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Rewriting its Future

BLAKELY  Charles Rice may have made his fortune in the security industry, but the retired Atlanta businessman/philanthropists legacy is growing in the Early County community that nurtured him as a child.

Early County 2055, a forward-thinking revitalization effort that would seem more suited to some of the nations urban centers, is a seed Rice planted through his Charles and Catherine B. Rice Foundation. That seed has begun to grow, taking root in a farming community whose leaders realize change is vital to survival.

People look at the things were doing through EC 2055 and say why Blakely?  said F.C. Butch Wiggins, president of the Bank of Early County and a member of the Early County Commission. But we say, why not Blakely?

Why not, indeed.FORWARD THINKING

The community of some 6,000 in a county of 12,353, nestled in one of the countrys poorest regions, has a quaint, Mayberry-like quality that charms visitors. Its courthouse square is a throwback to a slower, more tranquil time, and its quaint businesses around the square provide a backdrop of genteel Southern culture.

But the backdrop belies the buzz of frantic activity that originates from the EC 2055 office, located smack-dab in the middle of the square. With planning for the Labor Day weekends Jokara-Micheaux Film Festival and other projects vital to the mission of the organization running full-bore, a visitor is inadvertently swept up in the whirlwind.

People are so quick to put brands on everything, Early County 2055 Project Director Lisa Collins says. But the tendency is to apply labels without looking under the surface. Like the idea that any community without x number of people is backward.

Thats just not true, especially here in this community. We have some intelligent, visionary people here. A lot of times, its just that people in small communities dont get an opportunity to show what they can do. We see EC 2055 as the glue that brings the ideas in this community together.

After selling his international security firm, Charles Rice returned home to Blakely for a visit and saw the land of his youth in a state of disrepair. He come up with the idea to preserve the natural resources, culture and history of the community while laying the groundwork for its future.

Rice poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into his vision, bringing in the Miami-based PlaceMakers firm to come up with a plan of attack.

In April and May of 2006 a team of architects, town planners, engineers, lawyers, economic specialists, artists and facilitators from around the globe came to the community to draft their plan.

They didnt just call on the town leaders; they got everyone in the community involved, said Boston-based Celia Doremus, marketing and communications director for EC 2055. The planning charrette they held allowed everyone in the community an opportunity to come in and have input.

PlaceMakers unveiled a plan that calls for, among other things, restoration of the Blakely Court Square; an urban green area downtown; a new housing, retail and equestrian center; community gateways; revitalization of the Arlington, Damascus and Jakin communities; and the development of a new town in the county that will provide primary and secondary housing, an 18-hole golf course and trails along the Chattahoochee River.

Planners also emphasized reaching out to retiring baby boomers, replacing dilapidated housing with new, affordable units, promoting the Southwest Georgia Film Commission, emphasizing alternative energy  while encouraging development of the controversial Longleaf coal-fired electric generating plant  and development of a community center.

A PLAN COMES TOGETHER

With a plan in place, Charles and Catherine Rices son, Barton, became the point man in implementation.

If were in Atlanta, weve got no face here meeting the people who come in to see what were doing, said Barton Rice, who lives in Roswell but spends part of each week in Early County working with EC 2055. I always thought we had to sell this vision one person at a time.

I think dad was not entirely happy with the slow response of some people in the community. I think he initially expected everyone to jump on board. But some of the longtime farm families who sat quietly on the sidelines at first have started to come forward. Dads being from here only got us so far, it got our foot in the door.

Growing up, Barton Rice spent weeks at a time in Blakely, visiting his grandfathers plumbing/drilling company shop. Now, in addition to revitalizing the community he grew to love, he wants to see some of that long-ago lifestyle preserved.

People say to me this is not like Atlanta, and thats true, Rice says. But there are things Blakely has that Atlanta doesnt have anymore. This community still has its Southern-ness.ss. This place is still real  thats something I didnt understand when I was 10  and I believe thats worth preserving.

While many in the community were slow to embrace the ideas of revitalization presented by PaceMakers and EC 2055 officials, Early County leaders have been on board from the beginning.

What's best about this project is that it has renewed enthusiasm in the community, said Blakely Mayor Ric Hall, the one-time Early County High School head football coach and county school superintendent who now is an engineer for Southern A&E of Austell. Im not talking about just individual enthusiasm either. (EC 2055) has gotten people involved, drawn the community back together.

People, especially in small communities, can get stuck in a rut with their daily activities. If you walk in a rut long enough, it can become a grave. Were blessed to have forward-thinking people in this community, and now they have a reason to look more to the future.

Richard Ward, chairman of the Early County Commission and president of Blakelys First State Bank of Arlington branch, said the skeptics who waited to see how the radical changes would affect the community have begun to understand how the EC 2055 plan can improve lives for their children and their grandchildren.

Theres always a small percentage in a community who sit back and wait for things to fail, Ward said. But people are starting to see things happening here, and you see some of the skeptics getting behind what were trying to do.

Obviously, there are no guarantees in a project like this. But even if we pursue this vision and it fails, well know we tried. Theres so much enthusiasm for the project, though, and you can see the confidence of the community growing. I think everyone sees the time, money and effort thats being invested, and they want to do their part to see that we do succeed.

Wiggins notes, though, that Early County 2055 and redevelopment of the community would be little more than a pipe dream without countywide involvement.

Charles Rice gave an absolutely tremendous gift to this community, a gift with no strings attached, Wiggins said. But you can have someone throw an endless supply of money at a project like this, and unless the community buys into it, it cannot succeed.

I believe wholeheartedly in this project. I ran for the County Commission just so I could push EC 2055. It may be a dream, but what a dream. And for change to come, it has to start somewhere.

SHARING A VISION

Collins, who served as president/CEO of Uptown Columbus Inc.s downtown economic development for three years, said she was drawn to the EC 2055 vision.

Columbus downtown development is a great success story, but it was 23 years old when I got there, she said. This project is an opportunity to start from ground zero, from square one. There literally wasnt even an office in place when I came on board.

We're at a point now where the community has got to become more actively involved in the process. Weve developed EC 2012  a five-year plan  that will focus on more immediate goals. One of those goals is to get (economic) commitment from the community. If we reach that goal, the Rice Foundation is prepared to move forward with the larger plan.

That plan, for all its grand design and world-class involvement, now rests squarely with the people in a community that has long relied on the land to provide its livelihood. Thats a tall order for some to grasp.

This is about creating new opportunities, Barton Rice said. But my dad is a realist. He doesnt want to invest all this money in the community and then in 10 years have it look the same as it always did.

We've had some successes here already; there are more coming. I think youll see a lot more involvement from investors and state agencies once they see this is a community thats willing to help itself.

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updated: 7 years ago