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Changes are many

POSTED: January 9, 2013 4:00 a.m.
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Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood films a scene in “Trouble with the Curve” on March 20 at Amicalola Lodge in Dawsonville.

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There was an abundance of excitement in Dawsonville and Dawson County in 2012.

From the community seeing stars when Hollywood greats Clint Eastwood and Justin Timberlake were in town to film scenes for "Trouble with the Curve," to the local distillery receiving the green light to offer tastings of the first legal moonshine in Georgia, Dawson County was abuzz and poised to open new doors in 2013.

While many nearby communities continued to see the economy take its toll, Dawson County prospered in 2012 with the openings of several new ventures designed to make the community a brighter place to live, work and play.

The county's new courthouse and government center, which opened last January, now serves as a center point for residents who can now take care of all the county government needs at one location.

The expansion of Lanier Technical College's permanent campus provides higher learning opportunities and adult education facilities without having to leave the county.

However, there were setbacks last year that officials hope can be resolved in 2013.

The school board continues to look for ways to pinch pennies to make up for a more than $2.1 million shortfall at the state and federal level.

As 2013 begins, it serves to review recent history in an effort to persistently grow and progress. The following is a yearend wrap-up of newsworthy events compiled in no particular order by staff writers Michele Hester and David Renner.


Distillery cleared to offer tastings

Distillers got the final approval needed to begin offering samples of the first legal moonshine produced in Dawsonville in late November.

"I'm so excited," said owner Cheryl Wood. "We're all really excited."

The distillery, which leases space inside the Dawsonville Municipal Complex and operates as Free Spirits Distillery LLC, is the first in the state to be cleared to offer samples after a tasting bill was passed by the General Assembly earlier in 2012.

The measure allows visitors to sample up to a half ounce of spirits per person, per day when touring a distillery.

Dawsonville Mayor James Grogan said he couldn't be more proud of the distillery's success.

"They are now the first distillery in the state to be able to offer tastings, and that's a big deal for them and a big deal for Dawsonville," he said.

The town has been featured in several national news programs since the distillery began producing its first batches of moonshine in October.

Grogan said he looks forward to the distillery's continued achievement, as both a local business and a tourist attraction that complements the city's unique moonshining heritage while also driving economic development.

"This is going to be a big plus for Dawsonville," he said.


County approves sludge ordinance

Commissioners approved an ordinance that bans the application of Class B sewage sludge in October in response to a developer's plan to place partially treated liquid waste in Dawson County.

According to his application with the state Environmental Protection Division, Ken Curren wants to amend the Hampton Creek Water Reclamation Facility sludge management plan.

If approved, sludge from the Forsyth County plant would be deposited on about 65 acres at Lumpkin Campground and Harry Sosebee roads in Dawson.

While the commission has adopted the ordinance to ban the waste, the county will continue to have an uphill battle on the enforcement level due to a state law that regulates sludge and trumps local policy.

However, Commission Chair Mike Berg, who called the ordinance a tool in the county's toolbox, said approving the policy prepares Dawson for the future.

He hopes the state legislature will take up the cause during its 2013 session.

"This is just a policy and our policy can react to what happens tomorrow as well as it can react to what happens next year," Berg said. "If our legislature decides next year that they would like to do something about their state law, then we will have ... a policy in effect that would address that and address any future issues that may arise."

More than 200 residents and business leaders attended the two public hearings the county was required to hold on the matter.

They voiced concerns over potential pathogens seeping into the water supply, diminishing property values and a drop in sales tax revenue.

Opponents of the application have also collected more than 3,000 signatures on petitions distributed by the Dawson County Homeowner's and Civic Association.

According to EPD's Web site, Class B biosolids are treated but still contain detectible levels of pathogens.


Lanier Tech moves into new facility

Community leaders gathered last summer to celebrate the new Lanier Technical College facility in downtown Dawsonville.

After 10 months of construction, the college completed the $5 million expansion project in August.

Located beside the Adult Learning Center, the building more than doubles the college's educational space at its Dawson campus.

Board member Roger Slaton, who is also a member of the Dawson County Board of Education, said the expansion is "close and dear" to his heart.

"This was a dream of mine and many other peoples, so I am just on cloud nine," he said. "I can't wait to see the ribbon cut so we can move forward and go to work."

Currently more than 150 students are enrolled at the campus.

Programs offered at the new Dawson campus included medical assistant, certified nursing assistant, business administration, welding and cosmetology.

Along with the automotive program, the electrical systems technology program is exclusive to the campus.

The Dawson campus, which welcomed its first students in October 2005, was previously housed in a building owned by the local school board.


Incumbents carry elections in 2012

Once the votes in last July's general primary were counted, it was clear Dawson County citizens were content with their current local elected officials.

Each incumbent candidate carried their respective races, which means voters saw no change in leadership in January.
Of the county's 12,929 registered voters, 40 percent, or 5,172, cast ballots in the primary.

Longtime Sheriff Billy Carlisle forged ahead and tallied a 63 percent lead over challengers Johnny Glass and Kevin Ellison.

"Now, I'm ready to get back to doing what we do best and that's serving the citizens of this county proudly. I'm looking forward to the next four years," Carlisle said after the votes were counted.

The races for tax commissioner, county commission chair and surveyor were close to the end, with the incumbent taking home the most votes in each contest.

Tax Commissioner Linda Townley received about 52 percent to newcomer Karin McKee's 48 percent.

County Commission Chairman Mike Berg also edged challenger and former commissioner Mike Connor, with about 54 percent, to Connor's about 46 percent.

"I want to thank the citizens of Dawson County for having faith in me, faith in the board of commissioners and faith in the system that we've been using since I've been chairman," Berg said.

Incumbent county surveyor Donald "Rex" Jones held off challengers Ben Trail and Gregg Bagwell with about 53 percent of the tally.

In addition, acting Dawsonville Mayor James Grogan staked a resounding lead in his mayoral bid.

Grogan, who had served as acting mayor since April, received about 62 percent, to former councilman Calvin Byrd's about 38 percent to fill the unexpired term of Joe Lane Cox, who died in March.

"I am really, really excited. I feel like our city is on the verge of something great and I am so happy to be a part of it," Grogan said.

In the race for the District 9 state House of Representative seat, Kevin Tanner pulled away from Clint Smith by a wide margin, receiving about 71 percent, to Smith's nearly 29 percent.

Tanner, who has served as Dawson County CEO since 2008, will replace longtime representative Amos Amerson.

During his time in office, Amerson, who retired after holding the office for 12 years, served on numerous committees and authored bills that focused on improving lives in the district and across the state.

He considers legislation that created tax exemptions for seniors in Dawson County and a multi-member Lumpkin County commission to be among his greatest accomplishments.

"It continues to be a joy representing you in the Georgia General Assembly," he said.

Tanner will be sworn into office at the state capitol on Monday. His last day on the job as county manager is Friday. The county commission voted last month to promote chief financial officer Cindy Campbell to fill Tanner's position.

In other ballot issues, Dawson County residents were solidly against a proposed regional sales tax for transportation.


Mayor dies, Grogan wins special election

The Dawsonville community mourned the death of a passionate public servant whose political career spanned nearly four decades and paved the way for much of the progress seen across the county last year.

Mayor Joe Lane Cox died in March at the age of 72.

News of his death traveled quickly through the tightknit community, where Cox had served as mayor since January 2004.

Prior to being elected mayor in 2003, Cox led Dawson County as sole commissioner from 1981 to 1992 and also served as the county's probate judge for three years in the late 1970s.

Longtime friend and former planning commissioner Sandy Ward said no one loved Dawsonville and Dawson County the way Cox did.

"He was always so proud to be a resident here, so proud of the history and so proud to give back," Ward said. "He was a true visionary. He paved the road for so much of the development we enjoy today in Dawson County."

As sole commissioner, Cox focused on improving the quality of life in the county and preparing the area for the growth that soon followed.

His work and vision were recognized many times throughout his political career locally, regionally and statewide.

During his tenure as mayor, Cox secured grants to improve the city's wastewater treatment capabilities, fund several road projects, purchase the defunct Thunder Road racing museum and put in sidewalks through the city.

A special election was held to fill Cox's unexpired seat.

Former-Councilman James Grogan was elected after tallying about 62 percent, to fellow former Councilman Calvin Byrd's 38 percent.

Grogan called Cox a man of strength and dedication to his city.

"He [wanted] a city of Dawsonville flag to be placed on top of his casket," Grogan said. "I think that reflects the character of this man that his love for his city he wants to carry with him home."

Young entrepreneur receives honor

A young entrepreneur from Dawson County has achieved the Future Farmers of America's highest honor.

Bradley Weaver, 21, was awarded the American Star Award in Agribusiness on Oct. 27 during the organization's 85th annual national convention in Indianapolis.

One of four finalists, the national contest celebrates farmers who have mastered skills in production, finance, management and research.

Weaver said the award is something he had worked toward for years.

"It's been my dream since I was a freshman in high school, when I first saw the videos at the national convention, to win this award," he said.

"It's what I've been working for as my final goal for FFA. It means a lot to me. It's the biggest honor that an FFA person can receive."

Growing up on a family farm in northwestern Dawson, Weaver's love for agriculture developed at an early age.

He started growing pumpkins at age 5, with plans to save money for college. That same year, he became the youngest member of the local chamber of commerce.

He started selling Christmas trees a few years later and during his freshman year of high school expanded the business to include daylilies and daffodils.

Now taking classes in business administration and biology at North Georgia College & State University, Weaver also manages a small, successful landscaping company.

In all, he operates eight businesses that bear his name. Yet, he still looks for other opportunities.

"I plan on expanding out in the future. For the first time, I am planting 2 acres of blueberries this year," he said.

As a finalist, Weaver was interviewed by a panel of judges, who ultimately named him the top candidate in his category.

As the winner, Weaver received a plaque and a $4,000 cash prize.

Will Wade, a longtime family friend and member of the Dawson County Board of Education, congratulated Weaver, saying: "He epitomizes the idea of the American dream."

"He is truly a great young man and the perfect example of an American Star in Agribusiness," Wade said. "Bradley Weaver is the type of person I hope that today's youth look to as inspiration and as the example to strive to emulate.

"We all can celebrate the success that Bradley has brought to Dawson County by more than just the sweat of his brow. He has earned this award by working each day toward an ever-growing goal that can only be achieved over years of effort, prayer and a little good fortune."

In addition to Weaver's award, four current members of Dawson County High School's FFA chapter received the American FFA Degree for "demonstrating the highest level of commitment to FFA and for making significant accomplishments in their Supervised Agricultural Experiences."

The four students are Kenneth Houseal, Eli Kesting, Nick Reynolds and Seth Stowers.

Students can participate in their local FFA chapter up until age 21, so Weaver won his award as a representative of the high school.


School board trims budget

The Dawson County Board of Education approved a system budget for fiscal year 2013 in May that totals $35 million and suffers more than $8.8 million in reductions.

Shrinking state and federal funds made it increasingly difficult in recent years for local school officials to balance the systems available resources with the total expenditures.

"It is a very dire situation," said Jamie Ulrich, director of financial services. "The governor comes out and he says he didn't cut education but we are being cut still through the austerity cuts and it is brushed under the table ... hidden."

While Ulrich reported that the austerity cuts may actually receive a slight decrease this fiscal year, the cuts still total an estimated $2.1 million.

Like the austerity cuts, the tax digest was also waiting to be finalized and is subject to change, but Ulrich reported it is an estimated 12 percent reduction on top of last year's 10.5 percent reduction.

Yet, by far one of the biggest slams to the 2013 fiscal budget has been the increased healthcare insurance premiums enforced by the Department of Community Health, said officials.

To combat the fiscal challenges the school board made personnel cuts.

The budget showed reduced staffing by about $1.6 million this year, according to Superintendent Keith Porter.

"We have aggressively cut expenditures this year. We absorbed a lot of positions and I don't know if we can do that again. We've got it down there to the point that it would be very hard," he said.


County opens government center, retires jail debt

State and local dignitaries gathered with hundreds of residents in January for the dedication and grand opening of the new Dawson County Government Center.

The new 111,000-square-foot center brings all offices of county government under one roof and replaces the current courthouse, which was built in 1978.

That structure was razed in the spring to make room for a secure, judicial parking lot.

At $15.4 million, which came from 1-cent sales tax revenue, the cost to build the government center is one of the lowest per square foot in the state in more than a decade, according to county officials.

Georgia's Speaker of the House David Ralston addressed the crowd.
Ralston, who represents a portion of northern Dawson, said he continues to be impressed with how local leadership has responded to the county's growth.

The center was the top priority project in an extension of the 1-cent sales tax, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2007.

In December, Dawson County officials marked the final payment on the local jail with the age-old tradition of burning the security deed.

The county paid off the jail loan Dec. 3, the same day it also made the final payment on the courthouse parking lot.

The $16 million Dawson County Law Enforcement Center opened Oct. 1, 2007, with capacity to house more than 200 inmates.

Construction of the facility was funded primarily from 1-cent sales tax revenue. An increase in building costs forced the county to borrow about $6 million to complete the project.

Commissioners voted in November to retire the remaining $4.3 million loan owed on the detention center, which was scheduled to be paid off by December 2020.

With that vote, the commission also agreed to allocate $678,000 to pay off the courthouse parking lot, a debt that otherwise may not have been realized until December 2021.


Changes at Chamber of Commerce

There is no better way to describe the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce in 2012 than the word "change."

The change began in early summer when then-president Linda Williams and husband Marty Williams, who served as the group's vice president of travel and tourism, announced their plans to retire July 2.

Linda Williams, who had battled with cancer for many years, died the next month at the age of 64.

The business community remembered her encouraging attitude and positive outlook on life.

"She was always so positive, despite everything she had been through," said Doris Cook.

Hired in 1996 as the chamber's information specialist, she was selected as president of the organization in 1999, when Dawson County was poised for tremendous growth.

Chamber members called her a mentor and the driving force behind the chamber's growth.

Jennifer Baker, chairwoman for 2012, said she left a legacy.

"Linda absolutely put her heart and soul into the chamber. I don't think there has been any aspect of what has happened in this community that she hasn't somehow had her finger on or tried to support," Baker said.

As chamber president, Williams managed various business initiatives, overlooked networking and business events and fostered an environment for economic prosperity.

Baker announced in July that Christie Haynes would take over Aug. 20 as the chamber's chief.

"We were fortunate to have extremely talented people from all around the Southeast interested in this position, but Christie's combination of experience and personality made her our top choice," Baker said.

"With our small staff, we felt it was critical to hire someone with chamber experience. Christie has the background and, most importantly, the passion that we need to help take our chamber to the next level."

Haynes said her goal is not to change the chamber, but instead to bring a new face and fresh perspective to the organization.

"We have lots of ideas on how to get more involved in the community that can help us grow business and rebrand the chamber in terms of tourism," she said.

A 2010 University of Georgia graduate, Haynes has bachelor degrees in political science, history and international affairs.

Baker said Haynes is an ideal fit for the chamber and community.

"Christie genuinely believes in giving back and being an active part of her community, and we couldn't be happier to have her as part of our team," she said.

Haynes previously worked as a field representative for the Georgia 2nd Congressional District and on several successful political campaigns.

Hayne's appointment was not the only change for the chamber.

She and Membership Director Kara Hewatt are among the new employees to take the place of the former members during the chamber's restructuring last year.

These staffing changes also come on top of remodeling the entrance and information room for the office.

Movie filmed in Dawsonville

Dawsonville was seeing stars last March when a film crew was in town to shoot scenes for the movie "Trouble with the Curve."

The Warner Brothers' production starred Clint Eastwood as an aging baseball scout who travels to Atlanta with his daughter to see a hot prospect.

The movie also featured Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake, who were both on set for the filming and stayed at a local bed and breakfast.

Dozens of onlookers camped out across from the Amicalola Lodge, where the scenes were shot hoping to get a glimpse of Hollywood royalty.

"It's Clint Eastwood - it's a big deal for the town. It's a buzz for the people," said Sean Sears, who drove from Dahlonega to see the star.

Georgia has been one of the country's leading locations for Hollywood film production for a couple of years, thanks to the tax breaks and incentives the state offers.

Passed in 2008, the Georgia Entertainment Industry Act gives production companies a 20 percent tax credit if the company spends a minimum of $500,000 on production and post-production in the state.

While it remains unclear how much Warner Brothers spent to film the scenes in Dawsonville, officials said the movie has lit a spark in the local economy.

Dozens of off-duty sheriff's officers were hired to direct traffic near the set and work security throughout the week. Film crews also were spotted buying construction supplies at a local home improvement center.


Pool Room reopens with public support

The year 2012 saw a rocky road for Dawsonville's historic Pool Room.

The restaurant was seized by the Georgia Department of Revenue in May for failure to pay taxes.

September marked the re-opening of the restaurant after the family was given clearance by the government.

They chose, however, to hold off the celebration until some much needed improvements and upgrades could be made to the diner.

"We put ceramic tile behind the bar, we refaced the bar and put diamond plate on the step to the stools. We repainted, freshened everything up and waxed the floors," said Gordon [G.P.] Pirkle Jr., who runs the eatery for his dad Gordon Pirkle Sr.

While there are some aesthetic changes, Pool Room fans were assured the downtown eatery's menu would remain the same, including the daily lunch special that is announced on the marquee each morning.

"We have some past employees that were here five and 10 years ago that came back, and we got a lot of new ones, too," Gordon Pirkle Jr. said.

Gordon Pirkle Jr. wanted to thank the community for the kind words of encouragement and support the family received since the restaurant closed.

"Everybody's glad we're opened and we're glad we're open," he said. "I told daddy he needs to be out here for lunch and for supper to see everybody that comes in. I think the people need to see me or Daddy one here at all times to let people know it's still the family running it."


Notables lost in 2012

The county lost a number of notable community leaders in 2012.

Dawsonville Mayor Joe Lane Cox, 72, passed away in March.

Prior to being elected mayor, Cox led Dawson County as sole commissioner from 1981 to 1992 and also served as the county's probate judge for three years in the late 1970s.

Edgar George David Jr., 84, a vocal and engaged civic leader, passed away in September.

David served as chairman of the Dawson County Municipal Planning Commission, where he co-authored the first zoning rules and regulations for the county. He was also a charter member of the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce and a longtime member of the Dawsonville Lions Club as well as being instrumental in creating the Dawson County Republican Party.

The man credited with founding what has become Dawsonville's Mountain Moonshine Festival, Fred Goswick, 75, died in February.

Goswick's knowledge of the local moonshine trade developed early in life, as he hauled the illegal liquor from Dawson County to Atlanta. He was also involved in Thunder Road and the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, where he served on the board of directors.

The Dawsonville community mourned the death of a local historian, retired school teacher and beloved family man in June with the death of Charles Finley, 64.

Known as an expert on Dawson County, Finley was heavily involved in various organizations. He was a member of the Dawson County Historical and Genealogical Society, the Retired Teachers Association and the Gideons International. He penned several books about local schools and at the time of his death was compiling an authoritative history of the county.

A renowned Dawson County educator and former dean at Gainesville State College, Herbert W. Robinson, 95, died in July.

Robinson served as principal of Dawson County High School from 1947 until 1965. The Dawson County School System honored his contributions by naming the an elementary school in his honor.

The man many credit with setting the stage for commercial development along the Ga. 400 corridor in Dawson County, Don Stephens, 74, died in August.

A native and lifelong county resident, Stephens co-founded Byrd-Stephens Building Supply and is credited with paving the way for the county's first franchise grocery store. He also developed several other commercial and residential properties in the area.

The supervising prosecutor of the Dawson County office of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit's District Attorney's office, John G. Wilbanks Jr., 57, died in December.

Wilbanks was regarded by his former employer as "a dedicated public servant with a decades-long history of effective prosecution and the administration of justice."

Longtime Chamber of Commerce president Linda Williams, 64, passed away in August.

As chamber president, Williams managed various business initiatives, overlooked networking and business events and fostered an environment for economic prosperity.

 

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