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Staff Editorials

What Would Make Pickens a Certifiable Great Place to Live?

For the fourth straight year, we look over paublished lists of the best places to live in America to see how Pickens County stacks up. For three years running, we have consulted the lists of best towns put forward by Money and Outside magazines. This year Outside has yet to do a list, so we worked from Parenting magazine’s list instead.

Money,  in their yearly best places issue, introduced the towns/cities by saying they have “qualities American families care about.”

According to the magazine, those qualities are “great job opportunities, top-notch schools, safe streets, economic strength, nice weather, plenty to do.”

Number one on their list is Louisville, a town of 18,000 in Colorado. Obviously all the Rocky Mountain towns are blessed with plenty to do––skiing, hunting, fishing or just enjoying the wild open spaces.

Along with the opportunities for fun, this town’s proximity to Denver leads to solid job opportunities in a variety of sustainable fields such as aerospace, technology and health care.

Second on Money’s list is Milton, Massachusetts, described as a deep suburb of Boston with a country town feel. Money noted the area’s stable real estate/home prices

Parenting featured larger cities with Washington, D.C. being their first choice. The editors at Parenting gave the nod to Washington for its “plentitude of museums.”

Second on their list was Austin, Texas with its sunny weather. (Do they know how hot  that sunny weather gets in August?) Parenting leaned heavily toward places with cultural attractions and cited the lively farmers’ markets in Austin, plus special events featuring live music and the famous South by Southwest Film Festival.

All of the places making either list had some variation of good jobs supporting great parks/cultural activities in a safe and attractive area with a  small town feel. So how does Pickens stack up?

We own one key element from the bag: public safety. Money wrote that all small towns they listed had safe streets. Pickens can rightfully boast a crime rate to be envied by any community.

We’d also give our schools pretty high marks. They are safe and generally out-perform similar systems academically. Nothing fancy, but certainly solid assets to the community.

Maybe a surprise to some, we’ll give ourselves a “fair” on cultural activities. We lack a single big name attraction but do boast a steady stream of smaller events year-round. The Marble Festival, Heritage Days in Talking Rock, and Tate Days provide nice weekend events. The Tater Patch Players’ new theater, monthly Main Street Manias in Jasper, the first annual ArtFest and regular shows at the Sharptop Arts Center, the Casual Concert Series and new venues like Van Gogh’s Hideaway put us above average compared to other small towns.

Unfortunately, in the two areas where we score low, we pitifully lack some key elements.

Recreation Opportunities. We lack any substantial natural or wilderness area, and our parks and recreation facilities are sub-standard compared to neighboring North Georgia counties. We have argued in this space a number of times that Pickens County can’t create a massive mountain range, sea coast or wilderness area, but we can develop decent recreation facilities. The new gym at Roper Park is a step in the right direction, but one step alone isn’t going to overcome decades of neglect.

Job Growth, Economic Base. Here again, we lack this and badly. Pickens was a company town for too long, and that company was real estate, and that has collapsed. We had no fallback plan. And as far as we can tell, there is no Plan B in the works to create jobs here.

With the economy as stagnant as the Jasper duck pond, it’s doubtful much can be done to shore up our weak areas any time soon. While decent parks could help attract potential homebuyers and businesses, without a stable tax base, it’s hard to justify spending on sports facilities, and we recognize this.

When and if our economy gives the county a little spending cushion, we urge a move to address our lack of recreation venues, in the hope that move could help remedy the economic shortfall here.

To make us a truly great place, one category, parks, is within our control on future SPLOST spending. That other, jobs creation, is the challenge that may plague us for the foreseeable future.


Fight "planned obsolescence" and buy quality products

One of this newspaper’s under-30 staff members recently witnessed an estate sale and was dumbfounded by the condition of the former owner’s furniture, knick-knacks and other household goods.

Everything in the lady’s home could be considered antique. Down to the garden hose, nothing was less than a quarter-century old. But despite the age, it was all sturdy, clean and impeccably preserved. Magazines dating from the 1960s were pristine. Thirty-year-old board games still had all the pieces, and antique bedroom sets were solidly constructed and in near-perfect condition.

It’s not uncommon for younger people to joke about the generation represented and its stubborn refusal to change home furnishings: the same old towels hanging in the bathroom for decades; the same pots and pans having cooked family meals since what feels like the dawn of time.

That “keep it ‘cause it works” worldview is hard to find nowadays, and the lifespan of our goods has denigrated from that of hearty oak to cheap pressboard. The stuff we have we don’t take care of or simply throw it away, because we’ve been programmed to believe old is bad, new is good, and newest is best. Call it the plague of the gadget freaks. “Can you hear me now?”

What too many don’t realize is the disposable society we find ourselves living in was contrived this way by conniving manufacturers who rely on a marketing strategy called “planned obsolescence.” Companies make things not meant to last, and after a short while people need to replace them. The approach equals higher profit for the manufacturer and higher costs for consumers over time.

And unlike the stuff of our grandparents’ era, the vast majority of modern goods we purchase aren’t even made in America. They ship in from across the Pacific from countries like China, which has gained a terrible reputation for product quality.

According to The US-China Business Council, America imported $365 billion worth of goods from China in 2010, up from $102 billion in 2001.

In his book Poorly Made in China, Paul Midler, who worked as a consultant to American importers dealing with Chinese manufacturers in the 2000s, says “[Chinese] factories did not see an attention to quality as something that would improve their business prospects, but merely as a barrier to increased profitability. Working to achieve higher levels of quality did not make me a friend of the factory, but a pariah.”

How sad when we so willingly and lavishly support poor business practices such as these. But even if products we purchase are of high quality, somehow we are still goaded by marketing (and conceit) into thinking we need the newest, sleekest smart phone or the latest model car. This type of consumerism plagues our pocketbooks and our world.

A 100-year-old lady once interviewed here told us her impression of people today is that all many of them want is money and somewhere to spend it, and we can’t disagree. The influx and outflow of goods in our homes is enough to produce a case of vertigo. Given the present money pinch, it is past time to invoke the spirit of our elders.

Grow a garden and reduce your grocery bill. Downsize your vehicle and buy it used. Green your home to save water and electricity. Recycle. Buy quality products and take care of them. Use public transportation to save fuel. Refuse to purchase based on fad. Shop locally to support your own community. And buy American-made products to support your country and help increase jobs here.

We all need to relearn the art of being responsible stewards of the things we own, and to not spend so much time worrying about the things we don’t.


Stop to smell the roses (and sip the coffee)

I once read somewhere that on arrival to heaven we will be called to give account for all God-given pleasures granted here that we refrained from enjoying. It slants halo glow from a wholly different angle to imagine being called on the carpet not for our explanation of sins committed but of blessings un-treasured.

A hard enough place is the world we live in and yet still sprinkled with enough pure pleasures to suggest the one overseeing has compassion on the inmates here.

Some of Earth's standard occurrences still grab our attention to bring us joy: light at dawning; a cooling summer rain; autumn leaves turned gold and orange; a new snow; a song just right for whistling. All such things are ours to savor, provided we don't overlook them when they happen on us.

"Stop to smell the roses," some prophet advised. They might as accurately have admonished, "Pause, and sip the coffee."

What poor soul, cold and wet through his clothes, soaked in hard luck, bad times or bitter irony, couldn't find some hope left in a hot cup of joe, hands wrapped round crockery, dark heat of the elixir warming his inside?

What taste of meal or morsel was not heightened by coffee's complement––maybe java with donut being that marriage truly made in heaven? What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder (cholesterol notwithstanding).

Tell what lonely midnight watch found no improvement from the comfort beverage. And though a comfort to the solitary, coffee warms, too, as a ritual bond between companions.

Name something better than coffee in the morning while propped in bed, fixed just the way you like and brought by someone who knows you, holding it out easy in gentle hands, so you don't spill it, as if to say, "This is my love to you: abidingly warm, unsugared, without pretense, softened with the milk of human kindness."

I've seen old men at a lunch counter swapping notes on life in high comedy. As often I've heard the ring of a metal teaspoon, rounding the inside of a ceramic cup, as if rhythmic punctuation of the tale being told.

Truth be told, coffee is a commodity. You can store it in a tin, its pent aroma as exotic as tramp steamers and foreign ports. But coffee's magic is mostly the things we sometimes associate with it: friendship; love; renewed hope.

Those are gifts not to miss while traveling through this world below and maybe the kind we must account for when we are done with wayfaring here.


Welcome aboard PHS journalists

 When members of the Progress staff went to Pickens High School last week to present some newspaper basics to the journalism class taught by Steven Wilkie, on the ride down we agreed not to  offer any specific content or layout suggestions.

It was hard living up to that commitment.  We soon found ourselves wanting to chime in a time or two to “do it this way.” Happily, we did not.

The first installment of the Dragons’ Lair News (see pages 14A and 15A) this week is not the work of the Pickens Progress, other than by our printer, a contractor in Rome. Our staff lifted no finger in production of page 14A. Students and their adviser did it all. And on page 15A, our only effort was to take student-written stories and re-work the layout to fit in ads.

What you see on pages 14 and 15 of this week’s Progress A-section is truly student work. They are proud of it, and they should be. It is a solid first edition of their high school paper.

A student newspaper should be a standard feature of any high school campus. But Pickens High has lacked one for many years until now. New principal, Eddie McDonald, saw the value in re-establishing one, and Mr. Wilkie, already producing a top-quality yearbook, agreed to add the extra duty.

Both men are to be commended. A student paper means extra work for Wilkie and an extra element for the principal to look over. But what a win it is for students: an educational offering that promotes reading, writing and getting involved––an incentive to become a concerned and communicating community participant. It is a fire lit for warming fellow students with news important to them. It is a forum for the shaping of ideas and their articulation. It is a place where aspiring writers may test their stuff.

We note that a high school newspaper presented this way costs taxpayers nothing to publish. The Progress covers that cost, believing the effort and passion student journalists bring to the bargain will prove our investment a sound one. We wish to continue in the newspaper business. To do so will require a fresh generation of young newspaper readers in this county. We hope the work of our high school counterparts may inspire such a generation.

We seek to promote newspaper readership among younger people here. There is a saying that an educated populace is necessary to a functioning democracy. Certainly there is no better way to keep up with what affects a small-town community than by reading the weekly paper. Community journalism has something for everyone, including the young. We believe the work of some high school writers may prove that in style.

We are excited by the prospect of partnering with this high school news team to monthly present their newspaper inside our own. We may also occasionally feature in the Progress stories by members of the same journalism class in weeks between publication of Dragons’ Lair News, so look for that as well.

For our adult readers, we believe the writings of high school students will be of interest for providing a glimpse of what the youth of our county are doing and thinking about. Too often people complain they don’t understand teenagers. Here’s a chance to hear from some of them firsthand.

There is yet another reason we wanted to do this Dragons’ Lair partnership: everybody has to find a start somewhere. We are sure writers like Studs Terkl, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Pulitzer, Margaret Mitchell, or Celestine Sibley, though destined for significant fame and success couldn’t have started out with much more  than a knack for churning words, the heart to keep doing it and one other very important thing: a chance to be read.

To the students in Mr. Wilkie’s journalism class, here is your chance, your chance to be read. Give it all you have, young person, all  your passion and energy, the unbottled drive of  youth. And someday we’ll brag of how we knew you at the beginning.

We hope all our readers enjoy the first issue of the Dragons’ Lair News.


Some places where spending tax money is exactly what we need

Nationally the mood is dour on spending any amount for any reason. Locally, however, there are projects/plans that are needed, even if they require government spending.

With any project, the success lies in the application. Do a good job, and you’ll reap benefits. Squander money, and you’ll have irate citizens.

Here are some areas where a well-planned project should be considered:

• The courthouse – The forthcoming renovation is being funded by sales tax revenue that is already being collected. Work is moving ahead. Now that the ball is rolling, we say proceed double-time. The case is solid on the  need for a new/renovated courthouse. We must have one, and what better time to start an $11 million to $14 million  project than when there are scores of construction employees needing work? We strongly urge the county to alter bid procedures to keep this work as local as possible.

• The parks – same story as the courthouse. There should numerous landscapers who could round up crews to address some of the shortfalls on fields at Roper Park. Again, this is something that has to be done at some point.

An additional benefit with the parks is their potential to draw tourism dollars into local cash registers. Many communities lacking natural resources (like rivers and lakes and state parks) focus their economic development around softball facilities and soccer complexes. Think what 600 families in town on certain weekends for softball tournaments could do for restaurants and hotels? Renovating parks is going to cost us initially, but there is sales tax revenue to draw from, and if it pays itself off with immediate jobs and later tourism, it might be worthwhile to look at some financing.

• Incentives to lure businesses – In a newsroom discussion a few days ago, we tried to recall the last time a business that would employ at least twenty and add substantially to sales tax revenue opened here. It proved a fruitless discussion. Nothing since Walmart popped up. With the number of commercial buildings sitting empty, anything the county or city could do to lure a prospective operation should be considered. Maybe local government could create incentives for landlords to lower rents by forgoing some permit fees or taxes maybe. We’d strongly encourage county and city officials to get together with our resident economic developer and the chamber of commerce to come up with some ideas.

• The airport tech park/ airport expansion – This remains one of the brightest potential spots for attracting high-paying jobs to this area. This could be something unique to Pickens County for bringing high-quality industries here. If costs can be kept within reason, and there is a solid plan for not only finishing construction but also for marketing the tech park, for locating businesses within it and seeing that it becomes a sustainable, growing commercial generator, this is a place that some spending now should reap benefits down the road: good jobs for local people.

• Our closing caveat – The problem with promoting the above projects is that government (in the general sense) has such a poor track record. Come up with a plan that costs taxpayers up front but can more than pay for itself over a couple of years, and it’s immediately tagged as similar to every prior budget disaster any government ever had. Remember, local tax payers, Pickens County is not the leviathan federal government. People here can watch where tax dollars go and see that they are not squandered in a black hole somewhere in Washington.

In the words of many conservatives, “government needs to be run like a business.” That means investing when the time is right.