In the News

Restoring Early County

BLAKELY " Like the face of the Old Blakely Theater that fronts it, the town square itself is a facade of sorts.

Certainly, it has Old South, small-town charm. The Early County Courthouse stands stately at the epicenter. Sprouting from the courthouse green: an 8-foot-high stone monument to the peanut, the economic foodstuff of this southwest Georgia county for decades.

Empty storefronts, however, pockmark the square. Stray a few blocks in the right, or wrong, direction, and there are wooden shacks, dilapidated trailer homes. The Blakely Theater exterior sparkles, but its interior sits unfinished, a partly renovated, silent moviehouse emblematic of a county seat and largely agrarian county that's seen far better days. Until now.

There's a new commodity available on the square: Hope. Hope lives at 182 Court Square, in the new offices of Early County 2055. A nonprofit initiative funded by an Atlanta businessman, EC2055 has an ambitious 50-year growth plan to help Blakely and Early County regain their economic footing in the 21st century while retaining the area's rural character.

"It's just like an extra wattage on your light bulb," said Melanie Brown, who owns Brown Jewelers on the square. "Everything's brighter. It gives you hope."

Not every high school graduate here moves away, never to return home. It just seems that way. Brown's daughters, Abby and Maggy, are just 16 and 9, respectively, yet they've already announced, "Mom, if you think we're going to stay here and run this business, you're crazy."

Even Charles Rice Sr. had the itch to flee a half-century ago. "I couldn't wait to leave Blakely," said Rice, now 69.

He eventually moved to Atlanta and became a millionaire. In 1977, Rice started Barton Protective Services Inc. and built the company into one of the leading contract security firms in the country. In 2004, he merged the firm with another company and sold it for a reported $180 million. Early that year, Rice also had an epiphany.

His mother, Katha, died on Feb. 22, 2004, her 93rd birthday. When Rice came home to bury her, he was nearly moved to tears by the deterioration in his hometown.

"The courthouse and the square is OK, but not like it was in 1950," said Rice. "Once you get a couple of clocks away from the square, well ..."

Area's needs are great
Rice was stunned at what he saw in parts of his homeplace. "It's just shack after shack after shack," he said. "Trailer after trailer after trailer. A lot of those places should've been condemned and bulldozed years ago."

Initially, Rice planned to build a community center at the local Baptist church to honor his mother's memory. He quickly saw a far greater need. Community leader Stanley Houston, a lifelong friend who once bagged groceries with Rice in high school, spoke of revitalizing their hometown. The result: The Charles and Catherine B. Rice Foundation created Early County 2055 to spur revitalization of town and county.

The Rice Foundation " of which Charles and Catherine's son, Barton, is executive director " took nearly a year to find a master planner for the project: PlaceMakers, a Miami-based town planning and development advisory firm that assisted Gulf Coast communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A week ago, PlaceMakers " with a 20-person team of urban planners, architects, economists, policy experts, builders, attorneys, accountants and long-term strategists " spent eight days here meeting with local political figures, business people and residents.

Many ideas were bounced around. Developing alternative energy sources. Encouraging alligator farms. Building affordable housing. Opening a day spa. Giving the square a face-lift. Attracting the filmmaking industry. Maybe establishing a peanut research center.

"We want to re-create economic viability for the community and make Blakely [population about 5,500] viable for the 21st century," said 36-year-old Barton Rice. "If we're going to create jobs, we've got to have good housing, too."

Early County (511 square miles, nearly half of which is farmland) has a population of about 13,000, nearly 33 percent fewer than in the 1930s. It is one of Georgia's poorest counties, with 26 percent of its residents " twice the state average " living below the poverty line. The per capita income: $21,000, nearly $7,000 below the state average. A third of county residents live in mobile homes, many others in public housing.

"Most of our students want to graduate and move away," said Cynthia Levatte, 30, a family and consumer science teacher at Early County High School and native Early Countian who grew up in Damascus, one of the county's three bedroom communities. After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1998, Levatte worked in Athens. After two years, she returned home despite the concerns of her friends in Atlanta.

"They said, 'Why are you going there? Come to Atlanta, where everything is happening. You're young. You'll waste away down there,'" Levatte recalled. "But I love our county, and I wanted to give back. It takes people coming back, but they usually do it when they're going to retire."

At one of several group meetings a week ago " this one for students from the county's two high schools Nathan Norris of PlaceMakers addressed 25 students and asked, "How many of you want to stay here and raise a family here?"

Hoping to reverse figures
"One person said yes; 24 said no," Norris. said. "That's what thei parents tell them. Right now, that's the best advice. But 50 years from now, we hope it's just the opposite."

The high school students want a movie theater, instead of driving 35 miles west to Dothan, Ala. A roller skating rink. And cosmic bowling at the county's first bowling alley, complete with black lights, day-glo bowling balls and pins and blasting music. "They want something to do here," said Barton Rice, "without having to go somewhere else."

At a young couples meeting, Jim and Kara Fenn were encouraged by what they heard. "At first, I'd always hoped he's be transferred," Kara Fenn, a registered nurse, said of her husband, a 32-year-old executive at a local peanut processing company. "When we first moved here, I didn't want to have children."

"But now, I want to stay here," said Fenn, who has two daughters, Emmie, 5, and Carley, 23 months.

The Fenns, who live in a lakefront neighborhood three miles north of the square, would like to see some changes in their hometown. "Decent, affordable housing," Jim Fenn said. "It's a problem. You have either very low-income housing or half-million-dollar homes."

A decent chain restaurant would be nice, they say. A chain supermarket [Blakely has one grocery store, a Harvey's], too. "A Winn-Dixie would thrill me," said Kara Fenn, who'd prefer not to have to drive to Dothan or an hour east to Albany for shopping or entertainment.

"I know it's a slow process," she said, "but I'd like to see some good, clean fun here."

"We want to make Blakely a place where your children and grandchildren who want to stay here can," Barton Rice said. "They don't have to go to Atlanta or Tallahassee or somewhere else to [live]."

Lisa Collins, the project manager for the Rice Foundation, said "It's very important that we get out of the box quickly, so people can see results. Certainly, we'll begin to work on Court Square, our central business district and core area."

The master plan " to be implemented in five-year segments " should be delivered within six weeks. EC2055 officials hope to see some tangible results in a year or two.

"Let's not junk it up," Bill Dennis, the PlaceMakers design team leader, said last Sunday at the initiative's closing meeting. "Otherwise, you'll lose your greatest asset." The Old South charm Blakely has, and now hopes to build on.

"I hope folks realize what has been handed to us," said Mayor Ric Hall. "Not to have our future handed to us, but to help facilitate it " what we, as a community, want to be in the next 50 years."

"What I'm hoping is this action will cause a major shift in the way people think, and their hopes for their children and grandchildren," said Charles Rice. "I believe this area, this part of the country, in the triangle of Florida, Alabama and Georgia, the world has not discovered Early County. I believe people are going to be coming up from Florida, trying to get away from the population [centers] there. The world is growing flatter. You don't have to live in Atlanta to work."

Melanie Brown certainly hopes so. "If our people here can't take this and make it work," she said, "we might as well all pack up and move."

Reprinted with permission from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Copyright 2006.