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February 2020
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Staff Editorials

Our “old” and interesting provides local character

As many people know a wall collapsed at Commercial Interiors Manufacturing two weeks ago. The building is better known as the Old H.D. Lee plant. It is, of course, next to the Old High School which now houses the Mountain Education Center and a law enforcement training center.

The Old High School is across East Church Street and down the road slightly from the Old Jasper Cemetery. This plot of shady ground truly does contain burial sites as old as anything in the area. Neither the former H.D. Lee plant nor high school are really that old.

Nor is the Old Shoe Plant on Hood Road really that old; former would be a better word but it doesn’t sound right with the name and for these buildings old has become part of the name, not an adjective.

[As a sidenote, it is interesting to recall that both the Old H.D. Lee plant and the Old Shoe Plant are leftovers from the days of textiles/clothing industry in the area. The H.D. Lee plant employed a number of people to sew Lee brand jeans. LL Bean style duck boots were among the products that came out of the shoe plant.]

We also have the Old Jail on Main Street. We are not alone with our efforts to restore former houses of correction, hoping to change them from prisoner cells to tourist sales. Drive in any direction and you will find “Old Jails.” Dawsonville, Clarke/Athens and Canton, all have restored jails and in middle Georgia, Jailhouse Brewing Company is located in the Old Hampton City Jail.

Our Old Jail has a unique façade and a gallows which gives the building, constructed in 1906, potential as a true tourist draw when renovated properly. And at more than 110 years old, it can truly have the word old added to it name.

This building has been joined by the Old Convict Camp (on Camp Road) for our collection of former prisoner areas now in some state of preservation. While the jail retains its character, the Convict Camp, has been renovated as offices for the county public works department, though offices that  still contain some ominous jail doors.

There is no reason to call the Tate Depot, the Old Tate Depot as it’s the only depot in town and very nicely restored. If  its vintage charm is ever put to new use, it will be a tremendous asset.

As you can see there seems to be a decided preference here for referring to everything by a former use with old added to the front.

We could call Roper Park the Old Airport and the county’s administration building the Old Hospital.

Coming soon will be the Old Mulehouse, a new restaurant that has excited many by the owners’ effort at getting the Old NAPA Building (or Old Blue as some called it) back in action on Main Street. It’s not clear that a mulehouse ever ran out of that location, but a longtime Chevy dealership did.

And depending on its fate, the Woodbridge Inn, may become the Old Woodbridge, or it may still be the Woodbridge if it re-opens with the same name. This is  referring to the restaurant/inn not the old wooden bridge in front of it which will continue as the wooden bridge thanks to  all the state tax dollars that keep it up to code.

While better naming might be in order, all these old structures give us local character. Highlighting the old adds genuine small town flavor and historic preservation is an idea we hope the various mayors, commissioners and council will be on board with.

History not only draws tourists, but makes a place more interesting to live. Who wouldn’t prefer the old wooden bridge to a new concrete one?

As a saying by British writer Ethel Dell goes, “What the world, social and political, concrete and mental, really needs is not new things, but the old things made new.”

SPLOST plan enables status quo forever

Disappointed. That’s the most accurate word we can muster to describe the county commissioners’ thinking behind the proposed sales tax spending plan voters will see on the ballot this November.

The wish list put forward at a meeting between county and city officials last week was devoid of any creative thinking or vision. It was as though they raised a loud cheer for status quo forever.

What particularly riles us and does a disservice to the citizens of this fine county is the fact that the commissioners want to spend $19.1 million of the extra penny sales tax over the next five years on roads, and a beggar’s mite of $740,000 on parks.

Of the $30 million in sales tax they hope to collect in five years (or $37 million in six years, depending on how they opt to proceed), 51 percent goes to roads, less than two percent to parks. One commissioner said they hope to raise this but we will believe that will happen when we see it on the ballot.

Roads are certainly important. They are literally the roadways to everything else; no denying it. If you didn’t have roads you couldn’t reach parks or hospitals, nor could  sheriff officers who will see $2.96 million (8 percent) of the SPLOST come into their office’s budget or the fire and EMS guys who will see $5.1 million (14 percent) come into their budget get to anyone needing help.

But the ridiculously lop-sided spending on roads doesn’t make sense. It’s putting too many eggs in one basket.

Their plan of ‘let’s spend it on roads’ shows a decided lack of planning or acknowledgement of what’s going on in the rest of north Georgia and world. It shows deaf ears on the commissioners to what various citizens groups have said in the comprehensive planning sessions, as well as ignores what economic development experts have said – we need to create a vibrant community to be attractive to younger people who will bring businesses and jobs.

The “we’ll just pave everyone’s roads” reeks of the old system of government where the commission chair was known as the road commissioner. That description no longer fits a modern county on the edge of metro-Atlanta and on the cusp of a growing population.

We need more than new asphalt around here. Asphalt, we might add, that takes people to other counties to recreate and thus, shop, eat and spend.

So, the county here waits at least another five years for any serious park upgrades to occur. The $740,000 will be easily gobbled up by projects at Roper Park, a park that was described in a county-funded study from the early 2000s as unsuitable.

Here again is the Pickens Recreation Master Plan from 2006, “the existing park (Roper Park) is an abandoned airport. The site is an inappropriate shape, long and narrow, and has a had few upgrades since it was built 35 years ago.”

We have added a $3 million, 30,000-square-feet community center there. The Robert P. Jones building is truly a nice asset, but that’s it. In 13 years since the county’s own plan called for more space, more amenities and more features, this county paid off the recreation center in March and hailed it as a great accomplishment but has attempted nothing else. Note also there is no park at all west of Highway 515.

  Consider the overall paltriness of what has been spent on new recreation projects in the past decade. The $3 million community center project over 13 years is about $230,000 year. The SPLOST proposal is $740,000 over five years which is about $148,000 a year. We are going backwards at a time when we need to see progress to improve the quality of life here.

“Come on up here millennials and please stay here PHS graduates and enjoy our single, sub-standard park. We’re not changing.” How’s that for a sales pitch? 


Why our July 4th celebration is the best

There are certainly bigger July 4th celebrations in bigger cities but none are better than our Jasper, Ga. celebration. 

Other celebrations of America’s independence may have flyovers of military aircraft and more elaborate floats and those are nice, but impersonal. Those evoke spectacle, ours here evokes community.

Jasper’s Main Street is the only parade where you’ll find Pickens County faces. Not just our  officials and candidates but that guy from down the street and the swim team and the guy who has the place that fixes your car. 

And, appropriately enough, those are our veterans wearing their uniforms and representing the DAV, veterans park group, American Legion, Legion Riders and Marine detachment coming through. Look at the faces of those soldiers and you know why America has won the wars, not one showed signs of being bothered by the 90-plus degree heat out there in uniforms, carrying flags.

All the people in the parade throwing candy and waving are people you know as neighbors, fellow church members or from the businesses you deal with. Heck, you’d probably wave at many of the folks on the floats and firetrucks if you saw them standing on the roadside, not even at a parade.

The floats rolling down Main Street are there because they are a part of this small town and that’s what makes our July 4th celebration special.

This classic Norman Rockwell-ish Independence Day doesn’t happen by magic or by tax dollars. It happens by hard work from the Jasper Lions Club.

For people who don’t know the history, the Lions were formed on June 22, 1939. Two weeks later they partnered with the Jaycees (a service organization that has since gone defunct) and got involved in the mid-summer celebration for Jasper. 

And since that time there have been some doozies of celebrations. Ask any long time Jasper resident about “The Fourth” and they probably have a story to tell of when the rides were set up on Main Street or when they had greased pole climbing and greased pig chasing.

For all 80 years of their service, the Jasper Lions have supplied their time, effort and money to make the big day happen. Their members arrange everything from the opening parade and entertainment to the rides and the fireworks.

The local club doesn’t assemble the rides, but they make sure there is a company coming and they find the fireworks guys who close out the day.

Please keep in mind that the rides are important for families who can’t make the trip to metro amusement parks. If the Lions didn’t bring these rides to town, some kids would never get to hop on a Ferris wheel.

And the money generated by the festivities and raffles fund the Lions work throughout the year, including a home for developmentally disabled, eyeglasses for those who need them and health checks and summer camps among other projects.

Lions Club President Leslie Miller said  about 90 percent of their club members were involved either in preparation or on the 4th. She said, “it’s still fun except sometimes it doesn’t seem that fun until you are sitting there watching the end of the fireworks and know that another one is in the books.”

The Lions have been doing this for years  and they see many of the same faces return every time for Bingo and the fireworks, according to Lion Eloise Lindsey. She said people tell her they save money throughout the year for their “Bingo money.” 

It’s not just a holiday for these people, it’s  a family reunion – which is a sentiment you’ll never find in a big city event.


Ample caution a must as technology progresses

Concerns by watchdogs, and some members of congress, over facial-recognition software used by government agencies and businesses may not unsettle many of us. Unless you really follow and ponder technology it’s hard to understand and to see potential harm.

The use of facial recognition software has made the news several times recently. Federal immigration agents used millions of the photos in state drivers license databases to look for people illegally in the country using advanced facial recognition software.

And the city of Detroit has come under fire for using facial recognition software to look for wanted people on numerous security camera feeds around the city. The problem, according to critics, is the software is much less accurate for people with darker skin tones, thus it is more likely to produce false matches for minorities. 

Making sure the software is accurate is crucial but, assuming it can be made accurate, those uses seem pretty legitimate.  Of course, if it’s of dubious accuracy, the software sounds like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. 

The bigger threat lies in what else can be done on the grand scale by scanning faces, and especially as the programs are being vigorously developed by private companies. According to The New York Times, anyone whose photo was ever uploaded to the dating site OKCupid may be in a database now used by private interests for facial recognition software testing. The Times reported that one database had 10 million different images and another had two million.

Not surprisingly tech behemoths Facebook and Google are leading the way with efforts to develop facial recognition uses.

Congressman Doug Collins, who represents the eastern half of Pickens County, has been vocal about protecting privacy in the digital age by empowering individuals to guard their own information and expecting the private sector to be good stewards of information submitted online. In a strong statement released last week (see Other Voices on this page) Collins put forth principles he wants incorporated into this effort. His statement acknowledges that the speed of innovation and the complexity of the issue make it a challenge  to create legislation to hem it in.

Frankly, it is hard to foresee what problem would arise by Facebook and Google or the government being able to put a name on your face in a photo and make that searchable. Yet there is something unsettling that tech companies seek to identify you in pictures, even when your name was not attached. It is similar to being recognized by a creepy dude you don’t know. 

Lack of specifics aside, the fact we can’t see a problem right now doesn’t mean we don’t need oversight, controls and more thinking on the subject. As Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said in an interview in the Times article, “It’s time for a timeout. Let’s figure out how we can put in safeguards that protect our fundamental liberties.”

Another snippet in the same Times article clearly justifies the fear of technology slipping through the controls. Using AI involving bodies and faces, a software program called DeepNude allows users to create realistic nude shots starting with photos of whomever they chose.

Obviously that software is troubling. Not only does it open all kinds of doors for perverts, but consider the extortion/revenge possibilities.

According to the Times account, the creator of DeepNude deleted his program shortly after it was posted to a code-sharing website. Too late, as the article stated, it had already been copied and posted in other spots, and is now impossible to pull back as there are “too many dark corners” of the internet.

We may not immediately see a threat with expanded facial recognition software but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support efforts to put controls in place before it is too late.


Drive-through county

By Dan Pool, Editor

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The problems hampering business growth in Pickens County can be summed up with an exchange I had with an older Georgian from the metro-area while I was on vacation.

When I said I was from Jasper, his response was, unfortunately for our image, the typical, “Oh, I know where Jasper is. We drive through there on our way to Ellijay and Blue Ridge.”

We are a drive-through county. 

Our identity or brand, as the marketing crowd likes to say, is “Pickens County is that place people drive through to reach the mountains.” To get a perspective of just how many of these people are passing through on the way to somewhere else, watch traffic on Highway 515 heading north Friday and coming back south on Sunday evening.

I’ve thought for some time we should demand that Cherokee County give us their brand motto “where metro meets the mountains.” It’s an inaccurate description for Cherokee County with no relevance at all for Woodstock and south Cherokee. They are purely metro and no significant mountains rise inside their borders. 

We are where metro from the south meets mountains to the north. 

For our own calling cards, we have Jasper’s motto “The First Mountain City,” which isn’t bad. But, it appears that Pickens County is just Pickens County, Ga. They do not claim the Marble Capital of Georgia on their website and several state tourism websites inaccurately list Jasper as the marble capital, rather than the county or more accurately Tate/Nelson/Marble Hill.

The Chamber of Commerce uses the tag line, “where business meets the great outdoors,” which seems more aspirational than accurate, with the decided lack of business meeting us as the root problem. “Where business meets the great outdoors” has a nice ring and perhaps the county should use this one as well to develop a uniform character for the county.

New graphics and a snazzy motto would be nice. Just like lights on our downtown building are nice. Having the Old Jail open regularly is nice. None of these are game changers and no one claims they are. No one expects the lights to suddenly create a shopping mecca here.

But all the efforts help. Just like it would be great to see the city of Jasper install some kind of median beautification plan on Highway 515, like Ellijay’s crepe myrtles or Blue Ridge’s flowers, something to let people know they are somewhere when they arrive here on 515. A fourlane streetscape representative of the qualities of this county shows that our community cares, and it might inspire a few people to see what the businesses there offer.

We certainly don’t want to divert all the traffic from Highway 515 or else we’d ended up like Blue Ridge – a tourist trap that has consumed the small town, making for robust cash register sales but not a place locals can congregate.

The best thing we have going for us in Jasper and Tate at the moment is the momentum of business openings. New restaurants, dessert shops and stores have given a spark of hope that the towns are on the right path to vitality.

Tourist dollars really are the ultimate in economic development as the those spending them don’t stick around to put kids in school, ask for their road to be paved and hopefully have no contact with our emergency responders.

And the county, cities and Chamber of Commerce need to support this mission. The question is how.

Assuming the state DOT would frown on us putting a gate and detour sign on the fourlane, we need to explore ideas to entice tourists to give our towns a chance to show what makes this a great place. More of the  cohesive identity/marketing, better 515 curb appeal and continued work with joint economic development of the chamber/county and city may help -- eventually.

One day we may attract some of the northward migration of tourists. Until then keep in mind that coming downtown to Tate, Talking Rock or Jasper make nice outings for all of us and our support is vital to these businesses until that time.