Thursday, April 24, 2008

From Both Sides of the Aisle

The Navy School hosted members of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce this morning (bright & early!) for a post-legislative wrap session. Each member of the local delegation spoke for a few minutes about what the session accomplished from his perspective. It was clear that the failure of the Speaker's "Great Plan" and the Lt. Gov.'s counter plan for tax reform left a bad taste in the mouths of both the houses and members of both parties. The inability to compromise on funding for the statewide trauma network and transportation improvements was mentioned in spades by the delegation.

Big news for Athens includes:
* funding to bring the Medical College of Georgia to a satellite campus in Athens
* funding for UGA's pharmacy school
* tax incentives for tourism destinations
* tax incentives for the film industry
* a water management plan

Here are the highlights from each member of the delegation and my take on each one:

Rep. Keith Heard (D-114)
- Emphasized accomplishments for UGA, including a 2.5% raise for faculty
- $10 million investment secured to bring the Medical College of Georgia to Athens with a satellite campus housed in The Navy School after it relocates to Newport, R.I.
- $1 million for a rare books collection at UGA
- Heard also referenced bills intended to boost the state's tourism efforts with incentives for companies building designated tourist destinations and one to offer tax credits to production companies.

For six years, I lived in Wilmington, N.C., known affectionately as "Wilmywood" for playing home to the popular series Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill as well as numerous films. North Carolina created a similar incentive package to attract companies to Wilmington's Screen Gems Studios but were often unable to compete with the breaks given in Canada. It will be interesting to see if Georgia can.

Sen. Ralph Hudgens (R-47)
- Hudgens openly stated that he felt the session was hijacked by the personal agendas of Speaker Richardson and Lt. Gov. Cagle.
- His opposition to the proposed tax plans was that they were tax shifts, just taking the same money in a different manner and, in some cases, penalizing certain groups with the shift.
- Emphasized that there's no tax cut until the spending is reduced - in other words, you can't have less money and keep spending the same amount.
- He's now pushing for a regional TSPLOST for Oconee, Clarke, Barrow and Gwinnett to fund clover-leafing 316 and implementing the Brain Train.

Hudgens was the most vocally disappointed in the way things played out on tax reform. He clearly didn't support either one of the proposed plans and felt that the reform should be handled differently through tax credits issued for ad valorem taxes. It's ironic to hear a politician so riled up about the politics of politics.

Rep. Bob Smith (R-113)
- Smith was the first to mention the state's overall budget and commented that it was a good budget and good for all of Georgia.
- Smith spoke about a couple of items near and dear to my heart - including a tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic properties. He also mentioned a similar credit for donation of conservation land.
- He spent the greater portion of his allotted time talking about the partnership between Medical College of Georgia and UGA, and also noted the $4 million in funding for the University's pharmacy school.

Smith felt like the media overplayed what didn't get done and wanted to emphasize what did get done. I think they were all feeling like they'd taken a public beating for the session's failures. But Smith was very positive about what the delegation accomplished for the local area and indicated several bills and resolutions that will boost the economy or bring business to the area.

Senator Bill Cowsert (R-46)
- Cowsert admitted a lot of frustration with the lack of resolution on the tax reform and trauma care. However, he did note his satisfaction with the outcome of two of his highest priorities: the water plan and bringing the medical college to Athens.
-He noted that the Georgia Chamber of Commerce considered this its most productive legislative effort ever - a sign that business interests were upheld during the session.
-Cowsert also plugged the water plan, saying that the state was taking a sensible approach by measuring resources, managing resources and implementing a system of checks and balances between environmental, governmental, business and residential needs.

Cowsert, though disappointed in the outcome of the session in some respect, voiced his belief in a silver lining. The conversation about tax relief is open, both sides have fired, and now is the opportunity for consensus building. Ever mindful of reaching his constituents, he also led off with a plug for his campaign kickoff on Tuesday at the Oconee County Civic Center.

Rep. Doug McKillip (D-115)
- McKillip, who serves on the Natural Resources Committee, lauded the water plan and the efforts on Jekyll Island. He said both were items that he studied carefully and felt like the right people were in place to address the issues.
- While he doesn't endorse the Speaker's "Great Plan" he did credit Richardson with starting an energetic debate about tax reform. He went on to describe how he's planning to continue examining the issue in preparation for next year's session.
- He emphasized that he hopes Georgia will continue to seek progressive efforts over regressive efforts.

McKillip was last in line to speak and wasn't left with much to cover in the way of this year's session. Instead, he addressed his thoughts about the future. He's a big proponent of earned income tax credits and plans to take the time away from the Hill to examine the full-meal-deal tax system, from income tax to sales tax to property tax and rethink it.

In just an hour, I got a sense of the intense atmosphere in this year's session and the immense complexity of how government works. Nothing is as simple as it seems - and if someone makes it sound simple, you should probably start asking questions.

All in all, I have great respect for the delegation and what they do. It's clear - whether you agree with their politics or not - that these men are truly committed to doing what they think is best for the communities they serve. And we have to give them credit for raising their hands to go to the Hill and continue making this area a great place to live and work.

Thanks to the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and the event sponsors - AAA Sanitation, Chastain & Associates Insurance, Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, Heyward Allen, and Wachovia - for putting together this informative session for the local business community.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Communications Advice for Job Seekers

It's that time of year again. The resumes are coming in from all directions. Clients are calling with relatives looking for work. Everyone wants to be a summer intern, a fall intern, or just have an "informational" interview. It's obvious many interviewees spend a lot of time getting ready for the interview. It's also amazing how many of them drop the ball after the interview.

Steve Cody of Peppercom has an interesting post on the lost art of writing handwritten letters. I had the pleasure of meeting Steve late last year and he is one of those PR guys who "gets it," despite being stuck in New York City.

His assessment is dead on. For all you job seekers out there, don't just send a thank you e-mail. Don't text your thanks. Don't ask to be my friend on Facebook or MySpace. The time to show your new media chops is not the post-interview follow-up.

In fact, don't just send a thank you note to one of the three people you met with. Send notes to everyone you interview with, handwritten and e-mail. And if you really want to step up, do as one of our soon-to-be interns did and provide a Dawg bowl full of goodies (check out her blog and you will get the connection). And be sure you spell everyone's names right (and the name of the company).

So we hired two interns for this summer, Lizzie and Katherine, who stood out for a number of reasons, including their expertise with social media, sterling GPAs, and great recommendations. But another differentiator were their prompt well written thank-you notes and classy follow-up.

The broader point is this: we are looking for people who will shine not just when meeting with clients, but those who will demonstrate the maturity, poise, and good sense to follow up with clients and prospects in the right ways. People who understand how to make an impression. If a job candidate can't manage to do that after an interview, they probably don't belong in your organization.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Making Tracks (At Last!)

As a kid, I couldn't wait to turn 16, so I could get my driver's license. In high school, I couldn't wait to find out if I was accepted into my dream college, the University of Georgia (which I was - I'm graduating in just a few weeks!). And now, I can't wait for the Brain Train to become a reality.

While it may take time, I know the proposed commuter rail line from Athens to Atlanta WILL happen some day. I just hope it's sooner rather than later -- and sooner it may be. With the conclusion of the Georgia legislative session a few weeks ago, we have made progress for not only the Brain Train, but also other commuter rail lines around the state. Maybe everyone is finally realizing how horrendous and unbearable our traffic congestion problems really are? For one thing, we know that our traffic woes will certainly not improve until we change the way we travel.

Just last week, we heard about a proposed commuter rail line from Atlanta to Marietta running along I-75. As mentioned in a recent AJC story, the line is cost effective and would also allow the development of the Atlanta-Lovejoy line, which already has federal funding earmarked for it.

I personally think the Marietta line, just like the Brain Train line, is a necessity for the metro Atlanta area. I've made the painstaking commute from Atlanta to Marietta (my hometown) and Athens (where I go to school) hundreds of times, and who knows how many hours I've wasted time sitting in gridlocked traffic? More than I care to count, I'm sure.

If the legislators, Georgia DOT and we, as voting citizens, agree to build the Marietta and Lovejoy lines along with and before the Brain Train, I say go for it! At this point, I would like to see any of these lines be the first to be built and up and running. Its success will lead the way for more lines to be built, and maybe then we can get our traffic problems under control.

What do you think? Are you tired of dealing with traffic and ready to hop aboard the [insert your train of choice here]? If the multimodal center that has been sitting empty without a train for more than two years now is any indication, I'd say that Athens is (and has been) ready for the Brain Train.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Want to Check your Check?

So you got a letter from the IRS? No, you aren't being audited. The letter was simply the IRS's way of informing you that you will be receiving an economic stimulus check this summer. The price tag of the government's little reminder-- over $40 million. Like me, you may have been shocked that the costly mailer neglected to inform you of anything you hadn't already heard. One major question still remains-- how much am I going to get?

Out of curiosity I Googled economic stimulus check and found a helpful tool on the IRS Web site. If you are interested to see how much you may be receiving in May, June or July, check the IRS calculator. And, just for the record, it's free.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Music for Nothing, Shows for Free

It started with the cassette tape. Suddenly, it was no longer necessary to pay for recorded music. If your friend owned a copy of Fat Boys Crushin’ or Kool Moe Dee’s How Ya Like Me Now? (two of my favorites in the 80s, you could purchase a cassette tape for a couple bucks and dub the whole album for free. Dubbing cassette tapes wasn’t enough to send the recorded music industry spiraling into the pits of Rock Purgatory, but with the introduction of CD-Rs, mp3 format, Napster and now BitTorrents, music pirates are pillaging record labels’ and bands’ treasure chests like never before. I’ll not offer my opinion on whether or not I think that it’s right or wrong; good or bad; or a curse or a blessing. The truth is that free music is all of the above.

Lately, the idea of “free music” has spilled over into Athens’ live music scene. From 40 Watt to Go Bar to The Farm, nearly every local venue is now offering free shows.Instrumental in planning and promoting many of these free shows is local indie rock dignitary and musician Mercer West and his DIY venture “Party Party Partners” aka “Hey Guys.” Throughout April, West put together 30 free shows at Athens venues.

As a musician, performer and music lover, I think that the wave of free shows is a great way to get people excited about the Athens music scene again. In any good music town, there are periods of waxing and waning. The last 2 or 3 years have felt a little slow in Athens, but with R.E.M. and the B-52s releasing new albums this year, Of Montreal taking over the world, and newer bands like The Whigs, Dead Confederate and The Modern Skirts receiving plenty of national spotlight, I think we’re in an upswing. And it’s not like there were too many Athens bands getting rich from playing non-free shows prior to this new trend.

There’s something inherently “communal” about free shows. I’d encourage anyone to take in a free show and see what you think.If you’re not into the bands, then you’re not out any cash. But if you find the music catchy, cool, fun or otherwise interesting, I urge you to offer a donation or buy a CD or two. None of the bands I know are playing music for the money (there isn’t much to go around), but most serious bands spend dozens of hours every week writing, recording, practicing, booking shows, promoting their shows, etc.--all in an attempt to put on a good performance for you, the listener. Many bands want to take their music to audiences outside of their home town, but touring isn’t free (or even cheap). If you went to a free art opening and really liked the paintings, you’d probably pay to take one home if you could afford it. If you really like the music, you should do the same.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rising Food Costs Got You Down?

Everyone in the nation has been watching oil prices rise for months, but, until recently, most people have not been concerned with the price of a bushel of corn. We are all beginning to realize that these two economic indicators are inherently tied to one another. Current prices—$113.97 for a barrel of oil and $6 for a bushel of corn—leave Athens residents begging for ways to ease the pain of rising fuel and grocery bills.

Citizens of Egypt and Haiti have experienced riots and public unrest as results of steep grain costs. As Athens residents we should be grateful that our situation is not as dire and our options not as drastic.

One way that the community is alleviating the strain is by adopting the practice of buying local. Buying local simply means that a person attempts to buy as much of their household groceries from nearby farms or growers. There are countless benefits to buying local: lower fuel costs associated with the transport of products, support for local community farms, preservation of open land and lower grocery bills.

Athens offers so many options for buying locally. Here are a few venues to help Athens area residents to get started:

The Farm 255- A downtown Athens restaurant whose menu is based upon seasonal locally grown food. Bonus! They offer live music every night.

Athens Locally Grown- A group of local growers who have banded together to provide chemical-free local produce, dairy, meats and even flowers to its semi-co-op members.

Oconee County Farmer’s Market- Located at Eagle Tavern in downtown Watkinsville, the Farmer’s Market is committed to providing agriculture-based products from local sustainable sources.

Monday, April 14, 2008

An Anchor of Athens Architecture

On top of working at a Georgia historic site - Oak Hill Home - during my college years, I also used to live in the Lazarus-Divine House in Wilmington, NC. Built in 1818, the Italiante-style house was converted into apartments during the 1920s. My history with historic buildings explains why I'm currently involved with the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation's Spring Tour of Homes.

The tour features the homes of Athens-native and UGA grad Frederick J. Orr. Having designed more than 30 buildings around town in the early 20th century, Orr's work includes some of Athens’ signature architecture in the city’s most historic neighborhoods. Orr didn't leave behind much in the way of formal correspondence, but an exhibit will explore what we do know. If nothing else, we've got Orr's signature on a lot of his designs - an "o" in rounded windows and architectural details.

The evening will close with the Patrons Party at the Hardeman-Sams House, one of Orr's most famous designs. Culinary delights from restaurants like Big City Café, Donderos Kitchen, Farm 255, Harry Bissett's and Mama's Boy will vie for the title of Best Overall Dish from a panel of judges led by local culinary instructor and writer, Rebecca Lang.

Proceeds from the weekend will benefit the Heritage Foundation’s efforts to advocate for preservation of historic buildings, neighborhoods and heritage. Which is more important than most of us think about it. Once these buildings are gone, we can't get them back. And they're an essential part of what makes the Classic City so classic.

Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation Spring Tour of Homes
Saturday, May 3
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tickets are $15 for members/$20 for nonmembers

Patron's Party
Hardeman-Sams House
Saturday, May 3
6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Tickets are $50

Order tickets or find out more about the tour at

Friday, April 11, 2008

Food Fore Thought

This week, the attention of the golf world is on Augusta. Next week, that focus will shift to Athens.

Okay, maybe not totally. But somewhat.

Indeed, the Athens-area's largest professional sports event arrives next week with the Athens Regional Foundation Classic, a Nationwide Tour event. This is the third year for the event, and it has grown dramatically each year. In 2007 it was a leader in both attendance and media coverage for the entire tour. This year more than 70 media with more than 20 organizations have already registered to cover the event.

A testimony to the quality of the event is the fact that Brandt Snedeker, a participant in the inaugural ARFC (who I was lucky enough to meet in the press room), was at the top of the leaderboard today in Augusta. The fact is, Athens has a remarkable number of outstanding golf courses -- including The Georgia Club, Athens Country Club, and the University of Georgia Golf Club -- that provide some great golf for local residents and visitors.

The tournament also reminds me of what a strong sports town Athens is and what that means for our economy. Whether it is UGA Football games in the fall, the myriad UGA spring and winter sports, or other events like ARFC, Twilight, the Athens Eco-Adventure Challenge, weekend road races, and high school sports, this area is a hub for athletics, and this is great for community marketing, economic development, and tourism.

The Inbox: A Memo on Who We Are

The Inbox was created to give team members an outlet to write about business, economics, sports, music, art, local news and happenings in Athens, Ga. and the surrounding communities. Contributors will write what might be under the radar - lost in the pile, so to speak. We hope to provide insight into what's going on in the community with our observations, commentary and attempt to explore "the rest of the story" where other media may leave off and move on to something else.

The Inbox will uncover ideas, news items or interesting people and give credit and print space to the overlooked citizens, organizations and businesses in our city. It is not our goal to break stories that might otherwise be covered in main stream Athens news sources nor are we attempting to do investigative reporting.

But we are investigating the community with our eyes and ears. With what's on our calendars and what's on our minds. And we hope our readers will find what's in The Inbox worth filing away.