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Staff Editorials

The elephant in the county: Lack of housing

One of the finer points that surfaced during the countywide comprehensive planning meetings is the lack of development here may be tied to the lack of affordable housing in the area which makes it hard to attract new employees and thus new companies. If there is no one to fill entry level positions, what company can move here?

In November 2017, Pickens County had an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, the same rate as shown in October. This is down from 4.5 percent a year before. Pickens was estimated by the state labor department to have a labor force of 14,864 people with only 580 people officially unemployed.

[As a sidenote, unemployment figures must be taken with a grain of salt. They are projections based on people who collect unemployment. People who work in the construction/landscaping/ some self employed industry may not be making the list at all. And people who have collected the 14-20 weeks of unemployment benefits get booted off the rolls. That being said it’s the best figure we have.]

At first glance, our unemployment rate might be touted as a strong positive for the community – we must be doing something right as our jobless rate is the lowest around. But potential companies may focus on the small pool of 580 seeking work and move to another location with more employees to draw from. 

Official figures aside, we hear from area employers that finding enough warm bodies to fill a shift is difficult. 

The federal government considers 5 percent to 5.2 percent to be “full employment.” Pickens now sits more than a percent below the full employment rate.

In simple terms, there are people here with jobs they really don’t want or have the skills for, who are working because employers couldn’t find anyone else to show up.

It doesn’t take an economist to predict what would happen if our county had landed a big prospect in the past year. What if a company employing 100 showed up today?

As most of us here know, Pickens is a great place to live – if you can actually find somewhere to live. The comprehensive planning meetings made plain that there is no entry level housing and few choices at any price range. 

You hear stories of people who found jobs here but ended up living in adjacent counties as they couldn’t find anything here. 

At the final comprehensive planning meeting a couple of stakeholders discussed our particular brand of homelessness with people crowding in unsafe and unsanitary numbers into homes as there are no affordable alternatives.

From anecdotal accounts (certainly not a comprehensive survey) it seems that rent here starts at $600-$800 for small places and pretty regularly run $1,100 to $1,500, not including utilities. As a comparison, RentCafe.com, using national information, calculates that Atlanta has an overall average rent of $1,300 per month. It would seem that people here are bringing home rural Georgia wages, but paying metro-area rents. Very small supply and constant demand means high prices – nothing shocking here.

As the comprehensive planning meeting further showed, the idea of adding more housing supply, particularly affordable or multi-family complexes, is a thorny subject. Several speakers urged the county/cities to look at ways to foster walkable areas for residential development near the downtown of Jasper.

Others, however, countered that large residential developments rarely pay off in terms of additional taxes covering the additional costs to a county.

We are not sold on the idea, nor advocating that Pickens needs a lot more affordable housing; a nice bedroom community is not a bad plan for the future. Nor do we support government getting involved in any private industry, especially when there are limits on both sewage capacity and water supply that need to be taken into account.

We are pointing out that when growth is discussed, lack of housing should be identified as an underlying condition that plays a role in industrial and commercial development.

A Culture of Mean

Quiz: A new restaurant comes to town. You eat there the first or second day they are open. What do you do? 

 

A) Eat your meal and go home. 

B) Eat your meal, go home, then discuss the experience with your family. 

C) Eat your meal, go home, immediately give the restaurant 2 stars and a scathing review on their Facebook page, citing such “transgressions” as no one to greet you, lettuce issues, servers who didn’t seem to know where to bring food, or napkins not in the right place. 

 

In a civil world answer B would be the correct answer, but in this new Culture of Mean answer C is becoming more and more common (and, incidentally, happened to a restaurant in Jasper last month). While those claims in answer C may very well be true, the impact of such a public bashing does a lot of things – it puts a new restaurant in a guilty-until-proven-innocent mode. Not only do they have to work out the kinks of their first week in business, right out of the gate they’re up against a low online rating (which people no doubt pay attention to and base restaurant choices on). 

These days this kind of unfair and cruel online behavior is more the rule than the exception in social forums like Twitter, Facebook, and in chat rooms like Reddit. We’ve all got “that Facebook friend” whose feed is a stream of soapbox rants and negativity, but things can get much more serious than political rants.  

Take the unfortunate events with a high school production of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a prime example of this new Culture of Mean. According to the NY Times, a white teenager was recently cast in the lead role of Esmeralda, a 15th-century Romanian woman, and a young student activist objected. Ithaca High School eventually cancelled the play because of student pushback, then “an online mob targeted the town with threats and racial epithets. Students received pictures of themselves with swastikas plastered on their faces.” 

There’s also the relentless and widespread cyberbullying that has led to teen suicides, and the rampant sexting culture in our schools.   

In what world is it okay to send students death threats? Or for students to be so nasty and disrespectful to each other that they want to take their own life? Why do people act so differently online than they do when they’re face-to-face? 

In a Psychology Today article, Liraz Margalit, Ph.D calls online interaction “unsynchronized communication.” She says, “the interaction need not be coordinated because the behavior is not directed by the other person’s feedback. People in online interactions are much more casual because they do not have to be attentive to each other’s signals. Verbal and symbolic feedback is not immediate, so there is no need to be constantly aware of the other person's responses.”

Translation: we can be as mean as we want online because we don’t have to see first-hand how it impacts other people. 

Margalit goes on to discuss this virtual world with language that conjures up images of the holodeck on Star Trek, a world where, “When playing a computer war game, for example, we can experience excitement, frustration and tension, but we can never be injured.” She says interactions online make social media users “feel connected without the difficulties and complexities involved in face-to-face interactions.” 

People are cruel online for all kinds of reasons – it’s safe, it’s a way to get attention or show power they would (or could) never show in real life. But even though these interactions are “virtual,” they aren’t like the holodeck and don’t come without consequences. They have real impacts on real people (the pen is indeed mightier). Let’s remember to be decent human beings, and when we’re online let’s refrain from saying things we wouldn’t say to someone’s face.  

 

Numb to school shootings?

On Sunday, family and friends of 15-year-old Preston Cope filed into the Benton, Kentucky high school to pay their last respects at the campus where he had been shot and killed just days earlier.  When word of the shooting got out, his father had raced to the school like other scared parents, recognizing his son’s socks inside an ambulance.  

The latest school shooting happened in Kentucky and left not only Cope, but one other classmate dead and 14 others wounded. It was the third US school shooting in 48 hours and the 11th in the three weeks since the start of the year. To be fair,  one was an adult suicide in a school parking lot and another was a student suicide in a school bathroom. 

But if you start scrolling school shooting details over the past year, it’s clear enough the number of students on campus with guns shooting at people happen so often it is easy lose count quickly.

While we may have seen or heard the headlines, we have become so desensitized to the words “school shooting” and “mass shooting” that it hardly registers a blip on our radars as long they happen far away from Pickens County. Headlines like NPR’s recent “School shootings are sad, but no longer surprising” is a tragically accurate description. 

Gunfire ringing out in American schools used to be  shocking. Now it’s just part of modern America.  

The killings in Kentucky were quickly passed by with only two deaths. If another school shooting takes place next week, we may be shocked and saddened all over again - but not surprised.

Wake Forest University, Marshall County High School in Kentucky, Italy High School in Texas, and the Net Charter School in New Orleans have all had campus shootings this year - this year. - all before February. According to the New York Times, Columbine, when it happened in 1999, “was the nation’s fifth-deadliest mass shooting since World War II, surpassed only by attacks at a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Tex, in 1991 (23 deaths); at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif., in 1984 (21); at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 (15); and at a post office in Edmond, Okla., in 1986 (14). Yet today, not one of those shootings is among the five deadliest. That category, which previously covered more than 30 years, is now occupied entirely by shootings from the past decade - all but one from the past five years.” 

Fifty-eight people were killed in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting (more than 400 were wounded); the Orlando nightclub shooting last year, 49; the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, 32; and Sandy Hook Elementary, 27. The Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., saw 26 people killed. 

While incredibly sad, the news of another mass shooting - whether on a school campus or a small Baptist church - just doesn’t create the shock value it did when Columbine happened. It was the first mass shooting in nearly eight years that killed 10 or more people. 

According to an FBI study of 160 active-shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, nearly a quarter occurred in educational settings and more than half of those were at junior or secondary schools.

There’s only so much our psyches can take. Who among us wouldn’t rather focus on Grammy awards or Oscar nominations or - heaven help us - where the Kardashian clan is vacationing than contemplate the horrors of a mass shooting? 

It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just a hardwired protective instinct. When news of the next mass shooting hits our newspapers and runs across our TV screens, take a moment, pause to honor those poor souls affected and then, for our own good, take a step back from news and social media. Talk to people, donate money, volunteer for a cause like stopping child abuse - often the cause of adult violence. Advocate for better prevention and treatment for mental health.

We can’t stop all the bad things in the world, but we can live our life by our own values, speak up against injustice, and be a positive influence in our families and communities. Do what you need to do to escape the daily stress of living in the modern world where this happens all too often.  

 

Courage shouldn’t be needed when speaking out

By Dan Pool, Editor

I had a surprising conversation earlier this year with a woman who said she wanted to comment on some political issues but was afraid to. She held liberal views and was scared that if she aired her opinions in our letters to the editor, she might face real physical persecution.

More surprising to me: this was the second conversation like this I’ve had in the past couple of months. The first was with a senior citizen who wanted to join the chorus calling for increased tax exemptions for seniors. The senior worried that if she publicly expressed her support, the good ol boys/powers that be, might retaliate against her or her property.

I cautiously told both that while I couldn’t guarantee their safety, I strongly doubted anyone would be so enraged by a contrary opinion they would seek the writers out for acts of intimidation or violence.

American history certainly is filled with cases of assault over political issues, a few duels and some heinous murders. But, to my knowledge, we’ve never had any crimes committed against anyone for expressing their views in the Progress.

We have had plenty of spirited debates. I remember one offer in print to take up a collection so a public gadfly could relocate but it was written in jest – I assume. The person never relocated and I don’t think the proverbial hat was ever passed.

To find out whether it was likely someone might face peril over being outspoken, I went to the provocateur supreme, Andy Kippenhan. As Progress readers know, Kippenhan occasionally pens tracts supporting abortion rights, takes church leaders to task as well as extolling climate change efforts. Clearly his views run counter to many in the community and his writing style is fiery.

Andy said he has been told a few times that “he is brave” for so defiantly bucking the mainstream and he has had people express general concern for his safety. But he has never been subject to any intimidation or face-to-face threats over his writings.

As far the Progress itself, we’ve had some pretty mad people call and, rarely, come by. We’ve also had a few people commend us for being brave in publishing something. Usually the belief is that the good ol boys might be out to get us. I, frankly, have never seen evidence of a cabal of rednecks seeking to carry out nefarious deeds for political gain.

    We’ve had a few encounters with the commission chair and Jasper mayor where they expressed their displeasure with our coverage (mostly unwarranted in our opinion). But the idea that we might face more than red-faced discussions with Rob Jones, John Weaver or council member Sonny Proctor seems farfetched.

In November of last year, a t-shirt began appearing at some political events with the phrase “Tree, Rope, Journalist, Some assembly required.” Could you imagine if you substituted policeman, teacher, preacher for journalist what the reaction would be? On the national level there is cause for concern.

The times are changing and with scenes like Charlottesville, VA and the ability to enflame passions on social media, perhaps the time will come when we in Pickens County have to worry about violence here. We hope not.

We hope that even if you find ours or someone else’s opinion presented in these pages offensive, you’ll keep the debate respectful or at least not-violent. (We love letters to the editors with strong and well-presented local voices. Remember our 400 words max. length.)

I hate it that (at least) two people have been silenced from the public dialogue over fears of violent reprisals. I tenuously feel their concerns unwarranted. I want to believe that in this county everyone is free to speak their mind without worrying about slashed tires or busted windows.

Despite what is seen in Washington, and big cities and other places, let’s rise above that here with open dialogue and respect for dissenting views.

County blessed with givers

On Saturday night at the Pickens County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Winter Ball, the group announced its Citizen of the Year, Business of the Year and Ambassador of the Year. It was an evening to applaud the work of two individuals and a business who have put much time and effort into making our community one we can all be proud to call home.

For her tireless work as a Chamber volunteer, Martha Baldwin was named Ambassador of the Year. Baldwin supports local businesses by being an avid participant at Chamber membership breakfasts, ribbon cuttings and Business After Hours events. She actively advocates for the Chamber and its membership, building strong relationships among all its members.

Business of the Year went to Georgia Mountains Hospice. Director Gina Pendley accepted the award on behalf of GMH, whose purpose is to support families when they need it the most, providing both emotional and spiritual support during life-limiting illnesses. Pendley and her staff and volunteers are the epitome of what a Business of the Year should be: compassionate and dedicated to the community. 

Robert Keller of Atlantic Coast Conservancy was named Citizen of the Year. Keller has made generous donations to worthy groups and programs throughout Pickens over the past year. From purchasing band uniforms for the PHS Pride of Pickens Marching Band to supporting Pickens Animal Rescue, the animal shelter, Habitat for Humanity, CARES, the weekend snack program, Prevent Child Abuse Pickens, the Chamber, both city and county sports organizations, and more, Keller was honored for doing his part in making Pickens a great place to be. Keller, who moved here in 2004, has taken our community’s well-being to heart. 

It’s nice to attend events where people are acknowledged for their civic dedication and, while honoring these men and women Saturday, it struck us that not only are they wonderful examples of civic-mindedness, they are surrounded by others here who volunteer and support Pickens County. We are blessed to live in a town filled with people like Baldwin, Keller and the Georgia Mountains Hospice staff, who dedicate themselves tirelessly to scores of organizations whose missions better the lives of those around them. 

In the words of Rihanna in her “Humanitarian of the Year” speech last year at Harvard, “All you need to do is help one person, expecting nothing in return. To me, that is a humanitarian. People make it seem way too hard, man.” She went on: “The truth is, and what I want (people) to know is you don’t have to be rich to be a humanitarian. You don’t have to be rich to help somebody. You don’t gotta be famous. You don’t even have to be college-educated.”

All people want is a chance, according to the singer and entrepreneur. “We’re all human. And we all just want a chance: a chance at life, a chance in education, a chance at a future.”

So, this week the Pickens Progress would like to say thank you to Saturday night’s honorees. Thank you for all you do for our community. And thanks to the countless other people just like them who give people a chance. Together, our community does and can impact many, many lives right here. 

It starts with just one person.