Staff Photo: John Bohn Runners run through George Pierce Park while taking part in a weekly Tuesday evening run put on by the Big Peach running Club in Suwanee. The weekly runs cover distances of one mile, three miles and six miles.
SUWANEE -- They come for their weekly meeting wearing fluorescent shirts, shorts and shoes that often match their personality.The runners that make up the Tuesday evening club called Suwanee Big Peach Runners come for the camaraderie and encouragement, and simply for fun.
Beth Whitworth, who has particiapted since the group was formed in October, drives from her home near Collins Hill High School.
"My grandfather used to always go to the same restaurant and drink coffee with his college professor buddies," she said. "It's kind of the same thing."
The "Mayor of running," Kermit Bowen, organizes the group, which runs one, three or six miles around Town Center Park and the Suwanee Creek Greenway. The first meeting had 75 runners, and it's normal for 100 or more runners to show up each week.
The location of the Big Peach Running Company store in Town Center is ideal for runners, like Whitworth, Bowen, Tim Ursprung and Reggie Reid, who are some of the regulars.
That group uses the city's alternative transportation plan perhaps as much as any other. Six of the top 31 projects are related to the Greenway Trail as recent projects have focused on fixing flood problems, replacing asphalt with concrete, and reinforcing a boardwalk.
The concrete part of the network is not popular with the Big Peach runners, or their joints.
"I understand why they do it," Ursprung said. "For bikers, walkers, parents with their kids love it. But runners hate it. We want a soft surface."
Everything else is hunky-dory for the runners, who come to Suwanee because of its proximity to the greenway, especially compared to similar setups in Lawrenceville and Alpharetta. For those coming from the North Gwinnett and Collins Hill school clusters, it's centrally located. Fleet Feet in Lawrenceville, for example, is in the heart of downtown, and the route is completely urban. Other groups travel through subdivisions or alongside a main road, Reid said.
"What's good about the Greenway is there is no traffic; there are no fumes from automobiles," Bowen said.
A year ago, the city identified 13 alternative transportation projects, and labeled them a "Tier 1" priority. Five of those projects are completed, and city officials are in discussions with a contractor to undertake two others. The total cost of these projects is $1.6 million. The projects were expected to be completed between 2011 and 2015.
Since 1999, the city has completed or facilitated six other projects, as the latest alternative transportation project plan was adopted in 2007 and updated last year.
There are two other categories of projects on the list: "Tier 2," which are nine items labeled to be completed from 2016-2030, and 20 projects are tabbed to be finished after 2030. All of the dates are based largely on funding, often through grants, and if private contractors help accelerate a project.
"It's a plan, it's not a prescription," city manager Marty Allen said.
The goal of the plan is to make Suwanee a more walkable community for runners, walkers and bikers, city planning director Josh Campbell said.
The primary criteria for projects is low cost, to fill in a gap in the sidewalk network and to make enhancements to major road crossings.
The secondary criteria for projects is proximity to Town Center, being within a half mile of a school or park and those with considerable public interest.
One criticism Allen said he's heard is that the plan favors the Town Center and Old Town areas. If residents live outside of a mile radius of those areas, they figure their area is not a priority.
"It all goes back to the Town Center and the Suwanee Creek Greenway is the launch pad for pedestrianism in the community," Allen said. "Having projects that create this pedestrianism more effectively, you get exponential benefits."
The city has used transportation consultants Street Smarts and Pond and Company to provide independent analysis, logic and prioritization.
One part of the plan Allen said city officials consider is how to rank projects. Sometimes, a $1 million project may be at the top of the list, but smaller "low hanging fruit" projects, which each could cost $30,000, for example, may be completed faster. The contractor, and money available could both come faster for the smaller projects, Allen said, even though they may be down the list.
"The smaller projects can have an exponential impact of improving the whole system more so, sometimes, than new, big, giant projects," Allen said.
One category of projects called "Sharrows" was among the first to be finished. A sharrow is a marking for cyclists along a road that highlights areas where state law allows them to ride.
Those projects caused city officials to re-examine ways to cross projects off the list. When the sharrow projects were presented for bids, they were considerably more expensive than estimated. So the city assigned the project to its Public Works Department, and the cost was about $20,000 instead of the estimated cost of $40,000.
"It has started the idea of looking at ways to take advantage of the staff we have," Campbell said.
The timeline for completion of projects is dependent on the priority list, but also grant money, which can cause delays. "It's important to note that when you're applying for grants and sources of funding, having a plan like this in place helps you get that money," Campbell said. "It shows the organizations that you're seeking the money from that you guys have already thought about this, and this is meeting a community goal."
From an economic development standpoint, the runners at Big Peach Running Company, for example, will return from a run and buy smoothies, pizza and sandwiches from other businesses around Town Center.
The running store is positioned in a location that allows clubs like the Suwanee Big Peach Runners to take advantage of the trails and greenway. That wouldn't happen on a busier road like Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Allen said.
"They've taken advantage of assets that have been put in place," Allen said. "They can run to almost all corners of the city from Town Center."
For some, Suwanee has developed a reputation as an event destination, especially after the construction of Town Center Park. But for groups like the Suwanee Big Peach Runners, the city's trails and paths are the draw.
"There are some groups that do come down here," Usprung said. "They come here to run on the Greenway."