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Staff Editorials

Our paid-off but inadequate park is a disservice to county

Earlier this month county officials and the public gathered to celebrate the fiscal accomplishment of paying off our $3 million community recreation center at Roper Park, now named for Commission Chair Robert Jones. It was a fitting honor; Jones was the then sole commissioner who undertook construction of that 30,657 square foot building which is well used.

There were a lot of good points made that day about Pickens being debt-free. Our county is 99 percent debt free and has a very low millage rate compared to other Georgia counties. Hoorah!

But, specifically with the park, we’d argue the county has been too fiscally conservative; that the single, outdated park with limited fields, an antique swimming pool, walking track, playgrounds remains inadequate for this county with 30,000 people. 

Over the past two decades, we’ve traded the quality of life a vibrant park system offers for pinched pennies.

Celebrating the debt-free, but meager park system here is akin to a jubilant 30-year-old crowing about not having a mortgage while living in his parents’ basement.

For counties, just like people, there is a time to spend and a time to save; a time to pay-off debts and a time to sign the dotted line to acquire more than you can write a check for.

In 2004, the county paid consultants WK Dickson to do a needs study on recreation in Pickens County. Note, this was before the community center was built which addressed a few of the issues they found.

The report begins by stating, “the master planning process started after a public recognition that current recreation facilities seem to be inadequate and there is no plan in place to address future growth.”

The consultants compared Pickens to similarly-sized counties, talked with officials in recreation and government and held at least one public meeting.  They found Pickens stacks up dismally against other counties in north Georgia and maybe the entire state in terms of parks. 

Most surrounding counties have more than one park. Here, “the existing park is an abandoned airport. The site in an inappropriate shape, long and narrow and has had few upgrades since it was built 35 years ago,” stated the report in 2004. Now, 15 years later, we still only have one park even though the population has grown some. Attempts at establishing simple playground parks on the east and west ends have gone nowhere. And most troubling, there is still no plan to address these shortcomings.

That report from 2004 concluded the most effective way for Pickens County to address deficiencies is to build a new park. It called specifically for a new 200 acre park in the county to go along with the existing Roper Park.

We got a very nice community center, while ignoring the larger need.

Parks produce quality of life. Quality of life ties into the people and businesses you attract to your county. We have gone the cheap, safe, conservative route for the past two decades and the results show. Perhaps our dormant downtown and lack of “things to do around here” tie directly into our frugal approach to parks.

One speaker at the celebration of the paid-off community center extolled the fact that it is crowded and hard to find parking. Consider that a clue that we need more of this kind of county-provided recreation. 

There’s a fine line between being frugal and being a miser. We urge the county commission to loosen their purse strings and give us parks we can be proud of for their amenities and appearance and not just because they are paid for.

 

A cold night at the mountain bike park

By Dan Pool, Editor

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It was cold last Tuesday (March 5), but it was dry, making that evening one of the few chances we’ve had for mountain biking lately. It’s frowned upon to ride muddy trails as it damages them.

On Tuesday, I didn’t get to the Talking Rock Nature Preserve trails until 6 p.m. It was 30 degrees and the wind was blowing, making it feel even colder.

Thinking I’d have the trails to myself that late on a cold day, I was surprised to see two younger people (teens or 20 somethings) riding out of the parking lot on Carns Mill Road. Another middle-aged guy was loading his bike and a 30ish-year-old was also about to get a few miles in before dark.

Cold, late, almost dark and five people were still using the park. I ride there fairly often and when the weather is decent, I have never been the only person riding. A few times, it’s been on the verge of being crowded.

It’s not just a few crazy mountain bikers either, on a typical trip to the park you will see everything from mothers and kids walking dogs, to middle-aged trail runners, to parents and kids on bikes and there always seems to be a few people in work attire out strolling. There are plenty of metro tags on the cars in the lot, but the vast majority are from Pickens or Gilmer. 

On another day last week, I came across a member of our airport authority running the trails. I regularly see people from this area, including attorneys, a dentist, employees of one our larger manufacturing companies and a builder/handyman. 

Area bee keepers use part of the park as a training apiary. Geocachers can find several hidden caches there. Discussion of adding a disc golf course still surfaces occasionally.

These trails are a real gift to Pickens County and I mean that literally. They were given to the county. I regularly hear people make misstatements implying this was something the county or state did, which is not the case. The county was supportive and provides some signage, but the property was acquired by the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land (STPAL) and they paid for the trails to be built. Trust records show their private group spent nearly $300,000 on the park with about $15,000 coming from local donations. No tax money is involved.

The fine folks at STPAL, led by executive director Bill Jones, not only took the lead on this project but did 99 percent of the work or paid to have it done. The land trust’s mission is to provide outdoor recreation opportunities and preserve property. Pickens got lucky when STPAL envisioned a 211-acre park in our county. 

The trails and picnic areas are free to use. STPAL doesn’t even aggressively seek donations. And STPAL doesn’t expect to ever be paid back by users or the county.

The trails and parking lot are maintained by the North Georgia Mountain Bike Association and the Friends of Talking Rock Nature Preserve. They host regular work days, but some riders are so proud of this gift, they do trail work or trim the never-surrendering blackberry briars whenever it needs to be done.

It’s so rare that plans like this actually happen and turn out better than expected, the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land deserves a hearty round of applause.

Pickens County got a 211-acre park that didn’t cost a single dime of tax money, doesn’t require any public upkeep and is free to use. And that is one heck of good deal. Hats off to Bill Jones and the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land.

 

We want to see city manager government do well

Last Monday was the first day at the office for Jasper’s new, full-time city manger Brandon Douglas. We want to go on record as saying we hope to see this new form of government be successful and work in the best way possible for the residents of Jasper and Pickens County. 

We also want to formally welcome Douglas to the position and to the community at-large, and we encourage local leaders, businesspeople, civic groups and the public do the same. 

The Progress doesn’t typically use editorial space to give our well wishes to newly-hired or newly-elected officials, but the separation of the mayor and city manager positions is historic for Jasper, and the road to this point was a highly-contentious, one several members of council believed in and fought long and hard to attain, so we think it’s worth saying in print. The city council voted to separate the mayor position and city manager in January 2018. They had been held by the same person (John Weaver) for decades. Douglas, former Assistant City Manger from Acworth, was selected from a pool of candidates for the job. Douglas, as well as the council members who hired him, have an opportunity to show the public how their decision is a step in the right direction - one that will foster more open and productive discussion among local leaders, more transparency, better responsiveness to the electorate, and tangible and positive outcomes for the public. 

The city’s change in government reminds us of the long, tedious process the county went through to move from a sole commissioner to the current three-person board. The powers that be at the time resisted the change, arguing a sole commissioner could move quicker than a multi-person board when it came to decision-making, policy changes, emergency response, etc. - but the three-person board has provided more representation for residents and significantly improved checks and balances. 

We recall commission meetings under a sole commissioner as brief and nearly non-existent, lasting just 10 minutes (at most) with zero discussion and what amounted to little more than reading the agenda. Under a multi-person board they moved to longer regular meetings and the addition of a work session, both with board discussion. The move to a three-person board also spurred along much-needed changes to a grossly mismanaged finance department following a public outcry, which led the county to more transparent financial operations, better money management, and reduction of the county’s reliance on short-term loans called Tax Anticipation Notes. We think these changes, which included the hiring of a new CFO, would have taken much longer under the sole commissioner form of government. 

Over the last several months we have seen a very few developments, mostly internal, that are positive outcomes from the separation of city manager and mayoral positions – fair vacation time for emergency and utility city employees and a new sick policy that doesn’t require employees have a doctor’s note after one day out of work. Now, we’d like to see positive moves in the city that impact the public, including in the areas of economic development, recreation, job creation and general quality of life. 

We’d also like to thank City Manger Jim Looney, who resigned from both his full-time job and duties as council member to take on the role, for filling the position during such a confrontational time in the city’s history. Best of luck to city council and the new city manger during this crucial period in Jasper’s history.

In the woodshed

By Dan Pool, Editor

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Our February 21st edition was a good one. We had stories about animal carcass dumping, a detective who spends his weekends with a metal detector searching for treasures, a horrible story about three fires and an update on the work at the Hwy. 515/Antioch Church Road intersection.

As far as I know there were no mistakes in any of those stories. And no one brought any problem to my attention with 24 out of the 26 pages that week. That meant we got a whole lot of words correct.

Unfortunately, there were two errors in that issue of the Progress. The first was the list of obituary names on the front page. There, we made a typo, changing the last name Duckett to Puckett. The obituary itself was correct, but the list of obit names on the front page had the mistake.

The second mistake was leaving out a service ad from the service section. A CNA didn’t get the message that she was available to the public because of our oversight.

To the average reader these mistakes may seem minor. They may not have noticed the wrong name on the index and obviously no one but the person who placed the ad knew there should have been one more service listed.

But we know these errors matter. The items are important to the people who see their family member’s name spelled incorrectly right after their death and if you are counting on us to make the public aware of your service, then it matters if it gets left out.

We spoke with people connected to both those mistakes and apologized. One thing about working in print, you can’t hide mistakes. When our digital pages hit the press in Rome, Ga., and then become 6,300 copies of the Progress we live with what we sent. I will point out that newspapers are the only businesses that publicly announce any mistake they made in the previous week. 

Getting things straight is a responsibility we don’t take lightly.

With both the missing ad and the typo in the name, the people who brought it to our attention were polite in doing so. But it was clear they were disappointed and they should have been.

We hate making mistakes and thankfully don’t make many. If you look at the number of words in each issue of the Progress that we get correct versus those where we make errors, our success rate is very high. I would add that in the history of the Progress, we have never made a mistake so grievous that it required us to retract an entire story. There have been corrections over the years, but not once have we reported something and then had to go back and say the entire event never happened or was drastically different.

It’s not just the big stories where we strive for accuracy. We know that everything in the paper is important to somebody. You mess up the mayor’s name and it’s embarrassing. But you get names mixed up in a birth announcement and that’s guaranteed to bring fury. You leave out a yard sale listing after a poor spouse spent his week hauling boxes up from the basement, you are in for a not-so-nice discussion of media accuracy.

We recognize that it’s a good thing people get heated up over mistakes in the Progress. It shows they are reading and reading closely and they care intensely about what is printed.

We appreciate our readers and advertisers and work hard to put out a quality newspaper every week with interesting stories, accurate news and no mistakes. When you see a mistake, call us on it. If we’re wrong, it’s right there in print and if it’s important to a member of the community to see it corrected, you better believe it is important to us.

Podcasts offer convenient education, entertainment

Podcasts have become increasingly popular since Serial went mainstream in 2014. Any topic you’re interested in, there’s a podcast dedicated to it. Only have 15 minutes to spare? There’s a podcast that will teach you something or entertain you in that amount of time. Prefer to listen to a really great long-form story? News? Nonfiction? Science? Politics? There are podcasts that will fit the bill. 

While many of us might not take the time to sit down and read a book or a long article, we can listen to podcasts during our commutes, while we’re cleaning, walking our dogs, or training for that next 5K. From comedy and crime to science and history, here are a few of our favorites.

Over My Dead Body – Premiering on Valentine’s Day, it’s already  the top rated podcast on iTunes. It features the story of Dan and Wendi, “two good-looking, Harvard-educated attorneys whose wedding is featured in The New York Times. But when this “perfect” couple falls apart, it leads to a bad breakup, a worse divorce, and a murder case involving a menagerie of high-priced  lawyers and unexpected co-conspirators.”   

My Favorite Murder – While technically considered a comedy show, this podcast features lifelong fans of true crimes, Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff as hosts who  each discuss a, mostly historical, murder. If you want to avoid some of their brash language, fast-forward until you hit 15-17 minutes into the podcast and you’ll go straight to the murder stories and less of their banter. 

Mobituaries with Mo Rocca - The host loves obituaries and introduces listeners to the people “who have long intrigued him - from the 20th century’s greatest entertainer to the Civil Rights pioneer who is completely forgotten to sitcom characters gone all too soon. Even if you know the names, you’ve never understood why they matter...until now.” 

The Dollop - Not so into American history but want to know cool stuff? The Dollop has you covered. Every week, Dave Anthony reads a story from American history to fellow comedian Gareth Reynolds who has no idea what the topic is going to be about. And listeners most likely have never heard the story either. Like, did you know, in 1976 a plane with 60,000 pounds of pot crashed in Yosemite?  

Science VS – From episodes like “The Mystery of the Man Who Died Twice” to “CBD: Weed Wonder Drug?” host Wendy Zukerman dives into contentious topics with the goal of finding out what the scientific community has to say. Serious topics like gun control to lighthearted (hypnosis, meditation, even ghosts) and chances are you’ll laugh while you learn. 

Criminal – This podcast looks at investigations into historical crimes and stories on the wrongdoings within the criminal system. Recommended episode: The Escape. Did the two men who famously escaped Alcatraz in 1962 really make it? More than 50 years after never being found, “their 82-year-old sister is still waiting for them to come home.. and one U.S. Marshal is still on the case.” 

This is Actually Happening - If you ever are feeling bad about yourself, just plug in and listen to one of these first hand accounts from people who have experienced something life-changing, devastating and oftentimes unbelievable. These brave people will show you how they persevered through a time that seems too much for anyone to handle. 

Serial - Season 1. It followed the murder of Baltimore teen Hae Min Lee and the man accused of killing her who may or may not be guilty but remains in jail.   

Dirty John - A successful interior designer meets a handsome man who seems to check all the boxes. Her family doesn’t like him... and for good reason. “They get entangled in a web of love, deception, forgiveness, denial and ultimately, survival.”

Dr. Death - You’ll never look at your doctor in the same way again. “We’re all at our most vulnerable when we go to our doctors. we trust the person at the other end of that scalpel. We trust the hospital. We trust the system.”