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Staff Editorials

Going Back to Downtown

A few weeks ago, we had an editorial, Main Street is alright the way it is. It provoked a barrage of response in letters to the editor, online, on our social media and in person. People get fired up about downtown Jasper.

To further the discussion, we are presenting some of the responses with additional comments.

• Most people who commented expressed an opinion that Jasper’s Main Street and downtown are unique, with a certain charm, but at the same time is a tough business environment.

There is clearly some truth to this belief that businesses there are vulnerable. It was disappointing to see the Italian restaurant, Lolo’s, pack it up so quickly after opening and also that Main Street Clothing closed after many years. On the other hand, recall that Moore Furniture and Jasper Drug have been in business for decades on Main Street, along with 61 Main and Pickens County Chiropractic who have established themselves as solid businesses.

• “All of Main Street reaps the benefits of more food, beverages, and establishments that encourage our local citizens as well as visitors to stop in and enjoy our amazing town.” Well put. We do need more. And we would point to the rarely mentioned, but massive spots, the old Sidebar, a block east of Main and the old federal building, a block west as two blackholes that need re-filling • “When you drive through town on a Saturday after 3 p.m. and it looks like a ghost town... Makes one wonder...where is all the people? Is it because there isn't enough on Main Street? – A vey valid observation.

• “Highway 515 – a major road to get somewhere else.” Thousands of people drive through on weekends, but blasting by at 60 m.p.h. produces little benefit for us. The challenge: Get some percentage to stop. The answer? Open for discussion and debate.

• Other people made comments that business was shifting to the highway and deserting downtown. This may be true in a lot of places, and it may be happening here, but very slowly, if at all. Consider that with the exception of one new strip beside Walmart, our four-lane hasn’t seen any business boom since the Walmart opened and that was years ago. A Hardees is under construction and a Dunkin Donuts/convenience combo has plans out there. But that is where you expect fast food to locate.

• In a few related comments, several people complained that the city of Jasper only encourages fast food restaurants. Not true. It’s more a case of taking what they are getting. It’s not like the city planning folks had an option of permitting the Dunkin Donuts or a high tech manufacturing company. Who wanted to open is who we got.

• That being said, quite a few people opined that the city of Jasper has too much red-tape and hoops to jump through to get a business open. Some in the business have made this complaint so there must be some truth behind it.

•Others have said that the city and the chamber of commerce aren’t doing enough to promote business. We agree, but also reply, “exactly what do you want them to do?” This is a case where willingness and desire to help are there; new ideas are needed.

• Tourism is often tossed out as the Holy Grail of increased vitality for small towns. But, at this point Jasper is simply not positioned to take advantage of it.  Here is the problem, a tourist stops you on a Wednesday afternoon on Main Street and asks what should they do to spend a few hours. What is your answer? Before we can talk tourism, we must have attractions that justify someone driving here.

• Finally a lot of people say what downtown needs are some new businesses; brewpub, book store and movie theatre are mentioned. In some of the comments, there was accusatory tone that Jasper lacked “cool” or “hip” businesses as though there was a plot to keep them out of town. One person even directly stated that the local powers that be were squashing small business dreams of opening up neat shops. Absolutely untrue. These would all be nice to have, but, they will come only when someone in the private sector with the financing believes they are a viable business to open here. With the exception of state laws for the brewery, no one is opposing any of these businesses.

• What’s missing or holding back new business, we would suggest are the lack of shoppers. See above comment about the Saturday ghost town. As we ended the last editorial, we’ll repeat the best thing that can be done to support downtown is to shop there.


Advice to graduates: Set your own course

    Remember that moment as a four-year-old walking up the aisle at your preschool graduation? Remember getting up on the stage, turning around to face the audience, smiling wildly when you realize you are the center of everyone’s attention?
   At this Saturday’s PHS graduation ceremony,  each member of the  class of 2015 has earned the attention of the whole community.
    For the graduating class, this is what you have been working for.
    Each and every graduate has secured a place in the spotlight on what we hope will be a pleasant May morning in the middle of Dragon Stadium. Your years of hard work and determination have landed you a diploma and your parents grinning from ear to ear as they watch you reach a first significant milestone in your life.
    This is also a turning point: school is finished, the great whatever comes next. College offers an extension of education to many but what ever you do now your decisions are exactly that - yours.
   While the speeches are rolling, you might be thinking of all the “last times” you’ve had recently - the last time you walked onto the PHS campus, the last time you grabbed lunch in the cafeteria, the last time you saw that curly-haired boy in physics -  remember this is also the time when you can start forging your own path in life.
   Amid the cameras and cell phones clicking off tons of photos, commencement speakers will be lining up to tell graduates “today is the first day of the rest of your lives” or “follow your dreams” or, as Sandra Bullock so eloquently told graduates of Warren Easton Charter High School, “Don’t pick your nose in public.” High school graduation is one of life’s milestones; everyone both nervous and excited for new chapters in their lives.
   Part of making your way in a post-high-school world is realizing that a large part of your life will be filled with work. Gone are the three-month-summer-vacation, two-week  Christmas breaks, week-long spring and winter breaks.
    In this world, finding what you love doing - whether it makes you rich like Mark Zuckerberg or not - is the only way you’ll be content.
   So while you are inundated with advice, know that the only on-ramp to the  path of happiness is finding your passion. Only you can figure out this path.
     See yourself as part of something greater - a family, a society, a world. Enjoy the moments as they come and always be passionate about what you do.
   Graduates remember that your parents will always think of you as that four-year-old parading in a single-file line down the aisle at preschool graduation, walking away from your childhood years and into kindergarten. Now, as you’ve grown in a mere blink of their eyes, from that wide-eyed, pint-sized tyke leaving for kindergarten to that six-foot tall, young adult leaving for college/ the military/ work, you have grown into your own person, a person who can make their own path and reach their own goals.
   So choose well when setting those goals and always be open to new and wonderful experiences. Graduation is not just an end to your high school career but a stepping stone in your life. And in the words of Master Yoda: “Much to learn you still have.. my old padawan. This is just the beginning.”
   So graduates of 2015 - What are you going to do with this one wild and precious life you’ve been given?
   While enjoying graduation day, snap lots of pictures and blow-up your Instagram feeds  marking the day.
   And when the day is over, relish the memories and turn toward your future. We hope they are bright.   Good luck.

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.

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.



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.