Northwinds Parkway extension

Today I’ll provide a glimpse into the process and players involved in the creation of a new transportation project in Alpharetta. I’ll try to not interject my personal opinion into the story and just present facts as I see them. It seems that whenever I draw conclusions in matters before the city, particularly those from the business community, I’m labeled as incorrect or worse – a conspiracy theorist. My readers are smart folks. I’ll leave the dot connecting to you.


View Northwinds Parkway Extension in a larger map

Tonight Alpharetta’s City Council will consider a new road project – the extension of Northwinds Parkway. Northwinds currently runs parallel to GA400 to the west. It starts at Haynes Bridge, running north through office buildings and past the Devry campus. It ends at Kimball Bridge. The extension would add about a half mile and carry the road to Old Milton Parkway.

This road extension is not of high priority to the city of Alpharetta. It is not found in planning documents such as the Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Its extension was not included in any LCI studies nor was it ever a project to be considered for T-SPLOST funding.

The road was mentioned in 2007 during a rezoning of the Parkway 400 project on Old Milton. The developer asked to significantly increase the office density of the area, building three eight-story buildings. The city asked him to build the Northwinds extension and he refused, saying “we do not NEED this new road.” The traffic studies didn’t reflect a need for it either, even with the high density. The zoning was withdrawn.

North American Properties frontman Mark Toro mentioned the Northwinds extension during an Avalon presentation this year. The road would end at the main entrance to Avalon, carrying drivers right to the main drag into the development.

It’s worth mentioning that Avalon’s traffic study showed fewer car trips than the much more intense Prospect Park development. But Avalon’s traffic study did not require nor even considered the creation of the Northwinds Parkway extension.

It’s also worth mentioning that NAP owns 25 acres of raw land to the south of Old Milton Parkway. They have not publicly announced their intentions with this land. The proposed extension of Northwinds would add a four-lane road to the west boundary of this property.

The North Fulton Community Improvement District hired a consultant to study the Northwinds extension. Tonight it is the Georgia DOT that’s making the grant to help build the road. The city did not apply for nor did they request the grant money which amounts to a half million dollars of Georgia taxpayer funds.

Brandon Beach is the Executive Director of the NFCID. He is also a Georgia DOT board member. North American Properties contributed $2,000 to Beach’s most recent political campaign for State Senate.

So how will Council react tonight? Conventional wisdom says they will certainly take a new road, not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Then again, it isn’t apparent where this money comes from or what other projects may go unfunded as a result.

On the other hand, Mayor David Belle Isle made news years ago when he, then a mere Council member, opposed on principle receiving federal stimulus money for projects in Alpharetta. Some accused him of political grandstanding ahead of his own State Senate campaign. Stimulus money funded several projects in Alpharetta including energy improvement grants and two projects on Kimball Bridge Road. A good case could be made that these projects were far more important than the extension of Northwinds Parkway.

So there you have it. DOT money is directed to unwanted and unneeded road projects at the benefit of cronies. And we wonder why there is no trust in transportation leaders. Oops, did I interject my own opinions? My bad. I welcome yours.

BB’s and Essex Bagels – Kissin’ Cousins

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

It’s rare to see a suburban eatery get so much praise that it trumps even trendy ITP joints. You can count on one hand the number of such places in the Alpharetta area. BB’s Bagels certainly would be on the list. Two years ago they won the AJC’s award for best bagels in Atlanta, both from the critics and readers of the paper. The restaurant with an attitude expanded to a second location on State Bridge in late 2010 and is talking about a third location in Atlanta.

BB's everything bagel, enjoyed in my cubicle

What many forget in talking about BB’s is that they have a close cousin. Essex Bagels in Johns Creek is remarkably similar to the enormously popular BB’s – too much so to be coincidence. Their menu is nearly identical and their bagels are water-boiled and giant in size.

There’s a relationship between the two restaurants but it isn’t talked about much. When I asked BB’s about this on twitter recently, they responded only with “we help (Essex) with their bagel production.” While I’m sure BB’s would not want to harm Essex, they’d rather you visit one of their expanding list of locations.

Nevertheless I think Essex offers a very good alternative to BB’s, especially for customers who have been turned off to the restaurant for one reason or another. Here’s a list of differences and similarities.

Menu - Very close to the same. The combinations and options for basic egg platters are nearly identical. Essex even carries corned beef hash, a popular and delicious option at BB’s. Some of the prices at Essex seem cheaper though.

Bagels - Both are water-boiled and oversized. BB’s are probably a tad better in that they are a little more chewy. If I had to guess, I think BB’s is wholesaling bagel dough to Essex.

Cleanliness - Essex wins here. My wife has always been put off by the dirty appearance at BB’s, particularly at the McFarland location. This store has a history of sub-par inspection grades. Then again, maybe it is part of the greasy spoon vibe that they are going for. Whatever it is, if you’re concerned about cleanliness, Essex should be your choice.

Service - I get their schtick – surly staff from the Bronx. It’s best to have a thick skin when dealing with these guys. Some of them still give me crap over my article in the Revue & News where I said I didn’t find their menu very compelling. I just tell them to fuhgeddaboudit!

But many are put off by the service and occasional rude behavior of the staff. One reviewer on Yelp said “I was literally yelled at while attempting to place my order.” I’ve seen similar comments on twitter. If the service and vibe of the staff is a turn-off, go to Essex. It’s a much slower pace over there.

So that’s my take. One joint is named for a borough and one for a north Jersey county. Both make killer bagels. If you want that greasy spoon vibe with a grimy personality to match, stick with BB’s. If any of this turns you off, Essex is your best bet. You can’t go wrong with a toasted everything bagel with butter from either joint.

Essex Bagels & Deli on Urbanspoon

Windward NFCC Food Drive and LexisNexis 5k

There are two events along Windward in the coming weeks that are worthy of mentioning here on Roots. Please consider participating if you are able.

3rd Annual Windward Food Drive

The Windward neighborhood will host their annual food drive to benefit North Fulton Community Charities. Their food bank is always in need of donations, especially as the school year starts. Items currently in high demand are peanut butter, tuna fish, canned meat, breakfast cereal, canned fruit and diapers sizes 3, 4 and 5. You need not be a resident of Windward to participate. For more information, email Jim Gilvin at jimgilvin@bellsouth.net

What: Windward Food Drive
When: Saturday September 8th, 9:00am – noon
Where: Windward Boat Launch

Windward Challenge 5K Charity Run/Walk

LexisNexis will again host a charity run/walk event at their headquarters just off Windward on Alderman Drive. Participants of all ages are welcome to participate in the family-friendly event, which will include a timed and untimed 5K race as well as post-race activities for children. Proceeds will benefit KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to saving play for America’s children.

What: LexisNexis Windward Challenge 5K Run/Walk
When: Wednesday, September 19, 2012; 6:30pm
Where: LexisNexis, 1000 Alderman Drive, Alpharetta, GA 30005
Register: Online at http://lexisnexis.com/risk/windwardchallenge/index.html

MARTA studies rail expansion despite T-SPLOST’s rejection

Did you make it to the Connect 400 MARTA study meeting Thursday? Me neither. Like many in north Fulton, I was firmly ensconced in my cubicle. It should come as no surprise that the meeting, held during the middle of a work day, was attended mostly by Chamber of Commerce and Community Improvement District business leaders. Perhaps that was by design.

MARTA and GDOT board member Brandon Beach continue to plow forward with planning for transit in north Fulton. Apparently they didn’t get the memo dated July 31st. T-SPLOST’s resounding defeat was not just a rejection of funding, it was an indictment of transportation planners in this region. The voters simply don’t trust them.

Why then do the same distrusted planners continue to push for the same rejected projects using money that doesn’t exist? We shouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Heads need to roll in places like GRTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission, GDOT and elsewhere. Let’s begin to rebuild public trust in transportation leaders.

But until then MARTA will spend money on this study with a report due in the Spring. If you’re concerned about spending billions to bring rail up GA400 then you should let your voice be heard. Visit the Facebook page for the study and leave a comment. Or you can email your comments to MARTA’s Jason Morgan or Janide Sidifall.

For those on Alpharetta’s City Council, you have more options. The best way to fight rail expansion is to starve it of density. Refuse to add residential density and high-rise development along the GA-400 corridor. I’d also take a hard look at the Northpoint LCI study, which is on the city’s agenda to reexamine in the coming weeks. The plan favors MARTA rail expansion and even suggests setting aside land for a transit station. Several council members campaigned in opposition of MARTA rail expansion to Alpharetta, including mayor David Belle Isle and Jim Gilvin. Now’s the time to take action to stifle this project before it gains any more traction.

Photo credit: RTABus (creative commons)

Apples

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest post from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

It’s that time again. The leaves are starting to turn, the days are just a bit shorter and football’s on the TV. It’s fall! And in North Georgia that means apple-mania is beginning.

Each September and October, thousands of people descend on the little town of Ellijay to pick up as many delicious apples as they can carry. Many of them come from right here in the northern suburbs. The nationally known Apple Festival happens the second and third weekend in October. Today’s article is part review, part advice, and part commentary from someone who has braved Hwy 52′s “Apple Road” for the last 6 years.

I had never heard of the apples of Ellijay until about 6 years ago. My wife and her family have visited the orchard for years and years. I decided to tag along and see what the excitement was about.

The drive up to Ellijay is actually quite nice. Take 400 north past the outlet mall and hang a left on Hwy 53 and keep going. You drive through Dawsonville and ascend into the North Georgia Mountains to Hwy 52. There is traffic in two key spots. The first is the turn off to Amicoloa Falls. The second is caused by the big boy on the apple block, Hillcrest Orchards.

Hillcrest is the biggest orchard on the street, and they are also the first you come to. I have seen literally miles of stopped traffic waiting to turn into the parking lots. My advice is to not go on the weekends. We have had to park at least a mile away in a cow pasture before. There are pick your own apple times and tours of the orchard. There is also a petting zoo, a Hillcrest exclusive. Be prepared to spend a few more bucks to get in to feed the hugely fat goats. There is often a line to get into the store, and once inside there isn’t much room to move around. That’s the same way at most places.

For my money and time, we skip Hillcrest and check out B.J. Reece’s Apple House. It’s a little further down on the right – much easier to get in and out of. Still crowded, but not as bad as it seems that most people stop at Hillcrest. Pretty much every orchard has the same apples, but if you’re looking for a specific type, then call ahead.

When I was standing amidst the chaos of all the stores (we went to 7), I noted something. It seems that everyone who went to these orchards had never seen an apple before because they were going crazy! I saw people buying pecks, half bushels, and bushels of apples. More than most small countries could eat. I even saw one guy with a furniture dolly carting out several crates of apples. I could only think, there must be a lot of pie around here somewhere.

Once again, come during the week if you can to avoid the crush. Wear comfortable shoes. If you have a SUV or truck, you might want to take it as most of the excess parking is in fields and dirt lots. The weather can be quite warm even that late in the year, so dress appropriately for crowds and if you’re going apple picking.

Many of the orchards offer times where you can pick your own apples off the trees for a fee. I saw a lot of families trotting off with their baskets into the trees. I have never done this, feeling that the only apple picking I want to do is picking the bag off the shelf.

One more item that is for sale all over that I feel like I must address is the fried pie. They are everywhere up there. You start seeing signs for fried pies just about Jacksonville. According to the signs, they can make fried pies out of just about everything, apple, cherry, peach, blueberry, strawberry, blackberry, chocolate, or possum. OK, I made that last one up. I have seen people go insane over the fried pies. Their appeal is lost on me. If you like fried pies, then be sure to pick up 1 or 12.

If your appetite cannot be satisfied by apples alone, do not fret. In addition to apples themselves, most orchard sell a variety of apple related products such as apple cider, apple doughnuts, apple butter, apple bread, and dried apples. Get as many doughnuts as you can, they are delicious. There are a lot of non-apple products for sale as well. Loads of country related items that us city folk go crazy over like local honey, jams and jellies, crafts, and pumpkins. There’s literally something for everyone.

So take some time this fall and make the trip to Ellijay to fill your car up with apples. It’s a great experience, and you’ll get to see some of the most beautiful countryside that this state has to offer.  I’ll see you by the overfed goats.

Photo credit: kightp and anotherkindofdrew (creative commons)

Mayor Belle Isle’s dig on bloggers

Last night Alpharetta presented an update on the City Center plans. While it certainly isn’t likely to please everyone, the changes are a step in the right direction. The private development is a little smaller and additional trees are saved, including a massive oak behind Publix. Unfortunately city hall still remains in the park space.

The changes to the plan are a testament to the influence of online political activism. More so than myself, Julie Hogg deserves a lot of credit. She wrote numerous articles on the downtown changes as they pertained to green space and trees. Her writing encouraged more meetings, more dialogue and additional citizen input.

So why then did Mayor David Belle Isle level criticism on bloggers last night at the end of public comment? He said that some bloggers wrote that Alpharetta was ramming the downtown plans through. I took that as a dig on myself more than Ms. Hogg. On June 3rd I wrote that Alpharetta was acting with haste to approve a dramatically different downtown plan with little chance for public input. I stand by that initial assessment.

As of June 3rd there was only one public meeting planned for the City Center project prior to the vote. The city quickly added an additional meeting and their online forum. But even at this point there was no talk of weekly forums. It took Ms. Hogg’s articles to make this happen.

It became clear to me that the Mayor was confounded with the public outcry over the City Center plans. The look on his face on June 6th and in other meetings was telling. Let’s just say that Mr. Belle Isle is welcome to play at my poker game anytime!

So while the Mayor praises the level of openness and dialogue during this process, he’ll throw bloggers under the bus for encouraging more discourse. Perhaps it is just his way of showing frustration. Nevertheless it was an unfortunate comment to make as discussion wrapped up.

The Drake House and Miss Mary’s Ice Cream Crankin’

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

I used to be a Drake House doubter. I recall sitting in a pew at Alpharetta Presbyterian Church listening to our minister talk about the need for transitional homeless housing in north Fulton. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought. Surely this kind of program is needed in Atlanta or elsewhere. There’s no way our affluent suburb would have a housing problem for homeless women and their families. Right?

The weeks went by and I listened to our preacher get more and more excited about the program. Soon a few big donors came to bat. Next came some leaders who facilitated the purchase of an old apartment building in Roswell. I continued to doubt.

Before long our church was sponsoring an apartment and participating in its renovation. We were also kicking in mission funds to the charity, something we continue to do today. But I really didn’t begin to believe in the mission of the Drake House until I started to hear success stories. Unfortunately it took all that work to convince this stubborn doubter of the need for such a project.

Today, amidst a prolonged economic downtown, the Drake House plays a critically vital role in this community. Since their founding in 2006 they’ve helped over 200 single mothers and their families get back on their feet. I encourage you to spend a few minutes on their website and make yourself more familiar with this remarkable local charity.

So why am I talking about the Drake House in my Foodie Friday column? Because they sponsor one of the coolest (ha ha), most unique foodie festivals around. Miss Mary’s Ice Cream Crankinis the Drake House’s premier fund raising event, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars. It is also your best chance to sample genuine homemade ice cream. With today’s absurd proliferation of frozen yogurt joints, I appreciate a bowl of honest-to-goodness ice cream. And I challenge you to find ice cream better than the stuff they’ll dish out at this event on Sunday.

At only five bucks for all you can eat, this event is an exceptional value. The fact that it benefits this awesome local charity is like having whipped cream and a cherry on top! There’s a ton of other activities for kids and families as well.

If you’re there for the ice cream, take this advice… get there early! The event starts at 2:00. There never seems to be enough crankers to meet demand. If there’s anything left by 3:00, the chances are good that the August sun will have turned it into goo. I’d suggest getting there a little before 2:00 with spoon at the ready.

Here are the details:

What: 8th Annual Miss Mary’s Ice Cream Crankin’. A fundraiser to benefit The Drake House.
Where: The Roswell Square
When: Sunday August 26 from 2:00 to 4:00
Cost: $5 per person, $20 per family

Alpharetta – Technology City of the South

Mayor David Belle Isle made good on a campaign promise this week with the formation of Alpharetta’s Technology Commission. The new group kicked things off by hosting Governor Nathan Deal. The governor also helped the group with a declaration proclaiming Alpharetta to be the technology city of the south. The phrase will become a branding initiative for the city. As a technologist in Alpharetta, I love the designation!

The commission will consist of representatives from the city’s largest technology companies such as HP and McKesson. It’s so very important for Alpharetta to remain close to these companies. The city spends a lot of time attracting new business yet retention of tech firms is equally important.

A lot of factors are at play when a company decides to pick up and move. Many of these factors are out of the hands of local control – think mergers and acquisitions. (I still believe Radiant’s Alpharetta office is likely to close following their acquisition by NCR) However there may be small things city government can do to keep larger employers happy. This might be as simple as adding turn lanes to roads or other municipal service changes.

A commission like this gives the city a line of communication to these firms. Some of these companies have been in Alpharetta going on 25 years and likely are not as plugged in locally as they once were. Now they are. I’m pleased to see this come together. Well done Alpharetta.

Alpharetta Restaurant & Retail News – August 2012

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Toscana Trattoria – South Forsyth/Johns Creek

The ladies at the popular and estrogen-charged Never Enough Thyme sandwich shop have a second restaurant in the works. Toscana Trattoria will be the name to open in late September or early October. Their location is somewhat of a challenge. They will be on 141 just north of McGinnis Ferry in a small strip mall with La Cozuela, almost behind Chick-fil-a. It’s hidden from the road and many other restaurants in this area have failed over the years. But Never Enough Thyme has a loyal following so we’ll see.

Tower Burgers – Alpharetta

This will be the name of a new restaurant taking over the long abandoned Sonic space on South Main Street in Alpharetta. I know very little about these guys or their concept. I believe them to be new restauranteurs to this area. If burgers are indeed their bag then they’ll be taking on an established player in Rhea’s II just down the street.

Four40 Kitchen + Bar – Avenue Forsyth

The folks behind Firkin and Crown at the Avenue Forsyth are changing concepts. The old British pub has closed and they are busy remodeling for this American food concept. The Forsyth Herald has a pretty good story about the change. There is no excuse for a restaurant to do poorly at the Avenue right now. Even mediocre Mellow Mushroom is packing people in with long wait times. We’ll see how Four40 does. They will have a big competitor nearby with…

Carrabbas – Avenue Forsyth

They held a media lunch yesterday (which I was unable to attend). The result will surely be a blitz of coverage ahead of their open, which will be on Monday August 20th. I expect this Italian chain to do very well in this location.

Pollo Tropical – North Point

Alpharetta finally approved this restaurant on Haynes Bridge near the mall entrance. The sticking point was the drive thru lane. To make a long story short, there was a lot of confusion regarding the master plan and its language regarding restaurant drive thrus. Even the developer admitted to being caught off guard by it.

I’m glad to see Pollo going in here. It’s a new concept and this store will be corporate-owned, not franchised. Compared to their competitors on North Point, I expect Pollo to stand out.

Corner Bakery Cafe – North Point

The Pollo Tropical development is actually three stand-alone restaurants which will be built together along Haynes Bridge. Chipotle will be in the middle with Corner Bakery closest to GA-400. This concept was started by the folks behind Maggiano’s Little Italy. I expect they will compete with Panera Bread and Rising Roll for the sandwich lunch crowd near the mall. If you want a sneak peek at this concept, they have a store already open in the Peachtree Corners area.

Closures

BW Tavern in the midway community of south Forsyth closed this week. Their concept never could gain traction. The lease on this space has been bought out by another restaurant group, someone who is a pretty big player. Expect a story in this column next month.

Also closing recently is El Azetca on Haynes Bridge just into Johns Creek. Thanks to Daki at 285foodies.com for that scoop. Can the ubiquitous “Speedy Gonzalez” Mexican restaurant survive in this market anymore? I don’t think so. Adios.

Crazy 8 – North Point

In retail news… discount children’s store Crazy 8 will open an Alpharetta store on North Point in the sprawling Target shopping center. This concept is from the creators of Gymboree. Other metro Atlanta locations include the Mall of Georgia and the Avenue East Cobb.

Now Open

As promised, August was a busy month for restaurant openings. I hope you had a chance to try some of these joints. Dickey’s BBQ opened across the street from the Avenue Forsyth. Will they challenge Jim-N-Nicks? I doubt it. The Beer Growler opened their Alpharetta location on North Main Street. Verra-Zanno Joe’s New York Pizzeria opened on Mansell Road in an old Starbucks location. The menu and staff are nearly identical to their sister restaurant, Verra-Zanno in Johns Creek.

Tassa Caribbean Express quietly opened on Old Milton Parkway. I’ve tried them once already and feel like they have potential. And finally, Fresh Mexicano Grill on McGinnis Ferry is in a soft opening. The menu is very limited so I suggest waiting a bit before trying.

Restaurants Coming Soon

Uncle Maddio’s Pizza - Still building out and still posting pics to their Facebook page.
Chipotle - Part of the Pollo Tropical and Corner Bakery project on Haynes Bridge at the mall.
Mirko Pasta - Not quite open yet. They will be in Johns Creek, State Bridge and Medlock Bridge.
Grand Champion BBQ – Any day now is what I’m being told for this highly anticipated Q joint in Crabapple.
Haiku Sushi Steakhouse – They are making slow progress. This is the same folks behind the Etris Road restaurant in Roswell, opening location #2 in Yamato’s old space on North Point.
Burger 21 - Still all-talk and no bite out of this Florida burger chain. They want an Alpharetta location but have not announced a location or date. I’m removing them from this list until something more formal comes out.
OVR Coffee Cafe – A vegan bakery and coffee shop coming to Vickery Village.
Another Broken Egg – Breakfast chain opening in Cuzi’s former space on Old Milton Parkway.
Mambo’s Cafe – Their Haynes Bridge location is closed with plans to re-open on Windward near Lowes.
Noche Johns Creek – Tapas joint coming to Johns Creek.

Retail Coming Soon

Walmart Neighborhood Market - A new grocery-only version of Walmart to open at 11770 Haynes Bridge Road behind Alpha Soda.
Walmart -A third Forsyth County location is being planned on GA-141 and Mathis Airport Parkway near Target.
Regal Theaters - Moving from North Point Parkway to the new Avalon project.
AMC Theaters – Coming to Parisian’s old space at North Point Mall in late 2013.

Progress Partners, websites and political activism

Progress Partners, the newly-formed economic development arm of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, presented an update to Alpharetta’s City Council on Monday. Contrary to what you might think, the Chamber doesn’t perform this economic development task out of benevolence. They’ve asked each north Fulton city to kick in a few bucks to fund the operation. Monday was the city’s first status update after funding the project.

Among the accomplishments mentioned was the Progress Partners website. They touted that the economic development website welcomed 2000 visitors since the beginning of 2012. I don’t know if this little factoid resonated with the Council like it did with me.

I can’t speak with real authority on many things, yet I have a pretty good grasp of the amount of traffic local websites can generate. I know that a hyper-local blogger with minimal web design skills and a propensity to make grammatical errors can still manage to get people to visit a website. Let’s just say that more people point their browsers to my little blog in a given week than to Progress Partners’ website in seven months. (and I’m grateful for each and every one of you who do!)

But Progress Partners does a lot more than build high-traffic websites. They’ve been busy promoting north Fulton as a business destination. This is truly important work. However, in the time since Alpharetta inked this partnership the city has hired a new economic development director of their own. Alpharetta and Progress Partners need to better define the roles of the relationship going forward. It’s likely to be a discussion point for Council in the weeks ahead.

While discussing the terms of the city’s relationship, I would encourage Council to address one important issue…

Political Activism

Progress Partners came under fire during the Avalon zoning this past Spring. They openly lobbied in favor of the zoning application, drawing the ire of not only this blogger but Common Cause Georgia. Additionally, Progress Partners lobbied in favor of T-SPLOST. This didn’t draw criticism in north Fulton but Gwinnett County’s Chamber drew controversy over the same behavior. Organizations receiving taxpayer funding should not advocate for political issues, candidates or ballot initiatives.

Alpharetta’s Council should address this issue now, while there is not a brewing controversy. Future arrangements with the Chamber that involve the exchange of taxpayer money should come with the requirement that the Chamber doesn’t lobby for political causes. It’s a common sense solution that gives everyone involved political cover. It’s also simply the right thing to do.

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