Thursday, January 12, 2012

Good things in Georgia

By Christa Tinsley Spaht, Project Manager

We’re constantly digging through best practices and successful programs to see what communities, regions, and states are doing effectively to drive a competitive workforce, business environment, and quality of life. Sometimes I get so caught up in keeping track of what is going on across the nation and world in community and economic development that I miss the exciting things—large and small—happening in my own backyard. While Georgia’s stumbles along in its recovery from the recession, there are some really creative and effective public and private community-level efforts that are pushing communities, businesses, and young workers to be more successful. I’ve highlighted a few of my favorites that I’ve stumbled across in the past few months.

Plugging in At-Risk Talent: 12 For Life, Carroll County
Led by Southwire, one of the largest electrical wire manufacturers in the U.S., this partnership with Carroll County School System focuses on high schoolers at risk for dropping out. This program mixes up the school day with traditional classroom time and then time on the factory floor at a Southwire facility where students work, receive on-the-job training, and are coached on job and life skills. Oh, and the kids get paid too! Read the recent Georgia Public Broadcasting story on the program.  With a goal to see 175 high schoolers through to graduation in its first five years, Southwire has already helped 275 graduates in four years. Since the launch of 12 for Life, the school district’s graduation rate has gone up 10 percentage points and its on-time graduation rate for the poorest students has jumped up 22 percentage points. Southwire has a long history of leading Carroll County's proactive initiatives, including a leading role in the development of Carroll Tomorrow, a result of a Market Street-led process with the community in 2000.

Giving Startups a Head Start: Flashpoint, Georgia Institute for Technology
Flashpoint is an aggressive four-month “process accelerator” for a carefully-selected group of technology startup teams, giving the startups access to mentors, investors, and shared space in Technology Square. After months of coaching and development, the teams pitch their ideas to an auditorium full of investors and other experts. Upon graduation, the chosen startups also may grab investments of between $15,000 and $25,000 from the $1 million Flashpoint Investment Fund, backed by local angel investors.

Flashpoint has focused its previous accelerator cycles on Georgia Tech faculty and students, but plans to expand to accept corporation-sponsored startup ideas for disruptive technologies. Flashpoint, launched in 2010, is the brainchild of Georgia Tech’s strategic plan innovation task force, inspired by Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator accelerator, to address challenges with early-stage capital for local firms. Check out the Atlanta Business Chronicle for an overview of the 16 teams from the most recent cycle that pitched their developed ideas at Flashpoint Demo Day this week.

Family-Friendly Entrepreneurship: Bean Work Play Café, Decatur
Co-working spaces have been cropping up in cities with rapidly-growing groups of independent or remote workers. Co-working spaces are basically communal spaces that are a step up from coffee shops, with many of the amenities of an incubator (conference rooms, printers, work rooms). Bean Work Play Café in Decatur (just outside of Atlanta) is the child-friendly version of this trend. This co-working business is tailored to work-at-home, self-employed, or just-need-to-get-out-of-the-office-today parents, with the typical trappings of a co-working space—meeting and events spaces, office tools, memberships—as well as play-based childcare on demand (incorporating the Reggio Emilia method, which I know nothing about).  

Planning Ahead of Sprawl: The Center for Community Preservation and Planning, Newton County
People think I’m crazy when I say I love I-20, the east-west interstate that cuts through Atlanta, but once you get east of the metro core there are so many beautiful historic downtowns just off the interstate. Case in point: Covington, Oxford, and Social Circle, all about 30 miles east of Atlanta in Newton County. (You’ve probably seen Covington on TV  and didn’t even realize it.)

A far outlying suburb of Atlanta, Newton was a rural setting sprinkled with small towns that saw its way of life about to be seriously impacted by the sprawl of metro Atlanta. In 1999, Brookings Institute’s Christopher Leinberger called 28-county metro Atlanta the “fastest growing human settlement in history” and by 2005 Newton County, on the fringe of the metro, was the eighth-fastest growing county in the U.S.  Proactive and detailed planning was necessary to ensure that as the metro area inevitably crept into Newton County, the resulting growth and development would reflect the long-term vision and deliberate planning of community members and leaders.

Enter the Center Facilitating Community Preservation and Planning, a foundation-funded meeting space for discussion about Newton’s future. The conversations at the Center led to the creation of the county’s Leadership Collaborative, a public-private group that put together a thoughtful comprehensive plan to “allocate density” by preserving what the community holds dear—historic and scenic corridors, rural areas, schools—and advancing other areas where the county can best benefit from Atlanta’s suburban growth—home-grown jobs, mixed-use development for better transportation access.