Wilkinson, Johnson, Baldwin, Laurens and Washington Counties: Middle Georgia Assets

It wasn’t his Huck Finn childhood along the tributaries of the Oconee River that led Dennis Holder to seek a way for his constituents and their neighbors to enjoy exploring the shoals and shallows of the storied waters.

And though it mattered, it really wasn’t just the study and preservation of the mysterious robust redhorse fish that lives and spawns in the waters of the Oconee that prompted Holder to launch a nearly 10-year campaign to land a state park for his county and the Middle Georgia region. “This is also about economic development,” says Holder, chairman of the Wilkinson County Commission. “And it’s because I’m high on rural Georgia.”

But Holder came down to earth long enough to help form the Ball’s Ferry Historical Park Association (BFPA), a joint effort of the counties of Wilkinson, Baldwin, Johnson, Laurens and Washington. The group has already raised the money to buy a 538-acre corner site right where four of the counties meet.

Beginning in the early 1800s, Ball’s Ferry, named for a Revolutionary War hero, was the only means of getting vehicles, goods, livestock and people across the Oconee until a bridge was built at the site in 1939. But Ball’s Ferry is brimming with historic significance, from the days when Indian trails crisscrossed the area to Civil War skirmishes between Union and Confederate troops that ended with Sherman’s right flank crossing the Oconee there on its way to the sea.

“It is also where so many people of the region fished, camped, canoed and explored,” says Holder, a Wilkinson County native. In 1999 Holder turned his personal interest in a park into a regional economic development project with partner counties. In a time of dwindling available real estate and shrinking budgets, landing a state park could have seemed almost a hopeless dream.

“Yes, trying to get a state park on a county level would have been hard to do,” Holder says. “But by pulling in five counties we’ve got one of the best regional projects in the state of Georgia.”

There is a little political math to be done here as well: Five counties equal more legislators on your lobbying team. From a modest $27,000 provided by the Department of Community Affairs for a 2000 feasibility study to $150,000 from the state for a 2002 master plan, the park project began to ripple into shape. There followed a couple of million dollars in federal funds snagged by the area’s congressman, Jim Marshall, plus a sweet land deal from a timber company, and today the project is coursing toward reality.

Beyond preserving places of historic interest and natural beauty, along with the flora and fauna that populate them, creating a state park produces concrete economic benefits. Studies indicate the region will see $4.3 million and 108 jobs from construction in one-time benefits. The Ball’s Ferry Historic State Park will also produce $2.92 million in annual income, as well as 235 new jobs; this in a partnership comprising four Tier One (poorest) counties.

“That number [of Tier One counties] has dropped to three counties since we started on this,” Holder says. “I don’t attribute that economic growth to the project, but it does show that there can be economic growth in rural Georgia. This park will improve the quality of life for Middle Georgia as a whole. I have no doubt about that.”

When completed, a date now estimated to be in 2009, the park isn’t likely to feature a golf course or fancy lodging, a current trend in state parks, but instead will offer up less common assets, such as its allure to history buffs. “A state park like this has so many unique benefits, including environmental protection, species preservation, public education, as well as access to recreation,” says Laura Mathis, Wilkinson County manager. “There are regional benefits, to be sure, but for our county, a Tier One county, we’re looking at projections of additional annual tax revenues of $224,000 and 90 new jobs, as well as $2.2 million in new annual income.”

Holder is chairman of the board of directors of the Ball’s Ferry Historical Park Association; Cecil Hodges, Washington, is vice-chairman; Jane Sowell, Baldwin, is secretary; and Joe Jordan, Johnson, is treasurer. Other board members are Geneva Davis, Baldwin; Donald Smith, Johnson; David Moore and Proctor Chambliss, Laurens; Mary Alice Jordan, Washington; and Guy Thompson and Jimmy Lord, Wilkinson.

According to Holder, the exact nature of the park’s assets will be set by The Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and improving the well being of the state park system. “Essentially, the job of the Ball’s Ferry Historical Park Association is finished,” Holder says. “Now we’re looking at a period of the next several years when the pieces all fall together.”

Though the rare robust redhorse fish can be seen swimming at the Georgia Aquarium, Holder, Mathis and their neighbors believe tourists to Georgia might prefer to see the creature in its natural habitat – the waters of the Oconee that flow through Ball’s Ferry.

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features