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Alpharetta rolls out Rately

The City of Alpharetta has partnered with local technology firm Digital Scientists to promote a new location-aware mobile application. Called Rately, the Android and iPhone app will offer shoppers rewards programs.

rately logoWe’ve seen apps like this come and go over the years. The idea certainly isn’t new. And technology like this isn’t new from even Alpharetta-based companies. Back in 2011 NCR (formerly Radiant Systems) rolled out a similar app that leveraged that company’s existing presence in the cash registers of restaurants. It didn’t gain acceptance in the marketplace. The challenge has always been either with flaky GPS locations or having a process that requires restaurant staff to check you in.

Rately stands a chance to make it here for a few reasons. First, they are using a bluetooth-based location technology to check users into a business based on proximity to a sensor. This should be more reliable that GPS however users will have to enable bluetooth on their phones at all times.

Second, Rately already has wide retail participation from the very get go. By partnering with the city and its tight-knit business coalition, they have a huge local adoption rate. Nearly every downtown retailer and restaurant is already on board in addition to several along Windward Parkway and at Avalon.

Another draw with Rately is it’s anonymous. Every other app wants to maintain profiles, collect data and build dossiers on your shopping and dining habits. Not Rately. No login is required and it isn’t spamming your Facebook friends.

This program is very new and way too early to review. However the biggest drawback I see is the lack of serious rewards from the Alpharetta restaurants and merchants participating. For example, South Main Kitchen is offering a paltry 10% off your bill after ten visits. Others are doing buy one get one free deals after several visits. That’s about it. Restaurants are going to have to sweeten the deal a good bit before consumers install apps. But we’ll see.

Do you think Rately will gain widespread use in Alpharetta? You can download it at iTunes and the Google Play store.

TopGolf – an inside look

We sent Mike Christensen to hack a few golf balls at the TopGolf media event. Here’s his report. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

We’ve all been watching.  Watching the progress on a lonely stretch of Westside Parkway.  The clearing of trees, the building of the structure, the erecting of the (oh my God) massive poles and nets.

TopGolf rangeOn May 20th, TopGolf will open its doors to the public and to Caddyshack quotes everywhere.  I got an inside preview of Alpharetta’s newest entertainment complex recently and what I found was a little surprising – and pricey.  But this is Alpharetta, so maybe not so surprised at the costs.

TopGolf, boiled down to its basic skeleton, is a driving range.  In all it’s fanciness, it’s a three story, semi-climate controlled, super high-tech, full bar, don’t skim on the materials and food… driving range.

The place is massive.  102 total bays to play a variety of golf-centric games.  The view from the tee-box  is impressive.  You’ll notice several holes of various sizes all over the yard.  In each hole are nets to catch the balls.  The object of the majority of the games is to hit the balls, equipped with GPS, into the different holes.  The computer will then calculate the distance and award points.  Pretty fancy, huh?

Each bay has seating and a touch screen to control the action.  And of course, there are TV’s all over.  You could watch golf, while playing golf.  Mind blown.  Don’t have any clubs?  No problemo.  Each bay has a selection of both men’s and women’s clubs to use.  Wave your club in front of the infrared sensor and a ball is deposited out onto the green for you. Very nice.  I never play golf, but I had a great time whacking away for over an hour.  There will be table service available when you’re playing so don’t worry about having to venture inside for refreshment.

If you do however you will be greeted by a very nice space.  There’s a full bar with seating like most high end restaurants.  Industrial stainless steel meets wood is the predominant theme with billions of TV’s scattered about.  The bar has a comprehensive inventory of local beers, which I was very happy to see.

top golf logoAfter you’ve played a few rounds of golf, you’re going to be hungry.  I tried a sampling of several miniature versions of items from the upcoming menu and was completely blown away.  The food was fantastic.  According to the presentation, 95% of the menu items are made from scratch.  There were little cheeseburgers with a green chile mac n cheese patty on top, house smoked brisket tacos with ancho chile sauce and slaw and shrimp and grits.

I asked the chef about the pickle fried chicken.  She said they take the chicken and brine it in pickle juice with jalapenos for six to eight hours.  Then they toss it with a rub and fry it in a pressure cooker.  It’s much like KFC, but KFC never made anything like this.  It was outstanding.  Juicy and not greasy.  A big hit.

The brisket tacos were spicy, but not too bad with the slaw offsetting some of the heat.  The burgers were my favorite.  The green chile mac n cheese adds a ton of flavor and texture to the burger and soft bakery bun.  I know the menu will have full-sized versions, but they should keep those burgers as small.  It was the perfect satisfying bite.

Looking at everything, the one question that kept nagging me was, how expensive is all this going to be?  Would this be a place where people can afford to go on a regular basis to hang out?  To be honest, it can be pricey.  The bays work on an hourly rate.  It’s cheaper in the morning at $25 an hour, and more expensive during prime time at $45.  That’s pretty steep.  Throw in the cost of food and drinks and your tab could run upwards of $100.  Of course, the more people in a bay will offset the hourly rate.  There are also monthly memberships that are claimed to be helpful with the cost.

I’ve seen the menu, and most of the food items are in the $9-14 dollar range.  Not terrible for the quality of food I tasted.  The beer is reasonably priced with even local brews in the $4-6 ballpark. The menu itself is 16 pages long with 7 of those devoted to beer, wine, sodas, and cocktails.  I wonder where they expect to make the most money?

Will the folks in Alpharetta get over their anger about the towering nets to give TopGolf a try?  Probably.  The space is huge, the games are fun and the food is out of this world.  But you do pay a price for all that fun.  Time will tell if prices will level out or will they keep people from coming back.

Disclosure: We received freebies from this business as part of a media event. You can read our disclosure policy on the about page.

Alpharetta corporate relocations to watch

Only a day after I teased that a deal was in the works, Governor Nathan Deal announced the Fiserv relocation to Alpharetta. It’s clearly the biggest economic development story the city has seen in years. But there may be others not far down the road. Here are two to keep your eyes on.

NCR

NCRIn the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s story on Fiserv, technology writer Urvaksh Karkaria mentioned this firm. They may be willing to leave their Gwinnett digs for a new home in Alpharetta.

NCR, who relocated their corporate headquarters to Duluth in 2009, manufactures ATMs, cash registers and kiosks. In July of 2011 they acquired Alpharetta-based Radiant Systems. Radiant makes many of the cash registers you see in restaurants. They occupy a building in the Brookside area of Alpharetta just off Old Milton Parkway.

Following the Radiant acquisition, fears were that NCR would close the old Radiant office and consolidate employees in Duluth. The Business Chronicle story suggests the opposite may be true.

It would be huge for Alpharetta to steal two large corporate residents from Gwinnett County in a short period of time. Additionally, when combined with the Fiserv deal, it would bring office vacancy rates down to levels not seen in years. The result could mean a rebirth in office construction in Alpharetta.

State Farm

But on the flip side, might Johns Creek lose this insurance giant?

State Farm has purchased 17 acres of land near the Dunwoody MARTA station. The plan is to have as many as 8,000 employees at a transit-oriented development. It’s a direction the company is taking nation-wide.

Will they close their office in Johns Creek? The company has operated a large corporate campus here for as long as this writer can remember.

Is a deal in the works for the Cobalt Center?

Alpharetta may be close to landing a massive corporate relocation deal that could bring hundreds of high-paying technology jobs. Recent activity suggests the location would be the Cobalt Center, a vacant corporate campus just off Windward on Westside Parkway and Cumming Street.

Cobalt.picBuilt in 2001, Cobalt is home to two six-story buildings totaling nearly 400,000 square feet with a connected atrium. Nortel Networks and Cingular Wireless once called this place home. In 2006 Cingular became AT&T Wireless however their name remains on some of the property’s signage to this day. About three years ago AT&T Wireless consolidated offices in Atlanta, leaving the Cobalt Center completely vacant. It’s since remained the largest vacant space in the city.

The facility was then purchased by Chicago-based investment firm M & J Wilkow for $20.1 million. Their specialty is recruiting large corporate tenants. Past successes include a relocation deal with Blue Cross Blue Shield in Chicago for a similar property. The Cobalt Center is their only venture in the southeast.

Wilkow’s investment almost paid off last year with General Motors. Cobalt Center was narrowly edged out by UPS’s former digs in Roswell.

Unfortunately there’s no prize for second place in the corporate relocation game. The loss of GM was a bitter pill for Alpharetta to swallow, especially considering that the business went to neighboring Roswell. Since then Alpharetta has doubled down on the economic incentives for Cobalt. Last year the site was granted an opportunity zone designation. This means a future tenant could gain tax benefits of up to $3,500 per job created for five years. The lack of this incentive was a major contributor to losing the GM deal.

Recently a flurry of activity at City Hall suggests that interest may again be brewing at the site. This evening Alpharetta’s Development Authority will meet to approve a bond inducement application. The request is for an undisclosed corporate relocation project of an existing office building on Windward.

And at almost the same time today Alpharetta’s Planning Commission will meet to consider a master plan change for the Cobalt property. The city’s website, known for providing supporting documents for such agenda items, is unusually lacking this time. But the requested change calls for adding a four-story parking deck to the Cobalt Center and a new entry point along Cumming Street.

And in perhaps one last-ditch effort to sweeten a deal, Alpharetta’s Council on Monday approved a small corporate relocation incentive. The program would waive permit and inspection fees for large tenant buildouts at facilities like the Cobalt Center.

A deal at the Cobalt Center would be the economic story of the year for Alpharetta, a serious shot of adrenaline for this area. Keep your fingers crossed.

Ashton Atlanta Residential, data centers and compelling reasons

Today’s secret words are “compelling reason.” Whenever you hear these words, scream really loud. Got it?

Tonight Alpharetta’s City Council will hear a request from Ashton Atlanta Residential to build a neighborhood in the business portion of the Windward development. The plan calls for 91 homes on lots as small as 6,000 square feet. Mass grading may be required due to the steep topography. No, we’re not talking Forsyth County here, this is squarely in Alpharetta. Windward in fact.

Required would be an amendment to the Windward Master Plan, a planning document held sacred in this town. And why shouldn’t it be? The Windward development helped define Alpharetta a generation ago. And even though it’s got a few years on it, the land uses it calls for still make sense.

So before anyone makes changes to this holy document, planners and politicians look for a compelling reason.

Whatever a developer has planned has gotta be good. Real good. Or perhaps there’s a significant burden placed upon the land owner by the master plan, something so onerous they cannot use their land otherwise.

That’s what was argued in the last major challenge to the Windward master plan. Two and a half years ago charter school Amana Academy sought to relocate to a vacant office building on Windward (and in fair disclosure, I supported this). The applicant cited, among other reasons, that the office space was not marketable in this current environment.

Alpharetta unanimously rejected Amana’s request saying that there was no compelling reason to change the master plan. And as irony would have it, last year Amana’s potential digs were sold to Peak 10, a Charlotte-based company who plans a data center in this space.

If anything, the Amana case offers a very compelling reason to reject tonight’s zoning request and leave this property’s designated use alone. Alpharetta has undertaken a huge push to rebrand itself as the Technology City of the South. By approving the Ashton zoning, the city would remove one of the few remaining undeveloped parcels in the technology corridor. It’s a parcel that could hold a very large data center. Perhaps several.

“Alpharetta is one of the more significant data center hubs within Atlanta,” ByteGrid CEO Ken Parent said to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “We wouldn’t roll out a 100,000 square foot facility and flood the market with new supply if we thought the demand wasn’t there to support it.”

ByteGrid’s building that facility now. T5′s massive new data center is up the road. And Peak 10 will get started pretty soon.

The technology city of the south doesn’t plow up their much coveted and prized data center farmland to plant a Forsyth-style neighborhood. There’s no compelling reason whatsoever. Perhaps in a few years Mayor Belle Isle will cut the ribbon on a shiny new technology center in this very space.

So watch tonight’s City Council vote carefully. Any councilman who played the compelling reason card with Amana should have a tremendously difficult time voting for Ashton tonight.

Legal ads and local news reporting

Legal ads. They’re the mice-type blocks of legalese in local newspapers that most ignore. If you’re brave enough to read them you’ll find foreclosures, meeting notices, liquor licenses and bid invitations. Recently while perusing these I found a legal ad inviting newspapers to bid on providing legal ads. Crazy huh? Actually I found two of these. Both Roswell and Alpharetta are currently considering bids from newspapers to become each city’s legal organ.

A legal ad seeking bids for legal ads

Are legal ads still necessary or even relevant in this age of the internet? Municipalities are becoming much more transparent on their web pages and social media campaigns. Forsyth County and the city of Alpharetta in particular are very transparent online. I can get far more detail on what’s going on than I can with a legal ad in a weekly newspaper.

Nevertheless municipalities will spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on this slow and antiquated way to disseminate information to citizens. But don’t blame them. State law requires the selection of a legal organ. Alpharetta, Johns Creek and Milton all use the Appen Newspapers for their legal ads. Roswell currently uses the Neighbor Newspaper (owned by the Marietta Daily Journal). Forsyth County and Cumming used the Forsyth County News.

Legal ad contracts create a relationship between municipality and newspaper that isn’t directly disclosed to readers. Effectively the municipalities are customers of the newspapers. And even if a paper doesn’t have a legal ad contract with a city, in the future they might bid on the business.

It’s these same newspapers that report on the happenings at city hall or a candidate. And like any article a paper writes about a client, the story is almost always going to be positive. It would be extremely unwise for a newspaper to report negatively on a city, a city employee or politician when these same people decide who receives lucrative legal ad contracts.

Most stories that are critical of local governments are first reported by either bloggers or media from Atlanta (the AJC, WSBtv, etc). That should come as no surprise.

I’m not leveling criticism at any particular newspaper. I know several local journalists and think they do tremendous work bringing compelling news to their readers. But readers need to understand when there is a financial consideration happening behind the story.

Alpharetta is thriving despite the naysayers

There’s a certain vibe out there in Alpharetta right now. We’re riding a wave of positive news about this area. It’s a fun ride. This is a cool place, despite the naysayers. What’s been going on?

Forbes magazine made local news a few weeks ago when it named Alpharetta as one of the friendliest towns in the country. It was an awesome distinction, one that certainly will be used by civil leaders for years to come.

Remember that this “suburban experiment” isn’t supposed to be working. Our neighborhoods with their inward designs and cul-de-sacs don’t promote a sense of community, right? At least that’s what opponents of suburban living have been saying for years.

Then there’s economic news. Unemployment continues to remain low throughout the northern suburbs of Atlanta. We’ve got the lowest numbers in the state.

That’s because of the jobs! General Motors is going to open a huge new facility on Mansell Road right where Alpharetta and Roswell come together. It will create over a thousand new IT jobs. It’s a huge deal.

Yesterday the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported that HP will add 200 new jobs to their Windward Parkway campus. Last year they finished another burst of hiring at this facility that brought in a few hundred more.

Remember that our ability to attract large employers will be hurt if we don’t dramatically increase taxes and fund billion dollar transportation projects. That’s what TSPLOST advocates told us last summer. All these companies will move to Charlotte or Texas or somewhere, right?

Or how about the hip and creative 20-something generation. Remember that they hate Alpharetta. They desire apartments and urban living. If we don’t change our land use plans to welcome them, their creative jobs will move to Atlanta and this place will die. Remember all that talk?

Alpharetta is a tremendous place. Alpharetta is thriving. We’re blessed to live here. Remember this whenever a real estate developer, urbanist, politician or business leader tries to tell you otherwise.

Photo Credit: Alpharetta CVB (creative commons)

TopGolf seeks to tee it up in Alpharetta

Fore! The golf scene in Alpharetta may get a unique and high-tech addition. TopGolf USA has submitted a request to the city to build a golf-themed entertainment complex on 16 acres of land near Westside and Sanctuary Parkways.

TopGolf was founded in London by two brothers who grew board of endlessly hitting golf balls at the driving range. What evolved was a game that leverages patented microchip technology embedded within golf balls. Real-time data on shot range and distance to targets is relayed back and displayed to players on flatscreen televisions.

TopGolf hopes to build this high-tech driving range and a structure containing 94 driving bays on three levels. Adjoining that will be a 64,000 square foot entertainment building which includes a large 4,600 square foot restaurant and bar. Golfers can enjoy food and adult beverages in the restaurant, on a rooftop lounge or right in their driving bays. Corporate events will also be featured.

TopGolf currently operates similar facilities in Texas, Chicago, Washington DC and the UK. They aim to open 50 more locations across the county. Alpharetta would be the first in Georgia.

But their plan may not be an easy putt to sink. The company will need a conditional use permit and possibly a variance from the city before teeing up on this project. The city’s Planning Commission and Council will decide if the concept is up to par or if they need a mulligan. In the meantime, expect endless golf metaphors from local writers and journalists ahead of the city’s decision early next year.

Alpharetta – Suburban Wasteland?

Alpharetta is a suburban wasteland, full of strip malls, disconnected communities and traffic. The “suburban experiment” this country engaged in has failed.

From time to time I hear urbanists spout things like this. Certainly what we recognize as modern suburbia will dwindle and die out, right? Eventually no one will want to live here.

Or better yet, urbanists will follow this fill-in-the-blank model with their logic. “If Alpharetta doesn’t ______, then ______ will happen.” You can fill in the blanks with just about anything. How about – If Alpharetta doesn’t adopt the tenants of new urbanism then young people won’t move here and employers will leave. Or how about – If we don’t pass T-SPLOST, employers won’t relocate here.

If Alpharetta is truly a suburban wasteland, why is this city such an amazing place to live? Why do people and companies keep coming here? Just look at the news in the last few weeks.

The Atlanta Business Chronicle reports that Alpharetta’s Windward Parkway is on a short list of possible locations for General Motors’ new 1,500 employee IT innovation center. GM, being from Detroit, certainly knows what a wasteland looks like. Alpharetta is no wasteland.

Or how about Gwinnett Tech choosing Alpharetta over every other city in north Fulton? Certainly the strong workforce here was a factor. The Georgia Department of Labor reported last week that Alpharetta’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.3%, the lowest in Georgia. Wastelands have large swaths of struggling, unemployed citizens. Alpharetta doesn’t.

The real estate market here is doing surprisingly well given the national economy. We’re starting to see new development of single family home neighborhoods again. Realtor Bob Strader declared on his blog last week that we’re in a seller’s market! People can’t sell homes in wastelands.

Reports of Alpharetta’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It boggles the mind to think that politicians, policy makers, city staff or others would dare tinker with the recipe that brought Alpharetta such sweet success.

This community is thriving. Job prospects in Alpharetta are good, quality of life fantastic and school system exceptional. This is a great place to live, work or raise a family – by any measure. I challenge you to find news today that suggests otherwise.

Photo Credit: Alpharetta CVB (creative commons)

How Alpharetta landed Gwinnett Tech

On Monday Gwinnett Technical College announced plans to purchase a 25 acre parcel in Alpharetta for a north Fulton satellite campus. This is a terrific win for Alpharetta and the technology scene in this area.

Unfortunately the local media’s coverage of the event has been somewhat lacking. Many stories have been near-verbatim reprints of a press release with perhaps a few comments from Mayor David Belle Isle from Monday’s Council meeting. Here’s how Alpharetta managed to hook this big fish.

Interest in a Gwinnett Tech campus in north Fulton dates back to 2009 and 2010. The school observed a growing number of students with north Fulton addresses enrolling at their Lawrenceville campus. School planners believed enrollment at a north Fulton campus could eventually approach 10,000 students.

By 2011 several entities began lining up to submit bids for the campus. At this point Alpharetta’s primary location was the Milton Center, site of the former Milton High School. It was also around this time that Sandy Springs pushed for a bid. But very much unlike Alpharetta, local opposition to the campus was immense. A divided Sandy Springs council approved their bid by a 4-3 vote. By the time spring rolled around, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta were among eight proposals for the campus.

But the project was nearly killed by the pen of Governor Nathan Deal. At the end of the 2011 General Assembly session he line-item vetoed funding for the north Fulton campus. The future of a campus here seemed bleak.

2012′s session in Atlanta showed more promise. The Georgia House passed funding for the campus but the Senate didn’t include it in their budget. It was saved in conference committee and managed to survive the Governor’s veto pen.

Gwinnett Tech wasted no time this year. The bidding process began almost immediately with proposals heading to Lawrenceville by early summer 2012.

Alpharetta’s proposal may have looked a bit different than the competition. The city favored no particular parcel in their offer but rather lifted up several that were available in the market. Included on the list again was the Milton Center and also a bit of land on Webb Bridge Road. But unlike in 2011, North American Properties now had a presence in Alpharetta. Their 25-acre parcel south of the Avalon project was included among Alpharetta’s pick list.

The package gave Gwinnett Tech leaders a choice of locations within the city limits of Alpharetta. So rather than favoring one particular location, the city could focus on other appealing aspects… like moolah! Alpharetta’s offer included an incentive of $4 million in cash.

On Monday Gwinnett Tech selected Alpharetta and NAP’s parcel. We won’t know of all the factors that lead to the decision, but here are a few that likely contributed:

Alpharetta’s financial position – Let’s face it, Alpharetta is a wealthy city with a strong tax base. And with a triple-A credit rating, it should be no trouble  for the city’s Development Authority to sell bonds for this incentive. And while all bidders were asked to sweeten the deal with cash or land incentives, Alpharetta was best suited to this.

North Fulton’s newer cities simply lack the means to keep up in this regard. On top of that, Johns Creek and Milton are hamstrung by their charters which may limit their ability to float bonds.

Milton Center was undesirable – Even though the size of the parcel was far bigger than the NAP land, the Milton Center was never really in contention. According to sources close to the deal, Fulton County Schools may have imposed unreasonable conditions on the transaction. The school was also a greater distance from GA-400.

Salesmanship of Mark Toro – Don’t underestimate El Toro in this deal. His direct salesmanship played a part in Alpharetta’s win and the selection of the his parcel. Certainly this is more than a real estate transaction to Mr Toro. How will Gwinnett Tech’s campus complement the Avalon development across the street? It will be something to watch.

At the end of the day, Gwinnett Tech’s selection of Alpharetta is a great thing. It will create enormous opportunities for tech workers to sharpen skills and ambitious high schoolers to earn college credit. It will also be yet another tool to recruit and retain Alpharetta’s top-caliber technology companies.

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