Adding To The Mix
An influx of the well-to-do brings opportunity and services
Power player: Rabun Neal, president of Reynolds Plantation, the engine that’s driving residential and commercial development around Lake Oconee
If Lake Oconee is “the engine that has driven the whole economy” of the area, as Roddie Anne Blackwell, president of the Eatonton-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce says, then Reynolds Plantation is the key that cranks that engine.
Though the three-county lake area (Greene, Putnam and Morgan) is still predominantly rural and agricultural, the area has shed its anonymity to become a destination for the rich and powerful – including President George W. Bush, who has visited more than once. The influx of money and people who know how to get things done has led to a blossoming of the arts, the economy and the services offered throughout the region.
Developed as a golf destination with the first sales in 1987, Reynolds Plantation now encompasses nearly 2,000 rooftops – including 230 homes in nearby Reynolds Landing, formerly Port Armor, which the development bought in 2005. The amenities, both inside the gated community and in the surrounding area, stretch far beyond the fifth golf course, set to open in 2007.
The MCG Clinic, located in Lake Oconee Village just outside the entrance to Reynolds Plantation, is more than a doctor’s office, according to Rabun Neal, president of Reynolds Plantation since June. MCG, which is affiliated with the Medical College of Georgia, offers community lectures and access to specialists that small communities often don’t have. With an internist and pediatrician available fulltime, the clinic also rotates doctors with different specialties through the facility. The advantage to patients: all their records for all their treatments are in one place.
Growth and change are rippling from the lake through the region, say county officials. Although several manufacturing plants closed in Greene County from 2001 to 2004, at a loss of nearly 900 jobs, the economy is picking up and jobs are returning to the county, says Phil Mellor, Greene County’s director of economic development.
“Unemployment rates have dropped from an annual average of 7.1 percent in 2003 to 6.1 percent for the first six months of this year,” Mellor says. “Eleven empty buildings identified in the fall of 2004 have been occupied by seven small manufacturing firms, employing 80. These firms all have the potential to grow.”
By the end of this year, a new Home Depot is expected to open on State Route 44 at Interstate 20, employing 150 people. A Flying J truck stop will open in November at the Siloam exit with 70 employees.
One longtime Greene County employer that’s still going strong is Quail International, the largest quail producer in the United States, says Raul Otalora, the production manager and a veterinarian. Quail International has been in Greene County for 23 years and directly employs 115 people, Otalora says. “We indirectly provide employment to area farmers, as well.”
Though an upscale poultry production facility may seem an unlikely resident for this part of Georgia, the fact is the company is growing and adding customers around the world. “It’s a business that grows slowly, with population and trends in the food business,” Otalora says. “We’re adding one more choice to menus.”
Arts And Education
Other kinds of choices are now available throughout the area thanks to a desire among new residents to improve all aspects of life at the lake.
Mev Roszman, president of the Greensboro Arts Alliance and a Reynolds resident since the community opened, has led the GAA’s long-term involvement with the community, especially schoolchildren. “We present an art history program in the schools each month,” Roszman says. “We take a print of a classic piece of art and do a project.”
For example, she says, after seeing a da Vinci print and learning about Leonardo, the students became fascinated by his backward writing and began practicing it themselves. The GAA also has set up pen-pal pairs between students and Meals on Wheels recipients. The Senior Citizens Center delivers the letters with the meals.
Reynolds itself has become involved with the greater community through its foundation. The Reynolds Plantation Foundation was started in 2001, with the goal of giving back to the lake area, Neal says. The foundation offers renewable scholarships to seniors at Greene County, Nathaniel Greene, Putnam County and Gatewood High Schools. It also offers grants to local organizations, often ones that residents are involved with, including Greene County Habitat for Humanity and the Greensboro Dreamers, which was the first rural chapter of the national I Have a Dream Foundation.
In 2005 the foundation expanded its outreach by responding to the needs of people along the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. Within days of the disaster, Reynolds Plantation residents and the foundation sponsored a golf tournament that raised approximately $340,000. In addition, the foundation helped 30 displaced families relocate to the lake area by offering transportation, subsidized housing, job placement and matching them with sponsor families.
“The greatest impact on this area is the people who’ve moved here,” Neal says. “Far beyond the economic impact, it’s what they’ve done for the community.”
The Ritz-Carlton Lodge has also made inroads with the larger community since opening at Reynolds Plantation in 2002. Its annual Lighting of the Lodge, which takes place the night before Thanksgiving, officially kicks off the local holiday season. The event is open to everyone and features a variety of kid-centric activities including a visit from Santa – who in years past has arrived via hang-glider and hot-air balloon – holiday goodies and the “Biggest Gingerbread House in the South.” Adults enjoy holiday music from local choirs and participate in live and silent auctions to benefit the Greensboro Dreamers’ Scholarship Fund.
The evening culminates in the illumination of 1 million white lights and a fireworks display. “When they turn the lights on, everybody is four years old,” Roszman says.
The Ritz’s elves begin hanging all those lights in August; the display stays up through the holiday season.
It’s not only people in the lake area who’ve taken notice of the Ritz. In just four years, the Ritz-Carlton Lodge has received accolades from Travel + Leisure, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, which named it the North American Golf Resort of the Year in 2005, and Condé Nast Traveler, which placed it 19th on its Top 100 Golf Resorts list in June 2006. These awards, coupled with a 26,000-square-foot spa, trademark service and a cozy lodge atmosphere have brought tens of thousands of guests since its opening.
The benefits for Ritz guests and Reynolds residents are growing along with the population. The Lake Club, Reynolds’ new 38,000-square-foot amenities complex, features an indoor lap pool, outdoor infinity pool, weight room and cardio room overlooking the lake – even babysitting services. The complex was designed with young families moving into Reynolds Plantation in mind.
For those who prefer their good walks unspoiled by golf, the plantation has two full-time naturalists on staff offering nature walks, kayak trips, lectures, workshops and education programs for kids. The Heritage and Nature Center, next door to the Lake Club, is a stone building modeled after the Reynolds family’s original stone house, which was flooded when the lake was created.
A Good Mix
South on SR 44 across the lake from Greene County sits Putnam County. With a mix of high-end gated communities and middle-class lake subdivisions offering fishing and swimming for those who don’t golf, “Putnam is the county that’s had something for everyone,” Blackwell says.
Wallace Dam, between Lakes Oconee and Sinclair in Putnam, is the root of the lakeside development frenzy. Georgia Power, which flooded the lake in 1979, continues to manage it.
“Wallace Dam is unusual,” says Kevin McCraney, Georgia Power’s local manager in Eatonton (Putnam’s county seat). The water flows from Lake Oconee over the dam into Lake Sinclair during times of peak electrical use. At night, during off-peak hours, the water can be pumped back and re-used. This keeps water levels fairly stable on Lake Oconee, an advantage for folks seeking aquatic recreation.
With the lake’s population doubling on weekends, Blackwell says it was important to bring commercial establishments to the area. Along the Harmony Road-SR 44 intersection commercial growth has exploded with retail, condos, apartments and medical facilities. This growth was possible because of an arrangement between Piedmont Water and Cuscowilla (a lakeside golf community in Putnam) to provide a water treatment plant to service the area.
According to Janie Reid, a county commissioner and the wife of Eatonton Mayor John Reid, the biggest challenge for zoning and the tax office has been “keeping up with growth.” Born in Putnam County, Reid has seen it grow from “a cow pasture,” and, she adds, the growth “has been good for the economy.”
Putnam General Hospital has also reaped the benefits of growth. With a plastic surgeon practicing in Eatonton, the hospital has been able to add a new surgical and recovery wing, plus an MRI room. His practice “has created a different kind of health care,” Blackwell says, “and allowed our hospital to grow.”
On the south end of the county, a water authority has been created with Baldwin County. Over the next year or so, 104 miles of water line will run from Lake Sinclair to Eatonton. The lines will “take capacity from 1 million gallons of water per day to 3 million gallons,” Blackwell says. The extra capacity will allow more development in the city, where maxed-out water and sewer infrastructure has prohibited industrial recruitment or large-scale housing development.
The new cultural arts center, located in a renovated 1913 school, is moving closer to completion. Work on the building’s exterior and plaza is largely finished. The plaza was the site of a number of outdoor concerts this summer – everything from bluegrass to a Jimmy Buffett tribute band. The Visitors Center and Chamber of Commerce will move into new offices in the cultural center in January 2007. Later in the year the 500-seat theater and art classrooms will open.
North on 441 out of Eatonton and across Interstate 20, lies Madison, the county seat of Morgan County and the town so beautiful Civil War Gen. Sherman couldn’t bring himself to burn it during his destructive March to the Sea. Maintaining Madison’s small-town beauty and charm while managing an influx of tourists from Atlanta and the lake area has been a challenge, but a walk through the picturesque town center reveals nothing of the strain.
Two years ago the county passed an ordinance allowing the sale of liquor by the drink, which has been important to restaurants in town, says Marguerite Copelan, interim president of the Madison-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Growth and development at the lake would leave us in the dirt if we couldn’t sell liquor by the drink. So we made it an economic development issue,” Copelan says, “and it passed.” Since then three new restaurants have opened in town, bringing the total to 15 – a lot of eateries for a town with a population of just 5,000.
Jane and Everett Royal own property where a couple of those new restaurants are located just one block off the square. When the Royals cleared their land, they discovered an old train car that appeared to have come off the tracks and tumbled down the bank before being covered over with kudzu. That train car is now the kitchen of the Train Wreck restaurant.
Part of a 1920s-era cotton warehouse on the property has been converted into Town 220 Bistro, a restaurant overlooking a beautifully landscaped park area, complete with pond and the old Madison spring. The spring was the city’s original water source until the warehouse foundation buried it nearly a century ago, says Jane Royal. When the Royals discovered the spring, they refurbished it and deeded it to the town.
Six loft condos, retail shops and a conference room occupy the rest of the 1920s portion of the building. At the opposite end of the structure, a 1960s addition is home to Madison Markets, a collection of more than 75 antiques dealers. “The bulk of our customers are from outside Madison, people with weekend homes or retirees,” Jane says. “The Ritz has been wonderful to us. They’ll drop people off here.”
Facing what will soon be Centennial Park across the street from their property, the Royals are building the James Madison Hotel, a boutique establishment with 21 rooms, each with a fireplace. They anticipate opening it in late spring 2007, much to Copelan’s delight. The downtown area of Madison hasn’t had a hotel since the early 1900s when the hotel just off the square burned to the ground, she says.
Madison ’s long history led to recent recognition by Travel Holiday magazine as the number one small town in America. The town has also received honors from Southern Living and has been written about this year in The New York Times.
Throughout the lake region, Copelan says, officials are focused on ways to improve the economy of the area and thus the lives of residents and visitors.
Lake Oconee At-A-Glance
Population: 17,082 *
Municipalities: Greensboro: 3,528; Union Point: 1,730
Unemployment: 6.0 percent **
Largest employers: Reynolds Plantation, 600+; The Ritz-Carlton Lodge/Reynolds Plantation, 500+
Population: 20,000 *
Municipalities: Eatonton, 7,200
Unemployment: 4.9 percent **
Largest employers: Horton Industries, 1,300; Putnam County School System, 465; Georgia Power Co., 458
Population: 17,354 *
Municipalities: Madison, 5,000
Unemployment: 4.2 percent **
Largest employers: Morgan County Board of Education, 475; Georgia-Pacific, 435; Wal- Mart Supercenter, 300
* Population: 2006 estimate
** Unemployment figures as of Aug. 2006; state unemployment rate: 4.6 percent
Sources: Reynolds Plantation, Greene County Development Authority, Madison-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, Putnam County Development Authority
A Farming Tradition
The soft Southern drawl doesn’t quite fit a man named Zippy, but given the pace Zippy Duvall sets for himself, it doesn’t take long after meeting him before the name seems well suited.
A third-generation Greene County farmer, Duvall zips from chickens to cattle to hay on his farm before donning his hat as chairman of the Greene County Board of Commissioners or traveling the state as a candidate for president of the Georgia Farm Bureau.
Duvall’s grandfather moved to Greene County in 1933 from Blairsville. He bought 100 acres and the house where Zippy and his wife, Bonnie, live and where they’ve raised their four children. Duvall’s father also farmed the land and eventually owned 1,000 acres – until 1979, when Georgia Power flooded the area for Lake Oconee and changed the destiny of the county and the face of the Duvall family farm.
“The lake covered up 450 acres,” Duvall says. “They paid $300 an acre.”
Now, thanks to Georgia Power, Duvall and his family carry on the farming tradition on lakefront property. Given the high-end development going on around the lake, the only way the Duvalls can continue farming is with a conservation use contract with the county. The contract means the property is taxed as agricultural land not developed land. “This allows agriculture to be a part of the area,” he says.
For 30 years, Duvall raised Holsteins – dairy cattle. But, as he notes, “Dairying is labor intensive, 365 days a year, milking two times a day.” With their house smack in the middle of the property, there was no getting away from the job. “Somebody was at work 24 hours a day,” he says.
Last year he sold nearly all of the Holsteins and got into the beef-cattle business, thanks to help from the Georgia Beef Challenge, a partnership between the University of Georgia and the University of Iowa that connects cattle producers in Georgia with feedlot people in Iowa. He currently has 120 mama cows and a number of their calves.
As if learning the ropes of the beef-cattle business wasn’t enough to keep a farmer busy, the Duvalls also house chickens as contract growers for Pilgrim’s Pride.
Eighty thousand day-old chicks were expected to arrive by bus in mid-August. The chicks would stay for five to six weeks before going to a processing plant in Athens. The Duvalls get a new batch of chicks to raise about every eight weeks.
Farming, especially around a lake, requires a high degree of environmental awareness, Duvall says. “We spend a lot of money and time to be environmentally sound.”
Bonnie, a certified animal waste operator, is the family expert on managing the waste that chickens and cattle create. Armed with a comprehensive nutrient management plan from the extension service, the Duvalls know exactly how much animal waste to use for fertilizer on an acre of land so as to maximize harvest without having the waste leech into the soil or run off into the lake.
“There’s more to farming than people think,” Duvall says. “Farmers were the first conservationists, and we’re proud to still be.”
— Karen Kennedy