In the News

Blakely Rebirth

BLAKELY " Early County sits in one of the poorest congressional districts in the state. The county is dying from changes in the national economy, lack of economic growth and a declining population. Some residents say its future is dismal.

But Early County has been cast in a new light with the development of Early County 2055.

The Early County 2055 nonprofit corporation, created by Charles and Catherine B. Rice, is proposing revitalization, economic development and preservation of Early County. The Foundation is being managed by the Rices' son, C. Barton Rice Jr., executive director of Early County 2055.

Early County 2055 officials together with Early County leaders, Blakely and Arlington officials, professional planners, architects and policy experts are being proactive in shaping the county's future by deciding what they want it to look like in 50 years.

"I think it's exciting to see a vision of this kind," Richard Ward, Early County Commission chairman, said. "Like so many rural counties, we're looking for a bright light of some kind. Some counties would die to see something like this come into their county."

The mission of the Early County 2055 "is to support community efforts to preserve the area's natural resources while developing a long-term growth strategy that will ultimately result in a diversified economic structure and master strategy for the future," according to the organization's executive summary.

Early County 2055 was started as a gift to Blakely and Early County that would jumpstart the long-term process. The initiative kicked off in April with a week-long planning process, completely funded by the Rice Foundation and engineered by the Miami-based land planning and development advisory firm, PlaceMakers.

"Early County was a burgeoning community in the late 1800s," Charles B. Rice Sr., director of the Rice Foundation, said in The Early County News in January.

Rice, an Atlanta millionaire who started Barton Protective Services, upon returning to Blakely was stunned to find that his hometown had deteriorated as a result of the county's overall economic decline.

"The intent of this gift is not only to help the community preserve its assets " a charming, close knit southern community, great location, low cost of living and rich heritage, but also to enable them to merge its history with a viable economic future for growth and prosperity," Rice said.

The result of the planning process is a 50-year master plan that includes a revitalized Blakely Court Square featuring the building of the Blakely Inn, retail spaces and loft apartments, a conference center over the Chamber of Commerce and a renovated theater.

Plans also call for building a new community center and closing off a street next to Blakely City Hall to create a piazzetta or government plaza. Streets of Blakely will be narrowed, sidewalks widened and storefronts renovated with permanent awnings to encourage more pedestrian traffic.

Downtown Arlington, which straddles the Calhoun County line, is ahead of county plans with the renovation of fewer than a dozen storefront facades.

The master plan also includes the building of New Hilton, a new town proposed between Hilton and the Chattahoochee River.

New Hilton, a quasi-retirement community, will have an 18-hole golf course, trails along the river and a shooting range, as well as affordable housing developed in a community setting that county leaders hope will attract baby boomers and retirees to Blakely.

Components and investments to the film industry, which is being built from the ground up in neighboring Colquitt County, are also part of Early County's master plan.

The Early County Development Authority has given Early County 2055 five acres for the building of a 10,000-square-foot building in the industrial park to house Movie Rags Costume Co. The costume design and construction and rental company, which belongs to Beverly Safier, is expected to be completed sometime in December. She also owns Off the Cuff Productions Co.

Safier, who is moving her Orlando-based companies to Blakely after 30 years in business there, toured Blakely last month while in Colquitt County for a regional film festival. Safier said she knew instantly she wanted to live in Blakely.

"I fell in love with the city and the area," Safier said. "We're going to build a movie industry there."

Some other projects that made the list for ideas for economic development were: an alligator farm, a barbershop/car wash, an organic farm, a day spa and a grocery store. The project list also includes ideas for community development, such as movies on the square, mentoring programs and story time at the park.

"A lot of this stuff is really achievable," Ward said.

Lee Conner, chairman of the Arlington Downtown Development Authority and a member of the Arlington City Council, said the initiative is just getting started, but he's optimistic.

"This is an opportunity for Early County that has not presented itself before," Conner said. "It's an opportunity to perform with order."

Early County 2055 allows county and city leaders to concentrate on revitalizing Early County under the critical eye of professionals skilled in city planning, he said.

"I love it," said Robert Collier, a former mayor of Blakely. "It's an opportunity for a little small town to make a change in a new direction."

Collier is supportive of the plan, especially if it helps convince the county's youth to either stay in or return to Blakely to live.

"By far, the big vast majority are for it," Collier said.

But there are skeptics, who are less concerned about new facades on buildings and more about the dim future of jobs in Early County, the need for another grocery store, the poor economic situation and the lack of prospects for new economic growth in the county.

Early County has experienced a decline in population, falling from 12,354 in 2000 to 12,056 in 2005.

About 26 percent of the county's residents " twice the state average " live below poverty. The per capita income for Early County is $21,000, nearly $7,000 below the state average. Nearly half of the county's 511 square miles is farmland. A third of the county residents live in mobile homes while many others live in public housing.

"I'm all for this if it's going to bring in new business and help people who are here," said Lynda Howard, a Blakely businesswoman.

But Early County 2055 Project Manager Lisa Collins said that revitalization is not just about sprucing up old buildings. "It's people," she said.

"This has to be a team effort," Collins said. "You've got to have the buy-in of the residents and agencies."

While the Rice family laid the foundation, Collins said, "We can't do this by ourselves." She said, "It's got to be a countywide effort."

"The Rices are not here to do everything for us," Collier said. "They're here to give us an assist to help us do what we need to do." He said the Rices are giving Early County "a new vision." But, he says, it's up to Early County residents to see it carried out.

© 2006 The Albany Herald/Triple Crown Media

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