Douglasville Mayor Mickey Thompson seems to have misgivings about the upcoming TSPLOST vote, and does not feel that the city, nor the western part of Douglas County, have been adequately represented in the allocation of funds possibly raised by approval of this one-cent sales tax.
To refresh your memory, earlier this year, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law allowing citizens in huge swaths of the state to vote on referendums that would impose a 1 percent sales tax in their respective swaths, with the tax going to fund a number of predetermined transportation projects.
Now, coming up soon, the registered voters of Georgia will have the opportunity to decide whether or not we will tax ourselves for one cent on every dollar we spend to improve the region’s transportation, with new road projects, new infrastructure and even a rail line or two, maybe.
But Thompson, who was part of the committee that had a voice on what projects would and would not be funded, now says that Douglas County will be a “donor county” in the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or TSPLOST, with 78 percent of the money the county would pay into TSPLOST being returned to fund projects within the county.
Thompson’s solution to the city’s transportation troubles appears to focus on building more four-lane roads, more interstate off-ramps and funneling more traffic into the black hole built on top of wetlands that is the local mall.
Douglasville has long had an “if you build it, they will come” attitude about transportation, structuring unnecessary four-lane roads here and there in the hopes of attracting development. To their credit, development has come; though it was almost all retail, which supplies low-paying jobs and works only when people actually have money to spend. Now, the city is once more in the midst of a glut of existing, vacant “big-box” development. Big box development is what you might think of when you consider the vacant Wal-Mart on Stewart Parkway, or the empty Hi-Fi Buys on Douglas Boulevard next to Outback Steakhouse, or the empty Circuit City at The Landing at Arbor Place, or countless other places throughout the city. Unlike smaller retail spaces, big box stores cannot be relatively easily filled with boutique clothing outlets, second-hand stores or hobby shops, simply owing to their immense size and square footage. It’s damn hard to fill a Wal-Mart if you’re not already a Wal-Mart, and with the exception of Big Lots, most retailers have little interest in setting up where another has failed. Often, then, these retail outlets would rather build their own, new development, which will itself be rendered vacant when hard times come calling and they once more pack up and leave town.
Another function of big box retailers is that they serve as “anchors” for a residential development. Most of their business is incidental, from people stopping in on their way to the Wal-Mart or Kmart or Target or Publix or Kroger. Without an anchor, it’s hard for a smaller retail operation to survive because the sheer traffic going past their storefront is so greatly diminished.
In Thompson’s view, an Interstate 20 interchange is needed at Bright Star Road to help relieve traffic at Highway 5 and Chapel Hill Road. This is, perhaps, the idea the city had when it built the seldom-traveled Bright Star Road Connector: pull traffic off of I-20, send it down Bright Star Road to Wal-Mart or down Douglas Boulevard to the mall. In an interview published in today’s Douglas County Sentinel, Thompson cites statistics to how many cars use the current interstate interchanges, though I gather the mayor has precious little concern for the fact that his vision constructs an interstate interchange in a residential area, streaming traffic past the homes of county residents who are not (yet) part of his jurisdiction.
His honor’s worries stop at the city limits, and that’s a problem.
Even if just 78 percent of what Douglas County puts into the TSPLOST is returned, the remaining 22 percent is nonetheless going to improve transportation in our region, making it easier for people who travel outside of the county’s boarders (and since Douglasville has done such an abysmal job in growing well-paying local jobs, most of us do travel beyond the county lines frequently, or even daily). And for those county and city residents idled by slashed transportation budgets, this means work – jobs, laying asphalt and installing traffic lights and generally working again. (Also, though no one’s hardly said it, this is a good time to get some transportation improvements done on the cheap while costs are depressed. It’s a bargain for taxpayers overall.)
Because the mayor didn’t get what he wanted in the TSPLOST, he’s ready to send the whole thing to hell by defaming it, even as he had more voice and influence to shape it than any of us who will be voting on the thing.
TSPLOST isn’t going to pay for paving subdivisions or replacing culverts down barely travelled back roads; it’s going to pay for major transportation improvements with a regional impact. One of the projects for which Douglasville and Douglas County advocated was improvements to the interchange at I-20 and I-285 – a problem interchange that regularly backs up eastbound traffic to Thornton and Lee roads and beyond and causes residents to lose countless hours due to delays.
In the Sentinel, Thomas said: “With the downturn in the economy and the struggles many are experiencing, I think it will be difficult for people to give up another 1 percent of their disposable income. You have an identical school board referendum question on the Nov. 8 ballot. Of course, if both are approved, that’s an additional 2 percent reduction in disposable income for each resident of our county.”
Perhaps we could look at it that way. Or, we could call it an investment in our community. As a region, transportation is the single greatest hindrance to attracting employers. The state is relatively business-friendly, and we have the post-secondary schools and research facilities to make this a whiz-bang place for potential employers, especially in the areas of technology and biotech with Georgia Tech, Emory, Georgia State and many other smaller area colleges contributing research and well-equipped alumni to the workforce. Still, companies are hesitant to commit investment to an area that is unwilling to invest in itself. Supporting transportation, just like supporting schools, is how we prove we have some skin in the game. It’s how we build our future.
We can no longer expect to hinge our local economy on large-scale retail and the building of strip malls. We must realize that our financial future is tied to the fortunes of metro Atlanta. Where goes Atlanta, so goes Douglasville. We’re beyond being a distant island out in the west; if that is what we wanted to remain, then we needed to develop a self-sustaining local economy. We didn’t do that. We don’t have the jobs to pay our residents a livable wage, and we certainly don’t have the jobs to empower people to spend dollars locally by virtue of the fact that we aren’t paying them enough dollars to spend, period. Our people need work, and there’s no longer any point in trying to build more houses that will be underwater in value by the end of the week that the certificate of occupancy is granted. There are no factory or production jobs to speak of. Not here, anyway.
By and large, I’ve thought a great deal of Mayor Thompson, and I was disheartened to hear that he would not be seeking a third term as mayor. But if this isolationist view of the city is what he would have pursued, we would have been wiser to elect a rival.