City Manager Sammy Rich won approval from the city Redevelopment committee Wednesday to bail out of the third year of a three-year retail recruitment agreement with NextSite 360.
"I'd just as soon reinvest the money in a different way," Rich told the committee.
During the first two years of the contract, NextSite 360 has produced a lot of demographic data which the city has shared with developers and real estate agents, but thus far has not been able to land any major new retailers.
"They are routinely out dealing with shopping center developers, but to fast forward, in light of our economic development discussion, I would recommend that we don't continue with year three," he said. "We've got the data we need, and I would rather reinvest that money into whatever our new efforts are."
The city has spent $15,000 in each of the past two years, however the Alabama-based company has not been able to seal a deal with any new retailers for the community yet.
The committee did agree to move forward with the plans for a Mount Berry Tax Allocation District agreement with the Hull Property Group, owners of Mount Berry Mall.
The mall owners are asking for a 15-year agreement where they would receive approximately $88,200 a year. The money would come out of incremental increases in the tax value of the mall parcels as HPG makes its own investments in the property.
The Augusta-based firm has agreed to make multimillion dollar upgrades at the mall including demolition of the Sears end of the property, realignment of roads at that end of the property and additional outparcel development.
"Their plea has been we need this to be able to keep the mall from going dark, to help keep strong corporate tenant leases in place," Rich said.
The city manager pointed out there is value to trying to salvage what is already out at the mall. The demolition of the Sears end of the mall does open up several outparcels on the north end of the property. The owners have indicated they could recruit restaurants for that area and possibly a small strip retail center.
City Clerk Joe Smith pointed out that demolition of the northern end of the mall would, in all likelihood, have the effect of reducing the tax value of the property. This means there would not be any incremental increase in the tax value to return to owners at the outset of any redevelopment. Rich and Assistant City Manager Patrick Eidson indicated Hull was well aware of that.
"It does open up other opportunities for others in that area," Commissioner Bill Collins said.
"There has been some good investment in this general area," Rich said.
He listed the new Goo Goo Car Wash, the Race-Trac convenience store, the new DiPrima's restaurant as examples.
"We could end up seeing a sort of resurgence in this area," Rich said.
Judge Colston retiring
Despite being one of a handful of local lawyers who've argued before the U.S. Supreme Court — and won — retiring Floyd County Superior Court Chief Judge Tami Colston counts establishing a drug court as one of her life's accomplishments.
Standing before Justice Sandra Day O'Connor 25 years ago, her colleague Bill Lundy said her Southern accent "was in full display" but nonetheless "she was bold and terrific" and helped them win the case.
However, her empathy for those before her bench was the defining characteristic those in a retirement party at the Floyd County Administration Building brought up time and time again.
People packed in the large room from all the stages of her varied career Wednesday — the state patrol operator, probation officer, lawyer and then judge.
One person she wanted to thank most, among the many in attendance, was her longtime judicial assistant and drug court coordinator, Chaquita Swann Crawford.
Crawford, along with others, presented Colston with a retirement gift — a map of Allatoona Lake — and the Rome Bar Association presented a donation to the drug court.
Colston was appointed to the post in 2001 by Gov. Roy Barnes after the three sitting Superior Court judges lobbied for a fourth judgeship — citing a case overload.
At that time she was the Floyd County district attorney, just six months into her second term.
"I am delighted to be able to appoint Tami Colston to the Superior Court," Barnes said at the time. "Her legal experience and commitment to the justice system will serve her well on the bench."
She was sworn in as the first female judge for the Rome Judicial Circuit and subsequently re-elected to the post, serving over 17 years as a sitting judge.
As part of her time on the bench Colston expanded Floyd County's accountability court to include a drug court. The voluntary program provides treatment and counseling — along with heavy oversight — in lieu of sentencing. Colston sought and was awarded a grant from the state to establish the accountability court in 2017.
The drug court was the county's second accountability court. Superior Court Judge Jack Niedrach established a mental health court in 2016.
Two of the drug court's participants stepped up to the podium to speak, sometimes tearfully, about how the accountability court changed their lives.
One man described himself as sober, thriving and hopeful and said "I want to thank you, Judge Colston, for standing by me, never giving up on me and making me the man I am today."
Another man described her as a person who would "fight for me even though I didn't know how to fight for myself." Today he's found faith in himself and strength through his wife and two children.
Judge Billy Sparks will be taking over the drug court when Colston leaves.
"She has a wealth of experience and we will dearly miss her," Sparks said. Niedrach agreed, saying Colston was a pleasure to work with and was always upbeat.
Kay Ann Wetherington was elected in 2018 to fill the seat after Colston announced her retirement and will take on the role in January. Once Colston retires, Floyd County Superior Court Judge Bryant Durham will be chief judge.
Curiosity concerning curling has filled up all of the reserved space in 12 programs to introduce the sport to Romans on the ice at the Forum River Center Saturday. The good news is that space is being held for walk-ups to get into one of the 12, 10-minute time slots from 9:40 a.m. through 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
Participants will have the opportunity to learn how to throw a stone and see what sweeping the ice in front of the stone does. There is a $10 charge for those who are able to get in early Saturday and get the few remaining spaces in each time slot that have been saved. All proceeds from the event will benefit the Ruth and Naomi Project, a new homeless facility for women, of the Davies Shelter.
Dr. Dixon Freeman, the Rome OB-GYN who was instrumental in the founding of the Atlanta Curling Club, said he was not at all surprised that all of the reserved space filled up quickly.
"To be honest, going back to last year's Olympics I had so many people ask me about it," Freeman said. When word got out that an ice rink was coming to the Forum River Center during the holidays, he started to put together a plan with Thomas Kislat and Ann Hortman.
"Originally I envisioned the idea of doing some kind of large tournament of people locally in Rome, where we would take a few days and train them up, but the ice time just wasn't feasible for that," Freeman said.
Freeman got interested in the sport during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He said it seemed like curling was on TV frequently during those games.
The physician curler said a curling team is made up of four players and the match is truly a team effort. The captain, called a skip, lays out the plan and each of the four players throws two stones down the ice during a rotation, called an "end." One player delivers the rock and the other two are sweepers.
Points are scored by being closest to the bull's-eye at the end of the throw. If one team has multiple stones that are closer to the bull's-eye than any stones from the other team, they can get multiple points.
Freeman has been invited to participate in what he calls a goodwill tour of the Canadian Maritime provinces to promote the sport next year. USA Curling is sponsoring the 20-player delegation over a couple of weeks in November 2019.
"It's certainly not national championship, world championship or Olympic level, but we'll be visiting brother and sister curling clubs up there," Freeman said. "Curling is a huge social sport."
Forum sales executive Thomas Kislat said the doors would open at 9 a.m. for those wishing to participate as walkups. Kislat also said that open skating for the public would not start until noon Saturday, however anyone interested in watching the curling can come in at no charge during the morning.
The rink has already exceeded expectations, according to Kislat, who said that once the almost two-month event has been reviewed a decision would be made as to whether or not to bring it back next year.
"Trends would seem to indicate we probably will bring it back," Kislat said.
School safety was the first topic of discussion at Tuesday's joint school meeting between Floyd County and Rome City schools and local legislators, which led into a discussion on how to handle mental health in schools.
The question came from Alvin Jackson, a Rome City Schools Board of Education member, to Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, regarding school safety. Lumsden, who has served on the House Study Committee on School Security, said securing schools isn't as big of an issue as mental health. He cited that most of the threats have come within schools, and said a focus on positive school climate must be addressed. At the time there were no school resources to address these issues, he said.
Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, said she and Lumsden served on the committee because of his background in law enforcement and her background in education and mental health. She said school systems statewide were sent additional funds to help with school security before the committee even met. She added it is important to identify behavior that seems unusual and to take it seriously.
There is a way to help everyone and make sure everyone feels safe, Dempsey said. If there are issues inside of a student that are boiling up, they need to be taken care of because that could be a lost opportunity for a great future, she added.
These students (involved in school shootings) had a history of problems, and Lumsden said it all boils down to school climate and open lines of communication between students and teachers.
The committee is recommending there be an additional counselor whose focus is on the social and mental health of the students
FCS Superintendent Jeff Wilson said he would love to have a mental health counselor in every school, however there are deeper issues to mental health which extends into the families as well. He said treating students at school won't fully work if they are sent back into a dangerous environment. Dr. Melissa Davis, a pediatrician at Harbin Clinic and a RCS board member, added to this comment, saying there needs to be safe, stable and nurturing relationships between schools and their families which cost the school boards nothing.
"All is not lost, and not everything is tied to money," she said.
FCS Board Member Tony Daniels said not everything needs to be blamed on mental illness. He agreed with Davis and said the biggest difficulty is identifying the problems in a child — whether that is mental health, problems at home or other factors.
It is more than just increasing law enforcement he said.
"I think that is what we are all saying."
Lumsden replied that at the end of the day it comes down to making sure students feel safe speaking with faculty and staff about things they have seen or are feeling. Melinda Strickland, an FCS board member, commented on how developing these relationships with students would be easier for teachers to do if they were not focused solely on moving their students from one test to the next.
Drug habits and addictive behavior were also attributed to signs of mental health problems Lumsden reported to the school boards. He said if students see the behavior at home they will copy it. Statistics show if a young person doesn't get into an addictive pattern until 21 the chances of them getting into an addictive pattern is almost non-existent he said. He added he did not have a detailed plan on how to get there, but the schools need to begin to make an effort to stop these new threats.
Coincidently, the U.S. Department of Education released their Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, which highlighted federal recommendations on what the federal, state and local branches of education should do in regards to school safety. According to the 180 page report, the commission's work fell into three categories: preventing school violence, protecting students and teachers, mitigating the effects of violence and responding to and recovering from attacks.
The report focused on preventing school violence by promoting character education, creating a positive school climate, focusing on mental health of students, conducting threat assessments by encouraging students to report suspicious activity, a focus on discipline by teachers in the classroom, as well as other topics. In the protecting students and teachers category, the report suggested schools conducted regular specialized training with school resource officers, training staffs who are veterans on how to respond to threatening situations and creating appropriate security measures throughout the building.
The final category the report focused on was that of response and recovery of a violent incident at a school. The commission stated the value of the active shooter drills and said reports showed the number of casualties at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, would have been higher if it had not been for the drills the school regularly held. The full report of the Federal Commission on School Safety can be viewed at the U.S. Department of Education's website.
Today's artwork is by Maddie Green, an upper elementary student at the Montessori School of Rome.