A Community Of "Spirit"
In 1958, the much-heralded Cedartown Bulldogs of famous coach Howard “Doc” Ayers came to Blakely/Early County’s Kolomoki Mounds State Park for summer football camp. I was on the team as a guard. Cedartown was a powerhouse and a few years before had won the North Georgia Football Championship, which at the time was the state’s highest “AAA” classification.
Soon Ayers arranged a scrimmage with the local Blakely team, which was classified in the smallest “A” category. They ran through us like we were wet paper bags. Every time they ran the ball they scored a touchdown. After the scrimmage they proved themselves to be the powerhouse football team, not us.
Later, Coach Ayers gave us a tongue-lashing. “How could you let this small school whip you? They have more ‘spirit’ than you,” Ayers said.
That same “spirit” is still alive in Blakely and Early Country today, more than 50 years later. Recently this southwest Georgia community has been cast in a bad light by the peanut contamination crisis. But the company that owns the peanut processing facility caught up in the national salmonella outbreak is not even owned locally. There is so much more to this town and county than the ability to grow peanuts.
In the spring of 2006, Blakely native Charles Rice gave his hometown a gift. Rice graduated from Blakely High School around the same time Cedartown played in the scrimmage. Rice and his family decided they would dedicate a large portion of his earnings made as a successful businessman to provide a generous grant to Blakely and Early County. Rice’s grant was soon matched by local citizens to help create Early County 2055, an economic development plan that calls for a vast array of bold initiatives to create a healthy business climate, enhance the quality of life and sustain positive growth.
Since that time their efforts have formed the Advancing Early 2012 Initiative – a five-year, $8-million economic action strategy, which is part of the overall 50-year Early County 2055 master plan. The goals of the Advancing Early 2012 Initiative include stimulating economic development through new job creation, increasing retail shopping options, undertaking historic restoration and more.
The initiative has produced amazing results, which include the following:
The effort has demolished more than 110 dilapidated, substandard dwellings while partnering with an Atlanta-based development company, Hammond Development, to provide 64 affordable workforce, single-family housing units in Blakely.
The “East Gateway” project is constructing an aesthetically pleasing entrance into the city at the intersection of the U.S. 27 bypass and State Highway 62. When complete, the $3 million Gateway project will draw people off the bypass and into the charming downtown square of Blakely, creating additional revenue for the city.
A $3.6-million state-of-the-art economic development/conference/mixed-use facility is to be built on the Blakely town square. The community has provided approximately $1.5 million toward the project, with grants making up the remainder.
The effort has produced an Economic Development Strategy, formulated by the Atlanta-based Competitive Strategies Group, LLC. The plan will provide the county with targeted industries and a blueprint for economic success.
It partnered with Phoenix Petroleum for a three-phase biodiesel facility, with construction beginning soon in the Early County Industrial Park. Phase 1 represents a $10-million capital investment and 100 new jobs, with Phases 2 and 3 amounting to an additional $15 million in capital investment and an additional 150 jobs.
It should be noted that peanuts are still a wonderful healthy food for consumers of all ages. The people of Blakely are not going to let an out-of-state firm ruin what has been a great legacy for their community.
This small community still has lots of spirit, even 50 years after I was knocked back on my rear end by its football team.