In the News

Future Is In Our Hands

BLAKELY, Ga. " They didn't come here to the courthouse square Monday to birth a brand new county. Early County has existed for almost 200 years.

But they came to take the first steps in preserving what they have and building a future that ensures the county doesn't waste away, becoming one that relied too heavily on an agricultural industry becoming less important.

The approach is unique. Take a consulting team comprised of leading city planners, architects, policy experts, builders, accountants and lawyers. Combine that with an infusion of money from a homegrown charitable foundation and mix it with the knowledge and input of good ol' Early County residents.

The project is called "Early County 2055," an auspicious 50-year growth strategy plan whose goal is to allow Early County to maintain its hospitable small-town feel while making sure it has enough jobs to keep people who would like to stay home from moving away to find work. It encompasses the cultural, the practical and the economic aspects of growing a town.

The consulting group lays the framework, but the town's residents have to make it happen.

"Very few communities get the opportunity to do what has been handed to us," said Blakely Mayor Rick Hall during a kickoff ceremony at the courthouse square. "This is a chance for us to plot our future."

Throughout the week, consultants will be feverishly planning in a studio office on the square. Residents are not only invited, but are encouraged to drop in and add their own ideas about what could make Early County better, both in the immediate future and the next 50 years.

A huge display board full of ideas already stands on the courthouse lawn. It includes a variety of improvements and ideas including concrete plans such as the construction of a new regional medical center and grocery store. It includes development plans such as the creation of tourism and marketing task forces. It includes cultural improvements such as theater on the square, Jakin Park family night and arts center on the square. It also includes new ideas on different forms of industry such as organic farming.

It is a novel town improvement plan in which the big idea for Early County's future could come from a team of consultants, or just as easily from a housewife in Arlington.

"We are looking for new things, better things and you are the catalyst that can make all these things happen," said State Rep. Gerald Green (D-Cuthbert) told the crowd of nearly 1,500 surrounding the square.

But it all comes back to jobs. Many rural areas across the Southeast United States that have based their economy on agriculture are now being forced to reinvent themselves. Those that haven't been able to are suffering.

Early County residents Joy Crozier and Karen McNeal have husbands who drive to Albany for work. Gayle Harper is one of the lucky ones. Her husband works in Early County.

"It comes down to opportunities for people here, to make them want to stay here," McNeal said.

Early County 2055 is being made possible by a contribution from the Charles and Catherine B. Rice Foundation. Charles Rice grew up in Blakely and because of the family legacy the area represents to them, the Rices chose Early County to launch the initiative.

The goal of the project is simple: create a diversified economic structure and master strategy for the future.

Implementing that goal is the hard part.

"Sometimes rural municipalities do not have the political will to get things done," said Nathan Morris of the development advisory firm PlaceMakers, which will help oversee the planning process. The firm has historically dealt strictly in land developing, but town developing has become an emerging trend.

Planning events will continue throughout the week before Early County embarks on the long task of turning those plans into reality.

"You could see the revitalization of town square begin almost immediately," Morris said. "The economic development ideas could take 10 years."