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20/20 Vision: Suwanee drafts strategic plan, residents applaud

Photo: David McGregor Dozens of members of the Suwanee community converse during a picnic to discuss the citys 20/20 vision plan on Sunday afternoon in Suwanee

Photo: David McGregor Dozens of members of the Suwanee community converse during a picnic to discuss the citys 20/20 vision plan on Sunday afternoon in Suwanee

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Photo: David McGregor Cathy and Rob Rohloff eat during a picnic and information meeting about the citys 20/20 vision plan on Sunday afternoon in Suwanee.

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Photo: David McGregor Mayor of Suwanee Jimmy Burnette addresses the crowd gathered for a picnic to discuss the citys 20/20 vision plan on Sunday afternoon in Suwanee.

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Photo: David McGregor Suwanee City Manager Marty Allen converses with Nick Masino during a picnic to discuss the citys 20/20 plan at the Evertt Music Barn on Sunday afternoon in Suwanee.

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Photo: David McGregor Le Doan talks with Jessica and Eli (8) Roth during a picnic to discuss the citys 20/20 vision plan on Sunday afternoon at the Everett Music Barn in Suwanee.

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Photo: David McGregor Scott and Cyndi Auer walk down Stonecypher Road in Suwanee toward the 20/20 vision plan picnic at the Everett Music Barn on Sunday afternoon in Suwanee.

SUWANEE -- When Heather Thomas heard about the idea of a long-term vision for the city, she thought it might resemble what some residents already do on their own.

"I'll just get some of my neighbors together, we'll have a glass of wine, and solve the city's problems," Thomas said.

Not long after the city asked Thomas, a long-time volunteer, to be an integral part of the process as a roundtable facilitator, she learned that it would be "daunting and intimidating." Thanks to what she called a diverse group of residents, the 20/20 vision plan for Suwanee turned out to be, "one of the coolest things I've ever been a part of."

Since June, about 435 residents have been divided into 25 groups to discuss where they want the city to be by 2020. An urban development consultant who the city hired for $143,434 to assist in the project has made periodic visits since May to collect opinions. Scott Page, the Philadelphia-based consultant, and his company, Interface Studios, were tasked to weave those voices into one draft vision.

Group categories were Arts and Culture, Korean, Seniors, Small Business, Young Professional, Youth-High School and Youth-Middle School.

The first draft of the plan, about 100 pages, was unveiled on Sunday at a community picnic hosted by the Everett Music Barn.

Page's summary of the community-oriented plan of the next decade was that the city's residents were split on five or six issues, but mostly agree on why they enjoy living here. Residents by and large agree on the general direction of the city, Page said.

The first draft of the plan was unveiled with seven "guiding principles" or priorities to consider. They were economic development, communications and engagement, parks and open space, transportation, community culture and planning and public safety.

In the preface to the draft, written by city manager Marty Allen and spokesperson Lynne DeWilde, it's written that initiatives Suwanee has undertaken the last 12 years have, "helped transform Suwanee from just one more metro Atlanta bedroom community, into a distinctive, desirable place to live."

Through the park system, the community garden at White Street, the farmers market and Town Center, city officials are proud of what they've done to avoid that "bedroom community" stigma.

"That's always the worry," resident Scott Auer said. "Great, people live here, and then they leave in the morning and come back after dark. That's not a good way to participate and help grow in the community. How do we make it so they live here, and work here and play here? Take advantage of parks and education, and not have that horrible commute down to Midtown."

Among the divisive issues were public art, Old Town, land use and economic development and the Suwanee Gateway area.

The strengths of the city, residents agree, are the park system and Town Center.

For the so-called negatives, Thomas said the theme among participants was to find a solution. Auer, who owns a Molly Maid franchise that serves Northwest Gwinnett, used the Gateway area as an example.

"There's a lot of concern over the whole Gateway to Suwanee, the I-85 corridor when you first come in," he said. "Does that really look like the community we know and love? The answer is no it doesn't. How do we address that? So that came rising to the top."

Mayor Jimmy Burnette said economic development is at the top of the list of priorities, and the Gateway area will be a focus under that heading.

While Page has worked with Suwanee officials and residents over the last year, he's also is worked on similar projects in Wilmington, Del., Detroit and Philadelphia. For a city the size of Suwanee, or in comparison to others, this is a rare project in scope and participation, Page said.

"A lot of places have the same issues, same concerns," Page said. "I think the expectations here in Suwanee are different, which is why this process is different. There aren't many cities that could really pull off an engagement process that's this intensive."

Those who participated said other cities, or other planning initiatives they've been a part of might give lip service, but not truly listen to the opinion of those directly impacted. By soliciting feedback in person, on the website and at the picnic on suggestion cards, many residents were both surprised and proud that the city handled the project openly.

"The credit goes to the city," Page said. "My company believes in it, which is why I think we're a good fit for this project. We want to put our creativity to use to get as many people involved as possible. The city is genuinely interested in feedback."

Auer agreed.

"The city goes out of its way to invite commentary all throughout the process, even if you don't like what you're going to hear," he said. "It really encourages really open debate, and people feel like they're a part. I haven't really seen that. A lot of strategic plans are done behind closed doors. Here it is, let's rock on, great."

Residents also applauded the diversity of their groups; people of all walks of life who have lived in Suwanee for varying lengths of time.

Auer has lived in the city since 1998, and remembers a time when he knew people moving to Alpharetta, and they wondered why he chose Suwanee. In the days when Peachtree Industrial Boulevard was a two-lane road, Auer remembers the planning done then, and how it translates to this project.

"It's just been fascinating to see what's happened," Auer said. "Most of the decisions that have been made continued to improve the quality of life and attract more people,"

The next steps in the process are the consulting group, Interface Studios, will update the draft with comments from the picnic, then the city council will approve it, and the plan will become the city's strategic plan. Finally, specific items will be discussed each year as part of the budget process.

As Allen and DeWilde wrote in the preface, "it is expected that the city and others will use this as marching orders to effectively and confidently implement that vision."