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Posted: August 19, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Rockdale collaborative group begins

Rockdale’s highest officials have decided that it’s best if they move forward with forming a collective that’ll work together to benefit the community.

A group of officials came together 10 months ago at the request of Thua Barlay, former chair of the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce, to test the waters on how collaboration would work amongst all the county and city institutions.

The Conyers-Rockdale Leadership Collaborative Study Group, made up of representatives from the county, the city of Conyers, the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce, Conyers Rockdale Economic Development Council, Rockdale County Public School System, and Rockdale Water and Sewer Authority, met once a month for study sessions to see if such a group of officials would be possible.

The recommendation from the 20 to 30 people who participated in the collaborative effort at the last meeting July 23 was nearly unanimous — that it could work and was needed, said Barlay.

“That says a lot when you have that many diverse people saying this needs to move forward,” said Barlay.
The Conyers-Rockdale Leadership Collaborative Study Group is not officially formed yet. Those details will be made once the initial group sets a date to meet again and decides who they want in the group, says Barlay.
Although the main entities of Rockdale will be represented, it’s not known whether other organizations in the community will also be a part of the group.

“We still need to fine tune the suggestions,” said Barlay. “I haven’t spoken to all them yet, but they’re leaders of the community.”

The participants in the group completed a “build out” exercise, testing how such collaboration between so many county leaders would work. The first phase of the exercise was to see where the officials felt growth in Rockdale should be targeted.

The results were of a diverse mix, with some believing the county should focus growth in differing places.
To help guide their decisions, in the second phase, the group made a list of developmental principles. These principles were site density, conservation of green land and regional integration.

The third and final phase of the exercise had the group resolve any disparities by aligning the development principles with the map of the Rockdale to decide where the most growth of the population should be targeted.
While this exercise was only a test, it showed that the group could work together to come to a concise decision on the agenda at hand, says Barlay.

The group also received data from a geographic information systems mapping software that helps people understand and visualize data pertaining to a certain area.

The data returned showed Rockdale has an aging population, is losing retail revenue, has an education level that’s trending downward, has a median household income that’s falling while per-capita income is up, has rising commercial vacancy rates and has strong housing prices.

Although officials received all this data, Barlay is quick to point out that the group wasn’t developing a future outlook plan for the county, but rather came together “to study the feasibility of having a natural collaboration.”
“We are not developing a plan,” he said. “Will a plan ultimately come from this? I don’t know,” but that wasn’t the goal of the initial group,” he explained.

The group met once a month at the Center for Community Preservation and Planning in Newton County. The cost of $6,000, which mostly was used to cover the cost of the meeting space, facilitator, food and data creation, was divided equally among the six entities.

The center was founded in 2002 as a politically neutral place where stakeholders from all of Newton’s agencies could collaborate and discuss issues that affected all of them, especially economic development and growth, similar to what Rockdale is attempting.

Kay Lee, the center’s executive director, has been the facilitator of the Rockdale group’s meetings and said, “They seem very enthusiastic to make decisions as a team.”

She may not be with the group going forward but the most important thing is that they get together to form a group, said Lee.

“The whole goal of them coming here was to get a feel for this type of environment,” she said. “Now that they’ve got that feel, it’s up to them to decide if they want to continue using the center.”

In an interview with The News last year, Lee said the center’s founders also wanted to provide expertise and data to help officials make better decisions and to bring in outside stakeholders and players.

Newton’s officials shared experiences they’ve had working as one on certain issues over the last decade which played a role in Rockdale’s officials determine it was best to further their collaborative effort.

The way the group will be set up and when they’ll meet could be similar to how Newton handles their collaborative group and meetings, but some things will have to be altered to cater to the Rockdale’s community.
“Newton is ten years into this project,” said Barlay. “There’s no need to start from scratch when someone has already done it.”

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