Avondale Estates City Commission appoints members to the Welcoming America CommitteeAvondale Estates City Commissioner Lionel Laratte
By Zoe Seiler, contributor
Avondale Estates, GA – The Avondale Estates City Commission on Sept. 15 appointed 11 people to the new Welcoming America Committee.
The members of the committee are Avondale residents Chris Hess, Connie Bryans, Adela Yelton, Jack Krost, Jan Hover, Jennifer Brown, Lisa Tang, Sharon Saliba, Shelly Groves, Stephany Cross and Suzanna Stribling.
“Our community is what makes this place great. I feel like a lot of what the welcoming committee’s job is to tell that story, to tell people that, to welcome new families and businesses, to welcome visitors, and really to be the bridge between the old and the new. I think we need that more than ever right now,” Mayor Jonathan Elmore said. “We need this committee to be the bridge between the great community that’s always been here and the new people that are coming here.”
Former city commissioner Adela Yelton introduced this to the board in 2019 and the City Commission passed a resolution in December 2019 to participate in the Welcoming America program.
Welcoming America is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that supports many diverse communities. The organization provides the roadmap and support a community needs to become more inclusive toward all people and residents, according to their website.
The resolution aims to foster “a welcoming environment for all individuals– regardless of race, ethnicity or place of origin– enhances the City of Avondale Estates’ cultural fabric, economic growth, and overall prosperity for current and future generations,” the resolution says.
It also promotes community efforts like civic dinners, education and gatherings to promote understanding and collaboration within the community.
Yelton at the Dec. 16, 2019, regular meeting said the Downtown Master Plan and Comprehensive Plan have language about being welcoming and inclusive and this is an opportunity to put those words into action.
“We don’t have to recreate the wheel on a lot of these activities. I think we can infuse a lot of welcoming approach and language into what we’re already doing as a city in downtown, in the community,” Yelton, who was still a commissioner at the time, said at the Dec. 16 meeting.
Commissioners Lionel Laratte and Dee Merriam took the lead in forming the committee after Yelton left the City Commission in December. Both were excited to appoint the committee members and see the work they do.
Laratte thinks what is important about Welcoming America is that it’s a movement and it focuses on inclusion and making sure everyone feels like they belong.
“We’re building new apartment buildings. We’re annexing adjacent properties and neighborhoods,” Laratte said. “That does create challenges and we’ve seen these challenges for both newcomers and folks who have been here a long time. It’s relevant and it’s very pointed and it can do everything to help us enhance the quality of our residents’ lives.”
Welcoming America has seven framework categories and Laratte highlighted the three he suggested the committee should focus on: government leadership, civic engagement and connected communities.
“These three are where I think we can make the most impact over the next year or so because, I think to some extent, we have actions in place that are ongoing that are taking care of things like economic development, the safe communities with the police, we have that in action as well,” Laratte said.
The other categories are equitable access, education, economic development and safe communities.
Laratte added that the City Commission has been focusing a lot on economic development, especially as the city is working on the Town Green project and the “road diet” on U.S. 278, and thinks the city can shift a little bit to look at inclusion.
Laratte thinks the Welcoming America Committee can help keep new apartments being built in the city filled with new residents and help local businesses thrive because “we know that our city alone cannot sustain all of the businesses we want to have here. I think being a welcoming city will help us achieve that,” Laratte said.
Civic engagement is one of the core reasons why the board members thought participating in Welcoming America was a good idea for the city, Laratte said. The city has also recently worked on expanding its outreach. The gate at Willis Park was recently unlocked and the city annexed Berkeley Village into Avondale.
“I think connected communities is something that we can probably improve on in the city,” Laratte said.
The intent of the group is twofold: to bridge the gap between the generations of the city and welcoming people into the city, Laratte and committee member Connie Bryans said.
“We have… actions in place where this is going on but I do believe that having the committee focus its attention on these two things will greatly enhance the lives of residents as well as those in the communities around us,” Laratte said.
Laratte said the group could help create a friendlier community in Avondale Estates.
“We’re going to have a lot of new residents coming into the buildings that are being built,” Laratte said. “I believe that enabling increased diversity and increasing that inclusiveness is going to make a lot of sense moving forward. It’s only going to contribute to our success.”
He added that inclusion also means thinking about age in addition to race or other criteria.
“An example I like to give is that it means that you might space benches closer together along (U.S.) 278 with the knowledge that seniors probably want to rest rather than walk all the way down (U.S.) 278 with no place to rest,” Laratte said.
He hopes the committee will use these four words to guide their actions: be bold and fail fast.
“I hope that the committee finds it within everyone’s interest to be bold in what they want to do. I also hope that they feel empowered and able to take risks. If they fail, great, you know what doesn’t work,” Laratte said. “That gives you a chance to try something else that may work better. At least you won’t make the same mistake again.”
The next steps for the committee will be to have its first meeting, get organized and develop goals and plans. The City Commissions hopes to have a public meeting with the committee within 90 days to learn about the committee’s goals and plans.
The City Commission has not given the committee money yet. Elmore explained that the board wanted to give the group time to figure out their focus areas and then present proposals to the City Commission for funding.
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