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Start/Stop/Continue – Alpharetta 2011

Often I draw blogging inspiration from my cubicle life. How sad is that? Tis the season for annual peer reviews, which means our start/stop/continue exercise. It is sort of a kinder and gentler way of telling someone what they should or shouldn’t be doing. The idea is to list things an employee should start doing in the new year, bad habits they should stop and activities they should continue. Here’s my take on stuff I observe in Alpharetta. I did something similar last year with restaurants, so I’ll keep half of this year’s foodie focused. Don’t leave me if you’re here for Foodie Friday!

Start – Fine and Performing Arts

If you look on the Alpharetta CVB website for the arts, you’ll find a paltry list. We’ve got a handful of art boutiques downtown, the ACT1 theater group (they are terrific) and Encore Park. Alpharetta seriously lags our suburban peers in the fine arts. Roswell has a small arts center with a 600 seat auditorium. Marietta can boast the Cobb Energy Center. It’s something we need to look into, I just cringe thinking about paying for it!

Stop – Mixed-use Development

…or at least enact a moratorium. Not a single mixed-use development has been successful in this area. The Vickery development in south Forsyth is half-baked and has been in and out of foreclosure. Prospect Park is egg on Alpharetta’s face. I don’t know if these failures are because of some inherent flaw in the mixed-use concept, or just victims of the real estate meltdown. Either way, it is more than prudent to put a temporary stop to these. There are mixed-use developments planned or in the works on Windward Parkway and Haynes Bridge Road. Alpharetta’s got the potential to have a trifecta of Prospect Park mud pits at exits nine, ten and eleven.

Continue – Job Creation

HP, Vesta, Global Payments, ThyssenKrupp, Macy’s… These are all companies that are bringing jobs to our area. City leaders and Chamber officials deserve heaping praise. Keep it up guys! You’re exceeding expectations!

And now, allow me to shift gears and talk about Alpharetta’s restaurant scene…

Start – Farm-to-Table Restaurants

If you want to know the next trend in Alpharetta dining, just look at what’s trendy ITP. Whatever cool hipsters in Atlanta are doing today will arrive in the burbs a year or two later. My prediction is that we’ll soon see farm-to-table restaurants.

And no, I’m not some crunchy granola-type who wants us to eat local to reduce carbon footprints. That’s hogwash. Local produce just tastes better. A few Alpharetta-area restaurants have toyed with farm-fresh ingredients. Milton’s Cuisine planted a vegetable garden this past year, but it was mainly to supplement their menu offerings. Casa Nuova Italian in south Forsyth sourced some produce from a farm about a mile from their restaurant. I’d like to see more!

Stop – Self-serve Frozen Yogurt

Enough already! 2010 saw just about every traditional ice cream joint close and get replaced by this concept. We’ve got Yoforia, Yogli Mogli, Brain Freeze, Menchies and more. Strangely enough many opened at the end of summer or even this winter. If you’re pushing cold treats, don’t start before your seasonally slow period. Nevertheless, predicting some closures in this space isn’t a long shot by any means.

Continue – Social Networking

More and more local restaurants are connecting with diners on twitter and facebook. This seems especially true with newer shops that are generating pre-opening buzz online. Check out this list for Alpharetta restaurants on twitter.

Photo Credit : beautifulcataya

Activities for Home-bound Kids

As I’m writing this article, metro Atlanta is in the midst of a prolonged winter storm. Schools have been closed for three days and won’t reopen until next week. Parents are going stir crazy trying to keep the kids occupied. I thought I would go off the reservation and venture into dad blogger territory. Here’s a few activities to do with home-bound kids on cold winter days. If you augment these with a good map I think you can create a teachable moment or two.


Want to break the kids of their addiction to technology? Postcrossing is an international postcard exchange program. Here’s how it works. First you create a profile on the website. Next, enter a few details about yourself and where you live. Like most things in life, you’ve gotta give before you get. You’ll mail a postcard to a person overseas who’s address was provided by the website. It’s usually best to send a cool postcard from something local. Unfortunately I know of no postcards featuring Alpharetta (a topic for another article) but you can find many for Atlanta and even Roswell. Write a little note about yourself and send it off!

In about a week the recipient will get your card and register it online. That action will put your name in a queue to receive a card. In another week you’ll be surprised by an international postcard in your mailbox!

I like this activity for kids because they have to put pen to paper. Old school, huh? They’ll also meet someone from another part of the world. Perhaps they’ll gain a different perspective than what affluent Alpharetta offers. There’s a geography lesson there as well. You might  purchase a giant world map for the wall and stick push pins all over it.

Keep in mind that you’ll need a supply of postcards and stamps. It costs about a dollar to mail a postcard internationally.

Where’s George

It’s like postcrossing, except there’s no writing or stamps involved. Where’s George is a currency tracking project that’s been around for a long time. Again, you start by making a simple profile on the website. Next you register the bills you have in your pocket by entering their unique serial numbers. You spend the money as you normally would… then wait. If another Where’s George user enters your bill again, you’ll be notified and can track the bill’s geographic journey.

In practicality you should mark your Where’s George bills with a stamp like shown in this picture. The chance of an unmarked bill getting registered on the site is slim to none. I’d suggest obtaining one of these little ink stamps if you’re gonna give currency tracking a try. And again, I’d augment this exercise with maps to visually track the money.

Stay warm!

Photo Credit: Sandro Menzel

How Snowmageddon 2011 Justifies Our Milk and Bread Hoarding

That’s right, I’m going to write an article justifying the southern practice of raiding grocery stores before winter storms. I’m ready for all the hate mail you can bring!

Imagine if authorities announced that gasoline would be unavailable for purchase for 48 hours. What would you do? Gas up of course! What if you already had three quarters of a tank? Well, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so why not top off? Makes sense. Pretty soon everyone will get the same notion and there will be a run on gas. Hoarding behavior takes over.

This might not make a great analogy but it happened in September 2008. Remember? I do because I was one of the poor schmucks in an hour long line to gas up.

Predictions for winter weather are similar. Most snows in Georgia are gone in less than a day. Yet many of us can remember 1993 or other times when snow turned into a several day affair. The snowstorm this week certainly did. It means you’re without access to grocery stores for 48 hours, maybe more. Refreshing your stock of perishable commodities is a reasonable thing to do. So yeah, I was at Walmart last weekend buying milk, bread, fruit, (and my favorite beer, Yuengling) and basically any other groceries I would have bought during the week. Now that I’ve been home-bound for two, going on three days, I feel like my hoarding was a completely justified and rational thing to do.

Maybe you’re an Alpharetta resident who relocated from up north. This will be where you criticize southerns for not knowing how to drive in snow and ice. I’m not going to argue with you. (cue the Rain Man quote) I think I’m an excellent driver, having some experience in weather like this. But you’re right, most in the south don’t know how to drive on snow. I’m more worried about them, not me! I don’t want to be T-boned by Bubba who thinks the laws of physics and friction don’t apply to his rear-wheel drive F-150.

Do you think the Snowmageddon 2011 event has justified our milk and bread hoarding? I’m opening myself up to ridicule and mockery but I’m good for it. Let me have it!

Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski

What I Didn’t Write About

Today marks the first anniversary of my blog, a milestone that no one other than myself probably cares a lick about. A lot of bloggers might take this occasion to mention some favorite articles or perhaps highlight the most viewed. I’m not gonna do it.

In sports sometimes the best call an umpire can make is no call at all; let the game progress without interjecting your opinion. I think some of the best decisions I’ve made as a blogger are the things I chose not to write about. I probably could have been the only person writing about these three topics, but being a responsible and appropriate need to win out at the end of the day.

The human tragedy story – I had the chance to write about a heartbreaking story of loss that occurred in Alpharetta. I knew details from those close to what happened but chose not to write for the sake of the family involved. Looking back, it was the right thing to do.

The crime story – This one was tough to walk away from. I was investigating a series of crimes in the suburbs. I spoke with police on the matter and learned, off the record, that there was more to the story. It might have been very interesting. After discussing the matter with my wife we both felt like it might invite too much attention on a topic I didn’t want to be a part of.

The restaurant train wreck – I love writing about new restaurants. I’m the guy who’s gotta get in there the first week they’re open and crank out a quick review. So one day I hit up a new joint for lunch. The service is a mess. The one poor waitress was completely overwhelmed. It happens a lot in new places and I usually overlook it. But the food was also miserable. The kitchen was slow and making mistakes. Customers were walking out. And the worse part… the manager/owner was sitting on his rear doing almost nothing. I could have written a scathing review. You’d be surprised how much fun it is writing ugly stuff. For some reason it is easier to be creative when being negative. But there’s no reason to slam someone’s business when it is obvious they haven’t got it together.

The NIMBY Mosques – Okay, I actually wrote about this… twice. I think as a local blogger it is perfectly fine to take a stand contrary to most of your peers. That’s what I did with the two proposed mosques (both in south Forsyth and Alpharetta). I don’t regret the stand I took on the mosque issue. I also don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.

When I started blogging I didn’t set a lot of goals. You can’t expect huge numbers writing a local blog like this. As long as I kept finding things I wanted to write about, then I’d be happy. So far that is still the case. What’s been the best part about writing Roots? Making new acquaintances. I’m grateful for each of you I’ve met. Thanks for reading and have a terrific new year!

Hyperlocal Journalism in Alpharetta

Back when I started my blog, I’d never heard the term “hyperlocal blog”. I thought Alpharetta didn’t have a lot in the way of bloggers talking about stuff going on in our little burb. Thus was born Roots in Alpharetta, my little hyperlocal blog creation. I still don’t think we have many hyperlocal blogs in Alpharetta. However, we’re about to get inundated with hyperlocal journalism.

First, it is important to make a distinction. I’m not a journalist nor do I pretend to be one. I’m just a fella who reads the newspaper and has an opinion. Think of my stuff as the op-ed page, that part of the paper you usually skip.

So what do I mean by hyperlocal journalism? We’ve got it in two formats…

Legacy Media Newspapers

Let’s start with the old-school guys that are still killin’ trees. Alpharetta has several local papers and they are all pretty good. While I don’t subscribe to any of them in print format, I do read and participate in their websites. I like the Alpharetta Revue News run by the Appen Newspapers. I especially like their feature stories that deep dive into issues. This story about north Fulton’s hidden homeless hit me hard. I like the Neighbor Newspapers for their clean website and terrific restaurant critic, Joan Durbin. I don’t read the Beacon Newspaper much as their website has a subscription component to it. They seem to have the best local sports coverage I’ve found.

But the biggest problem these papers will face is their ability to react quickly to news. Let me give an example that will play into hyperlocal journalism on the internet. Recently I read an article on the website of one of Alpharetta’s small newspapers. The article was important to me as it was about a serious crime in Alpharetta. And while they were the first to report on the issue, it didn’t appear on their website for a week! Perhaps they push content online at the time they go to press. Either way, in the online world it was ancient news.

Hyperlocal Journalism Online

Let me give another example… Last week when ice was reeking havoc on Alpharetta’s commute… who gave the best updates, in real-time, of road conditions? Bob Pepalis of the Alpharetta Patch. He was on twitter with a steady stream of updates on ice and impassable roads.

The Patch – This is an effort being funded by AOL. It’s ironic that the dinosaur of the internet is behind such an innovative effort. The Patch’s idea is simple. They’ve built an online news platform to collect and display news locally. Next they hire one person in each small community to cover local news. That local editor will leverage the news platform to publish an online newspaper. They are expanding very rapidly, especially into affluent areas like Alpharetta. Here locally they have editors in Johns Creek, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Cumming and a combined Alpharetta/Milton Patch run by Pepalis (who used to work for Appen). There’s no office, no printing press, little overhead… just news gathering. For the cost of one employee, a laptop and an iPhone they can be a very nimble news organization, reporting in almost real time. This isn’t your father’s newspaper.

There’s another hyperlocal news group called The Examiner. They are not as granular as the Patch, having only an Atlanta edition that seems to cover the entire metro area. I’ve seen articles here about Alpharetta, but it certainly isn’t a focus.

Why is all this important? Because hyperlocal journalism on the internet has the potential to be a game changer. It could transform the way local news is gathered, presented and consumed. And with a larger internet company behind The Patch (albeit AOL), they could change the way news is indexed and searched. If you’re the publisher of a local print newspaper, you’d better be planning to be a much more agile organization. As a local blogger, I’m excited to welcome these guys to town and look forward to continuing the conversation!

Photo Credit: Matt Callow

What’s in a Name? “Bethany Bend” High School

I went to A.P. Leto High School in suburban Tampa, Florida. Who was A.P. Leto? I haven’t the slightest clue. Did it matter much to the students? Not really. I suppose it would have been cool if our school was named for the geographic town or community in which we lived, but it wasn’t. Would we have formed a better community had the school been named differently? Probably not.

I got excited when I discovered this new local blog, the New Milton High School Blog run by Andy Young. (Seriously, I do get excited by new blogs). It’s about the new high school being built along Bethany Bend in Milton. Construction is progressing fast. Miltonites are starting to ponder names for the school, thus the new blog’s very focused theme. The author supports the notion that the new high school should have the word “Milton” somewhere in the name. Does it matter? What’s behind this idea?

New City Identity

I’ve written a few times about how I think Johns Creek and Milton struggle to establish identity for themselves. It manifests itself in issues like new zip codes. I think the high school is no different. The boundaries for the school have not been set but there is a good chance that most students will live within the city limits of Milton. I say most but I’ll bet you can find some from Alpharetta. Nevertheless, this is a chance for Miltonites to find yet another way to identify themselves. That might not be possible if the school were to be called something else.

Piggyback on the Milton HS Prestige

Let’s face it, Milton High School is an awesome school. They rank nationally in many areas; academics, athletics, arts, etc. It would be a bummer to have middle school-aged kids today, knowing that they might miss a chance to go to Milton HS. The next best thing might be to create a “North Milton” and “South Milton”. That’s an idea being kicked around on the blog. Which one gets which designation isn’t clear. I find it interesting that both schools are geographically east/west of each other. I don’t know why this north/south divide is popular now.

Would it be fair to the current Milton High School to change their name? The school has a rich history dating back to 1921, a little bit before the creation of the city of Milton (duh). After all, the school was named for Milton County. I’d imagine suggesting a name change of ninety year old school would be met with some resistance. That fight will be fun to watch from the sidelines.

Does it Really Matter?

High school is a formative time for children. Like I mentioned above, students will bond around their high school regardless of the name.

I contend that the new high school, whatever it is called, will be an academically terrific school. I wrote back in October that good parents raise smart kids which create good schools. That will most certainly be the case with the new school. The name or boundary are immaterial.

So what’s my take on the name? I don’t have an opinion one way or another. It will be interesting to see what political pressure the Milton residents bring over this, if any. Will it matter, considering that they realistically don’t get much of a say? At the end of the day I think parents will care more about how the district lines are drawn. I expect some in Milton will seek for the school’s boundaries to closely match those of Milton’s jagged city limits. It’s all about identity in Milton.

Clark W. Griswold Lives in Johns Creek

Taking your kids to see Christmas lights is dangerous. Why? Ever since riding down Gladewood Drive, my kids have been hounding me for lights. I’m not talking about the silly little strand or two that we have, they have high expectations after seeing these creative displays. So go at your own risk! I have no desire to be Clark W Griswold, but I admire his work.

And before I get into a few picks, I suggest you check the local mom bloggers. They are far more connected as to where the cool lights can be found. I suggest Atlanta with Kid and Amy’s Christmas light list. I also like Jenni Hilton over at Forsyth County for Families.

So where do I go for Christmas lights? Gladewood Drive in the Hillbrooke neighborhood of Johns Creek. There are an above average number of homes in this neighborhood with lights. But this one long cul-de-sac is amazing. We’re not talking about one single house with lights but dozens of homes. When taken together, it is a pretty cool sight to see. We go each year, although I was a little disappointed this time. As of about a week ago they were still building out. Hopefully by now they’ve finished their work. But it’s worth the drive.

If you’re in the area, I’d also suggest swinging by Emory Johns Creek Hospital. The drive along Hospital Parkway is kinda cute. I wouldn’t go out of your way, but it’s worth a look if you’re in the neighborhood.

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Move to Forsyth, Get a Free Basement!

Last week I contrasted property tax across the various municipalities in the northern burbs. I anticipated it would be my most boring article to date, yet it triggered a decent little discussion. I thought I would follow-up that article with a second, my attempt to better quantify the differences. If you need a cure for insomnia, I’m sure this article will do the trick.

If you didn’t read my article last week, I’ll give you a review. For a home valued $300,000, the 2010 property tax  would be approximately $3,734 in north Fulton. That’s the average of the values for Alpharetta, Roswell, Milton and Johns Creek. They all were a little different but within a few bucks of each other. Let’s go with this figure today. In unincorporated Forsyth County, a $300,000 home would be taxed $2,881.


That’s what we’re talking about today, the difference between tax in Forsyth and Fulton. What’s $853 dollars a year? I thought I could do a present value calculation, taking the present value of a yearly cashflow of $853 out for a few dozen years. That would give a good, hard number showing the savings someone would get by moving to Forsyth County. Did I mention a cure for insomnia? Yeah, exactly. So I came up with a better way of visualizing this number, something with the financial equations already cooked into the numbers. Follow along…

Imagine two neighborhoods that are identical in almost every single way. Homes in these neighborhoods sell for about $300k, plus or minus a few bucks depending on the home. But imagine one of these neighborhoods is in south Forsyth County and the other just into Fulton County. I don’t see this as a big stretch; there are neighborhoods that lay upon McGinnis Ferry Road kinda like this. But work with me here. As my Economics professor used to say, all things being equal, right?

Let’s say you’re in the market for a house and you like these two neighborhoods. You will finance a large portion of your purchase using a 30 year conventional mortgage. Let’s say you’ll get a loan at an interest rate of 4.5% fixed. You’re also aware that your mortgage company is going to escrow your property taxes. You stumble upon a terrific local blog that contrasts local property taxes, so you have a real good idea what it’s gonna cost you. You learn of the $853 yearly premium you’d have to pay to live in Fulton County. You divide that by 12 months of escrow payments, which gives you $71 per month.

You’re a smart buyer. You do a little math in a spreadsheet (or maybe ask your mortgage broker for help) and learn that for an extra $71 a month, you could borrow an additional $14,000 for the same monthly payment. Ah ha! If you pick the neighborhood in Forsyth County, you can buy $14,000 more house. I’m not a realtor, but I’d imagine that’ll get you some more bling on your new pad. Maybe it means the difference between a finished basement versus unfinished.

I know it isn’t as simple as this, every home and neighborhood is different. But I stand by my numbers. Given today’s interest rates and the differences in property taxes, Fulton’s tax represents a present value penalty of about $14,000 on a $300,000 home, or about 4.7%.

What do you think? Am I way off base here? Do you want what I’m smoking? Let me know! And for extra credit… do you think a new Milton County could substantially reduce property tax, down to Forsyth levels? What would that do to home values in north Fulton?

Property Taxes in North Fulton – My Most Boring Topic Ever

Tis the season for property tax! Are you excited? Me too. Most tax bills are due the first of December, plus or minus a few weeks. I thought I would completely bore my readers with a comparison of local property taxes in my reading area. The calculations seem like simple arithmetic but they get much more complicated once you get under the covers. Bust out your slide rule, here we go!

Most folks know the basic formula, which is

40% of Fair Market Value = Assessed Value

Millage Rate times Assessed Value = Tax

It all starts with the county assessor’s office. Strangely enough, the assessor doesn’t directly set your assessed value. Confused yet? The assessor determines your fair market value. This should be somewhat close to your home’s value, but more realistically the number is taken out of thin air. You can dispute this value, but that’s another article.

The general assembly sets the formula for determining assessed value, simply 40% of the market value. State, county and city lawmakers determine various millage rates, which are expressed in dollars per thousand of assessed value. Crafty lawmakers can manipulate your overall tax by fiddling with any of these three variables. And with three variables, it all might seem fairly simple, but oh contraire! Your tax calculation is much more complicated because of…

Homestead Exemptions

Ever go to Kohl’s when they’re having a sale? The price of the shirt you want is jacked up only to be knocked down by the sale discount. I view homestead exemptions like that. It’s especially true in the city of Alpharetta where they have both a higher millage rate and homestead exemption. Their overall tax is inline with their peers. More on that later.

Homestead exemption is enormously popular with voters. It’s available for property with owner occupants, aka the home you live in. There are also exemptions for blue hairs senior citizens and veterans, but I won’t go that deep into the math. The exemption simply knocks dollars off the assessed value of your property. Sounds simple, right? Well not so fast. The highest exemptions typically only apply to things like county and city operating costs. Schools tend to have much lower homestead exemptions, usually $2,000. Taxes going towards bond repayments are not eligible for exemptions. For example… Taxpayers in Alpharetta will see homestead exemptions vary from $35,000 for the city’s taxes, $25,000 for Fulton County, $2,000 for Fulton schools to no exemption for Alpharetta’s bonds. Confused yet? Asleep?

Here’s some raw numbers I put together. Imagine a home valued at $300,000. Let’s plop that guy down in each of north Fulton’s cities, and just for giggles let’s also put it in unincorporated Forsyth and Cherokee counties. After all is said and done with the millage rates and different exemptions, what do the taxes look like? Check out this table.

Property Tax Comparison

City City Millage Rate Total Millage Tax on a $300k Home
Alpharetta 5.75 34.783 $3,731.91
Roswell 5.455 34.488 $3,844.03
Johns Creek 4.614 33.647 $3,673.90
Milton 4.731 33.764 $3,686.19
Mountain Park 11.78 40.813 $4,555.91
Unincorporated Forsyth n/a 24.719 $2,881.32
Unincorporated Cherokee n/a 28.398 $3,344.76

I’ve done my best to estimate these numbers based on information I’ve gathered and from looking at actual tax bills. It is possible I’ve made errors.

A few of my notes about each city…


Alpahretta has an amazingly high $35,000 homestead exemption. Next year it will go to $40,000. Unfortunately that exemption doesn’t apply to their bonds, approx 1.5 mills. The city’s high exemption basically knocks down their slightly higher millage rate.


As best I can tell, Roswell doesn’t offer homestead exemption for owner occupants. They have a handful of options of seniors and vets, but that’s it. Their overall tax suffers as a result.

Johns Creek and Milton

Both cities offer $15,000 in homestead exemptions and have managed to keep their millage rates low since incorporating. Johns Creek bills their city tax through Fulton County in a single bill. They are the only city I mention that does this.

Mountain Park

I mention this tiny city and their stratospheric 11.78 mills only to make an example out of them. Their asinine lawsuit is costing taxpayers dearly. Mountain Park’s overall millage rate is nearly that of the city of Atlanta. They offer only a $4,000 homestead exemption. I’d put up with a lot of lake silt before I paid 11.78 mills.

Fulton County

Fulton’s base millage rate is 29.033. They offer a $25,000 homestead exemption that will go to $30,000 next year.

Unincorporated Forsyth and Cherokee

Forsyth has amazingly cheap property tax. So low is their millage rate that the measly $8,000 homestead exemption they offer isn’t much of a factor. Forsyth also has a sales tax credit cooked into their overall millage rate. Taxpayers get a 2.644 mill reduction. Nice! Fulton offers something similar but is so puny it isn’t worth mentioning.

Cherokee county is also low but not nearly to the extent as Forsyth. I mention these two counties only to show how expensive living in Fulton is relative to its neighbors.

So there you have it. Do you think property taxes are reasonable in north Fulton’s cities? If we were to secede from Fulton, do you think a new Milton County could significantly reduce the 29.033 base millage rate?

Thanksgiving in Alpharetta

Here in the burbs we spend a lot of time and energy complaining. We gripe about traffic, cubicle life, Fulton County government, and MARTA. We complain about who gets to sit on citizen boards. We complain about people of unusual faiths trying to expand their worship facilities. Some of us even complain about what news channels the TVs are tuned to in restaurants. In Milton, a place I like to satirize on a regular basis, they complain about cell phone towers, gas stations and sewer systems.

But at the end of the day, we are extraordinarily blessed to live here. Alpharetta is a terrific place to live, with amazing opportunities for ourselves and our children. Take a moment to consider this on Thanksgiving.

Also take a moment this year to think of those less fortunate in north Fulton. Yesterday’s Appen newspaper featured an article about some homeless people who live in a small tent community… right here in Alpharetta. It’s a heartbreaking story that no one else is covering. It hit me hard to learn of this kind of thing in my community. If you feel called to do so, please support a local charity this season. I suggest North Fulton Community Charities or the Drake House (which was mentioned in this article).

And to my blog readers, have a happy Thanksgiving.

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