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Staff Editorials

Few voters, few candidates, little interest, why bother to have elections?

    The people of this county ought to be embarrassed and ashamed by the primary election last week.
    Few people bothered to vote and important seats went uncontested.
    If this is the best we can do, maybe we should get rid of the right to vote and let the federal government appoint overseers for us.
    This election saw our top local official seeking another four years. Our commission chair, the most powerful local government officer, was running against a longtime rival and yet few people cared enough to vote. It was a heated race for an office that directs where spending goes to roads, parks, economic development activities and ultimately our property tax bills. Similarly the school board chair was in a three person race. Parents and teachers who complain incessantly about every thing a school does, didn’t even turn out in any great number.
    If people don’t turn out to either support or dissent with these figures, it’s hard to imagine what would bring them out.
    Look at some of these disgraceful facts:
    • Only 4,299 voters bothered to cast a ballot. There are 19,778 registered voters here with 15,873 considered active.
    • The turnout counting all voters was 22 percent; it is officially called 27 percent (as the state only counts active voters).
    • This means that only one out of every five voters enjoyed their rights or exercised their duties of being a free citizen in a republic.
    • Just as bad: the following seats were left unopposed: one commission post, one school board seat, the sheriff, magistrate judge, probate judge and clerk of court.
    For the unopposed incumbents, it’s a shame they don’t get to/have to face voters. In the first place, it’s good for all officials to be reminded that they work for the people. Tyrants develop when you put someone in office who never has to justify to voters what they have done the last four years.
    Having public figures come every term and ask for their jobs again is the fundamental underpinning of a democracy. Even without opposition, it appeared that no one had any questions/complaints or suggestions for any of the officeholders. While politicians are generally the subject of ire here all those who didn’t cast a ballot need to take a look in the mirror. This is a public asleep at the wheel.
    The fact that voters/citizens of this county didn’t take any interest in the people governing us right here in buildings we drive past everyday – seems similar to ancient Rome, in the final, not glory days. Maybe instead of holding an election next go-round, we can hire some gladiators to fight in a pit.
    Most galling about this dismal display of democracy is the number of people who follow closely the presidential race. Not that the highest office in the whole country isn’t the most important.
    But those who are so focused on Trump v. Clinton, ask yourself this:
    Who is the one responsible for the roads you drive on everyday? The person who assigns officers to police your neighborhood? Who sets some parameters on the schools? Which government officials can you call at home or stop in the grocery store? It’s not the ones in Washington.
    Luckily, it does appear that our current crop of office-holders are competent, so no harm was done by this pathetic exercise in democracy. But we must do better, our community and forefathers who fought so hard to get us these rights deserve more.

To 2016 Graduates: It’s not what you know, It’s what you do

By Dan Pool


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To the all the classes of 2016 everywhere, regardless of whether you are from Pickens High School, homeschooled, a private school or UGA, Ga. Tech or Chattahoochee Tech. Congratulations, you did it. You finished what you started and hopefully gained something along the way.

You probably have learned more about math, biology and physics than any of us old codgers (defined as those over the age of 25) know. Regardless of all the critics, schools have gotten progressively more advanced in what they teach. You may even know more about English than many of us (and are thinking how this piece could be much better right now); though I fully believe that texting and social media rants have set back the written language/ literacy by at least 300 years.

I will assure you that all you recent graduates know more about SnapChat, creating cute online “memes” (funny pictures), how to put a dog’s face on a friend’s selfie, how to stalk that cute guy/girl online, how to download music for free, how to find an address using a telephone, how to quickly learn the latest Kardashian news and 1 billion other bits of modern trivia that come naturally to you, but leave older generations clueless.

But, please note, none of the above skills offer you any advantage in finding a job. Neither will a school of higher learning nor an employer, nor the military rush to greet you because you have 7,000 followers online.

There might come a day when people can solely rely on messaging to land a job, but as long as older people are doing the hiring, you’d better be ready to go old school with a handshake and eye-to-eye interviews.

On the other hand, and at risk of making most of the faculty sitting out on graduation fields angry, I am not sure than the curriculum you students learned in the classroom is of much more value than the finer points of playing Angry Birds. There have been no circumstances I can recall in my life where being able to decipher exactly how Hamlet felt about his father or when to use the Pythagorean theorem has come into play.

I once surprised a local educator by saying that I didn’t put any stock into advanced degrees in journalism or much of anything else. When it comes to hiring at the Progress, I’d trade practical experience for classroom learning any day. I am supported in my belief by a friend who once worked at the University of Chicago, and regularly advised that degrees are like power tools – unless you know how you are going to use it, going back for more education is like coming home with a fancy machine and nothing to do with it.

Recent graduates reading this may be thinking if that is true, why in the world should I go to college. Actually there are several reasons.

A lot of jobs are closed to people without  education beyond high school. Plain and simple you need the tool (a bachelor’s degree) to even get your foot in the door. Just don’t expect that online degree to really land you a bunch of high paying jobs, like the television commercials promise.

College/ tech school/ the military are environment rich with opportunity corridors. Consider for a moment how many success stories start with the founders of a company meeting in college and beginning something outside of a classroom, which led to a career. In college, you may not go into the field you studied, but you will learn how to learn and handle assignments.

Degrees are important to open doors and obtain skills, but success is made by putting what you know into practice. Doing things energetically and effectively trumps all the papers with fancy seals that you can fit on a wall.

With the motto of Nike, now is the time to “just do it.” 


More parks would serve people of Georgia well

By Dan Pool
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    If you’ve not made summer travel plans, I would like to be able to recommend many of the great Ga. State Parks.
    They always seem to be clean, safe and well-operated. At more than 50 locations around the Peach state, you can find whatever accommodations you desire – from tent camping by a lake to RV hookups to coastal getaways that let you see the other side of Georgia.
    My personal favorite is tent camping anywhere in north Georgia and not just because it’s too hard to back an RV into a camp site. For me and my family, tent camping is real camping.
    There is no better way to disrupt the modern cycle of constant cell-phone, Facebook and endless news feeds than to go sleep outside, hopefully WITHOUT cell service.
    But, to be practical, at most Georgia parks, there are plenty of plug-ins and enough service to stream a movie. And some of the RV’ers manage elaborate displays of lights, big screen televisions and gourmet kitchens.
    Ga. parks offer great chances to have a vacation close by for low cost and with low stress – throw a pair of shorts and flip-flops, maybe hiking boots and a fishing rod in a bag and you’re all set. The parks do charge a reasonable amount, but by the time you pack your own food and have mostly free entertainment with trails and lakes, it’s still a budget-friendly trip -- even for cottages.
    In north Georgia, there are the classic parks like Vogel and Unicoi nearby and a little bit of drive will get you to Cloudland Canyon – where you can try Frisbee golf in addition to exploring some really cool trails.
    As I said in the beginning, I would like to advise you to try the parks, but as  caution, it’s not that simple – by this time in the year, you’d be lucky (though not impossible) to find an open spot at the best sites. Really nearby are Morganton Point on Lake Blue Ridge or Woodring on Carters (which may not technically be state parks but are still operated under some auspices of government) and they stay booked up often – at least the lakeside spots and on weekends.
    Similarly on the other side of the state, Cumberland Island has phenomenal resources and camping for a more adventurous vacation, but you need to book months in advance there.
    The idea that you could hop into the car with kids on a Friday and drive to a state park and find a spot is not practical, though again not impossible. There are many first come, first serve spots but that is a risky proposition to go to so much loading and driving to find everything full. You better have a backup plan if you go during summer holidays.
    Needless to say, Ga. State Parks, as well as the other recreation areas operated by the federal park services and other agencies, are popular. It’s something government is doing well, but also on a limited basis.
    We encourage our state lawmakers to look at the parks and see that they are operated profitably, but also to expand their offerings. If they can cover costs by renting campsites and offering activities, why not offer more? There is no reason not to expand an area of government that people actually like.
    Conservatives ought to take note that parks should be funded by user fees, not taxes. Those who want to fish, camp, hike and boat pay the cost.
    As a big added advantage to all people if the overnight stays can keep the basic amenities like trails open for free (or with a minimal parking fee), all Georgians benefit by being able to get outside and enjoy the great natural resources of this state.
    And, if you are looking for something to do this summer for a family that is healthy, stress free and affordable see what the parks do offer and is available.

Growth projections unreliable, overstated

    In the movie The Big Short, about the financial collapse on Wall Street, one character defends a bad stock pick by saying he wasn’t wrong, just early.
    The people who estimate population growth could use a similar excuse and use it often – “the growth is coming some time.”
    Except thus far, it doesn’t look like they were early – just wrong, in regards to the long anticipated or feared growth wave heading towards Pickens County.
    Although they did not single out Pickens, at the most recent chamber meeting, the state Chamber of Commerce gave a pep-talk and took input on how the whole state should handle all the new faces and a sizzling economy apparently just around the corner.
    The Georgia Chamber of Commerce program, Georgia 2030, indicated the state will add 1.9 million working age people who will fill over 1 million new jobs between now and 2030, hopefully giving us a 40 percent growth in the economy.
    For total population over the period between now and 2030, Georgia’s largest cities are expected to get considerably larger, especially Atlanta which, if these estimates are correct, will grow by 59 percent from 4.7 million to 7.5 million people.
    This figure is similar to population estimates released in 2010 by the state office of planning and budget calling for a 46 percent hike in state population; going from 10.1 million Georgians to 14.6 million during the two decades between 2010 and 2030.
    Figures for our county seem ridiculously high. The same state report from 2010 projected Pickens’ population to have passed 38,000 in 2015 (we are actually only around 30,000) and hit 55,000 by 2030.
    The king of overblown estimates was presented at a public meeting here in the 1990s, when it was speculated that Pickens would see a population of 65,000 by the early decades of the 2000s. That projection still lives in local lore, primarily because of the response of Mayor John Weaver, who made one of his more famous quips, saying that guesstimate was impossible as “we’d be packed in so thick, you couldn’t stir us with a stick.”
    During the late 1990s and early 2000s, considered the boom era for north Georgia real estate, the state saw population growth rates around 30 percent over the decade. And Pickens and neighboring counties were often listed as among the fastest growing in the nation. The Progress during that time ran a monthly column that did nothing but list new subdivision and commercial permits and it was a lengthy article, until it suddenly went to nothing.
    Looking at current Census figures, Pickens’ population was estimated by the state office of budget and planning to be 29,997 in 2014, up very slightly from 29,458 in 2010. The U.S. Census projected our population as 30,309 in 2015.
    As a comparison, the state’s figures for Gilmer County had them right behind us at 28,306 in 2010 and they grew to 28,829 in 2014.
    While some areas of north Georgia and the metro area have seen growth that is straining infrastructure limits (just look at Highway 575), much of the talk about rapid growth at home is little more than wishful thinking or fear tactics depending on how you view it.
    Consider that historically Pickens County has mostly been a rural area, which had a tremendous growth spurt during the real estate boom but then returned to our normal growth pattern. So, despite what many people would have you believe, in the long view of history, we’ve been a slow growth area which saw a significant spurt during one period. Slow growth is the norm, not the exception, here.
    Talk of growth often leads to fears that we will end up with undesirable industrial growth, or looking like Riverstone Parkway in Cherokee County or with a water park dominating the Talking Rock skyline.
    All possible but not plausible. There is nothing on the horizon to portend a significant change here with population. One state economic official conjectured that Highway 515 here would not see any drastic change any time soon.
    Our bet is the growth will be more of a slowly rising tide, not a tidal wave, which is not a bad thing.

County should do what is necessary to get mountain bike area rolling

    For those not following the story, The Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land (STPAL) has permanently protected a 211-acre tract on the Pickens Gilmer line and encourages public use there.
    This is no small gift to the people here. The tax assessment value on the property is more than $1.5 million. In reality, like all large tracts, it wouldn’t sell for that – which is why it ended up with a land trust. But as growth slowly moves north, having a large and easily accessible tract permanently protected is a huge benefit for this county.
    At a public meeting in April with the land trust director and a mountain bike trail design professional, it was estimated that five miles of extraordinary trails plus parking, pavilions and other needs will cost around $250,000. The land trust and the North Georgia Mountain Bike Association jointly funded the $4,000 trail plan for the area.
    During the meeting, corporate sponsors and grants were identified as possible funding sources. The county was not asked for anything other than generally being cooperative. Commission Chair Rob Jones agreed they would help out. He offered a supportive, but non-specific, comment that they would be glad to partner where feasible.
    Hopefully a company will want a north Georgia park with their name or the grants will come through. If not, we believe the county should do whatever is necessary, including funding, to open these trails. We do not ask them to spend a potential quarter million of taxpayer dollars lightly.     Here is our reasoning:
    1. The park is the only thing on the drawing boards in years here that represents a bona fide new tourist destination. Located beside a big busy road that mainly sees people drive past us on the way to Ellijay and Blue Ridge, it’s obvious Pickens needs to offer more to attract tourist dollars.
    2. Once built, the park will require very little upkeep, yet should generate sales taxes and boost local businesses for decades. The trail designer said they don’t give economic impact projections as the trails are just “a draw.” It is up to local businesses to make money off the people. Very true.
    3. Several members of the Progress staff are occasional mountain bikers, who drive to counties both north and south to ride trails. Biking and hiking trips often involve a dinner or lunch, maybe a gas fill-up, and occasional quick stops at stores. We would be exaggerating if we said the impact of these trails would be monumental and immediate. It will be slow and steady but go on forever. Our staff will confirm that very large parking lots at existing trails in Cherokee County are always overflowing.
    4. A mountain bike trail could be the first step down a tourism opportunity corridor. Maybe the mountain biking leads to Frisbee golf and that leads to additional ventures on other pieces of property. The county needs something to get the ball rolling, just as developers find anchor businesses for commercial areas.
    One person at the April meeting asked about parking for  future trail running events there, another group was pondering a dog  park. Create a quality facility and it opens the door to new ideas before construction even starts.
    5. Economics aside, the trails, which would be very nice for hiking/running as well as biking, meet recreational needs. It was noted by the trail advocates at a hearing that neither kids nor adults venture into the woods with any regularity anymore. New mountain bike trails are designed for fun, nothing too challenging, so young riders will enjoy themselves. Having the property developed allows school groups, churches, Scouts, youth groups, family groups, adult hikers, civic clubs, bikers, birders to all have a place to go.
    6. While $250,000 is a sizeable chunk of taxpayer dollars, consider that the county has chronically under-funded recreation for decades. If we had the same mindset about county roads as we do our parks, there would still be mule barns here.
    On the other hand:    The only drawback we see to county funding/helping fund the park is the cost. But a county government spending $250,000 isn’t going to break the bank while it addresses a huge range of recreational and tourism development needs and it will eventually pay for itself.
    IF NO OTHER OPTIONS ARE FOUND - We encourage the board of commissioners to do what is necessary to get the fat tire bikes rolling.