Jasper is Jasper. It’s not Blue Ridge or Ellijay or Ball Ground.
It gets tiresome to hear so often how many tourists flock to the other towns, and if Jasper did something differently we could be like them – as it’s incorrectly assumed everyone here wishes it to be.
The usual list of suggestions for local betterment include improving the road leading into downtown, developing progressive leadership, more attractive streetscapes, better signage on the four-lane, installing fancier night lighting, luring a tourist train to operate here or finding magic gnomes to cast spells on the courthouse lawn. If we just did the right combination of those things, then we might also become the type of town with fudge, olive oil and bike shops downtown.
Maybe someone out there has the formula to suddenly make the First Mountain City widely known as a place to visit. However, that seems improbable; Not impossible. We are not closed to new ideas, but if you believe changing the growth patterns along the Highway 515 corridor is as simple as sprucing up street corners, you are sorely underestimating the challenge.
Jasper is one of the finest places to hang your hat, but Jasper doesn’t appear to be a great place to visit -- as in be a tourist. It certainly doesn’t draw the crowds like our neighbors to the north.
There is no definitive answer as to why tourists, weekend shoppers and even casual dinners are more attracted to areas both to the north and south.
But here are a few things that are different with Jasper.
• We aren’t truly a mountain county. We may have the first mountains you reach driving north from Atlanta, but you really need to move up the road another 30-40 miles to hit solid mountains. Burnt Mountain is nice to look at, but that’s about it for natural attractions. No public lakes, no national forest, no streams, very limited hiking. Without those assets you miss the cabin rental business, the rafters, the hikers, the trout-fisherman. You also miss the efforts that private business throws into marketing when their operation depends on steady visitors.
• We aren’t a metro county either. Cherokee and Forsyth counties may be booming now and when they fill up, whether we want it or not, the wave may reach Pickens. But there is plenty of open space to the south - witness the growth in Ball Ground. Metro-housing expansion may be an unstoppable force for change eventually, but not right now.
Perhaps we aren’t destined to be the type of place where out-of-towners flock on weekends, nor the type of place where 200-home subdivisions and new chain restaurants open weekly. But, just because tourists prefer to head further north doesn’t mean we have done something wrong.
And the fact that we have to drive 20 minutes (either north or south) to reach Chick-fil-a is a fine tradeoff for not sitting in traffic for 20 minutes to get on Highway 515 from Jasper.
In fact, we might do well to remember Jasper is a great place to live for a whole bunch of reasons: A small town where you can walk alone after dark and generally drive without congestion. It’s the type of town where if you stick around long enough you will learn the names of people in the stores, restaurants and out in the community. It’s a friendly town and rarely crowded.
That description in no way sounds like Blue Ridge or the former farming area along Highway 20 in Cherokee County, any longer.
Rather than chasing a likely unobtainable goal of heavy tourism growth, it would be better to look at what makes Jasper such a great place to live and protect that.
Next time a disgruntled soul rambles on about how we aren’t busting at the seams with new businesses, the best answer might be “thank goodness.”