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Duluth mayor explores what makes city healthy

DULUTH -- Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris explored what makes a city healthy using six "environmental" indicators during her State of the City Address on Tuesday.

The sixth annual address was hosted by the Duluth Civitan Club. Loren Brown, president of the club, welcomed nearly 200 guests to Duluth First United Methodist Church for the luncheon speech.

"The purpose of the Healthy City Index is not to measure a city," Harris said. "It's to show us different environments we need to be watching to see if our city is sustainable."

Her address focused on the city's demographic, economic, natural, technological, political and cultural environments.

The demographics in Duluth are changing, Harris said. "Every citizen needs to have their needs met to feel safe and secure." It's crucial, she also said, to involve the city's diverse citizenry in the community.

As for its economy, the city encourages shopping locally, Harris said, but is facing the challenge of "dark" or vacant storefronts. "We need to work on retail sustainability, and we need more restaurants," she said.

Harris reported that the city is in the process of establishing a Tax Allocation District and creating a redevelopment plan to reduce blight along the Buford Highway Corridor.

Duluth has applied to the Atlanta Regional Commission for a Livable Centers Initiative grant to complete planning for downtown improvements, she also said.

The Taylor Park Playground next to City Hall was completed last year. "Our citizens want more green space, access to the Chattahoochee River, and a dog park," she said. "These are all being planned now."

The city is implementing new computer software to improve interconnectivity and customer service, Harris said. Residents will be able to pay bills and register for classes online, she said.

To facilitate communication with residents, the city is using the social networking tools Facebook and Twitter and recently hosted a Webcast.

A healthy city has good leadership, according to Harris. "I have a really smart city council," she said. "It's a pleasure to work and brainstorm with them."

"We've not had a tax increase in 15 years," she said, "but it's not making our job any easier."

Harris warned that the city may have to consider raising taxes in the future. "Our resources and staff are stretched thin." SPLOST funds and property tax revenue are down, she said, and the city has had a hiring freeze in effect for 18 months.

Last year Duluth appointed a citizens committee that recommended the city raise fees rather than taxes in developing its FY2010 budget.

The Atlanta Regional Commission recently gave a Create Community Involvement Award to the city for coming up with the idea for the committee, Harris announced. A committee is now being formed to provide input on the FY2011 budget.

"We're relying on our citizens more and more in these tough economic times," the mayor said.

Providing cultural opportunities and preserving the city's history are important, Harris said.

Duluth is fortunate to have the Main Street Orchestra, she said, and the Duluth Fine Arts League is sponsoring First Friday Art Walks.

The Duluth Historical Society relocated to the Strickland House where it operates an expanded city museum.

"Duluth is where hip meets history," Harris said. "We want to encourage people to come to Duluth and spend their money."