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Staff Editorials

Walking and thinking

By Damon Howell

Photo Editor

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I woke up Saturday morning with a pain in my back so I decided to walk out the kinks.

I’ve always wondered how long it would take me to walk to town from my house off of  Price Creek Road. I knew it was a little over seven miles.

Down Burnt Mountain Road I strolled with no arrival time in mind. I simply said to myself, “I’ll get there sometime today.”

Beforehand I figured I’d have plenty of time for thinking, but once I got on (Burnt Mountain Road) Hwy. 136, it became very clear that most of that quiet time would be interrupted by passing cars. The majority were courteous enough to slow down as they passed. My nerves appreciate courteous drivers.

Some things I did think about when I wasn’t dodging traffic:

• My pace seemed good until I got about two miles out of town, when I started slowing down, mainly because I’m in terrible shape, I guess. Or it could be that I didn’t have anything to eat before I left.

• It’s easy to fall into a routine life. Getting out and doing something out of the ordinary is healthy.

• It’s a shame Burnt Mountain Road is so littered.

• Looks like we’re going to have a rock slide soon the way those cliffs look along the road. There are huge crevices where it looks like the cliff face is splitting apart and giant overhangs where some rocks have already been dislodged.

• The thunderstorm we had the night before I walked broke that beaver dam at the bottom of the hill going out of town.

• When I got to Mountain View Citgo and saw the price for gas was $3.80,  I thought to myself, “That sure is cheap”  - compared to the time and effort walking to town requires. I later figured I paid myself 23¢ an hour to walk instead of drive, figuring how long it took to walk and how much a gallon of gasoline costs.

• Hitching a ride entered my mind once I got to the entrance of Hunter’s Ridge on my way back home. I decided to stay on course and finish the walk, so I would truly appreciate the luxury of a vehicle when I got behind the wheel again.

• I thought a bicycle sure would’ve been nice on the downhills.

• You know that saying, “It’s about the journey, not the destination?” Well, it is true.

• I could not walk the Appalachian Trail when I’ve heard it takes 17 miles per day to do it in three months.

• I believe those old folks are fibbing when they tell about being kids and walking to school ten miles, uphill both ways, every day.

• Technology has made my day-to-day life so easy I don’t really engage all of my senses. Therefore I haven’t been fully “awake” and alert. The one thing I really enjoyed was seeing all the flowers and trees budding out for spring and hearing the birds (when there wasn’t traffic).

I miss all this stuff when I drive.

Keeping in mind I walked leisurely with no arrival time in mind, it took 2 hours and 45 minutes into town from my home off of Price Creek  Road and 3:20 going back.

Surprisingly I wasn’t sore the next day and probably could have done it again, but I don’t think I will.


Step lightly when weighing students

A few weeks ago we reported that schools in Georgia will have to change their mantras to “reading, writing, weighing and arithmetic.”

In Georgia, the SHAPE plan requires that PE teachers begin computing a body mass index to determine a student’s fitness. The information will be sent home with health tips in a “fitnessgram.”

This was one of our most discussed articles lately. The majority of the responses were negative, along the line of, “It’s not the state’s business to weigh kids.” But a vocal minority felt something must be done to combat childhood obesity if parents won’t do it themselves.

Both points of view are valid. And we  have arrived at a fence-straddling position honestly. There are many pros and cons with the weight assessments.

Ideally body fat isn’t something to be handled in the schools. In a utopia, parents provide veggies on the dinner table and use sharp sticks if necessary to get kids off the couch. But in reality, this doesn’t happen any more often than parents see to it that their kids reach kindergarten having been read to, enter high school with respect for teachers, or have structured environments to complete homework.

In theory, we agree schools shouldn’t be weighing students. In practice, however, public education may be the best avenue to address childhood obesity.

Assistant Superintendent Tommy Qualls noted in our original article that when he went to school report cards included the height and weight of the student, and it was no big deal.

Times have changed. In the first place, people have grown more sensitive about body issues, and they have reason to be more sensitive. The Institute of Medicine found childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past four decades.

In decades past, kids ate less fast food and got more exercise.  “In 1968, 80 percent of kids were active in sport activities everyday. That number is now 20 percent,” according to Helping Hands Outreach.

Putting height and weight on report cards wasn’t a big deal in our assistant superintendent’s day, as obesity among children wasn’t much of a problem then.

Now the problem is pronounced. Georgia is the second worst state in the nation for childhood obesity with 21 percent of kids here considered obese (Mississippi is number one).

And lest anyone think this is only about kids looking good in skinny jeans, Helping Hands Outreach found, “The calorie-dense, fatty, salt diet eaten by American children, combined with the serious lack of physical activity means that 25 percent of kids under 10 years of age have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or some other contributor of heart disease.  A new report has issued a stark warning that children’s lives will be shorter than their parent’s if this trend continues.”

Clearly this is an acute statewide problem that should be addressed. But, like those opposed to weigh-ins, we question whether commandeering campus time through mandatory requirements is the best approach. As noted by administrators and PE teachers, the tests will give parents a weight number and information. Seeing that healthier regimes are followed ultimately falls on parents who may ignore, get angry about or trash the fitnessgram.

Without getting parents on board, the tests will do nothing but hurt feelings. We also question the unintended consequences of school enforced weigh-ins. Will the results be something parents use to make changes, or will they just become ammunition for bullies? Even if weights are recorded in private, the fact that all students know the weigh-ins dates will lead to anxiety for obese students and the opportunity for insulting questions.

As the Pickens High PE teacher interviewed for the article expressed, we’ll hope that this program produces a community-wide increase in fitness and nutrition. For the kids’ sakes, it’s needed. But if this program isn’t well administered, it has the potential to devastate some students and produce no benefits for those who need it.

Georgia needs to tread lightly on this scale.


A government intrusion

He was setting up equipment but looked up and introduced himself. "Max Smugness. How can I help ya?"

A high school source alerted me to the story, I told him, and I'd come to see for myself. By decree of the state legislature, a Coolameter was slated for every Georgia high school, and Pickens High was getting its own.

The elaborate, stand-under, "Beam-me-up-Scottie" contraption was to measure each student's C.Q.––their Coolness Quotient. Results would be neither obvious nor immediate. Instead, numbers would mail home to parents with patent advice for improving C.Q. in their offspring. No point in being too intrusive, someone must have figured.

I begged Smugness to let me try the machine.

"Nothing doing," he demurred still twisting wrenches. "Not ready yet. Besides, journalists tend to skew it. Pings off the low end. Could take hours to re-calibrate. But if you're looking for an assessment, it only takes a peeper pass to peg you at pathetic," he pricked, glancing up again. "Black shoes with white socks? Dude, you're not even tryin'."

I shrugged off the impertinence but noted the infraction. A cardinal rule had just been broken: Don't mess with the press, mister, if you wanta stay cool around here.

"I'm not the issue, Max," I said. "Your machine is the topic. How does it work?"

With technical balderfuscation, he explained. Beginning with body size, physical coordination, sex appeal and social cachet, the Coolameter arrives at a base quotient, he said. Then it assesses peripherals to add more points.

"Peripherals?" I asked.

"You know: designer labels; personal electronics; textuality; “bad ride” or “beater”; postured defiance of adult authority––all those enhancements that can mean so much."

"Mean so much," I repeated, scribbling that down.

"Oh yeah. You can be practically a loser on the base quotient," Smugness said, "and peripherals will put you over the top. And what's really cool: you can buy most of those."

That troubled me. "Now look here, Smugness," I said, "paraphrasing a great American, he dreamed people might be judged not on the kind of tripe you quantify but by the content of their character."

Smugness turned from his machine and stared straight at me. “'Dreamed',” he deadpanned. “It's all about image, you nimrod, and popularity. Character? You're a character. Just look at those socks.”

“Forget the socks, you fatuous frat-boy,” I threw back. “Your machine is a soul-less sorter of surface assessments. It promotes a valueless lifestyle, a shallow existence of unexamined conformity to imposed external standards. Who could dare stand outside your ‘normal’ and risk being labeled some fool oddball? It's mind control, Smugness. It's herd-think: conform or be tread under. Your machine would mark any iconoclast, free-thinker or genius as deficient.”

"They are!" he shrieked, his finger suddenly in my face. A vein bulged on the side of his neck. "Don't you get it, you meddling pin-head? Right now these kids maybe can't think past the weekend, but there's a future up ahead. Out there they trade in their flip-flops for wing-tips, baby, and they keep on playing if they know what’s good for them."

"Playing at what?" I asked.

“The game they learn here: conform to survive. Don't think of it as mind control,” he smirked. “Too Orwellian. Think of it as 'running with the pack'.”

Sounds predatory, I thought.

The machine was ready. A ninth-grader entered to stand under its glow. Dark hair fell straight to her shoulders. Shy eyes betrayed awkwardness and fear in a face as fragile and beautiful as innocence itself. I turned away.

"I'm leaving, Smugness. Look for your bad self in the newspaper."

"Awh, don't do that," he said. "Good jobs are hard to find just now, and this is an easy one. My legislator friends won't like it if you do that."

I wasn't surprised. "So someone is on the take, then," I guessed, "for funding your Coolameter statewide?"

"Well duh, Daddy-O. Nothing's so cool as the color of money."


Wake up, Nelson

Used to be when a crisis erupted in a village, someone rang a fire bell in the night to alert the populace and avert disaster. It's time someone did that at Nelson.

For about a year, the city’s planning and zoning commission, or part of it, has operated in a way you could call fast and loose. The planning commission is a five-member body appointed by the elected city council.

At the time some commission members began to go maverick, an atmosphere of animosity had squared the city council against the mayor. Fervor to strip Mayor David Leister of executive powers propelled the council in a moment of weakness to place expanded powers into the hands of the planning and zoning commission. It appeared to be done in the spirit of "The mayor don't like it––must be a swell idea."

Overnight the planning commission's job expanded from hearing zoning change requests to scoping the town for code violations by homeowners, along with about a dozen other responsibilities hardly appropriate for an appointed zoning board.

At the same time the commission’s mission expanded, it also received a new set of council-approved "operational guidelines." Among points of that incredible document is sanction for the planning commission to hold "informal" meetings, those not to include all planning commission members. By the guidelines, one or two members suffice for such "information gathering" confabs, some with city employees.

It seems most such "meetings" have been conducted by planning commission chairman, Lamar Kellett, and member, Mike Haviland, with the other commission members largely out of the loop.

A Nelson asset, Haviland’s experience as a professional in municipal government proved his worth during planning commission talks with Cherokee County for park improvement money (another expanded duty). Haviland's expertise showed as a feather in the planning commission cap.

But at what price such successes? Chairman Kellett seems to believe he best operates in secret, revealing his doings to the mayor and council only as he wants to.

This month the mayor confronted Kellett in a public meeting about seeking financial information from neighboring cities. Kellett denied the activity, though a letter from City of Jasper Finance Director Tacie Williams confirmed it took place.

In addition, it took the city attorney to convince Kellett the planning commission’s city-council-approved operational guidelines do not place the commission above information sharing stipulations of Georgia open records law.

The mayor and council members have asked Chairman Kellett to share information he controls, only to be denied. Does the chair not understand the only power he wields rightly, as an appointed official, he wields by the grace of the elected officials who appointed him, to whom he must rightly respond?

Leister sees Kellett attempting to operate a shadow government at Nelson, trying to conduct the work of government without council oversight or accountability to the public.

Leister asked the city council February 15 to remove Kellett and Haviland from the planning commission. The council responded with a delay, pushing the decision onto a citizen-based ethics committee, an as yet unformed body.

We would urge Nelsonians to do something better. Put forward candidates for that ethics committee and demand of your council that the committee be formed. Let your common wisdom end present craziness, and go forward in a way that makes sense to an involved majority of residents.

Open, representative government remains as fundamentally American as our founding documents. We remind Mr. Kellett and any allied with him that, good intentions notwithstanding, the end does not justify the means.

For all Nelson residents a duty remains to take part in their government and to demand accountability on behalf of the electorate, so that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from that struggling municipality astride the county line.


The problem down on Main Street: Empty buildings

With the recent merger of Main Street Fitness and another fitness club, downtown Jasper is left with another of our key properties darkened.

While combining two fitness clubs is hardly news to rock the local economy, it is certainly poor news for Main Street merchants or anyone hoping for a vibrant downtown.

The two story structure that housed Main Street Fitness is a longstanding cornerstone of Jasper’s Main Street – the first building you see as you approach from the south. Having it empty adds to the impression that much of town is, if not boarded up, at least not occupied.

Consider that on our corners: the Main Street Fitness building is now vacant, the NAPA building (commonly called Old Blue), on the most prominent corner in town at Main and Highway 53, has been empty for some time, and the corner restaurant on Stegall and Main, which housed the Crowe’s Nest for many years, has been empty several years.

The image of a diminishing downtown is, sadly, most accurate. A walk along Main Street shows the former Nan’s Hallmark (a very large space) sitting empty on the west side of the street and the Savor restaurant, on the east side, sitting empty for too many years to count.

Adding to the closed downtown list is the large sprawling area beside the courthouse that housed the SideBar Restaurant/ Sharp Mountain Grill. And there is far too much empty space to count if you drive down East Church Street toward the County Admin building.

While downtown is not anywhere near 50 percent empty, the amount of empty space available on Main Street, in empty office spaces along the streets that run parallel to Main and across the city limits represents a vast amount of untapped commercial potential for this area.

In a discussion of small town economics with State Representative Rick Jasperse just before the opening of this legislative session, we encouraged him to look for ways to get empty commercial space back in action, especially if there were state funds, rebates, tax advantages that could help an entrepreneur. Some people with valid ideas/plans that might convert empty storefronts to productive businesses, given the economic collapse, lack the capital to get started. Coming up with a first month’s rent, a security deposit, funds for renovating, furnishing and stocking a new business is no small thing.

Encouraging state help for private businesses is not a position we are fully comfortable advocating. In the past, we have generally opposed ideas that brought government interference into private ventures such as downtown real estate. In fact, we have noted in past editorials that the blue NAPA building should stay blue as long as the owner wants it blue, it being private property.

But seeing so much real estate in downtown sitting idle, we’re softening our position. If government in Washington can bail out Wall Street, surely there is something our economic developer can do to help Main Street.

The empty space affects much more than the just the image of the town. You can’t very well submit a resume´, offer a cleaning service, arrange for insurance, install signage, sell advertising, perform pest control, or cater lunches for storefronts with locked doors.

It’s the problem down on Main Street: empty buildings mean missing pieces of the economic pyramid. It’s not just the owners of an empty building or laid-off former employees who suffer.

As presented to State Rep. Jasperse, if there were funds/credits/ resources to help a would-be entrepreneur with more ideas than capital to take an empty restaurant or fitness club and re-open it as a new gift shop, restaurant, antique store, law office or whatever the prospective business owner has in mind, then that would be a solid economic stimulus for Main Streets across Georgia.