Don't Stop Believing!
Believe Greater Dalton Looks Back at its First 5 Years and Ahead to the Future
Written by Allyson Coker, Believe Greater Dalton Executive Director, in March 2022
Believe Greater Dalton is our community’s strategic plan that was championed by the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce and launched in January of 2018. The process to help us understand what Greater Dalton needed to focus on to thrive, grow, and continue to be more competitive began in 2016 when over 2,200 citizens responded to a survey to let us know what they thought of our community. That input was combined with additional research and a comparison to nine other communities of similar size in the Southeast and resulted in the Believe Greater Dalton (BGD) plan.
The plan has been focused on improving the community in six key strategy areas of education, housing, entrepreneurship, economic development, downtown, and community pride. As we near the end of this first five-year phase of the public-private partnership, we want to celebrate the accomplishments and set the stage for the future, recognizing that strategic planning is a process that never stops for successful communities.
When I began overseeing the work of BGD in early 2018, I personally made an unwavering commitment that Believe Greater Dalton would be different from past strategic plans for our community. This plan would not sit on a shelf, and it would become much more than just a “strategic plan”. It would be a living example of what Greater Dalton can do when we all work together to accomplish common goals that make us a more attractive place to live, work, and play. Through unprecedented efforts of collaboration, we have achieved the tactical recommendations of this first phase, but more importantly, while doing that, we have held firm to the unwavering commitment that this time it is different.
In a 2019 Daily Citizen-News article about the progress of this effort, David Aft, president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia and one of Believe Greater Dalton’s downtown co-chairs, described Believe Greater Dalton as a “facilitator, cheerleader, and publicist”. As facilitator, we have given our community a proven framework to identify and address critical issues and develop solutions that move us forward. As cheerleader, we have helped coordinate strategic initiatives and shepherded them to the next phases, and as publicist, we have used this platform to share the positive stories of all the good things Greater Dalton represents and what sets us apart from other communities. While we certainly do not take credit for all the positive things that have taken place in recent years, Believe Greater Dalton has become a connecting point for collaboration and a voice of celebration for what this community and especially its people are doing to move forward.
The Co-Chairs of the effort and its six strategies have remained flexible and adaptable as the work has evolved and shifted through the first four years, especially with the unexpected arrival of a pandemic at the midpoint. Last summer, the BGD Co-Chairs unanimously agreed to begin the process of updating the strategic plan for the next five years.
A second community survey was launched and over 4500 residents responded. That’s more than double the response in 2016, and over 1000 were from students in 6th-12th grade! We want the youth of our community to feel invested in what Greater Dalton holds for their future, so we were very intentional in trying to reach them in this process. In addition to the survey results, extensive research and a comparison to similar communities has been done to give us a fully updated community assessment. A planning committee with representation from the City, County, all local school systems, nonprofit organizations, and industry has been meeting to ensure we are focused on the right issues for the next five years. We are excited to begin to present this updated plan to the community later this year.
At this time, we want to highlight the successes of this first phase, and as we do, we thank those that have invested and supported this effort and maintain that same unwavering commitment as we keep the work moving. This time is indeed different. What began as a strategic planning process, has become the movement of Believe Greater Dalton.
The Education Partnership, led by Dr. Stephani Womack since August of 2018, has been working in collaboration with educators and local employers since the fall of 2018 to discuss the varying needs of students throughout our community and how we might engage community and industry to help meet those needs. Our two public K-12 systems continue to work together in a newfound spirit of collaboration and cooperation. In 2019, we presented a baseline report representing community-level data focused on continuous improvement in the areas of kindergarten readiness, early grade reading, middle grade math, high school graduation, post-secondary enrollment, and post-secondary completion. This spring, we plan to release our second annual education report highlighting the good work of both of our public K-12 systems and our two post-secondary institutions. A preview of those highlights includes data showing that our graduates from Georgia Northwestern Technical College and Dalton State College are employed in positions here in Dalton and Northwest Georgia.
In the spring of 2019, the education partnership applied for a grant to assist in outfitting the Diesel Mechanic Lab at the newly built Whitfield/Murray GNTC Campus. The partnership was awarded a $200,000 matching grant for equipment to be purchased for the lab. The grant was a one-time gift that provides industries in our region with trained skilled workers for years to come. The Education Partnership has also collaborated with Dalton State College for two separate mini grants from the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education to assist DSC college students in financial literacy to persist to graduation.
In the fall of 2021 at the recommendation of our two school superintendents, the education partnership launched our first literacy focused mentorship program with Eastside Elementary School. That partnership has continued throughout this academic year, pairing adults with students, one-on-one, to focus on reading and development. We hope to duplicate the effort to other schools in the future and always need more volunteers who would be willing to serve as mentors.
Moving forward we will continue to seek ways to bring the community together to support our students, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, outside of the classroom walls. We will also look at how the strategies of housing and education might intersect and how our local housing landscape might affect educational outcomes.
Pictured: GNTC Whitfield/Murray Diesel Mechanic Lab
One of the most staggering statistics uncovered in the initial research of the plan development became the rally cry of the first several years of Believe Greater Dalton. That statistic showed that 62% of people making $40,000 or more at a job here in Whitfield County do not live here. They do not live here because we do not have the type of housing that they want or need. The housing strategy recommended that we do a comprehensive study of our local housing market, and that study was commissioned in March of 2018 and presented to the community in November. The 2018 study recommended that to make Whitfield County’s housing market healthy, we needed 150-160 new single-family homes, and 90-100 multi-family units developed each year for the next 6 years. The study also found that only 18% of our housing stock was built in the 21st century, while the statewide average is 31%. Existing homes that might be suitable for families wishing to live here often require extensive, costly renovation because of the age of our housing stock.
Through the efforts of the housing strategy, we have heightened awareness of housing as a critical strategic issue that is holding our community back. The issues surrounding our local housing market are complex, and they will require us to utilize incentives that successful neighboring communities have been taking advantage of for years. These successful neighboring communities have not allowed any obstacle to prevent their progress, and they are ones that we are losing potential residents to every day. We will continue to help educate the community on how tools like tax allocation districts (TADs) must be used to encourage private sector investment to foster the type of development that we must have. It comes down to a simple math problem, and without the utilization of every tool in the toolbox, we will not get the new, different, game changing type of development required to attract and retain residents.
Despite the issues of our local housing market, we are beginning to make progress. Local large employers are becoming part of the solution as evidenced by The Lofts at Hamilton with 200 units currently under construction, and the apartment project at Hammond Creek is getting closer to becoming a reality. Hammond Creek and Patterson Farm with the differentiating retail component can become the “game changer” type projects our community desperately needs.
The housing study recommended that we form a non-profit development corporation to help jumpstart the market and offset risk for developers. The Flooring Capital Development Corporation (FCDC) was granted IRS approval in early 2020, and post-pandemic we are now working to determine how to use the entity most effectively. In addition to working to attract new housing development, we are also working closely with the City of Dalton on neighborhood revitalization efforts as a potential way to utilize FCDC.
Our housing strategy will continue to work closely with the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority (JDA), and together we will maintain a comprehensive list of all our current housing construction projects and what need they fill. As the housing work has evolved through this first five years, we are now focused on the entire housing continuum and how we can bring together partners to affect the needs at every level where we are currently deficient from low-income to workforce and to executive level housing and enhanced rental options.
Pictured: Construction at Coahulla Cliffs
The economic development strategy has been focused on a “best practice economic development program that is best suited for Greater Dalton” established through the efforts of the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority. Those efforts prioritize the needs and importance of the flooring industry but draw on the lessons from the Great Recession that necessitate a more diverse local economy to insulate our community from any future economic downturn.
The JDA has attracted new business within the manufacturing sector that include Hanwha QCELLS, whose local operation is the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in the Western Hemisphere. In 2018, QCELLS promised 525 jobs and a $130 million investment over 5 years. To date they have provided over 900 jobs in two locations (650K square feet) that represent a $150 million investment. German automotive manufacturer GEDIA will provide 204 jobs and an $85 million investment in their facility that will manufacture structural automotive parts for the Mercedes EQC electric vehicle. So far, they have filled over 40 jobs with a full production schedule slated for July of this year. Novalis Innovative Flooring has employed over 115 people and represents a $30 million investment in the community. Healthier Choice Flooring will soon be opening a 200K square foot distribution center on a new road in a private industrial park. That park also has over 500K square feet of class A space coming online May 1st. Dalton is clearly open for business!
The JDA team has expanded their focus to work in step with BGD housing efforts providing assistance for multi-family projects like the Lofts at Hamilton apartments, and they are actively working with the City of Dalton on the redesign plan for Market Street and our I-75 corridors.
Pictured: VP of Economic Development Carl Campbell at QCells
The five-year goal of the entrepreneurship strategy was accomplished within the first year thanks to existing efforts to help fan the flame of Greater Dalton’s entrepreneurial spirit and heritage. In October of 2018 we opened the Dalton Innovation Accelerator (DIA), an 1800 square foot space in the Landmark Building in downtown Dalton in partnership with Barrett Properties, Inventure IT.
Thanks to a generous investment in our community from the Lyndhurst Foundation, we were able to hire Lauren Holverson as Executive Director of DIA in January of 2021. The DIA provides education, access to strategic partners, networking opportunities, and more to business start-ups and existing small businesses in the community. Last year, the Dalton Innovation Accelerator connected with over 120 entrepreneurs providing resources, training, connections, and more. Thirty-eight of those businesses served were minority-owned. You can download the annual report by visiting the DIA’s website. The DIA has also expanded programming to include a K-12 entrepreneurial summer camp at the JA Discovery Center, THRIVE, an educational program provided at no cost to local nonprofits thanks to the generosity of the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia, a cybersecurity summit in partnership with the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia, and a series of summertime networking events called Mingle on the Rooftop at DIA. In 2021, DIA also signed on its first incubating business in JE Instruction, a team that is building an online program for individuals interested in pursuing a career in insurance.
In 2018, we sponsored our first PitchDIA entrepreneurial pitch competition. Dalton’s own version of “Shark Tank” awarded middle schooler and inventor of “Le Glue”, Tripp Phillips, first place in the inaugural PitchDIA. Phillips later that year went on the real “Shark Tank” tv show and reached a deal with investor Kevin O’Leary to buy into his company. Another local company, Critterbox, won the second edition of the contest in 2019. The 2019 competition also included a very successful pilot program with Dalton Public Schools to feature a K-12 version of the event. Students pitched their ideas with great enthusiasm and resourcefulness and showed us how bright our future is! The pandemic unfortunately caused the competition to be placed on pause the past two years, but we are very excited to host it again this year at The Wink Theater on the evening of Tuesday, May 17th. We are also thrilled that entrepreneurs from schools around our community will be joining the K-12 component this year. We received a fantastic mix of over 30 applicants for this year’s competition, and we are excited to bring this event to our community again. If you are interested in sponsoring PitchDIA 2022, please contact Lauren Holverson at email@example.com.
Pictured: PitchDIA 2019
Right out of the gate, we partnered with the Downtown Dalton Development Authority (DDDA) on developing a downtown master plan with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at UGA. Over 300 people attended the master plan presentation to the community in February of 2019, and we continue to see recommendations of that plan come to life and others move closer to becoming a reality. Organic growth that has occurred since 2018 has addressed the master plan’s recommendation and desire expressed by residents to see the variety and diversity of downtown businesses, restaurants, and entertainment options expand. We’ve helped coordinate initiatives from public art and signage, beautification, and grass roots clean-up efforts, to a near completed pavilion for concessions and restrooms at Burr Park, and we can all attest to the vibrancy our downtown is experiencing thanks to public and private investment. Our combined efforts have helped create momentum and an environment that inspires vision for all that downtown Dalton can be in the future.
Believe Greater Dalton has been a champion for the Burr Performing Arts Park since its inception, and we are proud to again be a sponsor of the Latino Night concert in partnership with Dalton State College this summer. Look for a presence of the BGD movement throughout this summer’s “Off The Rails” summer concert series that is free to the public beginning every Friday night in June and July. This concert series has been a tremendous source of community pride for our locals bringing thousands downtown on any given Friday night and bringing local talent back home to perform throughout the series. Not only does it provide great entertainment for our residents, but it also attracts visitors from outside of Whitfield County as far away as Atlanta and beyond to downtown Dalton. Moving forward we look forward to helping plan and promote more events and opportunities to bring locals and visitors to downtown.
Both the downtown master plan and the housing study address the substantial need for more downtown housing options. Young professionals want downtown living options, and the walkability of our downtown combined with the options for dining, shopping, and entertainment make it even more of a priority. The master plan states that “a permanent population living downtown guarantees a constant customer base for downtown businesses and brings new stability to existing downtown restaurants and retail”. In recent years private investors have continued to work on increasing our downtown housing options, but the demand is still great as is the overall effect it can provide to sustain our downtown economy.
Shaw Industries has recently partnered with local developers to provide downtown housing for their sales associates while here in training. The Belk-Gallant building, recently renovated by Barrett Properties, the M&M Building, converted from an office building to the Shaw “Living Lab” by Herndon Properties, and the Cherokee Lofts, transformed by Kasey Carpenter, now provide over 40 units that will be leased to continually house Shaw young professionals downtown. It’s these kinds of partnerships that must be forged to help solve our local housing issues. As the master plan and housing study both confirm, the City, DDDA, JDA, and other groups must all work together to attract and create the type of residential development that is needed for a healthy, vibrant community. We look forward to using the Believe Greater Dalton housing and downtown strategies to assist key projects in any and every way, and we share in the community’s excitement about all the great things in downtown Dalton.
Pictured: Pops in Burr Park, Summer 2021
Input that led to the original plan indicated that our “community as a whole too often focuses on its shortcomings and challenges while shortchanging positive developments”. If there is one area where I believe we have truly made progress, it is in our efforts to enhance community pride.
Effectively executing recommendations for each of these strategies has positively helped influence our self-image, but we’ve intentionally worked to change the narrative and provide ongoing examples of all that we must be proud of here in Greater Dalton. We’ve done this through establishing social media platforms that share the positive stories of the things that make Dalton special and different, and we’ve created a campaign called “People of Dalton” specifically designed to allow people to share their story of what Dalton means to them and why. These always evoke great pride, engagement, and emotion. Telling our positive story is so important, it is another way the Lyndhurst Foundation has invested in our community. In 2019 we partnered with the Creative Arts Guild and received a grant that allowed us to hire Sarah Murry as Greater Dalton Marketing Director.
In 2019, we hosted Gratefull Dalton, and over 1400 people came together for a free Thanksgiving meal at one table in the middle of Hamilton Street in downtown Dalton. It was a day we will always remember, and one we are committed to recreating on Monday, November 21, 2022. When we were unable to host Gratefull in 2020 and 2021, we partnered with the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and created the Gratefull Give Back, a drive by food drive at Burr Park benefitting all the local agencies serviced by the Chattanooga Area Food Bank here in Whitfield County. We collected thousands of pounds of food for our local agencies at a time when they needed it most. We look forward to creating more opportunities like Gratefull that unite our community and bring us together.
We worked in partnership with the Chamber, CVB, DDDA, Creative Arts Guild, and the Community Foundation of NWGA to develop a new brand identity for the community to rally around which gave us the tagline “Start. Dream. Thrive.” It’s a nod to a billion-dollar industry that started here, a place where entrepreneurs can dream dreams that really do come true, and a quality of life where individuals and families can thrive. The firm that we worked with came up with a “short story” that sums up where we believe Greater Dalton is today:
“Dalton is a vibrant community with a history of ingenuity that’s experiencing a renaissance—as a place to work, live, and build a life. Powered by a dynamic economy and fueled by engaged citizens, Dalton offers exceptional opportunities to thrive in a diverse, welcoming community. Community here is more than just place—it’s the people who connect and collaborate in the spirit of enriching every aspect of life in Dalton.”
This renaissance is witnessed through projects like Block 79, where local entrepreneurs Viviana and Juan Carlos Ramirez are personally transforming an entire block just east of downtown and creating a family of entrepreneurs that have provided shopping, dining, and gathering spaces that are truly a unique representation of what it means to start, dream, and thrive. These are the stories and the people of Dalton we celebrate.
At the end of the day, it truly is the people that make Greater Dalton all that it is. When someone experiences our “people”, they never want to leave, and they will go to great lengths to stay here, even when it’s challenging to find place to live. In 1987, I was the captain of the DHS cheerleaders. When I interviewed for this job, I didn’t have a background in economic or community development, but in my heart, I was still Greater Dalton’s biggest cheerleader, and that heart has only grown stronger these past 4 years. We need more cheerleaders. The work is still only beginning, and we are getting the greatest team assembled to carry it all forward. It’s time to celebrate all the great things that make us who we are today—our industry that provides jobs and an economy other communities our size would give anything to have, our parks and natural beauty all around us, our small-town charm and big city amenities without the headaches of traffic and crime, and above all, the beautiful diversity of our population. As we prepare to move on to the next phase of Believe Greater Dalton at the end of this year, it’s time to cheer on the team, and come together as one community working together for our future believing that Greater Dalton’s best and brightest days are ahead of us!
Pictured: Gratefull Dalton 2019