access to TADs to develop their properties. We've already seen two property owners annex into the city of Dalton for that purpose.

DCN: One issue that has come up in focus groups and other discussions hosted by Believe Greater Dalton is the importance of cleaning up Dalton and Whitfield County and addressing blighted areas. What has Believe Greater Dalton been doing to facilitate that effort? What is the status of the Flooring Capital Development Corp. working with the city on this issue?

Coker: Prior to COVID-19 we partnered with Keep Dalton-Whitfield Beautiful on a series of grassroots cleanup efforts on Walnut Avenue, downtown, and in other areas like Dug Gap Battle Park and the waterfall park on College Drive. The downtown master plan has many recommendations to address blight, and one of those was the building at 334 N. Hamilton St. that was vacant for five years and declared a public nuisance by the Municipal Court. It was great to see the efforts come together when the building was demolished earlier this year, and we look forward to working with the city on how that space can be used to enhance that gateway to downtown.

We also look forward to supporting the city's efforts at our I-75 interchanges, Walnut Avenue gateway and Market Street corridors in any way we can. The Flooring Capital Development Corp. board continues to explore how we can work with the city on the revitalization of neighborhoods through grants to support minor home repair and demolition programs. We applaud the progress the city has made in their code enforcement efforts and will continue to support those as we explore the grant program opportunities.

DCN: 2020 put a lot of plans for both individuals and organizations on hold. Can you talk about the impact COVID-19 and the shutdown of many activities had on Believe Greater Dalton?

Coker: Nobody could have predicted the impact of COVID-19, but once again our community has proven its resiliency and ability to come together in the best and most challenging of times. For the Believe Greater Dalton work, 2020 offered the gift of time for projects that required significant focus. We were able to create a community promotional video that is something we can all be proud of, and our major employers can use as a recruitment tool.

We were able to apply for a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation to assist in the hiring of the executive director for DIA, and further our relationship with Lyndhurst through discussions on future investment opportunities in our community.

While we were unable to host Gratefull because of COVID, we were able to host a food drive to help meet immediate needs of our community through the Chattanooga Area Food Bank's local efforts here in Whitfield County. The word of the year was "pivot," and as we did that, the work of Believe Greater Dalton expanded and grew despite the challenges we all faced.

As we draw closer to the end of this first five years of work, I am proud that we have accomplished essentially everything the strategic plan recommended. This has not been a plan that sits on a shelf, it is a living and active part of our community, and the work helps lay the foundation for the next 10, 20 years and beyond. With the great people of this community all working together, Greater Dalton's brightest and best days are truly ahead of us.

It's important to note that what we have accomplished over the last few years through Believe Greater Dalton merely lays the foundation for the work that will need to be done going forward. Successful communities like Rome and Chattanooga continuously focus on building upon the foundation they laid years ago. We will need to do the same in Greater Dalton.

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