In the News

Native Son Helps South GA

The Associated Press - BLAKELY, Ga.

Southwest Georgia's Early County has suffered the fate of many rural areas _ young people migrating to the cities for high-paying jobs and many of those left behind stuck in poverty.

Thanks to the generosity of a native son who struck it rich in Atlanta, the 13,000 residents of one of Georgia's poorest counties are starting to visualize the kind of future they'd want for themselves and their children.

A group of professionals _ city planners, architects, economists, strategists and landscape experts _ recently were brought to Blakely, the county seat, to help residents chart the county's course for the next 50 years _ a project known as Early County 2055.

The caravan of community consultants was paid by the Atlanta-based Rice Foundation, formed in 2004 by former Blakely resident Charles Rice Sr. and his wife, Catherine.

As a young adult, Rice said he couldn't wait to leave Blakely. After settling in Atlanta, he founded Barton Protective Services Inc. in 1977, which became a major contract security firm and later merged with another company.

During visits to Blakely, Rice noticed the houses and yards on main street were no longer as well tended as they used to be. "I almost broke down in tears," he said.

He and his wife saw potential in the county and decided to help. Their foundation brought in PlaceMakers, a Miami-based town planning firm that assisted some Gulf Coast communities with Hurricane Katrina recovery. PlaceMaker professionals spent an intensive eight days gathering ideas and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Early County.

They interviewed high-school students, community leaders and ordinary citizens. They scrutinized the architecture in Blakely and the surrounding towns of Arlington, Jakin and Damascus. They considered hunting and other outdoor activities and the county's tourist attractions, such as the American Indian mounds at Kolomoki Mounds State Park.

Artists drew sketches showing proposed enhancements for some of the county's historic buildings, including covered sidewalks for shade.

The official report is still weeks away, but residents heard some of the preliminaries at a recent meeting. The experts concluded that any economic growth should be compatible with the county's greatest asset _ its rural character.

Mayor Ric Hall is grateful for the Rices' gift. "A lot of communities pay dearly for something someone has given to us. I see excitement. I see involvement."

Rice declined to discuss the project's cost, saying it might be perceived as bragging. But his son, C. Barton Rice Jr., who is the foundation's executive director, said "several hundred thousand dollars" were spent.

Donnie Yarbrough, a school principal and minister, said he's glad the consultants saw a need for decent, affordable housing in the county, about 170 miles southwest of Atlanta and about 35 miles northeast of Dothan, Ala.

About a third of the residents live in mobile homes and many others live in public housing, which fosters poverty and poor school performance, according to Yarbrough, who hopes the initiative leads to more jobs and opportunities for residents to own and take pride in their homes.

The future may include more parks and green space, a hotel facing the courthouse square in Blakely, and a recreational community along the Chattahoochee River for families and retiring baby boomers.

Young people, tired of cruising the streets and congregating on the courthouse square, have suggested cosmic bowling _ also known as Xtreme Bowling _ a hot new form of the traditional game featuring black lights, loud music and glow-in-the-dark pins and balls.

That would be a big leap, of course, considering the county doesn't even have a bowling alley.

"They want the things kids want," said C. Barton Rice Jr. "They want places where it's OK to hang out. They don't have much to do."

Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia demographer who studies the state's economic and population trends, praised the Rice family for providing a "framework for people to help themselves" and called their gift unique.

"Who before has asked the kids?" Bachtel wondered. "They say cosmic bowling. You can't say that's stupid because that's what they want. They are the future.

"You need job opportunities, you need quality of life, you need cosmic bowling so people want to stay," he said.

Early County, like other rural areas across the South, had no industries to replace the farm jobs that were lost with the mechanization of agriculture. So while the state's population has grown nearly 182 percent since the 1930s, the county's has dropped 32 percent.

The county's per-capita income is $21,000 _ $7,000 less than the state average _ and 26 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, double the state average.

"It isn't something they've done wrong. It's just a whole series of events going back to the Civil War," Bachtel said.

Charles Rice said he wants to grow opportunity in the county where he grew up.

"Florida is overrun and Atlanta is overcrowded," Rice said. "In the next 10 to 20 years, you won't have to go into a cubical, you can come to Early County to work.

"This whole thing is about hope," he said. "Our foundation can only do so much. It's up to the people of Early County to keep this going."