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2011 Year in Review
Time of progress, change
1 Year in Review pic
Decklan Brooks and his brother, Lachlan, enjoy the petting zoo at last years Mountain Moonshine Festival. According to officials, last years festival was one of the most successful to date. - photo by File photo

Despite the sluggish economy, 2011 was a year marked by progress and change across Dawson County.

A number of businesses, including Krystal and Varsity Jr., opened along the Ga. 400 corridor.

Dawsonville residents approved a referendum that allows package sales of alcohol at stores in the city on Sundays.

The 44th annual Mountain Moonshine Festival set new attendance records during its three-day run in October.

In part due to the festival's success, the local nonprofit KARE for Kids, an organization focused on providing for underprivileged children, also had a record year.

KARE for Kids President Calvin Byrd reported the group sold some 400 vendor spaces at the Moonshine Festival and raised more than $130,000.

The funding was used to provide Christmas presents for local children and support other local organizations.

Also in 2011, the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority marked its 25th anniversary, while also announcing lower tap fees.

In September, Lanier Technical College broke ground on a major expansion project that will more than double the educational space on its Dawson County campus.

The $5 million expansion is expected to be complete this year.

Despite the growth, some issues still linger in Dawson.

Discussions centering on Dawson Forest and proposed reservoirs were addressed by both Etowah Water and Sewer Authority and community residents.

Yet no final decisions in the plans that would affect Shoal Creek and the Etowah and Amicalola rivers have been made.

As 2012 begins, the Dawson Community News offers a look back at these and other stories that made headlines in 2011.

Compiled in no particular order by staff writers Michele Hester and Chelsea Thomas.

KARE for Kids and Moonshine Festival have record year

A local non-profit dedicated to making children in Dawson County smile at Christmas had a record year in 2011.

KARE for Kids President Calvin Byrd said the organization provided Christmas presents to 750 local children from 335 families with proceeds collected from the 44th annual Mountain Moonshine Festival.

"We had an unbelievable year and want to thank everyone who played a part in the success of the festival and the Christmas present program," he said.

The three-day festival in late October drew an estimated 140,000 people to the streets of downtown Dawsonville, where hundreds of vendors from across the southeast set up booths to peddle everything from handmade trinkets and ornamental collectibles to NASCAR memorabilia and festival souvenirs.

Byrd said the group sold more than 400 vendor spaces to raise in excess of $130,000.

In addition to purchasing Christmas presents for underprivileged children, the funds helped support community programs like Boy and Girl Scouts and the Dawson County High School JROTC for their help during the festival.

"Probably 80 percent of our revenue comes from outside the county since we only have a handful of Dawson County vendors," Byrd said. "It's great that other people are helping us buy toys for our kids in Dawson County to have Christmas."

Byrd said without the community's help, KARE for Kids' work would not be possible.

"We really focused on promoting that KARE for Kids puts on the festival and how the funds are used, and I think that really impacted the number of volunteers we had," he said.

Byrd said the group had an estimated 100 new volunteers that donated their time, energy and hearts to the cause.

"Some were groups, some were individuals, and we are so grateful for them all," he said.

Newt Gingrich visits Dawson

On Oct. 3 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told a group of nearly 200 in Dawsonville that he didn't want them to be "for" him as he campaigns for the nation's highest office.

Instead, the former U.S. Speaker of the House wanted them to be "with" him for the next eight years.

"Because it will take all of us, working together, to change Washington and save our country," he said.

During a luncheon held in his honor, Gingrich outlined his 21st Century Contract with America, a plan he said would meet the nation's challenges and solve the job crisis.

"My 21st Century Contract with America calls for moving power out of Washington and back to the states and the people," he said.

The plan also calls for "a very strong job creation program, both deregulation, tax cuts, creating modern energy and praising people who create jobs," Gingrich said. "Class warfare kills jobs, bureaucratic socialism kills jobs. Liberating small business and praising entrepreneurs creates jobs."

Gingrich was the first candidate to visit Dawson County during the 2012 presidential campaign, and is possibly the first presidential candidate in the nation's history to visit Dawsonville.

Supporter Will Wade organized the event, which also included an optional $1,000 personal meet-and-greet session with Gingrich.

Gingrich was first elected to Congress in 1978 where he served the 6th District of Georgia for 20 years. In 1995, he was elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives where he served until 1999. Under his leadership, Congress passed welfare reform, passed the first balanced budget in a generation, and passed the first tax cut in 16 years.

Since his visit in October, Gingrich has experienced setbacks in his campaign due to a number of circumstances, including coming up against opposition from his own party, losing in the Iowa polls and by failing to get on the Missouri and Virginia ballots. Due to recent commercial attacks from other candidates public polls show plummeting national numbers.

Snowstorms affect schools, government

When the first snow fell early last winter, giving Dawson residents a white Christmas, no one complained. Yet, as several winter storms followed throughout January, the icy climate began to create increasingly difficult conditions for residents to go about their daily routines.

A record amount of snow piled up the week of Jan. 12, 2011 shutting down much of Dawson County, including the city of Dawsonville, county government and the school district. At the time, some county residents reported between 4 to 8 inches of snow on the ground, according to the weather service.

Schools Superintendent Keith Porter made the call to cancel school for students, teachers and faculty as a Sunday night's snow rapidly turned to ice Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 10 and 11.

The schools closure put them over their allotted inclement weather days for the 2010-2011 school year since the calendar only had four built in. Changes were later made to make up for missed days.

On Monday, Jan. 10 the city council meeting was canceled and the county offices were temporarily closed.

For school sports teams around the county the snowstorm and icy roads also prevented students from being able to attend practices and games.

Dawson County High School basketball and wrestling teams had to cancel games.

However, even with all the snow, 149 House members were present in the Capitol to be sworn-in at the commencement of the 2011 General Assembly session "thanks to Georgia State Patrol," wrote Amos Amerson.

Black's Mill teacher received top honor

The Dawson County School System recognized Kerri Whitmire, a kindergarten teacher at Black's Mill Elementary, as its Systemwide Teacher of the Year for 2011-2012.

Whitmire, who taught third grade for nine years before transitioning seven years ago to kindergarten, has been passionate about education since a very young age. She remembers her special needs aunt being significantly impacted by her teachers and that inspired her to go into education.

"Every day is a blessing to work with these little kids because they are learning so much and they're so excited," Whitmire said.

Lisa Perry, assistant superintendent of personnel for Dawson County schools, said Whitmire's passion is one of several reasons that led to her selection as Systemwide Teacher of the Year.

Matt Warrick, assistant principal, said Whitmire's impact on the students can be felt through every hallway at Black's Mill.

"Kerri also goes above and beyond with kids not only in her kindergarten class, but the entire building," he said. "She's essential to our staff. We couldn't have a day without her. We are so proud of Kerri for winning this."

Other 2011-12 honorees include: Amy Swafford, Robinson Elementary; Sandra Tankersley, Kilough Elementary; Debbie Boyd, Riverview Elementary; Patrick Johnson, Riverview Middle; Rick Land, Dawson County Middle; and Deneen Trammell, Dawson County High.

Lanier Tech breaks ground on expansion

In mid-September Lanier Technical College broke ground on a major expansion project that is set to more than double educational space at its Dawson County campus.

"We're very excited to be here. We think it's a wonderful opportunity for the community, the county and the city of Dawsonville," said Russell Vandiver, president of the college. "It's also a great opportunity for Lanier Technical College and our entire technical college system of Georgia."

Construction on the $5 million expansion is expected to be complete within the year. Officials anticipate an enrollment of 300 students in the first year at the new location.

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

In addition, automotive technology and electrical systems technology will be offered, which is exclusive to the Dawson campus.

Overall, local officials began talking about the need for a technical college in the county more than a decade ago. The Dawson campus welcomed its first students in Oct. 2005 in a building owned by the Dawson County Board of Education.

Later, when it became apparent the building was too small to accommodate the growing need, the school board, Lanier Technical College and the Dawson County Board of Commissioners each donated $100,000 to purchase adjacent land for future expansion.

Now, in addition to the ongoing expansion, Lanier Tech is also celebrating receiving full accreditation as of early Dec. 2011.

After a five-year process the college was approved by The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Lanier Tech is now one of 800 regionally accredited colleges in the South, joining institutions such as the University of Georgia, Emory University and Georgia College.

Continued concerns over reservoir plan

As plans for a proposed reservoir are still in motion many Dawson County residents continue to raise their voices in opposition.

The proposed Shoal Creek Reservoir, which would feed off the Etowah and Amicalola rivers, is entangled in numerous complications, including a possible environmental threat toward endangered fish species found only in the Etowah River.

After the late-September public hearing on the proposed reservoir, a Dawson County commissioner said nothing raised came as a surprise to him.

"I wish the community as a whole would understand that we do not own that property, the state does not own that property and the county does not own that property," said Commissioner Gary Pichon.

Owned by the city of Atlanta, the 10,000-acre Dawson Forest Wildlife Management tract (which would house the reservoir) was originally purchased as a second airport site.

While the possibility of building an airport has not been ruled out, plans have mostly turned to water.

In September the county commission heard presentations from Republic Resources and the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority, two entities vying to build the possible reservoir. Both reservoir concepts would call for 2,000 acres for the water and the remaining 8,000 acres to be preserved.

Then, during both public hearings on the issue, environmental groups also weighed in against it. Concerns ranged from the reservoir's proximity to the abandoned Lockheed Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory in Dawson Forest, to tree loss.

Also, residents spoke against inter-basin transfers that would limit the amount of water to downstream communities.

Will Wingate of the Georgia Conservancy called the proposed reservoir "a statewide issue" and presented the commission with 700 signatures opposing the effort.

"This is too important a tract not to be preserved as it is," he said.

Wingate suggested a 1-cent sales tax referendum could be an option to help preserve the land.

The commission got involved in the matter after state legislation gave local officials a say in building reservoirs in their counties.

While general talks about the 10,000 acres have been going on for several years, Commission Chair Mike Berg cautioned that no one should expect any action anytime soon.

Authority lowers fees and celebrates 25th anniversary

On Sept. 1 the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority reduced its capital recovery fees for new commercial and residential water and wastewater connections.

In response to the lower fees, potential businesses may show a renewed interest in Dawson County. Plus, the change put the authority on more even footing with regional water and sewage providers.

While the fees were not lowered specifically to attract new businesses or to foster better relationships with current water providers, the authority's general manager said officials were happy about the possible byproduct.

"If a developer is comparing two areas where they may wish to build, our new fees may encourage the developer to come to Dawson County," Brooke Anderson said. "And we're very excited about that."

Charlie Auvermann, executive director of the Development Authority of Dawson County, stated in August that the new rate is a positive move.

"[The reduction] will certainly make Etowah more competitive versus counties around us and in the general region," Auvermann said.

Commercial recovery fees fall into four categories: Fine dining; fast food; retail; and office. Retail shops will benefit the most since their total fee for getting connected dipped by nearly $110,000, to $182,129, with office developments falling more than $12,000, to $28,537.

Approved by the authority's board of directors at its Aug. 16 meeting, the fee structure stemmed from lower growth expectations.

"We were able to reforecast our expected growth and re-evaluate the fee," said Jim King, the authority's board chairman. "We've been aware that our fees were higher than some of the surrounding providers."

The capital recovery fee is a one-time charge used to pay for existing and future services, according to Anderson.

In addition to lowering its fees, the authority also celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011.

Clerk theft case closes

The state's cases against three people who pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of dollars from the Dawson County Clerk of Courts office came to an end in 2011, nearly two years after the Dawsonville trio was arrested.

Becky McCord, who served as clerk for 17 years before she was arrested on the charges, her chief deputy Donna Sheriff and a contract worker Justin Disharoon are now serving prison sentences for their roles in two separate thefts involving more than $200,000 in county funds.

McCord is currently serving a 24-month term in federal prison on tax evasion and bankruptcy charges, which will be followed by two years in state custody for theft and violating her oath of office.

Sheriff and Disharoon were sentenced to 10-year terms with two years in prison and the remainder on probation.

Sheriff was McCord's second in command when local law enforcement learned she had written more than $80,000 in unauthorized checks from a clerk of courts account to Disharoon.

Authorities also began investigating McCord soon after the pair was arrested in January 2010.

The two theft cases were unrelated, aside from Sheriff cooperating with authorities in the state's theft case against McCord.

While each of the three pleaded guilty to the charges, only Sheriff publically declared remorse for her actions, which according to Northeastern Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin, reflected on her sentence.

The trio was also required to share in repaying $25,000 toward the county's insurance deductible. Gosselin, however, cautioned there was nothing stopping the insurance company from filing suit against the three to recover the losses.

City approves Sunday package sales

Residents in the city of Dawsonville overwhelmingly approved Sunday package sales when the referendum went to voters in November.

Dawsonville was one of several area governments to place Sunday package sales of alcohol on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The referendum was possible after Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill in the spring that allowed communities to put the issue before voters.

The measure passed in Dawsonville by a nearly 63 percent to 37 percent margin.

Russ Marcotte, who owns the lone package store in the city limits, said anxious patrons were waiting at the door to be among the first to legally buy alcohol Nov. 20, the first Sunday he was allowed to open.

"Each and every person who came in was happy that there are Sunday sales," he said.

County residents will be able to cast their votes on Sunday package sales March 6 when they go to the polls for the presidential preference primary.

The ballot will also ask voters whether restaurants in unincorporated areas of the county should be allowed to serve distilled spirits on Sundays.

Restaurants can currently serve only beer and wine from 12:30 p.m. to midnight on Sundays.

Most of the counties that border Dawson - Forsyth, Hall, Lumpkin and Pickens - have not yet held a referendum on the issue.

County sees progress in 2011

A number of new businesses opened along the Georgia 400 corridor in 2011, creating jobs and boosting the local economy.

In February, a Krystal franchise opened its doors to what owner Travis Rogers called "a growing market where everything that opens does well."

The restaurant features Krystal's new decor, including a flat screen television and free Wi-Fi Internet access in the dining area, which seats about 38.

The fast food competition grew stiffer a few months later with the much anticipated opening of Varsity Jr.

Frank Huber, who was among the first in line on opening day, said the May 9 opening brought back childhood memories of visiting Georgia's iconic Varsity restaurant in Atlanta.

That so many Georgians have memories of the Varsity was part of the lure of a Dawsonville site, according to company president Gordon Muir.

"We felt like up here, there are a lot more born and raised Georgians, and I think that's going to be really beneficial for us - having the people with the history," he said.

Last year, Racetrac Petroleum also broke ground for a 20 bay fueling station and 6,000 square feet convenience store on Ga. 400.

Charlie Auvermann, executive director of the Development Authority of Dawson County, said the fact that the petroleum giant, which purchased the property five years earlier when the economy was prosperous, remained loyal despite the economic downturn speaks highly "to the value of our consumer base and our community."

Construction also began on a fiber optic network that could mean lightning-fast Internet for thousands of businesses and households in Dawson, Forsyth, Habersham, Lumpkin, Rabun, Towns, Union and White counties.

The technology will offer the same broadband speeds as world-class cities like Hong Kong, London and New York that will attract technology-reliant businesses and jobs to the north Georgia region, according to Bruce Abraham, spokesman for the North Georgia Network.

Contrarily, Dawson County is poised to lose a global manufacturing plant later this year.

Nordson Corporation announced plans to shut down its local plant later this year as part of the Ohio-based manufacturer's plan to provide efficiency and to serve a more global market.

"We've certainly had a very good relationship with the Dawsonville community. This is merely a business decision and has nothing to do with our experience in Dawsonville," Jim Jaye, director of corporate communications and investor relations.

County settles gun park suit

The nearly five-year feud over a controversial gun club that cost the county an estimated $500,000 ended in 2011 with Etowah Valley Sporting Clays staying put in southeastern Dawson County.

County commissioners voted in July to settle a lawsuit with owner Richard Becker, who said he was pleased with the agreement that awards him $275,000, including $150,000 to be used for noise abatement measures.

"The upcoming sound-abatement study will assure the neighbors an improvement in overall sound quality and quantity and it will be implemented as soon as possible," he said.

A year after Etowah Valley Sporting Clays opened on about 150 acres off Hwy. 9 South, Becker was notified the county planned to terminate the lease over noise complaints from nearby residents. The legal battle followed.

According to court rulings over the last few years, noise is not a viable excuse to shut down a gun club.

"The state law is very plain. If you have a sporting clays park, noise is not a legal defense to shut them down," said Commissioner James Swafford.

Judges rule against motorsports plaintiffs

Judges in separate courts ruled against the plaintiffs in the battle over construction of a motorsports park in western Dawson County in 2011.

In March, Northeastern Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge John Girardeau ruled the city of Dawsonville had not violated zoning laws when rezoning the site in April 2009 and released the city and council members from the lawsuit.

Shortly after the ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal from plaintiffs West and Helen Hamryka, who own a home and horse farm across from the property and have maintained that the park will create a nuisance by disturbing their way of life.

The Hamrykas filed suit against the city and Atlanta Motorsports Park in 2009, claiming zoning law was violated when the mayor and city council approved the project without a development of regional impact study.

According to Girardeau's March ruling, there were "no allegations of any conduct of the city council members or mayor that do not relate to their vote on the zoning map amendment or the procedural issues surrounding it."

In the meantime, Atlanta Motorsports Park continues to push closer to opening.

Billed as a motorsports country club for the entire family, the park will feature two miles of track designed for both four- and two-wheel vehicles, a fast straightaway, rental garages and clubhouse.

"The first phase of 56 garages are completely finished and leased out," said founder and CEO Jeremy Porter.

Hiking trails, a fitness center, pool, tennis courts and a small restaurant are also in the plans.

According to Porter, more than $3 million in memberships have been sold.