WNEG Tuesday Commentary with Billy Chism

Patti and Harry Joiner are all smiles after last week’s movie at the Historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Toccoa.

 

6/12/2018
I grew up in a small town that had a wonderful movie theater, the Park. I loved watching movies on the big screen… especially during the summer.

When I was 10, I remember seeing Haley Mills in “The Parent Trap.” Actually, it was Haley Mills times two, since she played twins.

Other great summer movies I remember over the years include American Graffiti, Jaws, Grease, E.T. and Back to the Future.

It’s now time for summer movies at the Ritz.

Several years ago, the City of Toccoa acquired the old theater on West Doyle Street and refurbished both the interior and exterior to its former glory. Today, Main Street Toccoa operates the Historic Ritz Theatre.

All kinds of live performances are being brought there, and we’re fortunate to have these acts come to our town.

But the Ritz really comes alive, in my opinion, during the summer. That’s when the annual Summer Movies at the Ritz series takes place.

These movies are being shown each Thursday morning and Thursday night during June and July.

Patti and I went to the first movie in the series last week. The place was packed – with children, teenagers, young people, middle-aged people and old people, like me. What a wonderful sight it was.

We watched “The Greatest Showman.” Let me tell you, it was a terrific movie. The picture quality was outstanding, projected onto a big screen. The sound was even better. The new surround-sound system is excellent, and makes movie-going at the Ritz a real treat.

This week’s movie – on June 14 – will be “Paddington 2.” You might think this is just a kid’s movie, but my wife loves Paddington movies. We’ll probably be there.

The following week – June 21 – is the film, “Wonder,” starring Julia Roberts as the mom of a very special child. I loved this book, and understand the movie is just as good. Can’t wait to see it.

The last Thursday in June will feature a Spiderman movie, “Spiderman – Homecoming.” Who doesn’t like a good Spiderman flick?

On Thursday, July 5, is a movie I highly recommend to any adult.
“Darkest Hour” tells the story of Winston Churchill’s first two months as Prime Minister of Great Britain during the early days of World War Two. It’s a powerful film.

July 12 will bring “Captain Underpants.” Hey, this one is for the kids, for sure.

“Ferdinand” will play on July 19. It’s a movie about a bull who wants to sit and smell the flowers … rather than bullfight. This one is guaranteed to pull at all our hearts, young and old alike.

Finally, the last summer movie of the season will be the Disney classic, “The Lion King.”

If you want to see a complete movie schedule, you can pick one up at the chamber or city hall. Or go to www.ritztheatretoccoa.com.

Remember, movies will be shown twice every Thursday during June and July – at 10 a.m. and at 7 p.m.

Admission tickets are only $1. All concessions items are $1.

This summer movie series is real family entertainment. Your family can see a great movie and eat lots of popcorn – and the price is right.

Everyone is invited to enjoy movies at the Ritz this summer.

Many years from now, you may think back to one of those hot summer nights in Toccoa in 2018, and think about a movie that really moved you or made you smile.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Noel Pauley is the new executive director of Family Connection in Stephens County. She will coordinate the newly formed Prevent Child Abuse Stephens.

 

6/5/2018

Some topics are difficult to talk about. Child abuse is one of them.

But it’s time to talk. Not only talk, says Noel Pauley, the new executive director of Family Connection in Stephens County, but she says it’s time to do something about it.

That’s why Prevent Child Abuse Stephens has been started.

Pauley will coordinate this program, in addition to her other responsibilities as head of Family Connection locally. She formerly supervised the foster care program for Stephens County with the state Department of Family and Children services.

“I have seen the abuse and neglect of children,” Pauley said, referring to her former job with DFACS.

She also has worked as activities director for eight summers at the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home, which promotes the spiritual, physical and emotional well-being of children.

She also is a Toccoa Falls College graduate, and holds a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University.

Now, as head of Family Connection in Stephens County, Pauley sees her job as being a “change agent.”

“I want to make positive things happen,” she told me in a recent interview.

The time for action is now, she added.

She pointed out the grim statistics that show substantiated cases of abuse and neglect in Stephens County are far above the state average.

In Stephens County, the rate of abuse and/or neglect is 12 children per thousand, compared to the Georgia average of 7 children per thousand.

Pauley put it this way: “When you think of Toccoa and Stephens County, you think of it as a good, safe place for children. It’s home, and I’m not saying we aren’t a good community. But we have a real problem when it comes to child abuse. It’s happening right here.”

She noted that the statistics from the FAITH PowerHouse for Kids in Toccoa bears this out. Last year, the PowerHouse served 306 victims of child abuse in Stephens, Habersham and Rabun counties.

Out of those 306 children, 98 children lived in Stephens County. Of these 98, a total of 68 children were seen for sexual assault, 22 were seen for physical abuse and 7 were witnesses to abuse or a violent crime.

“That’s a huge amount of children affected for a county as small as we are,” Pauley said.

Of course, these numbers are only the ones substantiated. The number that goes unreported is greater, she said.

Pauley points out that most sexual abuse is not from strangers. Instead, a high percentage of offenders are family members.

And national statistics, she said, show that at some point in their life, one in three girls are sexually abused – and one in four boys.

An awareness campaign is the first step for Prevent Child Abuse Stephens.

Partners in this effort will include DFACS, law enforcement, the local courts and the local school system.

Nobody ever expects a child to be abused, Pauley said. But it happens.

Pauley says Prevent Child Abuse Stephens will work on the front end of the problem – in an effort to stop abuse from ever happening.

The way I look at it, the task before this new organization is going to take time before it can make progress, and making progress will be tough.

Noel Pauley has the passion and smarts to tackle it. And as she says, it will take a community-wide effort.

If we can reduce child abuse – if only by a little – then it’s worth all the time and effort Toccoa and Stephens County puts into it.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

The City of Toccoa’s budget for fiscal year 2018-19 totals $33 million.

 

5/29/2018

Last week, the Toccoa City Commission held a brief meeting, where they voted unanimously 5-0 on something I think is quite newsworthy.

What did they vote to approve? It was the city’s operating budget for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, 2018, and ending June 30, 2019. The overall budget totals $33.1 million.

That’s a lot of money. Where does all this revenue come from to fund the budget? And how is it spent?

For one thing, there are eight separate funds that make up the total budget.

Let’s look at the larger funds.

The General Fund totals almost $10 million. The fund is just what is implies… it funds a wide variety of city services, everything from police and fire departments to public works.

Revenue for funding the General Fund comes from a variety of areas, including city property taxes.

But the General Fund benefits greatly from the city’s Water Fund and its Natural Gas Fund. These two funds provide what is known as transfers to the General Fund each year.

This essentially means that these funds generate enough cash to help finance other parts of city government. Without these transfers, city taxpayers would be paying a whole lot more in property taxes.

The Water Fund budget, which includes sewer services, is $7 million. The Natural Gas Fund budget is almost $11.5 million. The Solid Waste fund seems small in comparison — at $1 million.

Beginning July 1, water rates will go up $1 per month. Sewer rates will go up $1 per month. Natural gas rates will go up $1 per month. Solid waste rates (that’s garbage and trash pick-up) will go up $1 per month.

Those increases are part of the FY 19 budget, approved by the city commission.

For you and me, that means if we use all four services – water, sewage, natural gas, and garbage pickup – our total utility bill will increase $4 a month, or $48 each year, if all other things remain the same.

When you’re talking millions of dollars in a city budget, this $48 a year may not seem like a lot. But it does bolster the city’s overall revenue. These rate hikes will bring an additional $300,000.

For some people living in Toccoa, a $4 dollar increase per month – combined with other price increases like groceries, gasoline and prescription drugs – well, it puts pressure on their own budgets. It all adds up.

The city has increased costs to deal with like everybody else. And the new budget will provide all city employees with a 3 percent pay raise. And the city will continue to fund more than 90 percent of the health care costs of each city employee.

I’m not complaining. What we get from the city are services we shouldn’t take for granted.

After all, city and county residents depend on the city for clean drinking water every day, 365 days a year. We depend on reliable natural gas, especially in the winter, to heat our homes.

The same with garbage pickup and debris removal. What would we do without it?

And sewer service means we live in a cleaner, healthier town.

All in all, the city of Toccoa is a force for good in our community. It provides vital services to our residents, as well as to businesses and industry.

And let’s face it, it takes those 173 city of Toccoa employees to make it all happen.

Our residents will pay these increased utility bills beginning in July. Life will go on. But for some, it will be hardship.

I hope the city appreciates its customers, the people who pay their utility bills every month. As we know, nothing is more important than customers. I hope our Toccoa City Commissioners never forget that, and always will make decisions on their behalf.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Senior counselor Becky Jameson and principal Scott Kersh at Stephens County High School last week. The graduation ceremony for the SCHS senior class of 2018 will begin at 8 p.m. this Friday, May 25.

 

5/22/2018

This is an exciting week for the senior class at Stephens County High School.

Approximately 250 seniors are expected to graduate this Friday night, May 25, at the Indian Reservation at the high school.

Principal Scott Kersh said this year’s senior class has stepped up and have been leaders for the rest of the school.

He put it this way: “This class has a real positive vibe, and they’re been a successful class.”

Principal Kersh pointed out that the Class of 2018 has earned more scholarships from colleges than any other class in a long time. And the Class of 2018 is made up of 112 honor graduates, which represents 45 percent of the entire class.

Kersh said these seniors have excelled in academics, but also in a variety of areas, including Skills USA, athletics, the arts, the band program, dance team, agriculture and Jr. ROTC.

Asked where these 250 students plan to go after graduation, Kersh offered this breakdown: 43 percent will enter colleges and universities, 42 percent will enter technical colleges, 4 percent will enter the military, 3 percent will go to work and about 8 percent are undecided.

This means that approximately 90 percent of the senior class has definite plans to continue their education beyond high school. In today’s world, this additional education can make a tremendous difference.

But no matter what college you go to and what area you plan to pursue, you may find that the things you thought you wanted to do – or someone pushed you to do – are not the things you really want to do. Take time to explore. And move toward the things that appeal to you.

Dr. Jimi Crawford is a smart man who headed Google Books and recently founded his own company, Orbital Insight. He went to high school at Westminster in Atlanta and had this advice for graduates and really anyone:

“Nobody you work for can ever actually pay you for the true value of your time, so you should be doing the things you love,” he said. “The main thing is to find something worthy of your time.”

At this year’s graduation at SCHS, valedictorian Cassidy Zheng will address her fellow seniors, as will salutatorian and STAR Student Christopher Carringer.

I hope the seniors of 2018 listen carefully to these students.

This is an exciting time, for sure. These classmates have worked hard to get to this point in their lives. Families, teachers and friends have been walking this path with them, encouraging and helping along the way.

I wish our seniors well. I hope you will follow your heart and do something you really love doing – no matter what obstacles stand in your way or what others may think.

And that… is something to think about.

 

Steve Paysen at the Toccoa Soup Kitchen, located in the Whitman Street School complex. Paysen is expected to take the leadership reins at the soup kitchen later this year from longtime director Gary Lance.

 

5/15/18

Have you ever been hungry? Sure you have. We’ve all been hungry. But, for most of us, we eat and our hunger goes away.

But have you ever been really hungry? Where you haven’t eaten in a day, and you’re wondering when your next meal may be?

Fortunately, most of us are not in that situation. But we could be at some point in our lives. Some in our community are there now.

That’s why our town has the Toccoa Soup Kitchen.

I remember when this nonprofit organization started. The year was 1984. Two Toccoa women – Jeannie Clifton and Wynn Hickam – thought it was time to address hunger in Toccoa and Stephens County. Jennie was a member of Toccoa Presbyterian Church and Wynn attended St. Matthias Episcopal Church.

When my friend, Jennie, told me about their plans, my reply was simply:
“Oh, Jennie, you don’t really think Toccoa needs a soup kitchen?”

Well, a few weeks later I had to eat my words.

When they soup kitchen opened for the first time in the fellowship hall of the Presbyterian Church on Tugalo Street, some 20 people showed up. After only a few weeks, the number coming for a hot, nourishing lunch climbed to 50 people. Free meals were offered each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday – and are still served free of charge on those three days.

From those humble beginnings, the Toccoa Soup Kitchen has been operating now for 34 years.

About 25 years ago, the soup kitchen moved to the Whitman Street facility, and later began serving breakfast three times a week – also on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

Last year, the Toccoa Soup Kitchen prepared 12,000 meals. That’s according to Gary Lance of Toccoa, who has volunteered for more than 30 years and is the soup kitchen’s current director.

Gary, 76, wants to continue helping out, but understands new leadership is needed to keep it going.

It just so happened that a few months ago a small group from Ebenezer Baptist Church were volunteering at the soup kitchen. One of the people in the small group was Steve Paysen of Toccoa.

Steve, married to chamber president Julie Paysen, has been a full-time evangelist and missionary for the last six years. He calls on students to “Be the Hero,” saying we need more heroes and less haters.

“We need for people to do the right thing,” Steve told me. “If everybody did, it would be a better world.”

At one of those volunteering sessions at the soup kitchen, Gary Lance asked Steve if he would consider taking over the leadership of the Toccoa Soup Kitchen.

“The bottom line is,” Steve said, “I wasn’t looking for this.”

But he appears to be the right man at the right time.

This small group from Ebenezer wanted to start a hot shower ministry, where someone who needs to shower and clean up can do so. So four showers will be installed on site. They also plan to add a laundry at the soup kitchen location to meet the needs of some families.

All of this is planned to start in September, but Paysen already is planning for mission teams across the country to visit Toccoa for a week to help out at the soup kitchen.

In the summers, church youth groups attending the Georgia Baptist Conference Center might use the soup kitchen as a place they could help in their mission work.

In other words, the Toccoa Soup Kitchen is undergoing a transition. But its mission remains the same as when it started in 1984.

As Gary Lance noted: “The most rewarding part of all this is simply filling the needs of the hungry and homeless in Stephens County. And we’ve had great support from local churches and local businesses.”

Paysen added: “When people come here to have a meal, we want them to feel like they are loved. What we are planning is just a continuation of what the part-time paid staff, and Gary and all the other volunteers have been doing.”

I think back to when the Toccoa Soup Kitchen began. It started because a few people cared. And it has continued because others cared.

And that’s something to think about.

 

“Listening is an important part of my job,” says Sharon Crenshaw, an information specialist at the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber’s Welcome Center. Sharon said she gets lots of stories and questions. Listening helps her provide the right information and, at times, can “even change someone’s attitude and make them feel better.”

5/8/2018

Hello, WNEG listeners.

It’s been seven and a half months since I started the WNEG Tuesday Commentary.

Since that time, I have heard from many of you – telling me how much you have enjoyed listening to my commentary every Tuesday… aired three times during the day.

Sometimes you say you disagree with me, and that’s fine too. The important part is that you are listening.

Have you ever considered how truly important listening is?

Here’s what Brenda Ueland, an American writer whose heyday was in the 1920s and 1930s, had to say about listening.

These are her words: “I want to tell you about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all – and this is important too – those we do not love. But we should.”

She describes listening as “a strange thing, a creative force.”

She notes that our friends who really listen to us are the ones who move us toward.

Ueland explains: “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.”

Well, I’m going to give you a secret about the power of listening.

If you listen with affection to anyone who talks with you – and I mean really listen to them and be in their shoes when they talk – an interesting thing happens.

Try it. Just look at someone you are talking to, and try to hear what they are saying.

Don’t wait until it’s your turn to talk. Just listen. Don’t let your mind press against theirs. Don’t try to change the subject. Don’t argue. Just listen.

Your attitude should be: tell me more.

This is not an easy thing.

Ueland goes on to say: “Sometimes I cannot listen as well as other times. But when I have this listening power, people crowd around and their heads keep turning to me. They are drawn to me, the listener. It is because – by listening – I have started up their creative fountain. I do them good.”

So how do you become a good listener? Here are some suggestions.

Try to learn tranquility … be in the present. When a friend or family member is talking, try to stay quiet and hear every word.

By listening you do a great thing.

So thanks for listening. To me – but mainly to those closest to you. Being a good listener will make you a better person.

And that’s something to think about.

 

J.M. Stephens 1935-2018

 

5/1/2018
Sometimes a man or woman enters a community – and only years later – you realize the impact he or she had on so many people in that community.

Jim Stephens was such a man. He served as principal at Stephens County High School from 1966 to 1980, and then as Stephens County School Superintendent from 1980 to 1992. In all, he had 26 years with our local system.

Last week, Jim Stephens died following a long illness.
He is being remembered by students, faculty members, school administrators and those in the community as a man who led by example.

He could be gruff at times. He certainly was straightforward – even blunt when it was called for. Mainly, though, he was a man of integrity.

Those who spent time around him knew he had integrity, and they respected him for it.

In the Whitlock Mortuary website obituary, there is a section for persons to add their online condolences to the family.
I selected a few, mostly from former students, all now grown.

 

Here’s what Savonda Turner had to say: “J.M. Stephens was a man who earned and commanded respect. He was candid and fair. I’m glad he was part of my high school years.”

Mack Poss, a former coach and teacher, described Mr. Stephens as “the personification of a true professional, as a principal and a superintendent. He was always fair and forthright.”

Joe Perry, a SCHS graduate, wrote this about Mr. Stephens as he recalled his high school days: “His guidance and words of wisdom for a young high school student made all the difference. He earned the respect and admiration of a young man then, and I’ve kept that respect for him all these years.”

Another student, Betsy Bagby Wolff, put into words what many of us were thinking. She wrote: “I had so much respect for the man.” She added: “Thank you, Mr. Stephens, for showing us the real meaning of leadership and authority.”

That’s exactly what he did. He led by example. He had integrity. He put outstanding principals at each of the schools, and let them do their jobs.

He supported them.

He understood the value of teamwork. And the value of plain old hard work.

Jim Stephens came to our county with his young family, and spent the rest of his life here. He will be missed by so many. But never forgotten.

And that’s something to think about.

 

Chamber president Julie Paysen

4/24/2018
We all have a story to tell.
So does Toccoa and Stephens County.
I wondered what the people who tell our community’s story have to say about where we live.
So I visited with our local chamber president and our development authority executive director. I also wanted to talk with the two people closest to our city and county governments — our city manager and also our county administrator. How do they see our community? What’s their story of Toccoa and Stephens County?
My first stop was at the chamber office, located at the historic depot.
Julie Paysen is chamber president, a position she has held since 2014.
Having grown-up in Northeast Atlanta, she later moved to Roswell, Cumming and Gainesville before settling in Toccoa with her family.
“Every town doesn’t seem like home,” she said.” Toccoa does.”
Paysen summed up Toccoa and Stephens County this way: “This is a great place to do business, but what sets us apart is we’re a great place to do life. It really is a wonderful place to raise a family.”

Development authority president Tim Martin

 

My next visit was to see Tim Martin, whose office is located downtown across from the historic courthouse. Martin has served as executive director of the Stephens County Development Authority for 10 years.

“I tell anyone I meet that Toccoa is the Cherokee word for beautiful,” he said. “And Toccoa is beautiful. But we’re more than our scenic beauty. We’re home to great industry, great people and great opportunity.”

Toccoa city manager Billy Morse

 

From there, I walked a short distance to city hall to meet with Toccoa city manager Billy Morse, who started working for the city in 1983.

It didn’t take long for Morse to become an integral part of the community. He has now lived in Toccoa for 35 years.

Morse gave a number of reasons why he chose to make Toccoa home for he and his family.

First, he listed the benefits of small-town life versus that of a metro area.

“In a small town,” he said, “you get more affordable housing, a lower cost of living, a safer place, and there’s less traffic, which makes for an easy commute.”

If small towns are good, then why choose Toccoa over other small towns?

Morse gave this answer: Toccoa has a rich history. Today, Toccoa has a vibrant downtown with the Ritz Theatre, many nice businesses, downtown events, Amtrak, the Currahee Military Museum and more.

Morse went on to say that Toccoa has plenty of recreational opportunities with nearby mountains, lakes and parks. And, we enjoy four distinct seasons. And to top it off, he said, Toccoa is located close to larger cities, such as Athens and Clemson.

“We also have a strong industrial base,” Morse noted, “really, much more industry is here than a lot of other small towns. Our school system is strong and we have Toccoa Falls College and North Georgia Tech.”

Morse shared why he personally has enjoyed living in Toccoa and being city manager.

“My job gives me a sense of community, and I feel I’ve made a difference,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to be part of award-winning projects, such as the Lake Yonah pumping station and county-wide water system, the city as a regional natural gas provider, and projects like the Ritz revitalization, the Lake Toccoa renovations and the new swimming pool.

Morse put it this way: “This is just a great place to raise a family.”

 

Stephens County administrator Phyllis Ayers

 

My final stop – to the historic Stephens County Courthouse – brought me face to face with Phyllis Ayers.

Ayers was named the county’s finance director in 2003 and was promoted to county administrator in 2011.

“We’re a small community, but we have so much to offer,” she told me. “An airport, a hospital, a golf course, nature trails, Georgia Baptist Conference Center, medical facilities, fine schools, even a train stop.”

Ayers gave the perspective of someone who grew up here, attended Stephens County High School, and graduated from the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. She had been offered a job a Big Eight accounting firm. But she moved home instead.

“What drew me back is what I experienced in my childhood,” she said. “This is a great place to raise a family.”

Her family were the Millers, and she remembers summers playing at her grandmother’s house on Red Rock Road, running barefoot along the gravel road. She also counts as family the Westmorelands, the McCurrys, the Fricks and the Mercks.

“This community still has a bond among the people whose families have been here for generations, and we really are one big family,” she said. “I feel the same way about my high school classmates. I can count on these people if I need them.”

Ayers pointed out Toccoa and Stephens County always has made a big deal of things – whether it’s a Friday night high school football game or a special event for school-age children.

“We’re a beautiful community,” she said. “We really do have so much to offer.”

Here are my thoughts: we often overlook the many things that make our community special. This is a great place to live and to raise a family.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

The Ritz Theatre in downtown Toccoa will be the site of the local candidates’ forum, to begin at 6 p.m. this Thursday, April 19. The forum will be aired live on WNEG AM and FM.

 

4/17/2018

In two days from now – this Thursday evening in a political forum – we get a chance to hear first-hand from local candidates running for office.

The Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with WNEG AM and FM radio and the Stephens County Farm Bureau, will host this candidate forum at the Ritz Theatre in downtown Toccoa.

The forum will start at 6 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend. In fact, all citizens are encouraged to pack the Ritz to hear from local candidates with opposition as they introduce themselves and answer questions fielded from the audience.

To keep things orderly, no one will be able to shout out questions. Instead, those attending will be able to write their questions on a card, and these questions will be passed along to the moderator. The moderate will then pose each question to each candidate.

Those invited to participate include Dan Gasaway and Chris Erwin, each running for the District 28 House of Representatives seat in the Georgia state legislature.

Gasaway and Erwin will appear face-to-face and are the only two candidates in this race. So the winner in the May 22 primary will be Stephens County’s next state representative.

The Stephens County Commission has two seats up for grabs. Five candidates are seeking the Post 4 seat, now held by Stanley London, who chose not to seek re-election. The five running for this post are James Addison, Mel Barrett, Bryan Dooley, Jim Ledford and Henry Moore.
The Post 5 seat is a race between incumbent Dean Scarborough and John Smith.

All those seeking a county commission seat will be on stage at the same time, fielding the same questions.

The only school board race features two new candidates: Joel Blackwell and Kay Reed, each running for the seat now held by David Fricks, who chose not to seek re-election. Three other school board members now in office are running again, but have no opposition.

My hope is that many of you will attend the candidate forum at the Ritz this Thursday.

We all can learn a lot by seeing someone in person – how they handle themselves before the public, how they react to the other candidates and how they answer the questions. You get to see their body language, their facial expressions and, of course, hear what they say.

Fortunately, our local radio station, WNEG AM and FM, will bring the entire forum to you live. If you can’t make it to the Ritz, I urge you to tune in to WNEG at 6 p.m. this Thursday, April 19, to hear from each candidate.

I think it’s a real public service for our local radio station to co-sponsor this forum and bring it to you live.

The forum is a great way to learn more about each candidate. And the more we know, the better informed we are when we vote.

Early voting starts April 30 – only two weeks away.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail hobbs@gacaradio.com. Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

Voting in the governor’s race – and local races too – is a precious right. So, vote.

 

4/10/18

In case you haven’t noticed, the race to become Georgia’s next governor is about to heat up.

Now that the state legislature has adjourned, it’s going to be a wild ride the next six weeks … leading up to the primary elections, which will take place on Tuesday, May 22.

As you probably know, Casey Cagle, who has served as Georgia’s lieutenant governor the last 12 years, is running against a field of six other candidates. There’s no incumbent since Gov. Nathan Deal is leaving office after he completes his second term at the end of the year.

Cagle has name recognition and has built statewide support, but I’ve seen enough Georgia statewide races to know anything can happen.

The fact is, Cagle has opposition from four strong candidates in the primary election – each vying to be the next Republican nominee for governor. With this many Republicans running for governor for the first time, there most likely will be a runoff in July between the top two vote getters.

Other Republican candidates who are viable contenders, in my opinion, include Secretary of State Brian Kemp, State Sen. Hunter Hill, State Sen. Michael Williams and political newcomer Clay Tippens.

Of course, we have two Democratic candidates for governor, both with the first name Stacey.

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans are both former members of the Georgia House of Representatives. Each have earned law degrees, and both have worked as attorneys. Abrams now has her own business, while Evans continues to practice law.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face the Republican nominee this November in Georgia’s general election.

Right now, the Republican candidates have their eyes on winning the Republican primary. And it appears to me they believe that to win the Republican primary, they must “out-conservative” the other Republican candidates.

I took a look at the websites of these candidates and here’s what I found:

Cagle, 52, wants less talk, more results… with “conservative leadership.”

Kemp, 53, calls himself “a conservative small businessman fighting for Georgia.”

Hill, 40, is a former Army ranger, a businessman and describes himself as a “conservative fighter.”

Williams, 44, says he is a “fearless conservative.” He also has embraced the current president, calling himself a “pro-Trump” Republican.

Clay Tippens, 44, is a former Navy Seal and an executive with a global consulting firm. He wants to attack the problem of sex trafficking in Atlanta and has several other goals, one being every third grader in the state should be able to read. He describes himself as a “common-sense conservative.”

Who knows what will happen during the next six weeks as these Republican candidates joust, trying to one-up each other?

As for the two Staceys running in the Democratic primary, you won’t find the word “conservative” on their website.

Abrams, 44, says too many Georgians are “left behind or left out.” Her website states her leadership will give every Georgian the opportunity to thrive.

Evans, 40, says she is running “to bring hope and opportunity to all Georgians.”

The winner of the Democratic race – no matter which Stacey wins – faces an uphill battle in the general election. That’s because the last Democratic governor in Georgia, Roy Barnes, was elected in 1998 – 20 years ago.

Right now, who knows what will happen and what the future holds for our state?

One thing is for certain, though. Georgians need to study the candidates and speak out on issues important to them. Mainly, we need to vote. That means you and me. The greater the voter turnout, the greater the mandate goes to the winning candidate.

Put it on your calendar – Tuesday, May 22. That’s primary election day in Georgia. Of course, early voting starts in late April.

The governor of Georgia is a powerful position. As Georgians, we need to listen, learn and vote for the candidate of our choice.

Let’s hope whoever is chosen, that person will be the kind of leader we can be proud of and who will lead our state wisely for the next four years.

And that’s something to think about.

Yellow blooms of a Carolina jasmine vine reach to the sky.

4/3/2018

April, that glorious month of April, has finally arrived.
I know – and you do too – that April will bring a few more cold nights. We may even have a late freeze to deal with.
But you remember April, don’t you? The month that renews the soul.
When April arrives, you know spring is really here and summer is on its way.
Just look around. Trees are finally beginning to bud out, especially redbuds, dogwoods and other flowering trees. The limbs of the stubborn oaks remain bare, but during April, like magic, tiny buds will appear and soon these oak leaves will turn our world green again.
If you think I’m enthusiast about spring, you are right.
When I was young, my favorite season was autumn. I loved those crisp, cool days … with golden leaves falling all around.
But that was years ago. Somewhere along the way, I had to admit: spring and summer are my new favorite seasons.
And why not? Our world comes alive. Just look out your window and you’ll see the evidence that spring is here.
Or, drive down Tugalo Street, where the dogwood blooms have opened. Their showy white blossoms arrived just in time to coincide with this year’s April 1st Easter. And azaleas and other flowers are blooming all over the county.

Dogwoods are blooming on Tugalo Street near downtown Toccoa.

 

I’ve learned over the years you don’t have to travel far to enjoy nature and the wonder of spring. Most of us can walk out our back door and admire the beauty of a tree beginning to leaf out, or see a flower poking its head up to the sun.
So enjoy today. That’s my message to you this Tuesday. Enjoy today. Take a short walk outside. Feel the warmth of the sun. Take in sweet smells of spring. Look closely at the trees and flowers that surround you.
You may want to buy a small potted fern or flowering plant and put it near a window, where you can enjoy its beauty every day.

A wild violet soaks up the sun.

April is here. Spring is here. And pretty soon, as the poet says, we’ll be knee-deep in June.
And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Gov. Zell Miller was a giant among Georgia governors.

3/27/18

Former Georgia governor Zell Miller died last week at his home in Young Harris. He was 86. Surely, our state lost a politician and a statesman who will go down in history as one of the best governors ever to serve Georgia.

I remember the first time I met Zell Miller. It was in Stephens County and the year was 1974.

I was a cub reporter at The Toccoa Record, assigned to cover a banquet at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center. The speaker that evening was a up-and-coming 42-year-old politician, Zell Miller, who happened to be running for lieutenant governor that year.

I remember the occasion was some event honoring agriculture, probably sponsored by the FFA or the local Farm Bureau.

But what I distinctly remember about that evening was what happened after Mr. Miller gave his address and the event finally ended. Many in the crowd of some 200 headed for the door, but many others lingered to have a chance to talk with Zell.

I watched as the energetic Miller, wearing a coat and tie and cowboy boots, went from person to person, taking time to talk with each one personally… asking each one about their families, their jobs and how they felt about the economy, country music, or anything else on their minds.

By the time he had finished talking with everyone, almost an hour had gone by, the clean-up crew had finished up and the lights were about to be turned off.

Zell and I were the last ones to leave the dining room, but he wasn’t finished. As we walked into the darkness, the man from Young Harris asked me a few questions, gave me a firm handshake, then hopped into his car.

Needless to say, Mr. Miller made a impact on those people in Stephens County that night – and me.

He went on to win the lieutenant governor’s race later that year, and in 1975 began serving as lieutenant governor, first under Gov. George Busbee and then under Gov. Joe Frank Harris. In all, Mr. Miller served 16 years as lieutenant governor – longer than anyone else in Georgia history.

Then, in 1990, Zell Miller was elected governor of Georgia and re-elected in 1994. His two terms covered from 1991 through 1998.

During those years, he will be remembered as a governor who pushed legislation providing more money for public schools.

But Zell Miller mainly will be remembered for getting the Georgia lottery voted in, which, in turn, provided the funding for something brand new – HOPE Scholarships and HOPE Grants.

Since this time, HOPE has paid tuition for many, many students attending the state’s public colleges and universities, including those in our technical college system.

The positive impact of these scholarships and keeping the best and brightest students in Georgia can’t be emphasized enough.

By the time Gov. Miller stepped down, he was one of the most popular politicians in Georgia history.

He later went on to serve in the U.S. Senate after being appointed by Gov. Roy Barnes in July 2000 when Sen. Paul Coverdell died unexpectedly while in office. Miller went on to be elected to complete Coverdell’s term, thus serving in the nation’s capital from 2000 through 2004.

After that, he and his wife, Shirley, returned home to Towns County and a quiet life in Young Harris.

The last time I talked with Zell Miller was in 2009, when I was editor and publisher of the White County News. One morning I answered the phone and Zell Miller was on the other end, wanting to renew his newspaper subscription.

We talked for about 10 minutes, and he reminisced about those years when he had returned to the mountains to teach at Young Harris College after serving in the Marine Corps and then attending UGA, where he earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history.

He told me he had returned to Young Harris to coach baseball and teach history and political science. But even then, he had the urge to serve in government and was elected mayor of Young Harris.

“I also bought a small weekly newspaper during this time (the early 60s),” he told me. “But that was more work than I ever imagined. It was a happy day when I sold that little paper.”

We laughed and he hung up.

Gov. Zell Miller loved the people of Georgia and left a legacy with HOPE that will benefit Georgians for years and years to come.

And that’s something to think about.

 

Leading the many library programs are, from left, children’s director Shantelle Grant, library manager Emily McConnell and adult program coordinator Stephen Barlow.

 

3/20/18
This week, I want to ask each of you a question. Here it is. What’s the one place in our community where everyone can gather and have his or her life enriched?

If you answered the Toccoa-Stephens County Public Library, you answered correctly.

Our local library – on West Savannah Street at the edge of downtown Toccoa – is a special place. And it’s been a special place for almost 50 years.

Today, our library has so much going on each week I feel compelled to share it with you.

In other words, it’s not just a building with books – even though it does have 40,000 volumes of both fiction and nonfiction. And every book offers something – whether it’s entertainment, information or a bit of wisdom. Yes, books can even change your life. They have mine.

This is all wonderful in itself. But libraries today are so much more than books. There’s so much going on. Where to start?

I started with a visit to our library to talk with library manager Emily McConnell, who has done a great job of leading our library for the last five years.

This is what she told me: “We are a community gathering spot, and offer a fun, safe environment for the community. Everyone is welcome and our programs are all free. No matter who you are, you are welcome here and we look forward to helping you.”

I learned one main emphasis of the library is helping to get every child ready to read. But there’s still so much more.

Shantelle Grant, children’s director, leads a weekly “lapsit” program for parents and children – aimed at little ones from birth to age 2.

 

Here are some – but not all – of the weekly programs being offered.

On Monday, the library concentrates on new technology and involves those who might want to learn – for example – to program a drone, create an animated video or build a lego creation. There’s even a 3-D printer you can work with. Stephen Barlow heads this program for kids and adults alike.

It’s “Read Aloud” every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to noon with children’s director Shantelle Grant. This is for children ages 2 through 5, accompanied by their mom or dad. It’s a morning of reading, songs and movement.

Computer classes, taught by adult program coordinator Stephen Barlow, are held every Wednesday from 11 a.m. until noon. These include classes on an introduction to the Internet and social media, and how to use Word, Excel and other popular programs.

Shantelle Grant gets the younger children moving every Thursday at 11 a.m. with something called “Lapsits.” Lapsits gets its name because the children are so small they sit on the lap of their mom or dad. Lapsits is designed for children from birth to age 2. They see a variety of shapes and colors and have fun singing and moving about.

“Art Day” is every Friday. All day, participants can come into the library to paint, sketch or craft.

Remember all those books in our library. Well, the library also offers e-books for patrons. These can be downloaded to read on a Kindle Fire or Apple iPad. Right now, an average of 250 patrons per month are reading library e-books – all at no charge.

As for the 40,000 books on our library shelves, patrons are checking out an average of 4,000 to 5,000 books per month. During the Summer Reading Program for children, that number swells to 8,000 books per month.

Our library – thanks to a committed staff of five full-time employees and one part-time – truly is a community gathering place for all ages.

“We’re about community engagement,” library manager Emily McConnell said. “We’re not just about books… we are about the pursuit of knowledge and equal access to education. Libraries enrich the lives of people.”

The way I see it, our Toccoa-Stephens County Public Library is not just a nicety to have in our community. Our library is a necessity. It’s a necessity because it reaches all people and can change lives. We are fortunate to have such a place.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Marie Cochran, following her presentation about Ida Prather Cox, stands next to a banner noting the contributions of musicians who were born or lived in Toccoa.

 

3/13/18

I recently finished a book about courage. Written by Brene´ Brown, the book is titled: “Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone.”

Much of this book is about what it really means to have courage.

She writes that the foundation of courage is vulnerability – the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Making yourself vulnerable definitely takes courage.

Thinking about courage leads me to a woman who was born in Toccoa around 1894… a woman named Ida Prather. Each summer, the City of Toccoa recognizes her contribution to music with the annual Ida Cox Music Festival.

Ida Prather was born and spent her early years at Riverside Plantation in Stephens County. Her family later moved to Cedartown, where she sang in the church choir.

But she sensed there was a bigger world out there, so she left home and joined a traveling vaudeville show. What Ida Prather did took courage. She certainly made herself vulnerable – and there was a lot of uncertainly and risk involved.

She soon married her first husband, Alder Cox, a band member from Florida. But her young husband was killed in World War I fighting for his country.

Her husband’s death had to be a difficult time for her, but she continued on – working hard, never giving up on her dreams.

Her determination paid off, as she transformed herself into a blues singer – but not just any blues singer. Ida Cox became one of the top blues performers in the country.

In the 1920s, she became a headliner, singing with many jazz greats. She made her first blues recording on the Paramount label in 1923. Not only was Ida Cox a great singer, she became a prolific songwriter and went on to record 78 songs with Paramount during the 1920s.

One of her best-known songs – “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” – personified Ida Cox, really, … a nonconforming, independent woman.

Indeed, she was a savvy businesswoman who served as her own manager, hired her own musicians and produced her own stage shows.

Perhaps one of her career highlights was singing live with other performers at Carnegie Hall in 1939 in a sold-out stage show called “From Spirituals to Swing.”

In 1945 when she was in her early 50s, Ida Cox suffered a stroke and retired to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live with her daughter. She had a comeback of sorts in 1961 when she recorded her final album at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. She died in Knoxville in 1967.

I learned a lot about Ida Cox recently when I attended a program at the local library called “Bringing Ida Home.” Toccoa native and SCHS graduate Marie Cochran delivered an interesting and informative program about Ida Cox.

Marie, too, has ventured out in her own life. She is the founding artist and curator the Affrilachian Artists Project, which celebrates the diversity of the Appalachian region by promoting black artists who work in visual arts.

Marie is a visual artist herself. She graduated with an art degree from UGA, then earned a masters degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

Her mixed media pieces have been exhibited at the High Museum in Atlanta, the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

These two women – both from Toccoa – have personified courage in their careers. Any time you put yourself and your artwork – or your songs – out there for the public, it makes you vulnerable. But that’s part of life – doing something, being bold, taking risks.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Bill Cochran, Stephens County Chief Registrar and Election Superintendent, is gearing up for the upcoming primary election, set for Tuesday, May 22.

 

3/6/2018

It’s qualifying week in Stephens County and in every county in Georgia.

Qualifying week is simply the week when candidates qualify to run for public office.

Qualifying week started yesterday at 9 a.m. at the courthouse annex and will continue until noon this Friday, March 9.

In Stephens County, we have three county commissioners whose terms expire at the end of this year. So each of these seats may be contested. Up for re-election are Dean Scarborough, Stanley London and Michelle Ivester.

On the Stephens County School Board, we have four school board members whose terms will expire at year end. So these four seats also may be contested. We’ll know by week’s end. The incumbents on the school board up for re-election are David Fricks, Jim Bellamy, Rod Moore and Bill Wheeler.

In addition to these local races, two special elections will be on the ballot – one a special election for voters in the City of Toccoa dealing with Sunday sales of alcohol and the other a separate special election for all county voters dealing with Sunday sales and consumption on site of beer and wine in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Bill Cochran, the county’s Chief Registrar and Election Superintendent, is the person responsible for putting the Stephens County ballot together and insuring our ballot is put together accurately.

The Stephens County ballot not only will include the local county commission and school board races and the local alcohol-related special elections, but also the governor’s contest, Congressional races and State Senate and State House races.

Right now, six Republicans have declared their intentions to run for governor. At the end of this week, we’ll know who paid the qualifying fee and actually qualified to run.

By the same token, two Democrats also have stated their intentions to run for governor. They also have to qualify this week to make it official.

But back to the local level.

I met with Bill Cochran last week in his office in the courthouse annex. I also met his part-time employee, Eureka Gober. These two handle this office by themselves, except during early voting and on election days when poll workers are brought in to help.

Cochran told me that his office receives about 600 new voter registrations a month. But there’s also attrition on the voter rolls from people moving out of the county, as well as from deaths.

The local office keeps up with these new registrations to insure they are recorded properly and there are no duplicates.

They also keep up with deaths in the county. The local office receives a copy of all death certificates from the local Probate Judge’s office, and there is a double check later with the state.

So we can take comfort knowing our voter list is fair and accurate.

Just as importantly, Cochran points out that the touch-screen voting machines we’ve been using for years are secure and working fine.

He noted these machines are tested publicly before each election, and that each machine has memory cards that record the votes, and these memory cards are saved after each election.

Cochran emphasized that our voting machines are stand-alone and are not connected to any network and definitely not to the Internet.

Currently, Stephens County has approximately 16,400 registered voters.

All these voters will be eligible to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries, both to be held on Tuesday, May 22. The primary run-offs are set for the middle of summer – on Tuesday, July 24.

The general election – where Republican and Democratic candidates finally face off – will be Tuesday, Nov. 6.

But it all begins this week – qualifying week. And if you’ve thought about running for local office, hey, you’ve still got until noon on Friday to sign up
at the registrar’s office.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Years ago, former Toccoa Mayor Bill Harris convinced his friend John Kollock to paint this scene: Main Street Toccoa in the early 1900s. Prints of the painting sold out quickly.

Nancy Kollock, widow of the late John Kollock, along her daughter Kathleen Kollock, hold a copy of Kollocks final book, Meandering Paths of an Artist.The book sells for $30 and is available at Troups Studio & Gifts.

 

2/27/2018

 

John Kollock was an artist whose impact spread far and wide in Northeast Georgia.

 

His impact began more than 40 years ago when Kollock published the book, “These Gentle Hills” – filled with his watercolor paintings depicting everyday scenes from Northeast Georgia from an earlier era, the late 1800s and early 1900s.

 

The popularity of this picture book – especially among those living in Stephens, Habersham, Rabun and White counties – spurred a number of other Kollock books, including “Watercolor Memories of the Hills,” “The Long Afternoon Sketchbook” and “Painting Memories in Watercolor.”

 

Not only was Kollock a wonderful artist whose paintings captured how Northeast Georgia once looked, but he also was a splendid storyteller who enjoyed writing about the history and customs of those times.

 

A few years before his death in 2014 and upon the urging of his children, Kollock put down on paper some memories from his own childhood. What began as a few stories about his past turned into a fascinating account of his life.

 

Now, the family has published that fascinating account in a new book called “The Meandering Path of an Artist.”

 

Nancy Kollock, his widow, called it an encouraging book. She said that’s why John wrote it.

 

“He wanted to encourage other people to look at their lives and see how things are working out. They may be on their own meandering path. But if someone really wants to do something, they just need to keep on trying.”

 

In his book, Kollock wrote about how his wife, Nancy, and their three daughters provided him with plenty of inspiration.

 

Nancy said she appreciates the fact that John talked about his faith in his final book.

 

“He believed everyone has a gift, and he believed his gift came from the Lord.”

 

In Kollock’s final chapter of “The Meandering Path of an Artist,” he writes: “What I hope this book might be is a story about the importance of turning one’s authority over to God and following the doors He opens. My life has been a meandering path that I have followed without knowing what I would find to do next. Way back when I came to acknowledge that I had to rely on God’s help, my directions became clearer.”

 

After reading his book, I’m even more impressed with this talented man who grew up in Atlanta, but spent his childhood summers on his grandmother’s farm north of Clarkesville. Kollock and his family eventually moved to that farm in 1973.

 

Kollock’s story takes us back to his days studying theater at the University of Georgia, working on movie sets and serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, where he became part of the Special Services group that put on shows and radio broadcasts for troops all over Europe.

 

Kollock also tells about his younger days in Atlanta, where he did cover art  for “Georgia Life” magazine and illustrated books for the likes of Celestine Sibley and many other authors.

 

Perhaps Priscilla Wilson, who edited Kollock’s memoir, put it best in her editor’s note in the front of the book: “Every single time I’ve read it, John’s energy and drive and love of work have bounced off the pages – touching my sensibilities, inspiring me, moving me to want to be and do my best.”

 

I believe you may want to get a copy of Kollock’s last book for your own library. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

This sign in downtown Toccoa meets city code, is attractive and draws attention to those passing by.

 

2/20/18

Signs. Signs. Everywhere are signs.

And signage in the City of Toccoa seems to have evolved into a hot topic lately.

It got that way after the city’s code enforcement officer recently issued citations to a few businesses on Currahee Street … businesses that were using portable signs on a permanent basis.

The current city code calls for these kinds of portable signs to be used only on a temporary basis, not long term.

When these business owners were told they were in violation of the sign ordinance, they also were given a timetable to remove their signs. They weren’t written up on the spot.

But when these portable signs ultimately were not removed after this time period expired, the code enforcement officer did his job and cited the businesses for a code violation.

The businesses – to say the least – were unhappy with these citations.

As the scenario developed, the city commission held a work session last week. Since this was a work session, no action was taken. While the commissioners did support the code enforcement officer, they also agreed to take another look at the city code in all its parts to make sure it was reasonable and everyone was being treated fairly.

And it didn’t take long for the commissioners to do something. Yesterday morning – in a called meeting – they voted 4 to 0 to void all the recent sign citations. The city commission also put a 60-day moratorium on issuing
any citations for sign violations.

The commission wants to use these 60 days to throughly review the entire sign ordinance, and will either leave it as is or make changes they believe are necessary.

One thing to remember… our citizens have been calling for a more attractive city for years, and the city has worked to rid Toccoa of blight.

The city has made several areas of Currahee Street more attractive – including a green space at the corner of Broad and Currahee streets, where a City of Toccoa entrance sign is located.

Work has started to reduce blight on Pond Street. And the city pushed to remove the dilapidated motel on Big A Road across from Ebenezer Baptist Church.

These were code enforcement issues too, and important for the city.

And, in my view, so are signs. If you travel around Georgia, attractive cities have attractive signs. Yes, city codes sometimes rub a few the wrong way, but any time you want to make improvements, there is always push-back.

When the city finalizes its review of the sign ordinance in 60 days and makes any revisions it feels is needed, then I believe every single part of this revised city code should be enforced and every business should adhere to it. That why we have city ordinances.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Even Toccoa Falls has changed in 40 years. This photo, taken in June 1977, shows two steady streams tumbling down to a variety of rocks at its base. The rock formation all changed with the dam break that occurred five months later. My 7-year-old niece, Caroline Rich, of Atlanta poses with a rock. She stayed with Patti and me for a week that summer.

 

2/13/18
Singer and songwriter Willie Nelson wrote an old favorite of mine, “Funny How Time Slips Away.”

Yes, old Willie was right on when he sang the words: “Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away.”

I’ve been feeling that way lately. I look back and remember when I moved to Toccoa and Stephens County almost 45 years ago.

The year was 1973. I remember those days meeting upstairs at city hall for the city commission meetings. The three city commissioners were Troy Bowen, Lucius Alewine and Roy Gaines.

And the county commissioners met in a small room over at the courthouse annex. Newt Rice, Lonie Martin and Nancy Doss were the county commissioners. Ms. Doss was the first female county commissioner in Stephens County, and you would have thought she had landed here from Mars.

The school system’s main office was on the third floor of that courthouse annex building. Edwin Stowe was the elected school superintendent. A fresh-faced Myron McClain soon was named assistant superintendent.

Bill Wilkinson was Sheriff, and Don Shirley Toccoa Police Chief. Superior Court Judge Jack Gunter ruled superior court with an iron hand, but also with a wry sense of humor.

Judge Robert Harris, who handled state court proceedings, had eyes that I swear actually twinkled, especially when he talked about some invention he was working on.

The two major employers were WABCO (formerly known as LeTourneau’s) and Coats & Clark. Both employed more than 1,000 people, but Stephens County remained a rural community and had a rural feel to it.

That may be because many of those machinists, fixers and welders – after putting in their eight-hour shifts – went home to work on their family farms.

I don’t tell you all this to reminisce. I tell you this because change is something many of us don’t like to think about. But our community has changed. Our state has changed. Our world has changed.

In our hearts, we know change is something that happens daily. But it’s easy to pretend that things are just rocking along… without change.

Today, Toccoa and Stephens County is much different that those days when I arrived 45 years ago.

But I’m glad I’m still here. And I’m glad we have so many people who live, work and play here… and call this place home.

Yes, Willie, ain’t it surprising how time just slips away? But really, it shouldn’t be. And that’s something to think about.
If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail hobbs@gacaradio.com. Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

Lou and Rob Worsley of Toccoa with their children, from left, Warner, Reagan, Charis and Josiah.

 

2/6/2018
Last week, I sat around the dining room table with the Worsley family to find out more about their volunteering.

The family – father Rob and mother Lou and their four children – recently were named Volunteers of the Year by Toccoa Main Street.

The family had volunteered at the Ritz Theatre last summer, helping with the movie program.

I wanted to hear more about this – especially from the children. They are Charis, age 12, Reagan, 10, Warner, 8, and Josiah, 6.

The youngest, Josiah, told me he took up tickets at the Ritz. “I tore them in half and put them in a bucket,” he said

His older siblings manned the concession stand, selling Cokes and candy to the Thursday morning crowds.

Charis told me this about her volunteering experience: “I really liked getting to know Mrs. Crosby (that’s Sharon Crosby, special events coordinator with Main Street) and getting to talk with other people.”

The Worsley family also spent time last summer helping out at the Toccoa-Stephens County Humane Shelter because daughter Reagan is a big animal lover.

Yes, Reagan admitted: “I loved being around cats and dogs.”

But the children learned there was a lot more to the shelter than just hanging out with the animals.

They washed out the feeding bowls, helped do the laundry and cleaned the cages of the cats and kittens. They spent time playing with the kittens too, and taking notes if any kitten looked like it needed more attention.

This sounds like a lot of work, I told them.

“Yeah, but it was fun,” Reagan said. Her siblings agreed.

Mom Lou noted that shelter director Jeff Roberts was “so nice” to let them help, and added: “Miss Judy, our mentor, was patient with all the kids. It didn’t bother her that we came in as a herd.”

Shelter personnel also enjoyed having the Worsleys on site each week.

“They were great, and so enthusiastic,” Roberts said. “They tried to soak up everything, and learned a lot about our community and what it takes to be a responsible pet owner.”

Lou and Rob are both graduates of Toccoa Falls College. They spent eight years working at TFC in a men’s dormitory as resident directors.

“Our kids grew up living in the dorm, where service and working as a team was the norm,” Lou said. “They still have a weekly chore list at home.”

Today, the family lives a big rambling house near downtown Toccoa. Rob works for a local construction company, while Lou, a former high school English teacher, home schools the kids.

“We said no to me working full time,” Lou said, “which has allowed us to say yes to our children volunteering in the community. This is a tangible way for them to leave their comfort zones.”

By volunteering as a family, Lou also believes she has gotten to see her children in a different way… from a new perspective. “I see them more as individuals with special qualities to offer.”

The family has been talking about volunteering this summer at the Toccoa Soup Kitchen. “We want to be more engaged with people who are vulnerable,” Lou said. “If there’s a way to be a part of that, we should take the opportunity.”

She believes her kids are up to the challenge.

“It will be good,” Charis said. “It will be hard work. But you get to meet some nice adults and see how you can give back.”

“It’s fun to be around other people,” Reagan agreed.

And people enjoy being around the Worsley family. I certainly did. They make you feel good.

As Sharon Crosby of Toccoa Main Street said: “We found this family so refreshing. That’s why we wanted to recognize all of them.”

I hope you get to meet the Worsley family. You can see their photo on WNEG’s website – wnegradio.com. Just click on Tuesday Commentary.

You’ll see one family that gives me hope for the future. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

The Top 10 game-changing events in Northeast Georgia during the last 90 years, as noted in the Norton Agency’s Native Intelligence report for 2018.

1/30/2018

Back in December, I received an interesting e-mail from Frank Norton, Chairman and CEO of The Norton Agency, based in Gainesville. This business is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.

The e-mail contained a survey, and each recipient was asked to choose the 10 events, in his or her own mind, “that forever changed our North Georgia region over the last 90 years – from 1928 to 2018.”

To make the job easier, Norton had included about 30 events to be pondered before filling out the survey.

Through this survey, Norton wanted to better understand the significance of these game-changing events and see how area residents would rank them.

Frank Norton is a force in the world of real estate in Northeast Georgia. His annual Native Intelligence report is anticipated each year by hundreds of business people, elected officials and those working in the nonprofit world.

Norton gave his latest business forecast last week – which included a summary of his survey results.

So, in ascending order, here is the Top 10 significant events that have forever changed Northeast Georgia, as voted on by area residents.

No. 10. The Gainesville tornado of 1936. If you think about it, you can understand why this one got so many votes. Much of downtown Gainesville was destroyed, hundreds died and thousands were injured. Despite this terrible disaster, the people of Gainesville showed resilience and strength by overcoming adversity and building a stronger community.

No. 9. The expansion of public colleges and private colleges in Northeast Georgia. These colleges, spread throughout Northeast Georgia, have provided our citizens with a broader educational opportunity. I would have ranked this one higher.

No. 8. Utility infrastructure. To put things in perspective, in 1928 only an estimated 5 percent of our region had electricity. Reliable telephone service in this region wasn’t available until the 1950s. Think how far we’ve come.

No. 7. The Atlanta airport. The decision to make Atlanta’s airport a major transportation hub changed everything. In 1950, Birmingham and Atlanta had almost the same population: a little over 300,000. Today, Birmingham’s population stands at 1.1 million, compared to Atlanta’s 5.7 million. Atlanta’s airport is the busiest in the world, and its impact definitely has reached into Northeast Georgia.

No. 6. The 1996 Olympics. Remember the rowing competition at Lake Lanier? That facility has been updated and is still thriving 22 years later. Remember the excitement when the Olympic torch was carried through downtown Toccoa? Norton believes the “can do” spirit of the Olympics was its most lasting legacy.

No. 5. Atlanta’s growth. We have all witnessed it… as development moved first into Gwinnett County, then Hall, Barrow and Jackson counties and is now making its way into Lumpkin, White and Habersham counties. It’s a matter of time before Toccoa and Stephens County are affected by this growth.

No. 4. The birth of the chicken industry. If you know Gainesville, then you know chicken is king. But chicken houses and processing plants have brought plenty of jobs and economic growth to all parts of North Georgia.

No. 3. Northeast Georgia’s healthcare system. The Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville and the North Georgia Physicians Group has put top-quality healthcare within the reach of many. The Toccoa Clinic is now part of this group. Norton put it this way: Healthcare continues to rock this region. I agree, and put this one as my No. 1.

No. 2. The Interstate Highway System. It now criss-crosses Northeast Georgia and has given all us greater accessibility to everything. I’m not sure I would have ranked it No 2, but you can’t deny how these four-lanes have opened up our world.

No. 1. The creation of Lake Sidney Lanier. Yes, I understand why folks from Gainesville (where most of the polling took place) would rank good old Lake Lanier as the number-one game-changer. The creation of Lake Lanier changed everything for the many counties that border this huge body of water – all 38,000 acres of it.

As Frank Norton noted, it wasn’t one event that moved Northeast Georgia forward and created these growth dynamics. It took them all.

One thing’s for certain. Toccoa and Stephens County will continue to be shaped by these dynamics.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

A portion of the Chattahoochee National Forest in Northeast Georgia

1/23/18

I consider myself an environmentalist.

I know… sometimes in the South, caring about our environment labels you as a “tree hugger”… or “anti-business”… or even worse, “a liberal.”

Well, I contend that most of us – deep down – have a special relationship with nature.

After all, as the old church hymn goes: “This is my Father’s World: I rest me in the thought, Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.”

And here in Northeast Georgia, we are blessed with many wonders – from mountain streams to towering oaks to rolling hills and majestic mountains.

If you have a sense of history, you may know that local families farmed this land for centuries, but sold much of it in the late 1800s to big lumber companies from up North or out West – companies that set up huge sawmills.

Loggers proceeded to cut down every tree in sight. Essentially, from the 1880s to the 1920s – a 40-year period – much of our land was scalped. And with no ground cover, erosion scarred the land and crystal-clear streams filled with red dirt.

It was at this point that the federal government bought much of this land in an effort to restore it. The U.S. Forest Service, as it is know today, planted thousands of trees and worked tirelessly to bring back the forests that had been decimated. But it has taken more than 100 years and a concerted effort by so many to reclaim the land.

You may be thinking… this is well and good. Why does it matter today?

It matters today because of H.R. 2936, a bill that the U.S. House of Representatives passed on Nov. 1, 2017, and sent to the U.S. Senate.

If this bill is passed by the Senate and enacted into law, it would allow for tens of thousands of acres – from 15- to 45-square-mile areas of the Chattahoochee National Forest, our backyard – to be logged. The bill would allow years of timber logging in a single timber sale.

The biggest resource at risk is our water supply.

The Chattahoochee River starts as a small stream in the mountains. But the river’s source is really not one small stream… it’s literally hundreds of them. Water is constantly seeping out of the ground. The forests are filled with underground water sources because of the tree canopy.

This tree canopy also protects the streams, keeping the water clean – as it flows southward toward Lake Lanier or eastward toward the Tugalo River and ultimately the Savannah River.

Before the House voted on this bill, I wrote a letter to U.S. Representative Doug Collins, noting my concern and asking him to consider voting no. A few weeks later, I got a form letter from Rep. Collins thanking me for my letter and telling me why he voted yes. I’m sorry… I didn’t buy any of his reasons.

So now the bill sits in the Senate. Will our national forests in Northeast Georgia be protected? Or will the Chattahoochee National Forest, which includes Currahee Mountain and surrounding lands, be subject to a clear-cutting campaign like we haven’t seen in our lifetimes?

This clear-cutting campaign will benefit certain industries… but will not benefit the majority of our residents, and certainly will not protect our land, our water, our air.

Yes, this is my Father’s world.

But when our national forests are destroyed and much of these valuable resources are gone forever, it will be too late. We know very well the horrible destruction that wholesale logging did to our land in the early 1900s.

Can we learn from our past mistakes? Time will tell.

And that’s something to think about.

 

1/16/2018

Michelle Ivester has been appointed chair of the Stephens County Commission for 2018. And she’s ready.

In fact, when she was only 20 years old she made a decision to get involved in her community.

Not really knowing exactly how to accomplish this, she phoned the then-new Chamber chair Phil Hobbs, asking him how she could get involved. He was impressed by her eagerness and sincerity and put her on the Chamber board.

When she turned 21, Ivester set a new goal: to become a county commissioner by age 30.

She tried to learn as much as possible about local government: volunteering, being part of Leadership Toccoa and later graduating from the Georgia Academy of Economic Development program. She served on the county’s Board of Registrars.

But where she really got her baptism by fire in politics was being part of a citizens’ committee that met every Tuesday night for 18 straight months.

That committee was helping to shape the county’s land use ordinance, which the county eventually adopted in 2014 right before she became a county commissioner herself.

But for Ivester, it was important for her be part of this hard-working group that forged a consensus on land use.

“I think our land use ordinance is one of the best things our county has,” she said, “I’m proud to have played a part in helping to create it.”

In 2014, she won a special election to fill an unexpired term. She was 32 at the time, just a couple of years off her goal. That same year she ran again for a full four-year term… winning that election.

As she begins her final year of her four-year term, she believes 2018 will be a pivotal one.

As commission chair, she wants to make county government more open to suggestions and ideas from the public. That’s why she plans to host a town hall meeting for citizens each quarter during the year.

The first one is set for this Saturday, January 20, at the historic courthouse. It will start at 2 p.m.

“This will be an open forum,” she said. “Anybody can come out and talk. There’s no agenda. If you have any questions, concerns or suggestions, I’ll be there to listen. I want people to have a voice.”

Besides her town hall meetings, other goals include building a bigger, better farmers market and repurposing the old farmers market building on North Broad Street to support new business ventures.

Another goal is to concentrate on repaving roads in county subdivisions, since last year emphasized repaving longer, connecting roads.

Serving on the commission has been more stressful than expected, she admitted. But she has a special motivation.

“I have kids, and I don’t want them to have to move out of the county to have a job,” she said. “We’ve come a long way to make this possible.”

Ivester pointed out that since she has been on the commission, the Stephens County Development Authority has brought in almost a thousand new jobs – with a capital investment of $90 million.

“I think everybody feels good about the direction we are moving,” Ivester said, adding: “There’s so much positive right now. The city and county are working great together, and it feels like we’re all on the same page. We all want growth and jobs.”

A Stephens County native, Ivester graduated in 2000 from Stephens County High. She has two degrees from Piedmont College, one in early childhood education… the other, a master’s degree in business administration.

She started her own business, Talan Properties, in 2008. Her real estate brokerage firm employs five people. Her husband is Von Ivester, a longtime Patterson Pump employee. They have two sons, Talan and Rylan.

When asked about the local real estate market, Ivester said there has been a real resurgence in residential real estate sales.

She noted many of the sales are to young people coming here.

“They want to move out of the big city, and don’t mind commuting to Gainesville or Jefferson or even metro Atlanta,” she said. “They like the quiet, country life.”

And speaking of young people, Ivester, now 35, says it’s time for her millennial contemporaries to get involved in local government… to run for local offices and serve on local boards.

“There are so many young people in our county capable are being in leadership positions,” she said. “It’s time for my generation to step up and get involved.”

I’m impressed with how Michele Ivester has gotten involved in our community. She certainly has set a fine example for others to follow.

And that is something to think about.

1/9/2018

The City of Toccoa has a new mayor for 2018 – David Austin.

If Mayor Austin’s name sounds familiar, it should. Austin has served 18 consecutive years on the Toccoa City Commission, and is now serving as mayor of Toccoa for the fifth time.

He has tied the record set by former mayor James Neal, who also served as mayor five times. As for Austin, he began his service as a city commissioner in 2000 and named mayor initially in 2003.

Each year, Toccoa City Commissioners appoint a mayor and vice mayor for a one-year period.

The mayor is charged with conducting the bi-monthly commission meetings and is the city’s main ambassador throughout the year.

Not only that, the mayor serves on a number of boards, including the Stephens County Development Authority, which plays an important role in bringing in new businesses and industry into Toccoa and Stephens County.

You might know or remember Austin before his days in local politics. He and his wife, Michelle, have been part of the Toccoa scene for some 50 years. They met as students at Toccoa Falls College and were married in 1967 … between their junior and senior years.

In 1972, Roy Gaines hired Austin as an on-air personality at WNEG Radio, where he also worked in advertising sales at the station.

The Austin’s moved a couple of times to North Carolina for jobs in radio and advertising, but made their final move back to Toccoa in 1984 when Gaines started his television station – WNEG TV. Austin was tapped to head the sales department at Toccoa’s first and only TV station.

He stayed in that position until he retired in 2011, despite the station going through several buy-outs and ultimately being relocated from Toccoa.

During his TV days, many remember those Saturday nights when David and Michelle co-hosted The Billy Dilworth Show.

“Not a week goes by, even today, that either Michelle or myself meet someone who brings up the Dilworth show and our time together on the show,” David said.

Austin retired in 2011 after a 40-year career in radio, television and advertising.

By the time of his retirement, he had been on the Toccoa City Commission for 11 years and served as mayor twice.

Now, he begins his 19th year on the commission.

“It’s been a real pleasure to serve,” he said. “I feel I’ve contributed to the betterment of our city.”

This year, the mayor hopes to work closely with the Stephens County Development Authority in an effort to bring in a name-brand hotel and other new businesses.

“Economic development is vital to our city and county,” he said.

When asked about serving with a city commission that works well together, and I believe this one does, Austin said it makes it possible “to get things done.”

He puts it this way: “The city commissioners right now have a consensus on what needs to be done. Every year we set new goals, and then decide what’s the best we can do with the money we have. Then, we all work together to meet those goals.”

The most rewarding part of serving on the commission, according to Austin, has been “being part of a great municipal organization.”

He added: “We have an excellent city government here. Our employees do a great job of providing services for our citizens. The city is financially sound and the improvements we’ve made in downtown and at the golf course – which includes the renovated Reflections building that is fabulous and stays rented all the time – all of this makes Toccoa a better place to live and work.”

The mayor concluded: “It’s all about quality of life. What we do helps our citizens have a better quality of life.”

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail hobbs@gacaradio.com. Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

1/2/2018

On this cold Tuesday, I have some warm thoughts for you as we begin 2018.

I want you to consider that we — all humans on Earth – are really one big family. We are all brothers and sisters when you get right down to it.

In every way – physically, mentally and emotionally – we face the same challenges… and basically we want the same things out of life.

When I spent six weeks in Sydney, Australia, some 30 years ago, I came to realize this. The things that were important to the people Down Under were the same things that mattered to the people in Northeast Georgia.

What were they? A safe place to live. Plenty of healthy food to eat and enjoy. Having a few friends. Maybe meeting someone, falling in love, getting married. Being able to provide for a family. Seeing our children get a good education and have opportunities of their own.

Don’t get me wrong, even in Australia, some Aussies were great fun to be with … others not so much. But it became apparent that life in Toccoa really wasn’t much different than life in Sydney.

One morning I picked up a copy of the Sydney Daily News and skimmed the front-page headlines. Similar stories most likely were being reported back home in the Atlanta paper.

That week in Australia I was staying with an older couple. The wife, glancing at me while I looked at the paper, asked about the latest hatches, matches and dispatches.

“Hatches, matches and dispatches,” I asked. What’s that?”

“Oh, you know,” she replied, “Births, weddings and obituaries.”
I got it. Hatches, matches and dispatches. Births, marriages and deaths are important, no matter where you are in the world.

Recently, the 82-year-old Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader of Tibet, wrote these words: “Humanity is all one big family. But we are still focusing far too much on our differences instead of our commonalities. After all, every one of us is born the same way and dies the same way.”

He suggested more listening, more contemplation, more meditation. And he agreed with Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

The Dalai Lama added: “By listening and contemplation, we can learn that patience is an antidote for anger, bravery in an antidote for fear and understanding is an antidote for doubt.”

It is not helpful to rage against others, he continued. Instead, we should strive to change ourselves.

This year, let’s try to live together as brothers and sisters. And let’s get started right away.

Many of us are in such a mad dash to the future, we miss the point of life. What if tomorrow never comes, and it never does. Embrace today… and you will have more todays than you can ever imagine.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Stephens County Government Building, which houses the county’s constitutional officers and courtrooms.

Toccoa Municipal Building in downtown Toccoa, where Toccoa City Commission meets

 

12/26/2017

As we watch the old year slip away, it may be a good time to think about 2018.

Can you believe it… the 21st Century is quickly moving forward, whether we like it or not. Almost 2018. It makes me wonder if I’m ready for this fast-paced world, a world that most likely will get even faster.

It’s always a good time at year end to take stock of where we are. More importantly, it’s a good time to think about where we want to go. Let’s take the time to consider where we want to go in our own community next year.

What would you like to see happen in Toccoa and Stephens County in 2018?

I have my own thoughts. So, here’s a few things I would like to see happen.

I would like to see more of our citizens engaged in civic affairs. I’m not advocating everyone attend every school board, city commission or county commission meeting. But I challenge you to attend at least one of these meetings in the coming year.

We depend on our local radio station, WNEG and local newspaper, The Toccoa Record, to help us know what’s going on in the community. And God bless them. They do a fine job.

But sometimes you need to attend a local government meeting and see for yourself those we elected in action. Listen and learn. It’s part of what being in a democracy is all about.

A few other things… I’d like to see those walking trails built in the woods bordering Lake Toccoa. It would bring more people to this beautiful place, plus it would become a great location to walk and exercise.

Also, I’d like to see the Stephens County Economic Development board and executive director bring in a solid new industry for our county in 2018. We’ve had some successes in the last few years. Let’s keep it going.

With the Currahee Campus of North Georgia Tech in Toccoa’s backyard and a new four-lane highway leading straight to I-85, we have two keys to success when it comes to industrial development.

Also, I’d like to see our Stephens County Schools continue to operate with a balanced budget and to continue focusing on educating every student – no matter their career path.

And, I’d like to see Stephens County Hospital thriving once again, fully staffed and operating in the black.

I realize none of these are earth-shattering goals. But they are all worthy goals. And together, they add up to a better quality of life for our citizens.

Finally, I believe each of us should consider ourselves part owners of Toccoa and Stephens County.

We should treat our community with care, taking an interest in what’s going on, and offering a suggestion or positive word every now and then.

I’ve been all over Georgia (and a few other places). Looking at Toccoa and Stephens County, we have much to offer.

Let’s do our part and be an owner. Hey, maybe I’ll see you at a government meeting next year. After all, each of you have good ideas to contribute.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

During the Christmas season, storefronts in downtown Toccoa are delightfully decorated to greet those passing by. But for some residents, Christmas can be a difficult time of year.

12/19/2017

Things are beginning to slow down in this week before Christmas in Toccoa and Stephens County.

It’s a time for reflection… a time to think about what’s important in our lives.

During the Christmas season, we are reminded that this is a season of joy… and for many, this is true.

But for some, Christmas is a difficult time. There are those with financial problems, those who are lonely and those who may be grief-stricken due to the loss of loved ones.

Back when I was editor of the White County News, we ran a local advise column that was written by a Cleveland resident named Abigail Cutchshaw. Abigail called her column, Ask Lula Belle, because after all, she couldn’t call it Ask Abby. That name already had been taken.

The Ask Lula Belle column became quite popular: a mother would write in asking advise about what to do about her young child who always seemed bored, or a young wife would ask why her husband didn’t stand up for her when there was friction between her and her mother-in-law.

But the Ask Lula Belle column that resonated the most with our readers over my nine years in White County was one she wrote one Christmas.
The headline read: “Christmas is for those who are grieving.”

She had received a letter from someone who wrote: “Christmas is putting too much pressure on me. I don’t have the energy or the desire to celebrate the holidays at all. I lost my husband back in the spring. This is my first Christmas without him. My children live far away and I’ve chosen not to travel. She signed it.. Too Sad to Celebrate.

Lula Belle perhaps gave one of her best answers. This is part of what she wrote:

“Christmas is hard for many people for many reasons. It feels like a slap in the face to see other people smiling like they don’t have a care in the world. And maybe they don’t now, but most of us will eventually face a sad Christmas when we are so grief-stricken, we won’t have the energy to put up a tree.

“I believe Christmas is for YOU exactly where you are in your life right now. Christmas is not for those who think they have it made, and life is so wonderful and easy.

“Christmas is for those who are suffering. It is for the ones who are mourning their loved ones. It is for those who have dysfunctional families. It is for who are stricken with illness, and are uncertain if this will be their last Christmas on earth. It for those who have lost their jobs. It for those who know great and terrible sorrows.

“Because… this is why there is Christmas in the first place. No matter what it may look like at Walmart or on TV, Christmas is a promise of eternal life, peace and healing.”

I believe Lula Belle captured the spirit of Christmas in a lovely way.

So I hope you find peace in your heart this Christmas. You are special to me, and I appreciate you. Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

At Stephens County Hospital, Kathy Whitmire, recently hired as Vice President of Operations, meets with her new boss, Chief Executive Officer Roger Forgey.

 

12/12/2017

“Stephens County Hospital: We’re open for business.”

It’s been two months since Roger Forgey was named chief executive officer of Stephens County Hospital.

Forgey was employed by the hospital authority to get the financially ailing hospital back on track.

Prior to that, he served as a consultant for a firm that works with smaller hospitals in an effort to make them more attractive to larger medical centers for either a partnership or an outright acquisition.

Of course, a big part of what makes a small hospital more attractive to a larger concern is that it is operating in the black, not the red.

When Forgey began consulting last August at Stephens County Hospital, it didn’t take him long to see the operations were unsustainable. Losses were adding up to $500,000 per month. That’s $6 million a year.

These losses explain why the Stephens County Hospital Authority felt it had no choice but to approve the selling of $15 million in revenue bonds to bring in sufficient revenue to prop up operations.

I wanted to know the status of any upcoming partnership or acquisition, and a timetable to when something might happen.

Last week, Forgey told me that “daily conversations” are being held with six larger concerns. He noted that the hospital authority is involved directly in all these conversations.

“We should know something by the end of January or early February,” he said.

In the meantime, Forgey has been charging ahead in an effort “to reduce costs and to improve our practices.”

“We have cut $3.5 million out of costs,” he said.

Where did the cuts come from? A reduction in workforce – taking the number of full time employees from 450 to 350 – brought the most savings… $2.5 million dollars worth.

“We also improved our collections. And we didn’t renew a lot of outside contracts or either renegotiated contracts at a lower cost,” he said.

Despite all this, the volume of surgeries and number of patients needs to go up.

“Right now, our average daily patient census is 20 to 30 patients,” Forgey said. “We need to get to an average of 40 patients a day to be sustainable.”

His biggest challenge right now, he says, is convincing the community we are not closing, but that Stephens County Hospital is here to stay.

Babies are being delivered at the hospital and general and orthopedic surgeries are being done.

“But we could be doing even more,” Forgey said. “We need to let our community know we are going to be here for another 80 years.”

That’s why he plans to speak to as many civic groups, churches and other organizations throughout the county to get this message out.

“We have a $45 million annual impact on the local economy,” he said. “We employ 350 people. It would be devastating to the community to lose our hospital.”

Forgey also has brought in local resident Kathy Whitmire to serve as the hospital’s new vice president of operations.

It’s a new position, he said, “one that needed to exist.”

“We need one person in charge of operations – to organize and strengthen the pieces we have,” Forgey said.

Whitmire’s experience as Managing Director of Hometown Health, he said, has given her vast knowledge of small-town hospitals in Georgia. “She will help us improve efficiencies, cut costs and make us sustainable.”

Whitmire will concentrate on the business office, working with finance and collections. She also will lead the drive to automate the existing manual systems to more effectively interface with insurance companies.

Forgey noted he will be leaving Stephens County Hospital by summer or before, and a vice president of operations who is knowledgeable is needed after he leaves to work with any new hospital group.

Finally, Forgey came to the conclusion early on that Stephens County Hospital’s emergency room needed fixing.Patients were spending too much time in the ER waiting room.

So an announcement is being made tomorrow that the hospital is contracting with a new provider to beef up the emergency room.

The entire ER will be restructured with the goal of improving customer service, reducing wait times and retaining patients at Stephens County Hospital, rather than transferring them to Gainesville or Athens.

More ER physicians will be brought in and they will become part of the community, Forgey said.

So lots of things are happening at Stephens County Hospital right now.
The goal is to keep our hospital open and operating in the black.

Let’s hope it happens. Time will tell. And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail hobbs@gacaradio.com. Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

Joe Sticher opposes the rezoning of a parcel of land adjacent to his home on Ga. Highway 145 in the south part of Stephens County.

 

12/5/2017

Last week at a Stephens County Commission meeting, the county commissioners conducted a public hearing to hear from both sides in a rezoning request of a 67-acre tract. It involved changing the property status from agriculture residential to agriculture intensive.

Three Hartwell businessmen, who own the property located off Ga. Highway 145 several miles south of the bypass, were seeking the change so they could sell the land.

The potential buyers have stated they want to build two breeder chicken houses – both 530-feet long – that the length per house of almost two football fields. Adjacent property owners came to the meeting to oppose the rezoning. One resident, Joe Sticher, wanted the tract to remain designated as agricultural residential – thus preventing the building of the breeder houses, which aren’t allowed in agriculture residential districts, per the land use ordinance adopted by the county commission in 2014. Sitcher’s property sits off Ga. Highway 145. A grass road leading to his house would serve as the entranceway to the 67-acre tract. The two breeder houses, Sticher said, would be located only 300 feet from his house. “These chicken houses almost would be in my yard” Sticher said. “They are trying to shove this down my throat.” He has lived in his current house for 15 years.

Deanna and Ken Kaminski also have property bordering the 67-acre tract. They told the commissioners that the increase in truck traffic, the smell and the idea of having two huge chicken houses nearby were not compatible with its neighborhood feel. “We are a community out here,” Deanna said.

Another Ga. Highway 145 resident spoke up against the rezoning request. “I don’t want chicken houses here. I’ve worked in chicken houses and I certainly don’t want to live near one.”

After the public hearing, county commissioner Michelle Ivester made a motion to approve the rezoning request. However, her motion died for lack of a second. No vote was taken. With no official vote, the county could revisit this issue and take a vote, but not before another public hearing is held, according to county attorney Brian Ranck.

Of course, many other tracts in the county are already designated as agriculture intensive, where chicken houses can be built. So seeking one of those pieces of property is always an option

Here’s the bottom line when you consider all of this: We now have a land use ordinance that gives every citizen a chance to have a say-so when a rezoning issue comes before the county. In the past, anything – and I mean anything – could locate right next door if you lived in the unincorporated areas of the county. It could happen. And did happen. And there was no recourse. Today, this is not the case. Any change in a property status must be advertised and a public hearing held before the county planning board and finally, the county commission itself. The elected county commissioners, as it should be, make all final decisions.

It’s a good way to handle things. And it’s reason enough to applaud our county land use ordinance. There’s even a more important reason, however, for our residents to feel good about such an ordinance. It prevents another Wilbros disaster. Most of us remember those sickening odors that permeated our county for years. Under our current land use ordinance, a similar disaster shouldn’t happen. The land use ordinance provides a list of uses no longer allowed in our county. A partial list includes construction landfills, hazardous waste landfills, a variety of waste reclamation facilities, fertilizer manufacturing, paper mills, pulp mills, even nuclear waste storage.

Guess what? Before our land use ordinance was enacted, any of those mentioned above could have located in the county’s unincorporated area. There was nothing to stop it from happening. Now… there is. And that’s something to think about.

 

The Albermarle sits at the intersection of Alexander and Tugalo streets.A close-up of the exterior shows missing windows and rotten wood.

 

11/28/2017

This Friday is ChristmasFest in downtown Toccoa. Plenty of people will fill the streets and stores. Excitement and anticipation will fill the air.

Now, I want you to use your imagination and picture The Polar Express arriving in downtown Toccoa.

If you’ve read “The Polar Express” or seen the Christmas movie by the same name, you know The Polar Express doesn’t need tracks to run on. It can go down any street, just like it did in the book, picking up the little boy and zipping him up to the North Pole.

Now, imagine if The Polar Express arrived in Toccoa and headed down Alexander Street, right in front of Toccoa City Hall and the Stephens County Government Building.

 

As this magnificent train moved beyond these two buildings, the next structure on the left would be the dilapidated Albermarle, once a grand restaurant and hotel, but now an eyesore right downtown.

Oh, if by some magic, the hotel could return to the grandeur of the 1940s when rail passengers would stay overnight and locals would crowd its elegant dining room.

But only in our dreams would that happen. Dreams and at least 8 to 10 million dollars to truly renovate the place to its former glory. But who has $10 million, and even they did, why would they invest in something like this?

The reality is that restoring the Albemarle is not economically viable. What would a building this massive ever be used for in Toccoa? And think about it, there are plenty of nice, renovated buildings downtown right now in need of tenants.

That’s not to say parts of the interior possibly couldn’t be removed, restored and used somewhere else

What I envision on the Albemarle location is a Village Green. What an asset to downtown.

Can you imagine The Polar Express letting off passengers in a park decorated in Christmas finery, with all the surrounding trees sparkling in white lights?

Even better, can you imagine this park in the spring, or summer or fall, where local residents relax on park benches, watching their children or grandchildren run and tumble through the grass? Even a small amphitheater for intimate performances could be part of the magic.

As much as I appreciate historic homes and old commercial buildings, there is a limit to my love.

And the Albemarle is where I draw the line. It was pretty much a rathole when I moved to Toccoa in 1973. Today, in my opinion, the Albermarle is beyond redemption.

The Toccoa City Commission would be wise to condemn it, letting the chips fall where they may.

My guess … the current owners would do with the building what they’ve done for years – very little.

So, let’s imagine a Village Green, a beautiful park that could be enjoyed by all Stephens County residents and visitors for years to come.

That’s a dream I can take hold of…. and that’s something to think about.

 

 

Trees are blazing with color on Currahee Mountain.

 

11/21/2017

With Thanksgiving Day around the corner, it’s a good time to pause, look around and share some things we should be grateful for in Toccoa and Stephens County.

So, here goes…

We should be thankful we live in such a beautiful part of the state. There’s something about the Piedmont and its rolling hills and variety of hardwood trees that makes me want to live here.

Many years ago, Stephens County Schools had an art director named Dwight Andrews. One summer, Dwight and his wife took off in their car for South Dakota. They wanted to see Mount Rushmore and planned to be gone most of the summer. One morning, Dwight said he woke up and realized how much he missed Currahee Mountain. He’d been gone for about two weeks. Somehow, Currahee had called him home. I understand.

What else should we be thankful for? How about the fact we can turn on our water faucet and get clean water. This is not just in the city of Toccoa. City water lines criss-cross most of our county. And we have a plentiful raw water supply. That’s good for residents and for our future.

We should be thankful for the renovated Ritz Theater in downtown Toccoa. You may not hang out there, but the old movie theater has been given new life. There are plenty of entertaining events there this December and even more coming in 2018.

We should be thankful that our community has a local radio station – WNEG AM and FM – and a local newspaper – The Toccoa Record. Without these businesses, most of us wouldn’t know what’s happening in our own community.

Speaking of our local radio station, what would mornings be like without Connie Gaines on the radio? We should be thankful for Connie. Not only does she play great music, she gives the local weather forecast, makes the Swap Shop a thing of beauty and provides the morning arrive time of Amtrak.

What about this? We should be thankful for those who quietly make a difference in the lives of others through their generosity.

We also should be thankful for our spouses, children, grandchildren and friends. Too often we take them for granted.

Finally, we should be grateful for our own lives and the fact we can breathe the air and walk the Earth.

Let’s hope we can live peaceably with one another… and “always to try to be a little kinder than necessary” to those we encounter.

That “be a little kinder than necessary” phrase is from a kid’s book, “Wonder,” now a newly-released movie. The book reminds us: Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.

And this Thanksgiving, that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley

 

Toccoa Police Chief Tim Jarrell

11/14/2017

If you follow local news reports, then you’re aware of a string of shootings that recently have taken place in our community.

To recap, there have been a total of five shootings within the city limits of Toccoa in a stretch of three months. Each incident was investigated by the Toccoa Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Listen to the circumstances of each one:

August 1 at Cambridge Apartments on Pond Street. A confrontation between two groups. Shots are fired from a small-caliber handgun, hitting one person. No arrests made.

August 10 at the corner of Pond Street and Collins Road. One person is shot. The victim spends several weeks in the hospital. Drug related. No arrests made.

August 23 on West Franklin Street, behind a strip of buildings on Currahee Street. Two young men get in a verbal argument. One pulls out a small-caliber handgun and shoots the other one in the face. The victim is treated and released. An arrest is made. A 17-year-old is charged with aggravated assault, along with two other charges.

September 23 near the intersection of Alexander Street, Argo Place and Sautee Street. The victim is shot with a handgun. Later, the victim disappears from an Atlanta hospital and supposedly has fled the state. The GBI has three persons of interest. Drug related. No arrests made.

November 1 on Prather Bridge Road at Willowdale Street. Three persons are walking along Prather Bridge Road at 10:40 p.m. A driver in a pickup truck stops and asks if they want a ride. They say no. The driver gets out of his truck. Gunfire is exchanged between the driver and one of the group. The driver is hit in the abdomen. No arrests are made at this point.

I wanted to delve into this rash of shootings. So I talked with Toccoa Police Chief Tim Jarrell and Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley. I met one-on-one with each of them.

Jarrell has served five years as Toccoa’s Police Chief. Shirley is completing nine years as the Sheriff of Stephens County. Both men have spent their entire careers in law enforcement.

So, what’s going on with all these shootings?

Jarrell put it this way: “I’ve seen incidences involving guns happening more frequently. Everything in society is becoming more aggressive.”

Shirley agreed. “There’s been a gradual increase in gun violence over the years I’ve been sheriff.”

Listen to Shirley: “This is not unique to Stephens County. Violence has been worst everywhere. Everybody is more aggressive. It’s the climate across America.”

What about illegal drugs and drug abuse in our community?

Police Chief Jarrell says this: “The drug problem in Toccoa is not new and has been an ongoing problem. It was a problem before I became chief and it continues to be a problem.”

Jarrell points out that “90 to 95 percent of all our crimes in the city can be traced back to one key element – drugs. Whether it’s domestic abuse, DUI, theft, shoplifting – it all comes back to drugs,” he said.

Shirley agrees that drugs and crime go hand in hand. “Probably 80 to 85 percent of those in jail are there because of a drug charge, or because of a crime where drugs were involved,” Shirley said.

It’s obvious to me, the use of illegal drugs – beyond the devastation it does to an individual – leads to crime. Meth is still a big problem in Stephens County. So is the abuse of prescription drugs.

So what’s being done about it?

The city of Toccoa is planning to become part of the Appalachian Drug Task Force, which the local Sheriff’s Office has been a part of for three years.

Will this make a difference? “Absolutely,” Jarrell said. “The city will provide an officer to be trained by the task force. This officer and other task force agents will spend time with our patrol officers as we confront street-level dealers.”

Shirley said: “We’re never going to totally eliminate drugs from our community. Our ultimate goal is to bring those numbers way down.”

All our citizens deserve to live in a safe community. It’s good to see the Toccoa Police Department becoming part of the multi-county Appalachian Drug Task Force and getting more aggressive in getting these drug dealers arrested. I hope the city police and sheriff’s office can work closer together, especially when it comes to investigations.

We’re need to send a message: we’re not going to tolerate gun violence, selling of drugs or other crimes that go with it.

We’ve got the resources. But it takes commitment… from everyone in the community. If you see something or know something, speak up. The anonymous tip number is 706-282-3302. It can make a difference.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail hobbs@gacaradio.com. Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Senior counselor Becky Jameson and principal Scott Kersh at Stephens County High School last week. The graduation ceremony for the SCHS senior class of 2018 will begin at 8 p.m. this Friday, May 25.

This is an exciting week for the senior class at Stephens County High School.

Approximately 250 seniors are expected to graduate this Friday night, May 25, at the Indian Reservation at the high school.

Principal Scott Kersh said this year’s senior class has stepped up and have been leaders for the rest of the school.

He put it this way: “This class has a real positive vibe, and they’re been a successful class.”

Principal Kersh pointed out that the Class of 2018 has earned more scholarships from colleges than any other class in a long time. And the Class of 2018 is made up of 112 honor graduates, which represents 45 percent of the entire class.

Kersh said these seniors have excelled in academics, but also in a variety of areas, including Skills USA, athletics, the arts, the band program, dance team, agriculture and Jr. ROTC.

Asked where these 250 students plan to go after graduation, Kersh offered this breakdown: 43 percent will enter colleges and universities, 42 percent will enter technical colleges, 4 percent will enter the military, 3 percent will go to work and about 8 percent are undecided.

This means that approximately 90 percent of the senior class has definite plans to continue their education beyond high school. In today’s world, this additional education can make a tremendous difference.

But no matter what college you go to and what area you plan to pursue, you may find that the things you thought you wanted to do – or someone pushed you to do – are not the things you really want to do. Take time to explore. And move toward the things that appeal to you.

Dr. Jimi Crawford is a smart man who headed Google Books and recently founded his own company, Orbital Insight. He went to high school at Westminster in Atlanta and had this advice for graduates and really anyone:

“Nobody you work for can ever actually pay you for the true value of your time, so you should be doing the things you love,” he said. “The main thing is to find something worthy of your time.”

At this year’s graduation at SCHS, valedictorian Cassidy Zheng will address her fellow seniors, as will salutatorian and STAR Student Christopher Carringer.

I hope the seniors of 2018 listen carefully to these students.

This is an exciting time, for sure. These classmates have worked hard to get to this point in their lives. Families, teachers and friends have been walking this path with them, encouraging and helping along the way.

I wish our seniors well. I hope you will follow your heart and do something you really love doing – no matter what obstacles stand in your way or what others may think.

And that… is something to think about.

11/07/2017

 

When you have kids in school, you tend to keep up with what’s going on with the school system. But after your kids are grown, you slowly lose touch.

That’s how it was at our house after our children had graduated.

But most people in the community, including myself, perked up when the new superintendent of schools, Bryan Dorsey – after only three months on the job – informed the school board and the community that the financial situation of the Stephens County School System wasn’t what it appeared to be.

Essentially, the healthy fund balance the school board thought they had didn’t exist. The cupboard was bare. By late October 2014, the financial situation became dire.

Dorsey faced the difficult task of trying to meet payroll and pay the bills. There were no easy solutions. Slowly but surely, he guided the school system – month-by-month – to a stable financial condition.

It took drastic measures, though, to make it happen. One huge cost savings came with the closing of Eastanollee Elementary. The closing, however, created the need to reorganize the entire school system.

The reorganization went smoothly as possible under the circumstances, but most importantly, the reorganization worked.

Today, our system has approximately 4,100 students and a total of 565 employees.

So who is Bryan Dorsey? Who is this person who discovered a financial mess, weathered the storm, and three years later put our school system back on track?

He’s the son of a career Georgia Power manager from the Augusta area. In fact, Dorsey calls himself a “Georgia Power gypsy” because he moved so many times during his father’s career.

Dorsey is an Auburn graduate, who studied engineering, but wound up majoring in communications, with minors in math, science and journalism.

While in college, he thought about a career in radio or teaching, but after graduation he began working for Georgia Power like his dad, noting: “I thought a lot of my father.”

But after a few years at Georgia Power, Dorsey said he just didn’t “feel the call” to be there. Instead, he felt strongly that he should be pursuing a career in education. He became certified to teach, and for six years, he taught math, science, computers and English in Augusta schools.

He became an assistant principal and then principal at a middle school. and then moved to a high school principal position. In 2005, he was hired to lead White County High School as the principal.

After six successful years in White County, he was named superintendent of schools in Gilmer County. In 2014, the Stephens County School Board hired him as our superintendent.

Dorsey sees managing the school system’s finances as one of his most important responsibilities. “We’ve come a long way with our general fund budget, but it’s alway a challenge.”

He also believes students should be the focus of all decisions. And actions taken by the school system should be for the best of all students.

That’s why he questions the emphasis by the state on test scores. Dorsey said the current testing puts pressure on students “to be great in everything.”

But none of us excel in everything, he said. Each student has his or her own strengths, and Dorsey believes our schools should play to those strengths to prepare students for life beyond the classroom.

“We have some fantastic young people,” he said. “They have some great things to offer our community – now, and definitely in the future.”

Bryan Dorsey has saved our schools from a major financial crisis. Now he’s determined to help every student pursue their goals in a way he or she can be successful.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

10/31/2017

I have a confession to make. I think I’m addicted… to reading.

Our house is filled with books. A built-in bookcase in our basement holds everything from crumbling textbooks read by my father in the 1920s to a 1960 set of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia – all 15 volumes. My schoolteacher mother used to sell Compton’s when she wasn’t teaching. After the Bible, Compton’s came next.

Mainly, though, our basement shelves are filled with history books, atlases, biographies, memoirs, books on psychology, business, art, photography and a wide range of fiction dealing with about any subject you could come up with.

My favorite bookcase, however, is located in our little upstairs study. It is filled with my all-time favorite books bought or given to me over the last 40 years. There are novels, books on nature, plays, books on business and dealing with people …you name it. Each has a special place in my heart.

Sometimes I forget what I’ve read and haven’t read. Yes, many books remain unread, although I hate to admit it.

About two weeks ago, I noticed a paperback copy of “To Dance With The White Dog” by Georgia author Terry Kay.

A native of Royston, Kay has written many wonderful books over the last four decades. “To Dance With The White Dog” was published in 1990. Three years later, the folks at Hallmark Hall of Fame turned it into a beloved TV movie, which I watched and really liked. Since then, I always thought I had read the book.

 

But did I really read it? Or just think I had. Not knowing for sure, I proceeded to read again, or maybe for the first time.

I was hooked after the first few chapters. The more I read this Terry Kay novel, the more I enjoyed it. It’s a beautiful story about love, family and relationships. And old age.

When finished, I thought, this is the first time I’ve read this book. I was so glad I had finally read it.

Which brings me to the point… in these times, I believe we need books more than ever. Only books can take us places we cannot go otherwise. Only books can teach us universal truths.

Books have a way of staying with us, even shaping us.

With e-mail overload, continuous Facebook posts, and an unending stream of text messages… I find myself longing for books even more. Books made of paper. Books you can hold and page through.

Books inspire. Books bring wonder and magic. Books let us peer into the lives of others. Books let us know what others are thinking. Books teach humility.

If your house isn’t filled with books, no worries. All you have to do is visit the Toccoa-Stephens County Public Library. So many excellent volumes will be at your fingertips. My guess: “To Dance With The White Dog” by
Terry Kay will be there, too.

Take time to read a good book. It’s good for the soul. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

 

10/24/2017

“The Times They Are A-Changin.” This old Bob Dylan song title perfectly fits the situation that Stephens County Hospital finds itself in.

Our hospital is not alone. Many county hospitals in Georgia that serve smaller populations have struggled to stay financially viable.

But this is our hospital. It’s personal. Anyone who lives in Toccoa and Stephens County has a stake in what happens – from a medical care standpoint and from an economic standpoint.

The good news: the Stephens County Hospital Authority Board recently named a new interim chief executive officer. He’s Roger Forgey, a veteran hospital administrator with a successful track record helping other ailing hospitals get back on their feet.

Forgey was first brought in as a consultant in August 2017. The board named him as interim CEO, effective October 7.

What he has brought to the table, in my opinion, is hope. Yes, hope.

In a wide-ranging interview with WNEG news, Forgey spoke plainly and forthrightly about the current financial situation, where monthly losses top $500,000.

He believes a turnaround can happen in a year to 18 months, and the hospital can operate in a break-even position. Right now, the hospital is using a cash infusion from revenue bonds it sold in order to balance the operating budget each month. But the principal and interest on these bonds must be paid off over time.

Meanwhile, with this needed cash on hand for the present, this year’s budget calls for a profit goal of $500,000, and Forgey thinks this goal is achievable.

But he knows a one-year gain in revenue is not enough. It’s going to take some major restructuring, which could include reducing the number of beds from 96 to 50 or even less.

 

It’s the long-term viability that’s most important, Forgery noted.

That’s why Forgey will bring a number of options to the board for consideration.. A request for proposals already has gone out, and Forgery hopes to bring these options to the board within the next two to three months.

He said the options could include anything from a partnership with another health care entity to an acquisition by a larger organization.

“The board will be able to assess each option, and decide which, if any, are right for Stephens County Hospital,” he said. “They may decide to continue as a stand-alone hospital.”

One thing’s for certain, no matter what option is chosen, change will be part of the equation – for employees and for patients.

Today, the hospital has 350 full time employees.

“We have spectacular employees,” Forgey said. “They are committed to this hospital and to this community.”

Forgey has made a concerted effort to communicate as clearly as possible with his management team and all hospital employees, and has held a series of one-hour forums to answer questions and quell concerns.

“I worry about communication. It’s so important,” he said. “I want to communicate with the employees, with the doctors in the community and the community itself.”

Right now, he is focused on improving the emergency department.

He said a total of 90 percent of admissions come through the emergency room, and major changes are underway at the ER.

Yes, change is coming to Stephens County Hospital. Right now, no one can say what those changes will look like.

Forgey believes the staff is up to the challenge. He believes the community wants and needs a community hospital.

His challenge – and that of the hospital authority board – is to put our hospital on a path to a better future.

I believe Forgey’s leadership offers the best – and maybe the last chance –to put us on that path. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

10/17/2017

Every day, there are people in Toccoa and Stephens County doing something for others. It may be a simple act of kindness toward a neighbor or volunteering at your church.

There are also programs in the community designed to help make someone’s life a little better. One such program is the Stephens County Schools mentor program.

The mentor program has been around for quite a while and the concept is pretty simple. An adult makes one visit per week to a school, usually for an hour or less, to meet one-one-one with a student.

That adult serves as a listener, a role model, a coach. They are matched with a student by the mentor coordinator, Nancy Ekback, and the individual school’s counselor.

The mentors are no substitute for teachers or counselors. They are just someone who shows up every week at the school and takes an interest in a student.

Mentors volunteer in every Stephens County school – Big A Elementary, Liberty Elementary, Toccoa Elementary – as well as the 5th Grade Academy, the middle school and the high school.

For mentors, some visits can be hard, with very little spoken during that 15 to 30 minutes. Or, it can be heartbreaking when the mentor realizes that things at home or school could be a lot better.

Mostly though, it’s a time when the mentor arrives at the school once a week to show they care. They may listen to a child read or play a game with the child.

For older students, it may mean offering a little bit of advice in regards to doing better in class. It may mean a pep talk… letting the student know you care.

For some students, the visit by a mentor could be the highlight of their week. When that happens, a special bond forms between the mentor and the student.

Right now, the Stephens County School System has approximately 75 mentors, with 84 students currently being mentored.

If you are interested, you can contact Nancy Ekbeck, mentor coordinator with Family Connection of Stephens County, at 706-898-5115 or e-mail her at nancy.ekback@stephenscountyschools.org.

If you think you would enjoy spending one-on-one time with a student – whether it’s a second grader or a tenth grader – get in touch with Ms. Ekbeck.

“Our mentors are making a difference,” she said. “They are touching the life of a child. They are changing his or her future.”

It may be worth looking into. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

 

10/10/2017

When I moved to Toccoa and Stephens County in 1973 – 44 years ago – I was a young reporter at The Toccoa Record, covering both city and county governments.

It didn’t take me long to figure out one of the most contentious issues between the city and county was animal control – what to do with the multitude of stray dogs and cats throughout the county.

There was talk: Is that a “city dog” or “a county dog?” Of course, they were all county dogs since we all live in Stephens County.

But the city – because of the concentration of population – felt they had an obligation to help with animal control. So the city and county worked together to do what it could to curb the out-of-control animal problem.

But it was a half-hearted effort. For years, animal control mostly meant picking up stray or dangerous dogs and taking them to a holding pen before they could be euthanized. That routine continued until recently when Toccoa and Stephens County got it’s first real animal shelter.

That shelter – the Toccoa-Stephens County Humane Shelter – opened in February 2013 on Scenic Drive just off Prather Bridge Road. This new shelter changed things in a big way regarding how we treat animals in Stephens County.

In the past, approximately 93 percent of all animals picked up were killed. And the holding pen they were kept in was less than humane, to put it mildly. It was sad to see what we were doing.

Today, we have an animal shelter we can proud of, and the survival rate for both dogs and cats averages 80 percent.

 

What changed? In 2007, a group of dedicated citizens pushed the city and county governments to do something. City and county officials responded admirably by forging a joint agreement with these caring local citizens to help build a real animal shelter. Under this set-up, animal control became a function of the shelter.

This new approach doesn’t mean every animal is saved. Every month, some animals – due to health problems or other considerations – have to be sedated and then euthanized by injection. A crematorium on site is used to dispose of the dead animals.

The good news is animals are treated humanely at the shelter and most eventually find loving homes, whether locally or through out-of-town rescues. In fact, a batch of animals will be taken to New Jersey in the next few weeks.

The shelter board has been awarded a $38,000 grant to help buy a new transport van that must be equipped with cages and safety equipment. The city agreed to add $20,000 to help make the purchase possible. The county declined to fund a portion of the van in any way.

Toccoa Mayor Jeanette Jamieson, also current chairman of the Humane Shelter board, said the transport van is a key part of the operation. She added, “We couldn’t see them lose that $38,000 grant. So we put in $20,000.”

Let’s back up, though. Our shelter couldn’t have been built without the help of the city and county governments. Both supplied money for building materials for the shelter and both secured state inmate labor to build the facility, which is on county land.

Since that time, the city and the county and the Humane Shelter board – a nonprofit organization – have jointly funded animal control and the shelter’s operations. Each provide 1/3 of the revenue needed to make it all happen.

This money is used to pay for shelter staffing and animal control services. It also is used to feed and house 2,000 animals each year, not to mention basic veterinary care for them.

Right now, the shelter is filled to the limit with 200 dogs and cats. The ideal number is 150. But the folks at the shelter make it work, especially with its transport program.

Last fiscal year, the city and county each contributed $170,000 for operations. The Humane Shelter board – through donors, grants, fundraisers and fees charged at the shelter – raised in excess of $162,000 in revenue.

This fiscal year, the city again budgeted $170,000 for animal control. The county, however, cut its portion by $20,000 to $150,000.

The county needs to step up next year and fund its full share, matching the city’s contributions and those of the shelter board.

And when they do, the good thing we have going in Toccoa and Stephens County will continue. We are much better off today than we were 10 years ago when that small group of citizens appeared before the city and county.

Jeff Roberts, shelter director, says he “appreciates the support we get.” But added: “It’s a challenge to take in 150 to 200 animals a month when your shelter is full.”

The solution, of course, is to move out as many animals as come in. One key is the transport program. The shelter also can currently spay or neuter any animal for only $20. That’s about as low-cost as you can get.

“This shelter is a major asset for this community,” Roberts said, “and it shows the community has heart.”

I agree. The Toccoa-Stephens County Humane Shelter is a fine example of citizens working together with local governments.

Board member Peggy Chambers, among the small group who helped found the Humane Shelter, put it this way: “My heartfelt feeling is this shelter has provided more services than we ever imagined, and the need for it is great throughout the county.”

She added: “It’s not about saving every animal. But we are so much better off. We have a real shelter and treat our animals humanely. Our positive actions reflect the kind of people who live here.”

And that’s something to think about.

 

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail hobbs@gacaradio.com. Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

 

 

10/3/2017

This weekend, something special is happening in Toccoa and Stephens County.

It’s the Currahee Military Weekend … a time when veterans from throughout the country come to our town to enjoy each other’s company, participate in the many events and take in Currahee Mountain.

Ah, Currahee Mountain. Our mountain and the memories of Camp Toccoa are the calling card for many… for that’s where the paratroopers lived and trained during World War II.

Of course, as the years have passed, fewer and fewer World War II vets are still alive. But, the weekend has become more popular through the years because it has turned into an event to honor all veterans.

More than 500 guests are expected to visit this year, according to Brenda Carlan, executive director of the Currahee Military Museum. The museum is operated by the Stephens County Historical Society.

Weekend events include everything from a USO swing dance to a dedication of the Lt. Col. Robert Sink exhibit at the military museum. There’s also a downtown parade on Saturday afternoon and that evening a veterans banquet hosted by the historical society at the new pavilion at Camp Toccoa. Guest speaker will be Lt. Gen. Pete Johnson, current commander of Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

In addition, veterans will do a lot of just sitting around and talking with each other during the weekend. That’s one of the best parts, Carlan said.

You may be wondering how the Currahee Military Weekend got started. It began with a book by Stephen Ambrose. The book – “Band of Brothers” – told the story of Easy Company, those paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines during the D-Day invasion.

In interviews with these men, Ambrose discovered they trained at an army camp near Currahee Mountain, tucked away in Northeast Georgia. Running up and and down the mountain was part of the training. When these young soldiers jumped from platforms, they would shout: “Currahee.”

HBO picked up “Band of Brothers” for a mini-series, and decided to hold a premier showing in Toccoa in July 2001. HBO invited all 21 surviving members of Easy Company, and 19 of them came to Toccoa.

Former chamber president Cynthia Brown met these men, and remembers the relationship they had with each other and the stories they told.

“They never talked about the hardships they faced,” she recalled. “They talked about Currahee Mountain… something they had to conquer. They were proud to be ‘Toccoa Men’.”

Since that first reunion in 2001 and with the work of many local folks, the sons and daughters of these veterans continue to be drawn to Toccoa, as are many active service men and women and veterans from throughout the country.

“They want to go to Currahee Mountain and touch the dirt where these men trained,” Cynthia said. “Some are sons and daughters or grandchildren of these men. But no matter who they are, they are drawn to this place. These visitors make an emotional and physical connection with the mountain.”

She believes that’s why Camp Toccoa at Currahee – located on the site of the old Milliken Plant on the mountain – is so important. Camp Toccoa provides a sense of place. As visitors enter the camp through a new wrought-iron entranceway arch, they can tour the revamped headquarters building and the new pavilion. Four army barracks will be constructed.

Here’s a hearty welcome to all our visitors. So many people have worked as a team to make this weekend happen.The Historical Society. The Chamber. Main Street Toccoa. We thank them. And we remember those who trained at Camp Toccoa during World War II. Many sacrificed their lives for our freedom. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

9/26/17

Can one person make a difference in a community?

I believe the answer is yes. You only need to examine the life of Agnes Oglesby of Toccoa to make the case.

Agnes has been a quiet leader in Toccoa and Stephens County for many years. And she’s still going strong.

Agnes Ogelsby just doesn’t talk about getting things done… she does them. She reared six children of her own, but also fostered 24 children along the way.

She retired from Coats & Clark in 2000 after a long career. She began working there in 1963, becoming the first black employed by the company. When she retired, she was a respected supervisor who had helped many others along the way.

“She’s been a blessing to so many people in our community.” That’s how Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley put it.

The Rev. Isaac White, associate pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Toccoa, called Agnes “an inspiration. I’m amazed at how energetic she is. She’s always doing something to help the community.”

Indeed, her involvement in areas that matter to people has been ongoing for years. Today, Agnes serves on the boards of the Toccoa Literacy Council, the Boys & Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, Neighbors to Neighbors and the Northeast Georgia Housing Authority. She also is a member of the Stephens County Board of Registrars, which oversees the county’s active voters list. For 15 years, she managed the Habitat’s store and remains on that board.

And just last month, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce.

Her philosophy is simple. I quote her:
“I just wish each one of us would look at everybody as people – not what position we hold… or how much money we’ve got… or whatever. We just need to love each other and support each other.”

Agnes credits the late Imogene Dean of Martin as being a force in her life. She said: “Imogene Dean made me realize that anything I wanted to do in my life I could do.”

Today, Agnes continues to work for her community in her quiet, effective way.

She noted: “I’m proud of what little I’ve had to offer has made an impact on the community I was born and raised in.”

“She’s someone who cares, but there is a fearlessness about her.”

That’s how the Rev. Mary Demmler, former rector of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Toccoa, described Agnes.

“She’s not afraid to be honest about what needs to be done for others and the community. She’s not afraid to ask: ‘Why can’t we do this? What’s the worse that could happen?’ This fearlessness, partnered with caring, makes Agnes such a valuable resource,” Demmler said.

I think we all need to have a little more Agnes in us. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I’ve been thinking lately about why people live where they live? To be more specific, why do people live in Toccoa and Stephens County?

Think about it… why do you live here? Were you born here and never left. Or returned years later? Maybe you moved here in the 70s or 80s. A new industry brought you here. You may be a newcomer. Or a retiree living on Lake Hartwell.

Many of us would say we like the “quality of life” here. But what exactly does that mean?

I would suggest quality of life means different things for different people. For instance, someone with young children may perceive quality of life as good day care and good schools. For others, it may mean a good paying job close to home.

For some, quality of life may mean having a sense of security – feeling safe in their home and in their neighborhood.

The list can go on and on. No matter our age or economic condition, we want to live in a place that offers an excellent quality of life.

So how does Toccoa and Stephens County stack up?

It depends on how we measure quality of life. Each of us have our own beliefs, opinions and perspectives.

With that in mind, I believe there are a number of big categories – taken together – that make for a good quality of life. Let’s look at them:

 

 

Number one. A safe and clean environment in which to live.

Number two. Access to quality health care.

Number three. Employment opportunities locally or close by that offer above-average wages.

Number four. Quality public schools and nearby colleges.

Number five. Stuff to do. Recreation, entertainment opportunities.

Number six. Progressive city and county governments that provide dependable services for its citizens.

I’m sure you could add to this list. But these are mine. These elements build a favorable quality of life.

So back to the question, how does Toccoa and Stephens County stack up?

On safety and a clean environment, it probably depends on where we live. We have pockets of dilapidated houses and other buildings. We have drug and alcohol abuse, which leads to crime.

On access to quality health care, we are fortunate to have stability that the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group now brings to the Toccoa Clinic. Our county hospital situation is in transition. Will a larger entity buy it and keep it going? We don’t know. We hope so.

Employment opportunities are a never-ending challenge. We have had some successes in the last few years – with a new manufacturer from Turkey locating here and another from Germany. Our local development authority is working to retain existing jobs and bring in new ones. Does our county government understand its importance?

Our schools have made a remarkable turn-around financially. I like the idea that our primary and elementary schools are now organized by grades. I believe this enhances the collaboration among our schools.

As for stuff to do, that’s always a challenge in small communities. But Main Street Toccoa is doing a good job with events like the summer Ida Cox concerts, and now some upcoming events at the renovated Ritz Theatre.
And our public library offers a variety of top-notch community activities for all ages.

Finally, what about our city and county governments? I believe the Toccoa City Commission had made great strides since bringing back city manager Billy Morse. City officials are not afraid of projects that boost our quality of life – like the new swimming pool, the renovated facilities at Lake Toccoa and the Ritz.

The county government has lots of departments fighting for county funds –from the sheriff’s office to the courts. Not to mention roads and recreation. It’s a challenge under the best of circumstances.

So, what grade does Toccoa and Stephens County get when it comes to quality of life? I give it a B. Not a B-plus and certainly not an A.

But we’ve got something to shoot for. And that’s something to think about.

 

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