Candidate Q&A – Mayor Pro Tem Brian Fisher, Avondale Estates City Commission.
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About this series:
Decaturish sent questions to candidates running for elected office in Decatur and Avondale Estates. We will publish the candidates’ responses throughout the week. For more information about voting in the upcoming election, please see the note at the end of this post. Here is the response from incumbent Avondale Estates Mayor Pro Tem Brian Fisher, who is running for reelection to the Avondale Estates City Commission.
1) Why are you running for reelection to the Avondale Estates City Commission?
I decided to run four years ago because I felt that Avondale Estates had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the direction of our downtown through responsible development. We have accomplished a lot since 2015, approving over $120 million in new construction projects in our downtown and welcoming 23 new businesses (at last count). But, there’s still more to be done. Over the next four years we will develop our city-owned property in the downtown, finish the Town Green, and complete the road diet, making our downtown a more walkable and desirable destination. Simply, I would like the opportunity to finish what I helped start. I have a lot of blood, sweat, and tears invested in these projects.
2) What do you think makes you a better candidate than your opponents?
I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last four years to redevelop our downtown central business district. My professional experience in banking, finance, and real estate lending gives me an important perspective on many of the issues we will continue to face over the next four years. If residents are happy with the current direction of the Board (downtown restoration, responsible growth, residential renewal, welcoming environment in which to live, work, and play), then I am the Commissioner for you. Plus, the experience that I have gained over the past four years serving as part of this BMOC has been invaluable. Truth is, no matter how many meetings you attend, becoming a first-time public official has a learning curve. I will be able to hit the ground running if re- elected.
3) What do you think is Avondale Estates’ greatest strength?
Our greatest strength is our people. Avondale has an active and engaged community of diverse citizens, who may not always agree, but who are there for one another when it matters. Avondale Estates is a “small town, intown.” We have senior residents who have spent their whole lives in Avondale, empty nesters, and families old and young who are passionate about the direction of our city. It has been — and will continue to be — our greatest strength.
4) What do you think is its greatest challenge?
Change. Change can be scary, especially when you’re satisfied with how things have always been. I think the pace of change is the biggest source of contention between our residents. Do we want to continue along the path of redevelopment towards a more inclusive, walkable, live-able community with a vibrant downtown area — or do we want to maintain status quo and remain a “hidden gem” inside the perimeter of Atlanta? If the latter, we run the risk of being unable to provide the same level of services and needed infrastructure repairs and improvements that our residents enjoy and our city requires without significantly raising our taxes in order to pay for them.
5) What are the top two or three things you plan to focus on as a commissioner?
Downtown development – We will complete the development of the city-owned property and construction of our “Town Green.” We will also remain focus on the Hwy 278 road diet so that our “Main Street” will no longer be a four-lane highway. And finally, we will seek to find some agreement with Avilla who currently owns a very valuable, highly visible, and blighted property in the core of our downtown.
Long-term capital management – Unfortunately, we have not been able to keep up with required infrastructure repairs and improvements needed for a city that is almost 100 years old. We need to develop a fiscally sound, long-term financial plan that will allow us to deal with storm-water challenges in our downtown and residential areas, build out our downtown street grid, repair roads, build more sidewalks, and make much-needed restoration to Lake Avondale (North woods, lake dredging, and repairs to the dam).
Continue to prepare for the future – We have a history of being reactive (to economic conditions) verses proactive (openly seeking new development). However, our active and engaged DDA (www.exploreavondale.org) has been a huge part of that transition towards redevelopment. I am proud that we are the first Board to not only fund our DDA but also give them the ability to do what good DDAs do: generate economic activity and development in downtown. We are currently working to update our zoning ordinances, so that they more closely align with the vison of our downtown master plan. This is a tremendous undertaking but will give potential developers a clear vision of the type of development our community would like to see, and that is economically feasible to build. This clarity will save the city and potential developers and business owners time and money, which are important considerations when choosing locations where they will do business.
Continue to work with Avondale Elementary, The Museum School, Druid Hills Middle and High School, and Dekalb School of the Arts – Great communities have great public-school options for their families. We have amazing partners at all of these schools, and we want to continue to support them as much as we can. The Museum School has been named the top charter school in the state. Under the direction of Principal Mark Joyner, many families are now choosing Druid Hills High School over private and other public-school options. At the Avondale Elementary school, Dr. Andrews is building a top performing school for our children. As our neighbors in Decatur know, great public-school options increase property values and spark development. They go hand-in-hand with sustainability.
6) As many people in Avondale are aware, in 2015 mayoral candidate Clai Brown’s contract was amended to include a severance for resigning. His retirement age was also lowered to 55. The city’s attorney concluded, after an investigation, that Brown hid his contract from city employees and commissioners. Brown and his supporters dispute that he hid anything. What is your opinion about this situation and who do you plan to vote for in the upcoming mayoral election?
My hope was that this election could be about the future of Avondale and where we want to go as a community. Unfortunately, when Clai decided to run for Mayor, the race became about integrity, ethics, and what our residents are willing to accept. Our citizens must now decide what level of trust and transparency they are willing to accept from their city’s elected officials and representatives. My personal experience dealing with Clai’s resignation, accusations, and drama are directly in line with what has been reported in Decaturish. I believe what Clai and former Mayor Pro Tem Terry Giager did was intentional. They hid his contract and the addendum from Mayor Elmore, the newly elected Commissioners (Adela Yelton and myself), the former Finance Director Ken Turner, the city auditor, and our city’s residents. In my opinion, Clai’s actions were self-serving, and he did not have the best interest of our city at heart. Character does matter – and in this situation Clai showed very little of it. Elected officials should be held to even higher standards – well above what is merely “legal.” I will be supporting Mayor Elmore.
7) Some residents in Avondale Estates have expressed concern about the city taking on debt to complete specific projects in the city. Are you concerned about the city borrowing money? Why or why not?
Believe it or not, the city of Avondale Estates has borrowed money in the past. Most recently the city borrowed money to purchase the four acres located in our downtown. I put finance considerations in two categories: 1) capital improvement and 2) operations. I would be very hesitant to borrow money to support city operations. I do think it is more appropriate to borrow money for some capital improvement projects. Right now interest rates are historically low, while the cost of construction continues to increase. Now is the right time to take on debt to secure these projects. As a Board, we recently secured a Bond Anticipation Note (BAN) that will allow us to build our Town Green and some much-needed, storm water infrastructure off Kensington Road. The Town Green will serve as an economic catalyst in the core of
our downtown, which will spark additional development — thereby generating more revenue for the city to support city services and capital improvement projects. When considering the BAN, we hired a municipal, financial consultant to help us build conservative projections in order to limit risk for our residents. We chose not to use any future revenue from approved development projects and only use historic income received by the city in previous years in our analysis. By any measure we can comfortably handle the expected new debt service.
8) What is your opinion of the DDA and are you satisfied with how the Board functions?
I couldn’t be prouder of the work of our Downtown Development Authority (DDA). For the first time in the history of our DDA, we gave them funding and changed their purview from just managing the Juvenile Justice building to helping develop and market our downtown. In early 2016, we spent time with other cities who were much further along with their downtown development. Over and over we heard about the critical role their DDAs played in their cities’ downtown development and decided we needed to empower our DDA to do all of the things successful DDAs do. We have incredibly skilled professionals, residents, and business owners who volunteer countless hours to their mission, and we are beginning to see the results. Attendance at city events has increased visibility for our business owners. As such the DDA has purchased additional land in our downtown that will be earmarked for parking needed when residents and visitors spend time in in our downtown area. My fear is that if we go backwards in this election, all of this hard work will be for naught — and our opportunity to create the vibrant downtown that Avondale Estates could have (again) will be lost. The time to restore and redevelop is now.
9) There is a perception that Avondale Estates is unwelcoming to outsiders. Do you think this is accurate? If so, what would you plan to do about it? If not, why not?
I think at one time is was accurate; I don’t anymore. But like most reputations it is easy to get a bad one, and once you do, it’s hard to change someone’s mind. Avondale Estates has been consistently recognized as one of the top communities for gay and lesbian couples and families. I am proud of that diversity, but we don’t have as much racial diversity as I would like to see. One of the things I think will help us become more diverse is increasing the housing options for people who would like to be a part of our community. Currently, the majority of our housing inventory is single-family residential, and the average cost of a home in Avondale is over $370,000. Providing more housing options, including senior housing, at a variety of price points will continue to increase the diversity of our city.
10) What is your opinion of the current city manager Patrick Bryant? Are you satisfied with his performance?
When Clai quit as City Manager, we were lucky to have someone as experienced and trusted as Ken Turner take over as interim manager. I can’t thank Ken enough for taking over during such a turbulent time at City Hall. When we began the process of finding a permanent City Manager, we were looking for someone with a different skill set than Clai. Clai did a very good job as City Manager in managing the existing operations of our city. There was not an action or piece of communication that came from the city that did not require Clai’s approval or sign off. However, that management style was not going to be sustainable if we wanted to develop our downtown and grow our city. We needed to find someone who could help us be more strategic in developing a long-term strategy of sustainability, financial accountability, and growth while maintaining the character of our town. That person would also need to be able to build an infrastructure within City Hall to support a larger city and that included delegating responsibilities to City staff. It has been a difficult task, but I think Patrick fits that bill and is doing a really good job. The proof is in how much we have been able to accomplish the past two years. In Avondale we are no longer talking about doing things; things are happening. Patrick and his staff are a big part of our city’s success.
11) What is your opinion of The Museum School and its relationship with the city and its residents?
Full disclosure, I have three girls — all of whom have been lucky enough to attend The Museum School (TMS). We would not be able to live in Avondale Estates if local community members didn’t decide to do something about the lack of credible public-school options for our city’s residents. Dr. Andrews was not yet at Avondale Elementary (AE), and the principal of AE had no interest in working with the community to help improve the school. The resurgence of Avondale Estates would not have happened without TMS. Prior to TMS, young Avondale families had to choose between paying to go to a City of Decatur school, attending a private school, or leaving City of Avondale Estates. As City of Decatur schools continued to grow, that no longer became an option for Avondale families, so that left private schools and or moving. Many families chose to move. TMS gave families new hope, and those families who got into the school stayed in Avondale. Many of the students’ families who did not already live in Avondale chose to move to Avondale. Those same kids are now attending Druid Hills High School. If you look at the growth of families staying in Avondale, and businesses locating and surviving in Avondale, it can be tied to TMS and other charter schools that provide public education alternatives for our families. The biggest issue we have right now is that many residents’ children are not able to get into these schools, which puts them right back in a situation where they feel they need to decide between private schools and moving away from Avondale Estates. This is why it is so important that we support Dr. Andrews and all his staff’s efforts at AE. Great communities have great public schools!
Improved public school options has not come without some concerns for some residents. The location of TMS has resulted in additional traffic in the mornings and afternoons, and there are more kids using Willis Park. On TMS’ quarterly exhibit nights we have families who park near Willis Park and walk over to the school. Personally, I love the activity around our park. On days when I am able to work from home, I will sometimes walk down to the park and meet my girls. Seeing all of those kids playing and simply “being a kid” in our park makes me smile. It was not always like that. In fact, if I could change anything about our park, I would take down the fence and gate. Public parks shouldn’t be fenced off, gated, or closed. That said, we would need to make sure traffic laws are closely followed and that we consider traffic calming measures to ensure the safety of children — and to respect the needs of residents who live near the park, so they can safely enter and exit their homes.
Sadly, I think the TMS families’ verses our older residents has less to do about TMS and more to do about our community’s vision for the future of Avondale Estates. Many of the families who live in Avondale want to see our city grow. Some, and BY NO MEANS ALL, of our older residents are hesitant to support that growth. They would like Avondale to stay the way it has always been. Over the last four years our downtown has experienced more growth than it has in decades. This election is a referendum on whether we want to continue along the path of restoration and redevelopment, or do we want to go back to the Avondale of old. If re-elected, I am committed to continue to move our city forward.
12) Do you support annexing additional areas of un-incorporated DeKalb County into Avondale Estates? If so, what areas do you think should be annexed?
I supported annexation four years ago and continue to support it today. We have had two, separate Carl Vincent studies ordered by the city to consider the financial viability of annexation. In each of the studies, it made financial sense for Avondale to consider annexation. That was an important hurdle to cross as we have struggled to keep up with our own aging infrastructure.
For me personally, annexation has less to do with the financial advantages of asking other communities to join Avondale Estates and more to do about local residents being able to control development decisions that will impact our community whether we annex or not. Development is happening all around us. If you have not recently spent time in Scottsdale, Decatur Terrace, Forrest Hills, Rockbridge Road (off of Clarendon), and around the Kensington Marta station, development is happening, and it will impact all of us. We currently have little control over any of these investment decisions. Developing our downtown and moving forward with the 278 road diet will have an impact on residents in Decatur Terrace and Forrest Hills. I believe it is better if we make those decisions about the future of our communities together as one city and not separately. I also think that pooling resources as a larger city will allow all of us to pave more roads, build more sidewalks, create more greenspaces, and spend more of our tax dollars in our community verses DeKalb County. DeKalb County is huge, and the elected officials are working hard to fix a lot of different issues county-wide. It’s difficult for our communities to get noticed or make the case to receive financial resources when there are so many other needs in the county.
A great example of this challenge is the recent approval of a low-income housing project at Kensington Marta station by DeKalb County. I don’t think any of us were against providing affordable housing options around the Marta station, but the approved developer had a poor reputation and the project lacked greenspace, sidewalks, or play grounds for kids who would live in the development. We did have a group of residents who worked to require changes, and the city tried to work with the county to make changes, but we were largely unsuccessful. If that area were part of Avondale Estates, we would be the one making those decisions. It’s not, so we had no say or control.
All of this said, annexation is an emotional topic for our residents and impacted communities. My preference is if we decide to pursue annexation in the next four years that we’d do so via the opt-in method and avoid moving forward using the legislative process.
13) What is your opinion about apartment developments in Avondale Estates?
Apartment communities help provide the density required to support the retail and office space we need to create a vibrant downtown. These developments pay taxes and cost the city very little in the way of services. While the future income from The Willis and The Alexan were not considered when we approved the BAN, there is no doubt that the real estate taxes and economic activity generated by those projects will pay for the Town Green and much of the future street grid in our downtown. In fact, the feasibility study on The Alexan project placed the economic impact of that project alone on Avondale at over $3 million a year.
The downtown master plan calls for apartment communities where the current Willis building is located and where The Alexan is being constructed. The downtown master plan also calls for apartment communities in the Mill District that is current owned by Avilla. Those communities were planned and feel appropriate for our downtown. I don’t think any of us on the BOMC have an interest in apartments being the only housing options in our downtown. I realize that is a concern of some residents. I would personally like to see townhomes, condos, and live/work options available for future residents. Any future, large-scale apartment buildings not already part of the downtown master plan would need to be carefully considered, and in my opinion, would need to meet a specific need. Around Atlanta we are seeing growth in active senior living communities. I would be open to considering that type of development in our downtown, as I think it would meet a need and help activate our downtown during the day.
14) What is your opinion about the proposed “road diet” for US 278 that would reduce lanes on North Avondale Road?
I am 100 percent in support of this project and am glad that between the grants we have received from the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and SPLOST funds we can pay for this important project. It would be very difficult to connect our residential area with a walkable downtown when a four-lane highway serves as your Main Street. I am thankful that Mayor Elmore kept pushing this project with GDOT after they initially told us no, and I’m looking forward to the project beginning in 2021.
15) If elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner?
Yes, in every situation — 100 percent of the time!
Learn more about voting in the Nov. 5 elections:
Voter registration for the Nov. 5 municipal elections ended on Oct. 7. Early voting will start on Oct. 14.
If you have registered and need your polling information, visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter page by clicking here.