In the News

Early County Pushes for Revival

BLAKELY  Early County community leaders are planning something next month that has not been done in a very long time  put on an Early County Day at the Capitol.

County Commission Chairman Richard Ward believes the invitation will draw about 50 legislators and state agency heads to attend a luncheon hosted by about 50 residents of Early County. The visitors to the Capitol wont be asking for anything. They merely want state officials to know that were here and weve got something going, Ward said.

Since last May when a series of town meetings were held in Blakely to have residents in the county to dream and talk of what they would like their community to be, a 250-page master plan proposing more than 50 projects has been completed, 22 properties worth more than $4.7 million purchased, architectural drawings presented on the renovation of two downtown buildings, groundbreaking scheduled for a wardrobe company relocating from Orlando, and a national fund-raiser hired.

All are part of Early County 2055, the initiative begun last spring and underwritten for two years by the Charles and Catherine B. Rice Foundation of Atlanta. Rice, who grew up in Blakely, decided he wanted to try to help stop the countys decline and restore a healthy economic base.

Ward admits there is some skepticism in the community. There is a natural tendency to say, What are they doing; whats in it for them?  he said, referring to outsiders. Im convinced its real and they have no ulterior motives but helping Early County, and Im going to help them help us.

Lisa Collins, who was hired as project manager to oversee EC2055, was bouyed when the Blakely City Council late last year unanimously approved to redirect $262,000 in sales tax funds to help with renovation of side-by-side structures  the Alexander Building and a former theater  on the south side of the square.

Jon Carn, principal architect with Polyengineering Inc. in Dothan, Ala., presented floor drawings for the two buildings last week, showing a movie theater with a stage that could be used for graduations and live productions; a conference center and new space for Chamber of Commerce, welcome center, Early County Economic Development Authority and Blakely Hometown. The theater project had been in the works, but came to a halt several years ago, prompting the city council to withhold the sales tax dollars.

Carn tweaked the original theater plans and drew floor plans for the two-story Alexander Building from scratch. Collins said those two projects, which take up half of the south side of what is being called Court Square, will kick-start work in that area.

After Polyengineering learned of Early County 2055 last year, the firm leased space on Court Square.

The Rice Foundation has hired Howard Benson, CEO of National Community Development Services Inc. of Atlanta, to direct fund raising for some of the projects. Collins said a short-term task force now being formed will select three to five projects from the master plan for which funds will be raised. She said the Alexander Building and theater project will definitely be one, but that the whole community should be able to get excited about one or more of those selected as priorities.

A steering committee that is guiding EC2055 meets monthly to make sure they keep on target.

Members of the development authority have bought into the vision, as demonstrated by their gift of five acres in the business park to be used to build a facility to house Movie Rags Costume Co., which owner Beverly Safier is relocating from Orlando. Groundbreaking is scheduled in 60 days.

Early County sees the film industry as a major player in its revival. The success of Southwest Georgia Film Commissioner Ralph Wilcox in Miller County is spilling over. Collins said investors from as far away as California came to look at Blakely, and two films, one of which starts work in May, will be shot entirely in Early County.

The decision by Safier, who has been in the wardrobe business for 30 years, to relocate to Blakely has prompted colleagues who work in the stunt and casting components of the film industry to say they, too, will open shop in Blakely.

Were looking down the road at building up to five backlots, Collins said. Miller County now has a major component of filming movies  a sound stage  that Wilcox was instrumental in getting funded.

Look at Savannah, Collins said, referring to the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil movie, you remember where the filming was done. She said the film industry, combined with natural resources in Early County, will draw tourists, who will have a direct route once U.S. Highway 27 is completed in the next few years.

Some Early County residents want to protect their portion of U.S. 27 from clutter of billboards and other signs by having it designated as a scenic parkway.

Of course, if tourists start coming, Blakely must have overnight accommodations available. The master plan calls for a hotel on Court Square. An urban designer who has worked in rebuilding the Gulf Coast in Louisiana has offered his concept of Katrina cottages for Blakely.

The Rice Foundation has purchased 8.8 acres about three blocks from Court Square just for that purpose. Long, narrow houses in the $100,000 to $125,000 range would be grouped in a circle with shared greenspace.

A study done as part of EC2055 showed that $38 million leaves the area each year and is spent on groceries elsewhere. So, the steering committee is working to attract a grocer, such as Piggly Wiggly or IGA, to open a store in Blakely that would offer more products at reasonable prices so that the dollars remain within the county. Collins, who moved to Blakely from Columbus, said shes often asked, When are you going to get us a grocery store?

One of the long-range plans is for a self-contained retirement community called New Hilton, including an 18-hole golf course, which would be built along the Chattahoochee River.

Other plans are to relocate the post office into a new larger facility a block over on Liberty Square, which would allow First State Bank to expand.

Were really looking to change the face of Court Square within a two-block parameter, Collins said. The goal is for people to work, live and play in the downtown area.

With the planning process behind, 2007 is when implementation begins, Collins said, The main part will be going after dollars. They are there; we just have to go after them, she said.

The square that surrounds the Early County Courthouse in Blakely is central to the vision community leaders have for the Early County 2055 initiative.

To view this article online, click here.