Milledgeville/Baldwin County: Old Town, New Message

A storied past becomes the foundation for a stellar future

Milledgeville – Georgia ‘s 19th century capital city – is a monument to the history of the old South. But you might not notice it from sitting in on one of the regular monthly informal working lunches attended by a group of government and business leaders.

The talk over salads and bottled water is all forward focused, centered on the business of city management: budgets, downtown parking problems, street improvements, redevelopment projects, upcoming events, scheduled visitors. All but one of those gathered around the conference table are women.

"It’s a new day in Baldwin County ," says Jane Sowell, executive director of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Convention & Visitors Bureau. She and other participants in the meeting – which also includes the city manager, the county manager, the Main Street program manager, the director of the Oconee River Greenway Authority and the chief executives of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce and the Development Authority – say they have benefited from the information and support shared there.

"We all work hand in glove here," Sowell says later. Her job – tourism – benefits that of the Main Street director – downtown development – which helps the chamber and the development authority with industrial recruitment. All of it helps the city by growing jobs and tax revenues. "There’s been several things I couldn’t do by myself, but as a collective unit we could do it. It really is a new day."

Together the group supported an award winning new branding campaign that coordinates the communications and promotional materials coming from all the different agencies. The slogan – Milledgeville: Capitals, Columns and Culture – is repeated all over the city, from tourist brochures to business cards. The logo features bright blue type and pictures of historic sites. "We now have a consistent message," Sowell says.

That brand is worth real dollars. By Sowell’s count, Milledgeville attracts some 83,000 visitors a year for an economic impact of nearly $50 million. That’s for a city of 20,000 with a $10 million budget. Growing the tourism industry is an important goal for the city, the county and business leaders.

"We’ve worked hard to not have a mentality of territoriality and competitiveness," says City Manager Scott Wood, the lone male in the group. "The public is not interested in that. The public is interested in competency and service."

Sounds basic enough, but that sentiment – as well as the man who expresses it – symbolizes the new day in Milledgeville. Starting this year, the city restructured its management, doing away with its traditional "strong mayor" form of government. Wood is the first full-time professional city manger.

The outgoing mayor challenged the change, taking his objections all the way to the state Supreme Court. The high court ruled against the former mayor on the eve of last fall’s election. A day later, the city voted in a new mayor, Richard Bentley, a businessman who owns a local insurance agency.

The new mayor says it was time for Milledgeville to have a full-time professional manager to do work that part-time elected officials are not in a position to handle. "We have ground to make up. We’re the last city our size that did not have a city manager," Bentley says.

During an impromptu interview in the front office that connects the separate offices of the chamber and the development authority, Bentley says he intends to make economic development his focus. "What I’d like to see is for us to have a diversified industrial base. We haven’t been as successful at that as we’d like in the past," he says. "I felt like I could do a little better job of selling the city."

No one knows better than Bentley how important the strong state presence in Milledgeville is to the economic life of the city and the region. Both his parents worked at Central State Hospital , the massive mental health facility that has long dominated the city in jobs and image. The hospital, founded in 1842 as the Georgia Lunatic Asylum, still employs more than 2,000 people in a hundred buildings on a thousand acre campus serving 1,100 patients or "clients."

But at one time, the number of jobs and patients there was much larger. As the state began to cut back on the hospital’s scope, many of its buildings were adapted for use by five state prisons. The mayor’s wife works at one of them. Bentley himself is a graduate of the Georgia Military College as well as Georgia College & State University (GC&SU). Both colleges use some buildings that once housed state prisons.

"We have a very large state presence, and that’s important to us," Bentley says. But he and other city leaders worry about the potentially devastating effects of state budget cuts looming on the horizon. "Diversification is what we need."

In recent years, both the chamber and the development authority have hired new executives with experience in other cities and fresh approaches to diversification. Both happen to be Milledgeville natives who have lived elsewhere and returned.

Angie Gheesling, executive director of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Development Authority, has raised the bar on recruiting efforts, drawing on her experience with the state Department of Economic Development in Atlanta and an 11 county region in middle Georgia .

Tara Peters, president and CEO of the Milledgeville-Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, is a graduate of GC&SU who left her hometown to join the Army, serving as a military intelligence officer in Europe .

Plans For Expansion

Together they are concentrating on recruiting new industrial and retail employers as well as supporting and encouraging existing business and emerging enterprises. They are in the process of becoming part of the state’s Entrepreneur Friendly Community Program. One of the requirements is to survey 50 small businesses about their needs, challenges and goals.

"It’s been interesting to hear from them," Peters says. "They are all planning to expand."

These efforts couldn’t be better timed. The city lost one of its oldest and last remaining textile makers last year – Concord Fabric – which took with it 135 jobs and a rich history that once included more than 400 workers.

Many of those who lost their jobs had worked together for decades and built a sense of family. They had an extremely high rate of attendance and low incidence of injuries. Peters and Gheesling began to market these qualities of the available labor force to new industrial prospects. The result has been an encouraging number of placements with new employers.

Just as Concord was closing, Roth Refractories, a European brick maker, was opening up an operation in Baldwin County . Of the 20 employees Roth hired to start, 18 came from Concord , according to Peters and Gheesling. Around the same time, some existing employers expanded and hired more of the former Concord workers.

"I was worried for them," Gheesling says. "It’s been kind of a Cinderella story the way it’s turned out."

Another major area of economic expansion for Baldwin County is real estate – particularly the land between the city limits and Lake Sinclair , where the county recently added water and sewer services. Prices are rising and development is booming, Peters and Gheesling say.

"We’ve become a melting pot," Gheesling says, noting that the new population drawn by the lure of lakefront property is an echo of that brought in by the hospital in earlier times. "We haven’t just stayed a small Southern town."

One of those drawn to the lake country will leave a lasting impact on the banks of the river that runs through it. Jan Nichols, an Iowa native and former Atlantan, moved to Milledgeville because of her husband’s work as a physician. She is now executive director of the Oconee River Greenway Authority and is actively engaged in raising funds and clearing the way for a park along eight miles of waterfront property. The group has raised $3 million but needs another $1 million to complete the first phase.

The goal for the greenway is to conserve the land and offer people a place to enjoy the river with walking trails and open spaces. "Even when it’s raining and dismal outside, there’s just something peaceful about the attraction of water. It lowers your blood pressure," Nichols says.

But she believes the greenway will do even more for the community. "The real benefit is economic development," Nichols says. "It will attract people to the area."

With development of the greenway, the river could be an important part of revitalization downtown as well, says Wood, the new city manager. He envisions Milledgeville someday capitalizing on the combined assets of its riverfront, historic district and colleges. But first, he says, there’s work to be done.

"We’re very proud of the unique history this city has," Wood says. "But we see a city that for several generations has been deficient in cleanliness, beautification, code enforcement and other areas. We have our share of libertarians who don’t want to be told what to do with their own property."

But Wood and other city leaders are thoughtfully addressing issues through conversations in the informal monthly lunch meetings with agency directors and a similar gathering of all department heads as well as the traditional channels of government operations. Asked about his goals during an interview in his office after the working lunch, Wood instantly recites a list.

It starts with continued improvements to the central business district. Already the city has put in nearly $2 million worth of streetscape renovations that ease the way for pedestrians. Thanks to the nearly 7,000 students at GC&SU, Milledgeville has a lively downtown. Residents say that’s a mixed blessing, complaining at times about parking, pedestrians and pranks. "Our maintenance staff gets frustrated when they can’t keep a trash can upright overnight, but the good far outweighs the bad," Wood says.

That brings up the rest of the new city manager’s list of goals. It includes increased cooperation between city and colleges, as well as beautification, litter control and addressing the issue of substandard housing, a bit of which is mixed in between the city’s trademark antebellum homes and historic buildings.

The point illustrates the unique coexistence of the new and the old in Milledgeville. Ultimately, the success of Milledgeville’s new day will rest on the ability of both forces to work together. Nowhere is that potential more promising than just down the street at the Old State Capitol.

Capitol View

Built in 1807, the Old Capitol is said to be the first example of Gothic architecture in a public building in the United States . Designed by two Army engineers, it looks a bit like a fortress. It served as Georgia ‘s capitol until the Civil War, when Union troops invaded and ransacked it. During reconstruction – in 1868 – the state abandoned it and moved the capitol to Atlanta .

The Georgia Military Academy now occupies the property, which was restored in 2000. The ground floor was given over to Georgia ‘s Old Capitol Museum Society, which is putting the finishing touches on a series of exhibits that tell the region’s story from about 75,000 B.C. through the 20th century.

Woods leaves his City Hall desk to walk over for an introduction to the new director of the Old State Capitol Museum . Betty Snyder greets him at the door. She is an artist, writer, historian, former teacher and past president of Georgia ‘s Old Capitol Museum Society who has served as acting director for the past two years and worked on creating the exhibits. She identifies herself as "a has-been" and quickly introduces Grant Gerlich, the new director, an experienced museum director whose studies have specialized in 19th century U.S. history. Together they give a tour.

Snyder does most of the talking in her smooth drawl, telling stories of frontier fighting, farming, Civil War devastation and reconstruction indignities as if she were there herself. She is about as Southern as anyone can be. Occasionally, she pauses and asks Gerlich to describe an exhibit.

From the first word he speaks, it is obvious that Gerlich is part of the new day in Milledgeville. A native of Huntington , Long Island , he has the unmistakable accent of a New Yorker. He is also, Snyder says, "the best person for the job."

As they wind up the tour with a 20th century photography display, she notes that this will be the rotating part of the museum. What will it be next? She turns to Gerlich, her successor, and says with a smile, "It will be whatever he decides."