ALBANY, Ga. -- While passing through Albany on his way to Baconton and the Georgia Municipal Association's District 10 meeting Tuesday, GMA Executive Director Lamar Norton had something of an epiphany.
"I'm sitting there in the Cookie Shoppe in your downtown, enjoying a hot chocolate and a cookie, and I listened to the lady behind the counter take orders and greet customers," Norton said. "She engaged each customer personally.
"That's what makes people want to come back to her restaurant, and that's what it's going to take to turn this economy around. I think you're going to see improvements made on a home-built economy, one with good food, good service and good products."
Norton and GMA Public Information Manager Amy Henderson outlined a pair of initiatives the nonprofit organization will push on behalf of the 3,029 elected officials affiliated with the 518 municipal governments for which it advocates before meeting with Baconton Mayor Annette Morman and more than 80 representatives of District 10 governments Tuesday.
"We hold a meeting with all 12 of our districts once a year, and one of the things we've started doing is trying to hold meetings in smaller cities like Baconton," Norton said. "We hear from a lot of them that they're maintaining, paying their bills, but it's difficult for them to travel.
"We're trying to formulate action that will meet a need."
Norton said GMA will propose passage of what it is calling the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Act, which would create a public/private partnership through three levels of state tax incentives. Under the plan, the state would offer $20 million per year in statewide tax incentives ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent for investment in new downtown construction or renovation, $5 million in incentives for the purchase of or improvements on owner-occupied housing, and $5 million in tax incentives for individual or corporate contributions to the Georgia Renaissance Fund, which would be used for low-interest loans for investments in downtown districts.
"This plan would be perfect for Albany," Henderson said. "Through SPLOST and other means, the community here has put so much into its downtown. And you have in place what I call excellent 'bone structure.' These tax incentives could help bring needed improvements and jobs to your downtown district.
"(Developers) have to realize that Kia and Caterpiller plants are few and far between, and there aren't going to be a whole lot of them to go around. But small businesses that can be developed in our downtown regions could provide enough jobs to make up several Kia plants."
Norton said a study by Washington-based Place Economics shows that a small building sitting empty for a year in a small-town commercial district has a $336,000 negative impact on a community, including $250,000 in lost sales, $12,500 in lost sales tax revenue, $51,000 in lost loan demand at local banks and $16,250 in lost employee payroll.
"We plan to throw this out there and see if our member cities bless it," Norton said. "What we've found is that Gov. Deal and his staff have been very responsive to any initiative that might grow jobs."
Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, for one, was enthusiastic about the plan.
"I plan to delve into it a little more, but it sounds like the kind of initiative that Albany could benefit from," she said. "If it passes, it would fit perfectly with some of our other initiatives in place to benefit downtown businesses."
Norton said GMA also is seeking changes to state ethics laws that would make it less difficult for political candidates in smaller jurisdictions to run for office.
"You have candidates in small communities who get no campaign contributions, and yet they have to fill out paperwork and turn it in four times a year," he said. "Some of them make as little as $1 a month (in office) and some of them make no money at all, but if they're a day late with their (campaign financial disclosure) forms, they face a $1,300 fine.
"It's not fair, so we're proposing changes that would allow candidates to sign an affidavit at their local courthouse saying they have not received donations. It just makes better sense."
Hubbard, meanwhile, praised the work of the GMA, saying educational opportunities provided by the organization help elected officials prepare for their service.
"Coming from an educational background, I'm aware of how vital such opportunities are," she said. "And having a program structured by the Carl Vinson Institute, which is sanctioned by the state of Georgia, offers benefits and ideas that officials can take back to the governments they represent."
Hubbard is chair of the GMA's State Training Board.