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Staff Editorials

Main Street is alright the way it is

By Dan Pool, Editor

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If our archives went back far enough, I am certain there would be stories on buggy whip makers and blacksmiths upset by the city not doing enough to promote commerce.

In the more than two decades I have written for this newspaper, I can recall a steady cycle of groups forming to address the perceived deficiency du jour on our main drag. These problems are always cited as the reason cash registers aren’t ringing more steadily. 

Among the problems the town has vanquished over the years: 

• Overhead power utility poles made the town look bad. This was addressed in the early 90s and the town is indisputably snazzier.

• Sidewalk sales blocked foot traffic on Main Street. These have been eliminated, along with curbside vending machines.

• The former faded orange façade of Bill’s Dollar Store, which sat on the corner of Stegall  was thought by some to be so atrocious that it hampered commerce all along the street. Now that building is one of the nicest in town.

• The above also went for the former blue NAPA building’s paint job. The color of that building had the effect of a red flag on a cartoon bull to many people, provoking rage. The building has been repainted and recently sold and will be fully renovated.

• The general Main Street streetscape. This has been gradually but significantly addressed with brick accents in the sidewalks, the relocated Oglethorpe Monument and the downtown fountain water park.

• The homeless shelter/junk store that once dominated the south end of town housed in an old hospital on the corner of Spring Street. This building was completely demolished by the City of Jasper and is now a pleasant grassy area.

Let’s give credit to Mayor John Weaver and the Jasper city councils of the past two decades. For this small town, “You’ve come a long way baby.”

But according to some people and groups there is always one more thing that must be done to really boost business here. Even now both the Jasper Merchants and a new chamber-led group are working to somehow improve downtown.

For appearance, and considering what Jasper has to work with, I challenge anyone to find a drastically better looking Main Street. Furthermore, if you look at Jasper history you will see business ebbs and flows on Main Street regardless of power poles, awnings or the color scheme of neighboring buildings. The idea that making small appearance changes will spur commerce is not empirically supported.

It would be nice if we had a town square, halfway along Main. It would be nice if we had some 100-year-old markers in a grassy area with ancient oaks. It would be nice if our courthouse were an antebellum marvel.

But even if we had all these amenities, I am not convinced we’d see a boom in downtown business (and please note where this newspaper is located - 94 N. Main). 

Blue Ridge is often tossed out as an ideal. But bear in mind Blue Ridge is blessed with a nearby large lake, trout streams, a river, a tourist train, state parks and a slew of mountain cabin rentals.

The downtown there takes advantage of what it already has, and adds to it. The downtown there is the cart that reaps the rewards, not the horse that does the work.

We can’t make our own town into a similar destination without enough bona fide attractions that are open everyday. Stops that justify someone making a special trip here. Too often groups began by touting tourism and marketing with considering the exact attractions we are promoting.

Rather than creating multi-faceted plans, how about just reminding people to shop local when possible.

And instead of creating a group to suggest changes, how about making the appeal directly to Main Street business owners while you are buying something there. 

In my opinion, the best thing we can do to help Main Street is simple – shop there.



Mourning the loss of Sharptop Arts

By Dan Pool
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    It’s too late to do anything about it, but in my thinking Pickens County lost something important last week. Apparently few other people feel this way, as lack of interest is what doomed the Sharptop Arts Center on D.B. Carroll Street.
    The arts center has held shows, contests and workshops there for more than 30 years. Both youth and adult art shows were featured most years. I have been impressed by the works displayed there by members of this community. I have enjoyed many of the shows, heard very good music and bought stuff at their auctions that hang in my house.
    It was a community center that also hosted all manner of events that the Progress has covered.
    The Jasper Lions Club (which donated the building to Sharptop with the understanding that if they disband ownership goes back to the Lions) will now put the building to use for their club, which is indisputably a good organization. That’s not the problem. The Lions have pledged a focus on the arts with a new alliance. While the club means well, the arts is not their central mission.    
    This alliance may find new ways to re-energize the art community in Pickens County, something that Sharptop could not do in their last several years – and maybe something that just can’t be done.
    There is no way to view the closing of the arts center as anything but a setback for the community, a sore mark, a bruise.
    Even if you never attended anything there and didn’t appreciate painting and photography, concerts or open mic nights, the loss of a 30-year institution looks bad.
    Simply put, in Pickens County there was not enough interest to keep the arts center open. In the past few years, Sharptop board members regularly noted their dwindling volunteer base and financial constraints.
    The last  director, who left in frustration, called me regularly to see if I had any ideas on what might reinvigorate people. She wasn’t looking for money so much as people who were enthusiastic. I brainstormed with her, but nothing seemed to help.
    Maybe it was a case of everyone hoping someone else would step up. In any event, by the time the Lions announced their takeover last week, Sharptop had been dormant for months – and no one visibly noticed or cared.
    Either way, we are now short a central community arts center. I’m confident the Lions will do wonderfully making it available as a public space, but we fear that the folks who rolled up their sleeves for art are now without a space. There are a smattering of arts groups and galleries in the county, but none with the central location and history of Sharptop.
    I remember a conversation once with an older native Pickens man who complained about his wife’s flowering shrubs and trees – they made it hard to cut the grass. “Yeah, but they make the house look nice for people passing by,” I replied. He was unconvinced that a plainer yard wasn’t better.
    A community arts center is the same as those flowery shrubs – it takes a little work to maintain one, but it makes the whole community look better.
    Generally when you write an editorial, you want to encourage people to consider something to take actions or support something. Unfortunately, we don’t know of anything that can be done for our closed down art center other than to mourn its passing.

Libraries are not dead and they need your support

    You’ve got a computer. Everyone you know has a computer. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a home without a computer.
    But the man we recently met at the Pickens County Library doing schoolwork on one of their PCs doesn’t have one. And neither do a lot more people than you would think – especially those with lower incomes who use the library’s Internet access for tasks like job searches, online school, homework and browsing the web. 
    Without last week’s budget increase from the county, requested by the library’s board of trustees, Pickens’ branch would have been forced to trim staff and hours – and these hours, we imagine, would have been the later evening or weekend hours used the most by working adults and students.
    Astonishingly this budget increase (a modest $4,850) still leaves the library with zero dollars for materials in fiscal year 2016, down from over $13,000 in 2012. A zero dollar materials budget means ALL money for new books, new audio books, etc. must come from grants, donations from individuals or businesses, or help from Friends of the Pickens Library, the 501c3 that supports our branch through fundraisers and other methods.
    But some people argue that libraries are outdated, on track to becoming irrelevant, dusty tomes languishing on the back shelf of a life now ruled by technology. We couldn’t disagree more, and statistics from our local branch clearly show that the library here is used heavily in terms of both circulation and PC/Internet access –not to mention the wide array of other services they offer.
    Data from FY 2014 shows general attendance at Pickens’ library for that 12–month period at 76,638 (a clicker at the door counts people as they enter the building). This averages 1,474 times a week patrons walked in the doors, or an average of 210 times a day some one entered the building.
     For circulation, a total of 96,337 items were checked out during that same timeframe. This number includes 46,543 adult books; 37,331 juvenile/young adult books; 6,398 audio books; 2,420 videos/DVDs; and 1,985 eBooks with total 2014 borrowers for the year at 12,964.
    The PC/Internet was used 20,287 times. Their wireless connection was utilized 4,091 times. Other library usage included 41 adult programs serving 417 people; 104 children’s programs serving 1,566 kids; the meeting room was used by 2,372 people and the study room was used 765 times. There were nearly 39,000 copies made during the same year.
    To us, these numbers are significant.     
    Who these people are becomes clearer if you look at a 2013 Pew Research Center study that found “adults who live in lower-income households, and adults with lower levels of educational attainment are more likely than other groups to say [library] services are ‘very important.’”  An earlier University of Washington study of library patrons found that low-income families use library computer disproportionately more than other segments of the population.
    But a recent Jasper Lion’s Club meeting highlighted another important aspect of libraries --- the fact that they foster brighter futures. During Women’s History Month, for example, successful women from Pickens County were honored by the Lions, and we don’t think it’s a mistake many of them had a connection to the library either through family or other avenues.
    Public libraries are a crucial tool for many people in our community and we simply can’t afford to have their hours cut or have them operating with a weak materials budget. It’s a lifeline for many, providing free resources to people who need them. Whether or not you personally use the library shouldn’t matter – they deserve your support if you can manage it. Make a donation. Become a member of Friends of the Pickens Library. Go in and see what materials your library uses and donate those because a healthy library is crucial for a healthy community.
     Learn more about Friends of the Pickens Library and how to become a member at You can also go visit the library a get a brochure during their regular hours, Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

On tomato planting and freedom of speech

By Dan Pool
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    Advice on tomato planting stretches the limits of the most creative gardeners.
    You can dig holes so deep only the tip of a tall plant is exposed; some believe in planting the root-ball and lower part of a plant sideways; there are those who only water their plants with a PVC pipe running directly to the roots; those who swear by certain soil mixtures; people who believe the leaves should be kept dry; numerous theories on fertilizers and even those who hang their plants upside down – as though God intended tomatoes to grow while suspended above the earth. And we’re not even getting into phases of the moon.
    For me, I usually just dig a hole and cover the roots with dirt, though I always listen and consider the exotic ‘mater growing methods.
    And, I take much the same approach running a weekly newspaper, striving to be open to hearing/presenting all views, even those I find obnoxious. And this takes effort on our part. As George Packer wrote in a recent essay in the New Yorker, “self censorship is the path of least resistance.” It would be much easier to only run articles we know people will like, that only praise and only highlight the great things about this county.
    We are well aware that this county votes overwhelmingly Republican, but when the Democrats clean roads, we still report that.
    As I discussed with a very polite, questioning caller recently, our general goal is to be inclusive of all views in this community.
    When asked if we were legally bound to run an Other Voices column by Andy Kippenhan in last week’s Progress, the answer is no. Freedom of speech means that people can say whatever they want but, with newspapers, we have the right to publish whatever we want and to leave out whatever we choose. We could have left it out.
    At the Progress, however, we don’t edit based on our whims. Whether I agree with something has little bearing on what ends up on our pages.
    And as I agreed with the caller, Mr. Kippenhan is clearly a provocateur. He wants to shock with his writing. Certainly on an extreme edge for Pickens County but he is expressing political/social views.
    Though it would be easier and safer to never publish extreme views, our philosophy of inclusiveness means we give a forum to people even when we know their views won’t sit well with others. It’s okay for someone to challenge established views; no one has to adopt the opinions presented and often people find that honest debate sharpens your own deeply-held beliefs. At least one person who has sparred previously with Mr. Kippenhan in letters was excited to see the column. He was planning his response when he left the Progress Wednesday.
    For me personally, I don’t want to be a gatekeeper of what views are presented to the  people who buy our paper every week. It’s a slippery slope – you start weeding out opinions you don’t like and where do you stop?
    A good editor should never reveal a bias, but even a cursory look at me and my two school-aged children shows that I am well-served by senior citizens continuing to pay their school taxes.
    But, if an editor started tailoring the coverage to his or her whims, what is to stop us from rejecting all the news/ads/opinion pieces of the seniors opposed to paying school taxes?
    Or what if we had only chosen to present one side of the recent chicken house fight?
    Or what if we didn’t accept restaurant reports that made our advertisers look bad? Or if we didn’t want anything that upsets the mayor to make the pages?
    Freedom of speech is a two way street. You get your voice presented but so do people who may say things that you don’t agree with.
    Our view remains, better to debate than silence.

Transgender case in Ga. prison pushes state burden too far

    As though keeping thousands of prisoners from killing one another isn’t enough, Georgia prison officials must become more sensitive to people who have gender identification issues.
    For readers not familiar with this story, Georgia has a prisoner from Rome who was born a man. Prison officials took a look at him at the intake center in 2012 and felt confident enough he was still a guy to lock him up with the other guys for some relatively minor (burglarly) crimes. At that time, however, Ashley Diamond said he was a she and needed female appropriate clothes and hormones to maintain feminine looks.
    Diamond has gender dysphoria, which in clinical explanations means there is severe discontent with the person’s assigned gender at birth. Thus she felt she ought to be locked up with the women and addressed as Miss or her.
    In country editorial terms it means you were born a dude but feel like you ought to be a chick. In pre-modern times, should a condition like this befall you, you kept your mouth shut or moved to San Francisco.
    But, in the case of Diamond, you bring suit and, more amazingly, the federal Department of Justice takes your side, acknowledging that gender dysphoria is a condition requiring treatment like any other condition.
    [Sidenote: In Ms. Diamond’s case, her suit against Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) stated that she had suffered seven rapes or assaults. That is not acceptable and should be fully investigated and this inmate protected.  In their response, the Ga. DOC denied the assaults had happened and noted they offered Diamond protective custody, which she didn’t accept, according to a New York Times article.]
    The psychologists referenced in the brief filed by the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Attorneys said untreated or mistreated sufferers of Gender dyshphoria are likely to commit suicide, self castration, self mutilation and other lesser mental issues.   
    Diamond’s complaint says she has attempted both suicide and self castration while in Georgia prisons.
    It is distressing to see the courts give into this type of treat me a certain way or I will hurt myself argument. Diamond’s case cited the 8th Amendment, cruel and unusual punishment by denying her special treatment. Suppose someone said wearing pants causes me great discontent as that conflicts with my assigned nudity when I was born. Or my sobriety causes me great discontent as opposed to my intoxicated self.
    For the Ga. DOC, their record of keeping prisoners safe is not great. And common sense dictates that trouble will follow when you have someone femine and claiming to be woman locked up in men’s prison.  But, what is a warden to do? You can’t start sending males to female cellblocks.
    Does the state now need a third category when assigning prisoners? Male, Female and Other? And if the state makes an exception here, what about other places where segregation occurs by gender? Will school bathrooms or college dorms have to follow suit?
    In  Diamond’s suit, aside from the attacks (we repeat: which should be taken seriously) she said it was harming her mentally to be subjected to male grooming, male pronouns and dress. She was also distressed that she was no longer able to take hormone injections that she has taken for 17 years to maintain her appearance and the withdrawal could be causing health issues, though one of those cited was the return of facial hair -- hardly a tragedy.
    Ga. DOC, following the Department of Justice’s expressed position, has allowed Diamond to get hormone shots while in prison. Ga. DOC normally has a “freeze frame” policy where they allow anyone taking hormones for  gender confusion issues to continue while in prison. They just can’t start a new program. In Diamond’s case they weren’t following their own protocol.
    All humans need to be treated with respect, but cases like this stretch the bounds too far. They place too much burden on the state. The state’s duty is to keep prisoners safe and rehabilitate where possible, not cater to whims of personality.
    As a closing thought: how would Andy and Barney have handled this in the Mayberry jail?