Forsyth/Monroe County: Growth And Change

Tourism and a new state facility

Two school buses and several cars in the small, dusty parking lot of the Whistle Stop Cafe in Juliette mean the tiny place will be packed. But it's just another day at work for owner Elizabeth Bryant and her crew.



Tourists have been crowding into the restaurant since 1991 when Hollywood rebuilt the then ghost town for the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes" and left behind an industry that thrives today. According to the Forsyth-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, most phone calls they get from visitors to the area are questions about the Whistle Stop Cafe. In fact, tourism has been the backbone of the county's economy for years. But growth and change are afoot in the county the chamber's marketing as "The Middle of Everywhere."



Geographically large but sparsely populated, Monroe County straddles I-75 near the center of the state between Atlanta and Macon. The acres of trees covering this agricultural county can obscure the growth occurring just off the interstate.



In May 2006, Gov. Sonny Perdue broke ground on renovations to what is now the new headquarters of the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) on the former Tift College campus in Forsyth, Monroe's county seat. The 40-acre campus, vacant for most of the last 20 years and already owned by the state, will be home to approximately 400 staffers from the DOC's current Atlanta offices. In addition, the DOC will use the campus for corrections-officer training classes that run year round, with 200 participants per class.



"This was clearly a business decision," says James Donald, DOC commissioner. "The campus is free to us. We pay $1.3 million a year to lease space in Atlanta." In addition to saving money on rent, the DOC will see savings in travel time and costs by moving to the center of the state and closer to most of the state prisons the department oversees.





Relocation Package



What does the move mean to Monroe County? A "20 to 25 million dollar payroll" for one thing, Donald says, and an estimated 200 new jobs.



"It's the biggest thing that's happened to us," Forsyth Mayor Jimmy Pace says, echoing the enthusiasm for the project exhibited by most of the county's residents. Those employees moving to Monroe will find an area eager to greet them and proud of the services it can offer.



"Twenty-three new residential developments are in the works in the county," Pace says. "In the city, three new subdivisions have been approved, the first ones since 1988."



Monroe County Development Authority member and real estate broker Kerri Swearingen agrees there's a housing boom. The county issued "195 new house permits in 2005." It had already issued 224 for 2006 by the end of August, she says.



While some construction is taking place in response to the Department of Corrections move, Swearingen says other factors are involved as well. Retirees chased out of Florida by hurricanes and people who work on Atlanta's southside are also flocking to the area. "The taxes are cheaper and traffic's better," Swearingen says. "A lot of families with kids move here to take advantage of the school system. Then the grandparents end up moving here to be close to the grandchildren."



Community Ties



Monroe County schools have much to offer newcomers. Each school in the system met the Adequate Yearly Progress goals (part of federal No Child Left Behind legislation) last year - one of only 49 among Georgia's 182 systems to do so.



"One of the unique features of the school system is the close relationship with the community," says Steve Cowart, Monroe County school superintendent. He describes the institutions as "community schools, where parents, teachers and educators all collaborate for the community good."



The focus on community involvement resulted in more than 102 community business partners and more than 12,000 volunteer hours for the schools last year. "We have a lot of good educators who buy into the concept that we can help every child grow and learn," Cowart says. "If we [the county] are going to grow and provide quality of life, our schools will play a part in this."



One example of the school system's community support: The Backlot Players, Forsyth's community theater group, have been using the Board of Education Auditorium to stage their productions while the Rose Theater - the troupe's permanent home on the town square - undergoes restoration.



"The Rose was the first 'topless' bar in Forsyth," Pace says

.

Abbie Bunn, 2007 co-president of the Backlot Players, explains the mayor's comment. The Rose was built as a movie theater, she says. Then the roof (the Rose's top) was removed and the theater became an open-air bar. That's as risque as it gets in downtown Forsyth.



In 1999, the owners donated the Rose to the Backlot Players and renovations began. The first step was putting a top back on the theater. Currently a new stage is being constructed and, in a textbook demonstration of community support, permanent seats are being installed, paid for by patrons.



Forysth also offers a unique opportunity for visual arts aficionados. Located a block off the square, ATG Studio, Celia Henigman's art gallery and glass studio, is aglow with her specialty: custom stained glass windows, often commissioned by architects or interior designers. She's worked nationally and internationally; her Georgia clients include The Cloister at Sea Island - she restored the original stained-glass windows in the Spanish Lounge and created several new windows for the dining room - and the century-old St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon where she restored and recreated stained-glass windows.

"The locals don't know I'm here," Henigman says. But she's hoping to raise her profile in town via in-studio art classes and a gallery featuring work by local artists. The classes, taught by professionals in a variety of fields, include woodturning, glass fusion, stained glass and more.



Business Concerns

As one of Georgia's five Signature Communities, a new statewide program that provides technical and financial assistance to locales that implement their comprehensive plans, Forsyth offers free wireless Internet service on the picturesque historic square - and advertises this service on billboards along I-75 to entice travelers to stop in and go online, and maybe visit a shop or two while they're at it.



Forsyth just passed comprehensive new zoning for the city, the first major rewrite of zoning ordinances in 25-30 years, Pace says. In addition, to prepare for growth, the city has adopted the first subdivision ordinances requiring curbs, gutters and underground utilities.



The city also is rehabbing the old city hall, which sits one block off the square, revitalizing the corridors leading to the square and developing an urban park adjacent to the building. CVS closed on land in September just off the square and Wal-Mart, which already has a store, will be moving into a bigger one near its current location on Hwy. 42.



"The cost of living is reasonable here," Pace says. "Taxes are low, ever since [Georgia Power's] Plant Scherer was built." In fact, city officials have lowered the millage rate for three years running, he adds.



The expectation throughout Monroe County is that increased commercial activity will follow the Department of Corrections move to the area. "With I-75 running diagonally through the county, we have worlds of potential that haven't been tapped," Pace says. "As infrastructure is expanded to these undeveloped areas along the interstate, you'll see growth there."



The new Rumble Road Industrial Park, a 271-acre parcel near the split of I-75 and I-475, has its first tenant - Gresco Utility Supply - already committed. The county hopes to lease other space quickly, now that the park's road has been completed.



"We're excited about getting some new restaurants in," says Tiffany Andrews, president and CEO of the chamber and the Monroe County Development Authority. Several have expressed an interest, but are waiting until the DOC comes in to make their move, she adds.



All the economic news in Monroe County can't be good; and, in fact, there has been a loss. Trane, the air conditioning company, is shutting down its Monroe operation, Andrews says. With room in its Macon facility to absorb the work from Monroe, Trane will move 60 jobs out of the county.



But when asked about other recent job losses, Andrews says, "We haven't had any. Trio [Manufacturing Co.] is doing great and yet the textile industry is a dying business. Southern Textiles is expanding."



Andrews, who's been in her position since February, says the growth and potential in Monroe County are a large part of why she took the job. "Monroe County is faced with a huge opportunity to grow. Its location on I-75 has been overlooked. The city and county are recognizing that investment must be made in infrastructure" to support the growth.



Investing they are. The county development authority recently purchased a vacant textile mill with an onsite water treatment plant. With a tenant in place in the mill, the county is "getting bids on what it will take to get the water treatment plant up and running," Andrews says.



Power To The People



While water and sewer may need upgrading to handle population growth, electric power is not something residents have to worry about. Georgia Power's Plant Scherer, located in Juliette, "produces more electricity than any other coal plant in the U.S.," says Danny Morton, plant manager.



In terms of power plants, Plant Scherer is relatively new. Its first unit went online in 1981, and there have been no other large plants built since, Morton says. The plant has been a boon to the county - not only is it the largest taxpayer, it also employs 400 people.



With its location - next to scenic manmade Lake Juliette - the area's environment is an obvious concern to those at the spotless plant, he says. They monitor and regulate particulate emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and are gearing up to begin the regulation of mercury emissions by Jan. 1, 2010, in line with recently passed federal legislation. In addition, they recycle the fly ash, the residue that comes from burning coal. Fly ash is used to strengthen concrete and as a compacting material. In fact, when railroad tracks were put in next to the plant, fly ash was used to compact the soil under the train bed.



Just down the road from Plant Scherer is the town - if you can call half a block of shops plus a cafe a town - made famous by the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes." Juliette's status as a town may be questionable, but not its draw as a tourist destination. Folks flock from across the South to eat at the famous restaurant, which still serves up hot, succulent fried green tomatoes and barbecue of more benign origins than in the movie.



Elizabeth Bryant, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe for the past four years, has used her homemade peach and pecan cobblers to help build a loyal local following to complement the tourists. "Four years ago the business was about 90 percent tourism. It's 40 to 50 percent now, with more locals and lots of repeat business. In winter it won't be so rough on us."



In fact, the restaurant has been so successful under Bryant that she has decided to franchise. The first franchise will open in Macon in April or May 2007, and she's scouting locations in Savannah, Augusta, Columbus and Valdosta.

"The chef from the Ritz-Carlton at Lake Oconee came in. After lunch he said, 'I'm going to take some of your ideas back,'" Bryant says with a smile.



A stroll through Juliette after lunch is a good way to work off some of the fried and filling food from the cafe. The shops carry local crafts, "Fried Green Tomatoes" paraphernalia, including DVDs of the movie, and a wide variety of items to appeal to the mostly female tourists who come through. But their male companions haven't been forgotten. The Dew Drop In offers cigars, a coffee bar, a game room with a pool table, a TV showing Saturday afternoon football on the covered back porch and ample spots for men to "set a spell" while the women shop.



The continued focus on tourism throughout the county, upgrades to the historic square in Forsyth and new services being offered to the growing permanent population have made Monroe County a destination location for visitors and new residents alike.



At-a-Glance



Population: Monroe County, 23,428; Forsyth, 4,330; Culloden, 300 (2004 estimates)



Unemployment: Monroe County, 5.1 percent; Georgia, 4.6 percent (Sept. 2006)



Top five employers: Monroe County Board of Education, 760; Georgia Power Co., Plant Scherer, 400; Al Burruss Correctional Training Center, 195; Georgia Public Safety Training Center, 176; Monroe County Hospital, 140



Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Department of Labor, Forsyth-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce



Window On Success



A salt-water aquarium filled with a variety of colorful, cartoon-type fish with names like Davy Jones and Captain Jack Sparrow sits in the sparkling lobby.



The clean, welcoming atmosphere is surprising at a company that manufactures auto parts and has few walk-in customers, but it's just the first of many things that stand out about Specialty Power Windows (SPW), the only business in the country manufacturing custom power window kits and windshield wiper kits for classic car enthusiasts.



Founder Ervin Castleberry had run an auto body shop for years in Forsyth when, in 1985, he decided to focus on the manufacture of window kits. "I thought he'd starve to death," says current owner and president Robby Whitehead, Castleberry's stepson.



Whitehead was so convinced of the unlikelihood of the venture he quit working with Castleberry. "I said, 'You're gonna sell four sets, then what will you do?' I went to work for State Farm from 1985 to 1997."



Castleberry would manufacture the kits all week, then travel to car shows on the weekends, Whitehead says. He sold the kits and also met dealers who wanted to handle them.



Now Whitehead looks back on that time and laughs. The company, which Whitehead took over as president in 1997, currently packs and ships product to more than 300 dealers and individual car owners who place Internet orders from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and all over the United States.



Kits are not marketed to restorers of old vehicles - those people who want the refurbished car to be as close to the original as possible - but to customizers, hobbyists who want all the bells and whistles added to their old cars or who build fiberglass kit cars from scratch. "Our business is recession proof," Whitehead says with relief. "People will spend money on a hobby." And when your customer demographic is men over 50 with disposable income, you've reached a group known for its expensive toys.



SPW customers include band members from ZZ Top, Tim Allen and Bill Elliott. What about Whitehead himself? He hasn't quite reached the age demographic, but he's one of his company's best customers with a 1956 Chevy, a '57 Chevy, a '72 Pontiac LeMans convertible and a '68 Camaro his 16-year-old daughter drives (but not to school). All have custom window kits installed.



With the passing of time, the number of cars without original automatic windows and windshield wipers will dwindle, but Whitehead insists his business isn't likely to disappear.



In fact, it's growing. In 2003 SPW moved from an older, converted body shop with just 4,000 square feet to the Forsyth Industrial Park. Even with 10,000 square feet, he's feeling the squeeze. "The manufacturing room is good," he says. "We need warehouse space."



After all, he adds, "There were millions of cars built before 1972. There are still a lot of those cars we haven't touched yet."

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