Overwhelming Support for the Smyrna Downtown Redesign? Show me.

Quill pan and ink in article about absentee ballots

[This is a Letter to the Editor. The Courier editor and publisher may or may not agree with its content, but like all opinion, it reflects the viewpoint of the writer.]

Mayor Derek Norton told a crowded city council meeting on Oct. 18 that the citizens of Smyrna had “showed up in force” demonstrating “overwhelming support” for the Downtown Redesign project the council was about to vote upon. Moreover, he told the audience there was “more public input than for any other project in the history of Smyrna.” A few minutes later, the Council approved the estimated $6.5 million dollar project in a 4-2 vote.

The project, by Pond & Company, will rip out two key features of our award-winning downtown design, a traffic roundabout purported to be one of the first in Georgia and the iconic fountain where the annual Christmas tree lighting has become a beloved holiday tradition.

The measure has divided the community from the moment of its announcement. On one side are those who see the redesign as an unwarranted and expensive redo at a time when construction materials are at their most expensive due to lack of supplies caused by the pandemic. The other side are those who think 30 years is too long to keep the same features. There is a public debate between the two sides being carried out on Nextdoor, a Facebook like app for neighborhoods. Sometimes the posted comments get ugly.

The mayor’s sweeping claims and the vote at the City Council meeting did nothing to de-escalate the debate. I think that is because the claims made by the mayor during the meeting cannot be substantiated and the methodology of acquiring citizen input was flawed from the very beginning.

For instance, we are expected to accept–without proof–the conclusions drawn from the input of citizens during the Redesign Open houses and the online survey when both the open houses and survey were created, conducted, and controlled by Pond & Company, the business with a vested interest in a favorable outcome.

We are expected to accept as unbiased the contributions of a citizen task force whose members were handpicked by the mayor.

We are expected not to question or ask for proof of the “hundreds of emails and phone calls” the mayor said he received and implied the majority were in support of the redesign.

Are we expected to accept that councilmembers were more fully informed than the public before they voted when it appears they were relying on the same unreliable sources of information?

When the mayor makes these bold claims of support for his pet project, we, the citizens of Smyrna deserve to see the evidence. When he gives control of the public opinion narrative to the business whose interest it is to see the project approved, he is ignoring their conflict of interest.

To quell the anger and frustration that many citizens are feeling about the redesign, the mayor should show us the verifiable evidence of “overwhelming support”, “showed up in force” and “more public input than any other project in the history of Smyrna”. He needs to demonstrate to the citizens of Smyrna unassailable proof of the veracity of his claims.

If the Mayor cannot show proof–based on an accepted unbiased methodology of opinion gathering–that the majority of voters in our community want this redesign, then we need to start the process of public input again. We need an independent, disinterested party to create and oversee the process of acquiring and disseminating information from our residents. Only then will the process be conducted fairly and will accurately reflect the wishes of the Smyrna community. I have faith that all our citizens will accept the outcome of a fairly conducted survey, no matter their feelings about the project. In my opinion, it is the only way, apart from a referendum, that we can stop the argument.

Finally, it is my sincere hope the City does not employ a similar approach to gathering community opinions about the question of selling our village green space to a beer factory.

L. I. Moore