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Planners: Regional efforts add clout

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Potential corridors — with stops in Rome, Cartersville, Calhoun and Dalton — have been studied off and on for nearly a decade. And the Federal Railroad Administration announced last fall the preferred route will parallel Interstate 75.

But Joseph Davidson, transportation planner for the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, stopped himself in the middle of his response.

"No, I sound like a politician," he said. "Let me just answer the question."

Davidson said Georgia Department of Transportation and federal government officials are keeping the project alive, and occasionally find funds to study another angle. But it's not even on the radar at the Rome-based NWGRC.

"It's never going to happen unless the political, the cultural and the social will is there to do it," he said.

The impasse, he said, reminds him of the initial opposition to Polk County's link to the Silver Comet Trail. The 61.5-mile paved trail starts in Smyrna and runs to the Alabama state line near Cedartown, where it connects to the 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail.

"Now you've got this jewel, this jewel of a prize right there," Davidson said, noting that even big communities such as Chattanooga want to be part of the system now.

"People began to understand that, if I work with my neighbor, it not only benefits us but it expands out from there," he said.

The alternate transportation group Bike! Walk! Northwest Georgia is one of the coordinated ventures that depends on the NWGRC for support. Davidson said it's grown to be a repository of information about off-road travel across the region.

He and his boss, Director of Regional Planning Julianne Meadows, were the guest speakers at the Rotarians' lunch meeting at Coosa Country Club.

Meadows presented an overview of the agency, which assists its membership of 15 counties and 49 cities with a wide range of state and federal programs.

Community and economic development initiatives — including the Neighborhood Stabilization Program makeover of the former McCall Hospital into affordable housing units — are part of its directive. So are workforce investment and  Area Agency on Aging services.

The planning department lends its expertise to local governments in areas such as land use, transportation, natural and cultural resources, housing, environmental and historic preservation.

"We've been involved in the Fairview School restoration project," Meadows said, referencing the historic black school in Cave Spring. "And we'll help Floyd County with its Woodward Creek Watershed Plan to address issues that have developed there over time."

The NWGRC draws on grants and other allocations through the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and its members pay nominal dues, based on population.

"We work for and with our local governments," Meadows said.

Member counties have created a Rural Broadband Study Committee to press for an expansion of the increasingly important high-speed connection, and regional commission staff provides support.

Davidson said that, from a planning perspective, regional coalitions have extra clout as development opportunities are funneled from the national level to the state.

"Are projects matching up at the county lines? That's where we come in," he said.