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Southwest Georgia: Creative Economics

An expanded self-image can be a marvelous economic fertilizer.
Throughout Southwest Georgia, cities and counties are striving for a "creative economy." While not abandoning traditional models – that is, courting relocation-prospect companies with tax breaks and land deals – some parts of the region are turning their primary focus inward. They are concentrating their efforts on transforming themselves into the kinds of places that corporate executives and entrepreneurs will want to come to.

In some cases, these efforts are just becoming apparent; in others, the visible results are rather dramatic.

In Albany, re-developer Peter Studl looked at a mostly-abandoned section of downtown and envisioned a tourism destination. Studl, director of The Albany Fund, and his investment partner Bob Brooks, an Albany real estate developer, have acquired most of the property along the two blocks of Broad Street, from the local government center to the banks of the Flint River.

Studl sees a renewed downtown as the hub of an attraction based on what he calls "edutainment." Travelers to and from Florida and, most especially, Metro Atlanta residents looking for a quick getaway, will come to Albany to experience a thematically-linked group of attractions related to the environment.

Existing natural attractions include the Flint Riverquarium, Chehaw Wild Animal Park and Radium Springs, an exquisite spring that was once Albany's own swimming hole and is now a state nature preserve, though it has been severely dried up by the region's current drought.

The Albany Fund's plan is to fill up empty downtown blocks with commercial attractions to complement the natural ones. There will be small museums, at least one art gallery, probably a bookstore, and a variety of family-oriented restaurants, Studl says.

The concept of an old Albany landmark, the Arctic Bear restaurant, will be revived for the new Broad Street. In an abandoned warehouse across the street from the restored Bridge House (the remains of a covered bridge built before the Civil War by the freed slave Horace King), Studl plans a fire-truck themed pizza restaurant. He has purchased vintage fire trucks from around the nation, and he plans to cut them up and convert them into restaurant seating and décor.

It will take a steady flow of tourist dollars to make Studl's vision a reality. In the past 30 years, Albany has added about 3 million square feet of retail and commercial space, most in the northwest part of the city. The overall population has essentially remained unchanged in that same period, Studl says.

Turning the most neglected part of the city into a tourist attraction is as much a leap of faith as an economically sound business venture, Studl says. "I do think there has to be a spiritual element to it," he says. "I've always been interested in creating a sense of place – and this can be a different place."

Studl has radically altered his life to invest in a new Albany. About six years ago, he and his wife, an Albany native, were set to move to an apartment in Monaco with a view of the Mediterranean. Complications arose, and they thought they'd spend a year in Albany. The Studls are still in Albany and plan to stay for the foreseeable future.

Promoting Culture
In Colquitt, county seat of Miller County, a group of people who were determined not to accept the declining state of their local economy have become international trendsetters in what they call the "creative economy."

They may have lived in a forgotten corner of Georgia, but they knew they had unforgettable stories to tell, stories about their lives and the history of their homeplace. Those stories became the basis of "Swamp Gravy," a series of dramatized oral histories that is now the official folk play of the state of Georgia.

The professionally mounted productions are performed, sung and danced by local residents. "Swamp Gravy" is presented on weekends in October and April, and it plays to packed houses in a converted cotton warehouse. The Swamp Gravy movement was led by the Miller County Arts Council, which has also renovated an historic downtown hotel and filled empty spaces on the town square with a variety of shops.

Also, the council has sponsored a mural program that has transformed blank walls of downtown buildings into artistic murals that tell "Swamp Gravy"-style stories. In 2010, Colquitt will be the host city for the Global Mural Conference.

The Colquitt model of arts-related development has now been replicated in cities in 10 other states, says arts council chairwoman Joy Jinks. However, she adds, the tangible changes are perhaps not the most important legacy of the "Swamp Gravy" creative endeavors. "The most significant impact we've made is on the spirit of the community," Jinks says.

Barton Rice knew he couldn't rely on traditional economic development techniques, when he set about helping to transform his father's hometown of Blakely, the seat of Early County. The elder Rice, Charles, had moved to Atlanta and founded a highly successful home security firm. After selling his company for a price in the nine-figure range, Charles Rice established a nonprofit foundation, Early County 2055. Barton Rice is its executive director.

"The traditional agriculture-based economy is not completely gone, but it doesn't benefit the overall community the way it once did," Barton Rice says.

Lisa Collins, the agency's project manager, said she knew development tactics had to change, after losing a major potential industrial client to the Asian metropolis of Singapore. "I knew we had to start thinking more outside of the box," she says.

For example, Early County could start to make an asset out of being bypassed by modern style growth. "We've got a place here where you can truly step back in time." he says.

The planners brought to Blakely by Early County 2055 identified on-location movie-making as one way to capitalize on still having that old-fashioned look. Accordingly, Rice connected with actor-producer Ralph Wilcox, who, working with members of the Miller County Arts Council, has succeeded in building a state-of-the-art movie soundstage in Colquitt.

Over Labor Day weekend, Blakely hosted Wilcox's annual film festival. An estimated 6,000 people attended the festival's block party on the square in Blakely, where the total population is close to 5,000.

Rice says one of the first high-visibility projects of Early County 2055 will start construction by late 2007. An eye-catching $1 million visitor's center will be built on the US 27 bypass, complete with landscaped grounds and a pond and waterfall.

Out Of Florida
One place where the traditional economic development model still seems to be working quite well is Bainbridge, the seat of Decatur County.

Rebecca Martin, executive director of the Development Authority of Bainbridge-Decatur County, says the latest addition to the county's spacious industrial park is the new Traco plant, an expansion facility for the Pennsylvania-based window and door manufacturer. The plant opened recently, with employment estimates of 300 new jobs.

Martin says she's been kept busy in recent months, simply responding to inquiries from companies that want to come to the area.

She attributes much of the growth spurt to the county's location just north of the Florida line. Georgia is perceived as having a more favorable business climate, she says, and insurance and congestion problems in Florida are prompting businesses and individuals to move north, but just a little bit. "We have the advantage of being close to Florida, but not being in Florida," she says.

Still, she adds, it is the high quality of life in Bainbridge that helps seal the deal for the relocation prospects. "What's amazing about Bainbridge is that it is a city of 13,000 people, but it has the amenities of a much larger city," she said.

Martin cites the city's performing arts center, its extensive parks and recreation system, a gem of a downtown square, and a local school system that has been selected as one of 75 systems around the nation to participate in an advanced information-technology program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Also, this year, construction is expected to start on a 20-year project creating a greenspace and nature preserve linking downtown Bainbridge with the beautiful, unspoiled riverfront of the Flint River.

Even though she was raised in the metropolis of Toronto, Martin proclaims herself "perfectly entertained in Bainbridge."

Dr. John McRae, the authority's chairman, says the affection that newcomers and longtime residents alike hold for Bainbridge was expressed best by a friend, who told him, "I wasn't born here, but I got here as quick as I could."

Southwest Georgia At-A-Glance

Selected counties
Clay County
Population
3,242
Unemployment Rate
5.5 percent
Per Capita Income
$23,412

Decatur County
Population
28,618
Unemployment Rate
5.7 percent
Per Capita Income
$21,093

Dougherty County
Population
94,882
Unemployment Rate
5.9 percent
Per Capita Income
$23,353

Early County
Population
12,056
Unemployment Rate
5.5 percent
Per Capita Income
$24,975


Lowndes County
Population
96,705
Unemployment Rate
4.1 percent
Per Capita Income
$24,315

Miller County
Population
6,228
Unemployment Rate
4.1 percent
Per Capita Income
$23,772

Sumter County
Population
32,912
Unemployment Rate
7.2 percent
Per Capita Income
$22,875

Tift County
Population
40,793
Unemployment Rate
5 percent
Per Capita Income
$23,284

Georgia
Population
9.4 million
Unemployment Rate
4.6 percent
Per Capita Income
$29,782

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Dept. of Community Affairs, Georgia Dept. of Labor

Population and per capita income figures for 2006; Unemployment rates for Sept. 2007

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updated: 8 years ago