Just near the Racetrac, traffic heading north on Hwy 515 during the Apple Festival in Ellijay.
Unless they were giving away free money somewhere north of Pickens County on Highway 515, it appeared that the Apple Festival in neighboring Gilmer County drew a ridiculous number of people.
Some estimates are that more than 40,000 people attended the two weekend event in middle October – an attendance that dwarfs the population of Gilmer County.
Exactly how many of the 40,000 people passed through Pickens County is hard to estimate, but anyone trying to cross Highway 515 the two Saturdays (Oct. 13 and Oct. 20) can guarantee that a heck of lot of SUV’s full of leaf watchers and pumpkin pickers went by.
At various points the traffic on Highway 515 was backed up from the intersection at Highway 53 to our southern county line, and one restaurant in Jasper reported a virtual sell out -- all from the festival in our neighboring county. Needless to say a lot of commerce was conducted those two weekends from all those people stopping for meals, snacks and general retail.
This swarm of people passing through – though in many cases not stopping - didn’t escape the attention of at least one Burnt Mountain realtor. This realtor, who is not a native and perhaps can give a fresh outlook, called to discuss what could be done to attract some of this traffic into stopping here. He made the point that there is nothing on the four-lane in Jasper that would inspire taking a detour to see what we have to offer.
The vast majority of the stretch of Highway 515/575 through Pickens County doesn’t offer any clue as to what lies beyond, nor does it present any curb appeal. There’s nothing a passerby would eye as charming or that invites them to delay their trip north and explore the area.
At the Highway 53 intersection you can tell the rural character is broken by the Home Depot, Kroger, and other stores, but we don’t present any small town character there. No one coming north from the metro-area is likely to hit the brakes and say “Holy Cow an Ingles, let’s stop.” Our big box retailers are nice for us local residents and a very important part of the Pickens economy, but they don’t give any ambiance to the area of Jasper where the four-lane passes.
With some of our staff working the bicycle ride at our Marble Festival, we saw that the vast majority of the riders were from out-of-county (Cobb and Forsyth primarily) and the general comments were that they had no idea the north Georgia mountains started this far south – guess they weren’t familiar with Jasper’s motto of “First Mountain City,” but then again does anyone ever pay attention to city mottoes?
It’s nice that the county can surprise out-of-area guests, but the fact they are surprised means we have a marketing problem in the areas they came from. If they are surprised when they arrive, we obviously aren’t reaching them.
Pickens has an identity problem of being neither a full-fledged mountain city, nor a true suburb county. We aren’t like Blue Ridge and Blairsville as we regrettably lack more than a sliver of public lands for hiking, biking, growling, prowling and sniffing the air. But we aren’t like Cherokee, Cobb or Forsyth as our population is blessedly much smaller.
This in-the-middle nature is one reason we suspect that Pickens gets regularly skipped over by both tourists and industries. Potential festival-goers don’t realize coming here will satisfy an urge for mountains, and commercial operations don’t see the rooftops to warrant expansion here.
While tackling the larger image problem is a massive task, we can address our lacking curb appeal. Our city and county can allocate some funds and manpower to spruce up, create signage, or start planning something along Highway 515 that gives a family coming north at 70 mph a reason to slow down and see what’s happening in Jasper.
As we saw the during October, if we can divert just a small percentage of the northbound day trippers into our stores and restaurants for part of their day, we’ll see healthy bump to our local economy.