WNEG Tuesday Commentary with Billy Chism

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.

 

 

 

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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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.