Morrow leaders: 'City development will be data-driven'

Morrow's city leaders have pledged to make sound decisions about how to redevelop the city's retail sector, after hearing recommendations from a consulting firm on how to position the city's assets for future growth.

The city is currently undergoing a Living Centers Initiative (LCI) study, to see how it should guide future development in the areas of transportation, and marketplace and design. On Friday, officials heard a presentation on the marketplace aspect, from representatives of the Atlanta-based real estate advisory company, Noell Consulting Group.

The study is being funded a LCI grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission, according to Morrow Planning and Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin. McLaughlin and Morrow City Manager Jeff Eady said the city will — in the future — plan development based on research and data, rather than beliefs and suggestions.

"If the city makes decisions that are based on numbers and data, and not notions, then, we'll be fine," Eady said.

Their pronouncement about how decisions will be made came days after the city shut down its Olde Towne Morrow development, so it could do feasibility and marketing studies that McLaughlin –– who was hired six months ago as the city's economic development director –– said should have been done before the development opened in 2009. The last businesses in the development closed last week.

McLaughlin said Morrow's economic development department, in the past, sometimes made decisions based on "ideas," rather than market and economic development data. He said the development has struggled to survive as a result.

"In the future, decisions are going to have to be based on planning, and business concepts," he said. McLaughlin pointed out that the studies done on Olde Towne Morrow will be separate from the LCI study.

So, with a new focus on what the data tells them will work, city leaders listened as representatives from the Noell Consulting Group made recommendations for how to develop the city over the next decade –– and beyond.

One key recommendation the consulting group's president, Todd Noell, made was to focus redevelopment and transportation efforts on the retail area around Southlake Mall. He pointed out that the area is aging, and customers and retail stores are being siphoned away more than 3 million square feet of newer retail developments that are primarily located in Henry County.

"There's a need to reposition [the city] to attract, and compete for different market audiences over time," Noell said. "That's not just people buying homes or places to live. It could be people looking for office space. It could be people looking for [new] retail opportunities, and shopping opportunities."

Some of Noell's suggestions included:

• Put a planned commuter rail station south of Interstate 75, on Ga. Hwy. 54, in front of Southlake Mall.

• Focus on luring more high-paying jobs to the city, in industries such as wholesale trade, educational services, professional, scientific and technical services, and health care and social services.

• Build hundreds of higher-end townhouses along Southlake Parkway, and near the William H. Reynolds Memorial Nature Preserve, as well as a high-end residential area along the service road leading from Ga. Hwy. 54, to Southlake Mall. This would be done to keep a more affluent customer base in the area.

There are challenges that city leaders will have to overcome, Noell told them on Friday. Those challenges include lagging incomes, flat population growth, a housing market that was hit hard the economic recession, and the competition from Henry County shopping centers.

There was also a decline in the number of married couples, with children, living in Clayton County between 2000 and 2008, Noell said. He explained that married families, with children made up 25.1 percent of the households in Clayton County in 2000. He said that figure dropped to 18.5 percent in 2008.

Meanwhile, the number of households that included single mothers, with children, increased from 19.8 percent in 2000, to 22.6 percent in 2008. Noell also pointed out that Morrow lost more than 300 jobs between 2000 and 2008, while Clayton County as a whole lost more than 12,000 jobs.

But, Noell said, it is the battered public image of Clayton County Public Schools that is the biggest hurdle Morrow leaders will have to clear in their efforts to lure businesses with high-paying jobs. The county's school system has been marred two accreditation crises in less than a decade. The second of those led to the system losing its accreditation in 2008. The accreditation was restored, on a two-year probationary basis, in 2009, and school officials are now trying to rebuild the district's image with a renewed focus on improving school system governance and student achievement.

Still, the crises took their toll on how retailers and business owners view Clayton County, according to Noell. "We talked to a lot of folks — developer folks, investors, others involved in development — and they kinda put a big, red ‘X' over Clayton County — for now," Noell said. "They said the challenges with schools, which you are working through, and some of the other question marks out there, have really made them hold off on investing in this area."

Morrow does have its advantages, Noell added. He said those include the city's proximity to Interstate 75, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and the fact that Morrow is home to Clayton State University, the Reynolds Nature Preserve, the National Archives at Atlanta, and the Georgia Archives.