By Maggie Lee

In north metro Atlanta, where businesses can choose from a range of quality neighborhoods – Buckhead, Sandy Springs, Roswell and others – Michael Starling has the job of making Dunwoody the most attractive.

“In some ways, we are competitors,” says Starling, “but the entire Perimeter area is something that needs to be marketed.”

Starling is Dunwoody’s first Economic Development Director. Though his desk is at City Hall, he’s not a city employee, but a staff member of design and engineering consultancy Clark Patterson Lee.

From his previous job as economic development director for DeKalb County, Starling brings a full Rolodex of county contacts and experience prospecting new companies. He’s worked with the Atlanta Regional Commission and with the Georgia Innovation Crescent – a coalition of governments, schools and companies from Atlanta to Athens that focus on attracting biology and life sciences to the corridor.

For the time being, at least, the city’s payment for Starling’s services is set at $112,000 and not tied to performance, which city officials say would be difficult to measure in the beginning. How could they tell if a new business comes to town strictly because of work by Starling? “Now, with no experience,” in economic development, Dunwoody City Manager Warren Hutmacher said, “we’d recommend no incentive program.”

And Starling may a bit cheaper than directly hiring a comparable economic development professional, according to Dunwoody city calculations. “We’re getting the guy at their cost for goodwill,” Hutmacher said.

Starling says the first job he needs to tackle is finding tenants for Dunwoody office space. “There’s lots of space that needs to be leased,” he said.

The office occupancy rate was about 83 percent in the Perimeter area, as of the third quarter of 2010, according to research from commercial real estate firm Richard Bowers & Company. Occupancy is lowest, 64 percent, in “Class C” office buildings, which offer basic amenities and a low price. And Dunwoody has very few of those.

The best matches for Dunwoody are company headquarters and high-tech, software and digital media, Starling says.

Rubber Maid, UPS and Global Payments headquarters lie yards from Dunwoody, in Sandy Springs. InterContinental Hotels, however, is in Dunwoody and the new, $32 million address for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution is, too.

In the two cities’ friendly race to outdo each other in new businesses, he believes that Dunwoody and Sandy Springs would do best to work together, especially to woo big out -of-state businesses.

But to get them on the east side of Peachtree-Dunwoody Road, Dunwoody must be able to push better services, amenities and transportation.

“The city is easy to work with. Permitting is being done in a timely manner,” Starling notes. “That’s one thing business needs.

On the softer side, “walkability, sidewalks, green space,” are attractive to potential new corporate neighbors, opines Starling.

And MARTA’s connections put Dunwoody “in the center of the metro area,” he said, adding however that the I-285 access is “premier.”

Dunwoody’s big office tenants can expect a visit from Starling soon. He wants to make sure the people who are already here are happy. Then he wants to take action to help them grow.

However, “a lot of economic development work is reactive,” he explains, meaning having good answers when new prospects suddenly call. He’ll need to prepare an economic development strategy, working out what Dunwoody wants to attract and how they propose to do it.

By the first quarter of 2011, master plans for Dunwoody Village and Georgetown should be available to him. Those will tell what residents want to see in their parts of the city: how it should look; how much should be residential, commercial and green. So far what’s been distilled from citizen focus groups and public meetings include walkability, plenty of tree cover, and fewer visible parking lots.

Older strip malls took a beating in community surveys about Dunwoody Village and Georgetown. The library, the farm house and Brook Run Park shouldn’t change, respondents said, but they thought Dunwoody Plaza and the Georgetown Shopping Center should go.

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