DALTON, Ga. — From entrepreneurs seeking help in the community's first business incubator to people coming from as far away as Atlanta to attend concerts in downtown Dalton, not quite two years into a five-year effort to revitalize Dalton and Whitfield County, officials with Believe Greater Dalton say there are plenty of signs that Dalton is on the upswing.
Believe Greater Dalton is a public-private partnership of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce and local governments formed two years ago to implement a five-year strategic plan for Dalton and Whitfield County. It is focused on six strategic areas to improve the community: educational outcomes, housing, entrepreneurship, economic development, downtown development and community pride.
The Daily Citizen-News recently met with the chairs of those six committees and other officials involved with Believe Greater Dalton to talk about the initiative's progress.
David Aft, president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia and one of the co-chairs of Believe Greater Dalton's downtown Dalton committee, describes Believe Greater Dalton as a "facilitator, cheerleader and publicist" whose role is to leverage work being done by other groups and organizations to make Dalton and Whitfield County a better place.
Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President Rob Bradham noted that some of Believe Greater Dalton's earliest successes have come in the area of entrepreneurship.
The winner of last year's inaugural PitchDIA (Dalton Innovation Accelerator) contest, Dalton Middle School student Tripp Phillips, went on to appear on the TV show "Shark Tank" and reached a deal with investor Kevin O'Leary to buy into his company, which makes a non-permanent glue that holds Legos and other building blocks together without damaging them.
The second PitchDIA contest is Oct. 8, and Dalton Public Schools an entrepreneurship contest on Sept. 13. Meanwhile, the accelerator, housed in 1,800 square feet of office space in the Landmark Building in downtown Dalton, is providing startup firms and small nonprofit organizations with office space, mentorship and support services. And it has launched a podcast with local entrepreneurs (daltoninnovationaccelerator.com/podcast/).
A study by Atlanta’s Bleakly Advisory Group commissioned by Believe Greater Dalton and released last year says housing stock here is aging. Just 18% of the county’s housing stock was built in the 21st century. Statewide, the average is 31%.
The study also found there is little “churn” in the market. Typically, when children grow up and leave the household, parents will downsize to a smaller place. That frees up their home to be sold to a family with children. That isn’t happening here because “empty nesters” can’t find a place they like.
One of the top recommendations from the housing study was that Dalton form a nonprofit housing developer, similar to Chattanooga’s River City Company, which has been in existence for more than 30 years and has done a number of developments in downtown Chattanooga.
"It will help us address our housing shortages using private capital the way River City has addressed downtown development with private capital," said Bradham. “We are pretty far down the road to getting our own version of River City set up. I expect we may have that process completed by the end of the year, certainly by next spring.”
A previous study by Believe Greater Dalton found that 62% of those who work in Whitfield County and earn $40,000 a year or more live outside Whitfield County.
“Housing is a key part, maybe the key part to solving that 62% issue,” said Bradham.
Bradham said a survey the group did asked why people who have higher-paying jobs don’t live here.
“We can’t find housing we want” was the primary answer that came back, he said.
The goal of the non-profit company would be to “kick start” the housing market to entice for-profit developers.
“We've had pretty serious discussions with two multi-family developers in the course of the last year to 18 months,” said Bradham. “In both cases, the developers told us the return on investment they could get here did not match what they could get in communities such as Chattanooga, Rome and Atlanta. We are going to have to get those numbers to where we can attract those private developers. It's the same way River City stimulated early downtown investment in Chattanooga.”
Bradham says the company will be capitalized with private money, not taxpayer funds.
“That doesn't mean that we would not ask to use one of those TADs (tax allocation districts),” he said.
In a TAD, the tax revenues on a property are basically frozen at what the property was worth when the TAD was created. Any additional revenue collected as a result of an increase in the value of the property will reimburse the owner for improvements.
Dalton has two TADs: one downtown and the other at the Dalton Mall (formerly Walnut Square Mall) and the area immediately around it.
“The goal is to use as many of the tools the community has without asking for public funding per se,” said Chuck Dobbins, one of the co-chairs of Believe Greater Dalton.
Community pride and downtown Dalton
The Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce's "When You're in D-Town" video won a national award recently from the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, the grand award for digital communication.
“We are really proud of that video and it has gotten us national recognition, and it's a huge honor, not only for the chamber but the community, to win that award,” Bradham said.
Bradham said the video, a celebration of life on Dalton, has gotten the city and the chamber recognition from around the country.
“Our summer music series 'Off the Rails' has brought tremendous crowds downtown to Burr Park this year. We had over a thousand people at several of those,” said Bradham.
Officials say those concerts are not only providing entertainment for local residents but helping to bring people from outside Whitfield County and as far away as Atlanta to downtown Dalton.
Believe Greater Dalton project manager Allyson Coker says the group is planning a community-wide Thanksgiving lunch.
“It will be called Grateful, and it will take place Monday, Nov. 25, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Burr Park, the Monday before Thanksgiving, to celebrate our community,” said Coker. “This idea came out of Chattanooga. They started doing it about five years ago. It brings together a wide cross-section of the community, and it is such a feel good event."
Coker said the idea for the lunch was brought to them by a local citizen.
"Believe Greater Dalton has really inspired citizens to step up, and if they have an idea, we've become a connecting point," she said, pointing to the return of hanging flower baskets to downtown, a project spearheaded by the Creative Garden Club. "That's a perfect example. That idea was brought to us and we helped them make the connections they needed to make it happen."
The group is scheduled to release its baseline education report on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 6 p.m., at Stage 123 in downtown Dalton.
Bradham says Believe Greater Dalton is “still hammering out some of the details” but both Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools have agreed to use a common set of metrics to measure how well they are doing.
Dobbins said the energy Believe Greater Dalton has helped create is having a bigger impact than many people realize.
“There are some projects that are occurring but aren't ready to be announced yet that I think are happening because of the enthusiasm and the sense that the community is having a renaissance and providing more opportunity for people who are here,” Dobbins said.