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Staff Editorials

Take the blinders off with growth planning

Ask yourself which of the following growth patterns would you like to see Pickens County achieve?

1. Nothing more than we have now. Keep Pickens County the jewel that it is. 

2. A bunch of unique shops and restaurants on Main Street with a vibrant atmosphere where people stroll the streets.

3. A four-lane with more big box retailers and a busier, bigger road leading from downtown Jasper back to the four-lane along with new businesses on the connecting streets.

4. Quite a few subdivisions locating in large undisturbed tracts, trading some of those trees for houses and people – maybe 1,000 new houses and 25,000-plus more people.

 

We’ll conjecture, quite a few people picked number one. This is a great area to live so let’s not mess it up.

We’ll bet quite a few people (maybe the most) picked number 2 as a cool downtown with energy is something we  enviously eye in surrounding areas.

We are confident very few people picked 3 or 4. In fact, many longtime residents are probably cringing at the idea of more big box stores, congested roads and loss of greenspace.

Sorry to be a wet blanket, but holding out hope that growth never arrives is not really an option. 

As fast as the Atlanta area is sprawling north with the Braves stadium now on our side of town and new lanes to help people get further north faster on Highway 575, it’s coming and will reach us one day, whether we want it or not.

Trying to slam the door on growth would be like trying to keep a discount store out of a commercial spot in the Grandview area; you’ll see the same result just on a bigger scale. 

The problem right off the bat discussing development is when people say they want to see growth what they really want are stores, restaurants and retail areas they like but none of the fuss or traffic woes or congestion. Reality Check: this  approach is not going to happen, any more than a new puppy will arrive without chewing, going on the rug or whining. 

Conspiracy theorists may believe that there is some hidden force holding Jasper back or that the mayor is subverting growth. In reality the blame, if there is any, does not lie with city hall. The fact is businesses aren’t gobbling up downtown buildings, a’ la Blue Ridge or Ball Ground, because investors and entrepreneurs lack confidence in the town’s business potential at this point. That may be changing.

Mayor John Weaver expressed recently that while he often ends up in the crosshairs of those dreaming of growth, he is not running people off as they are not knocking on the door to begin with right now. 

A better theory of what is keeping the brakes on growth for the time being is lack of sewage and water hampers residential growth and more population is needed to entice businesses. Woodstock’s cool downtown scene is walking distance to hundreds of residential spaces. It takes a lot of people to draw from to support unique restaurants and shops.

As we reported last week, Jasper is near its capacity with both wastewater and water. The county lacks sewage infrastructure entirely. Until this changes, there will be a big restricter plate with development.

We have talked to several people with expertise in development lately. Among the comments is that at this point, our county may not have the “rooftops” (population) to catch the eye of entrepreneurs looking to locate new businesses.

It seems Jasper and Pickens have reached that proverbial fork in the road. The one path requires expanding water and sewage to accommodate residential growth which will in turn drive commercial growth, both the kind people want and the kind that jams up traffic when you are trying to get home on a Friday night.

The other fork, shall we call it the one less traveled, would be to hold the growth wave back, however much is possible by having the city and county working together on water and sewage and knowing that this the best bet for controlling whatever development comes next.

 

Belly up and pass the craft brewery bill

Imagine you’re visiting Georgia from a different state. One Saturday you and your family tour Reformation Brewery in Woodstock. You have a few pints and enjoy the beer enough that you want to take some home - but the bartender says you’ll have to go find it at a liquor store down the street even though it’s brewed in the same building where you are standing. 

Tourist confusion over Georgia’s archaic craft brewery law that prohibits direct retail sales on site is just one of the system’s many problems – but SB85, which recently passed the senate and awaits house approval, would level the playing field, encourage craft breweries to locate here, and stimulate job creation, tourism and direct spending. 

Georgia’s current policy is what’s called a “three-tiered system” made up of the beer producers, the distributors and the retailers. It’s a holdover from the prohibition-era, enacted to protect the customer and discourage abuse of power, but it’s outdated and heavy-handed government at its worst. Under this system alcohol has to go through a wholesaler and then a retailer before the public can buy it. The Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association has fought hard to keep it this way. All states but Georgia and Mississippi have made common sense revisions that protect the customer, but at the same time encourage growth within the industry.

At least one aspiring brewer failed to locate in Jasper because of this state imposed burden. Our economic developer had worked out a deal where some local restaurants would carry the locally brewed beer to help get it off the ground, but they found that under Georgia law, it couldn’t be done easily with the distribution regulations and the whole thing fell apart.

According to data from the Brewers Association, Georgia produces 365,015 barrels of beer a year, which ranks the state 48th in breweries per capita and 41st in economic impact per capita. Georgia is missing out on craft beer as an economic driver. 

Wineries have become a tourist destination in north Georgia. We’ve got two in Pickens County. They can sell their wine on site, why can’t breweries sell their beer?  

The craft beer industry has exploded in the last decade, even under Georgia’s oppressive regulations. Since 2011 the number of breweries in the state has doubled. If you look at the 40-plus breweries currently operating in Georgia all but a handful were founded after 2010. As a comparison of what the draconian laws do, Florida and North Carolina have over 150 breweries; Oregon, 228 Colorado has 284.

Should anyone think our limited breweries reduce overall consumption, not so. Mega-breweries can still sell all the beer consumers want. The only thing limited is competition from small, local brewers.

Unlike 10 years ago, you can go to your local convenience store and get Red Hare, brewed in Marietta, and beers from Orpheus Brewery out of Atlanta – but the way regulations are set up brewers only make pennies on the dollar through these retail sales. The real money comes through tasting rooms and direct sales at the brewery. 

Carly Wiggins, president of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, told one publication, “Breweries in Georgia take an average of five years to break even. Our surrounding states are 2.5 times more profitable. We employ only 1,500 people in our industry. Colorado with a similar drinking population and significantly more advanced beer laws employs ten times that. Breweries in surrounding states use the funds from their tasting rooms to expand, hire additional sales force members, create more unique beers, etc.”

Last week we featured a story about jobs created through the burgeoning movie industry in Georgia not to mention the billions created through its direct spending. This surge in movie production was a direct result of state incentives. The craft brewery bill doesn’t cost taxpayers anything but could have just as much of an economic impact. 

Lawmakers, stop perpetuating the idea that Georgia moves slower than the rest of the country. Pass SB85 and let our small craft breweries thrive.  

 

Tackling federal spending like jumping on Godzilla

With a new administration in Washington charging hard on all manner of issues, there is, once again, a vocal commitment by lawmakers for slashing  budgets and eliminating debt.

This is often a rallying cry of those who want to drain the swamp with the idea that MOST federal spending is funding weird programs no one wants and  anyone with common sense and basic math skills could roll up their sleeves and get us back into the black.

Unfortunately, the characterization is not the real world. It needs to be done, but don’t expect the cuts to come easily. The simple fact is you can’t cut spending without getting rid of  things some people want. We’re not going to put this house back in order by cutting a few arts grants, foreign aid and eliminating EPA staff.

Speaking from a pure dollars and cents perspective, wrestling a budget of $3,854,000,000,000 under control would be like jumping on Godzilla’s back (just look at the number of zeroes).

By far, the majority of federal spending goes to three areas: Social Security, Medicare and the military. In 2015, federal spending was $3.8 trillion; of this,

Social Security required $888 billion (24 percent of the total spending); Health took another $938 billion (25 percent of the total spending) with $546 billion of that going to Medicare, which provides health coverage to around 55 million Americans over the age of 65. The other health spending funded three programs -  Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and $28 billion in marketplace subsidies for the Affordable Care Act.

Defense had a budget of $609.3 billion (16 percent of the total spending). [These figures are from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and closely resemble, but are not exactly the same, as those presented on PolitiFact. Online research of federal spending is fraught with inconsistent figures due to the manner items are categorized and with different accounting for discretionary versus mandatory spending.]

Interest paid on the federal debt was 6 percent of the total spending at $229.2 billion in 2015. Often you hear budget hawks cry that our servicing of the debt is destroying the country and, while 6 percent would be nice to spend elsewhere, it’s not exactly snuffing the life out of the country. The fact that the national debt continues to grow is the real concern. 

In 2015 two areas of allocated federal spending totaled four percent each: Veterans Benefits and Food and Agriculture. No other category in the federal budget was more than three percent of the total spending that year.

It’s important to realize how the budget breaks down: Social Security, Medicare and the military (areas that most people don’t want to see cut) amount to about two-thirds of all federal spending.

If those three areas are politically off the table, we are then asking congressional lawmakers to look at one-third of the budget to make the cuts we seek, a much more daunting challenge. But these smaller programs still spend billions every year – even microscopic cuts add up tremendously.

When it comes to balancing the federal budget, it’s going to take more than chopping away at areas that aren’t popular. The EPA has a budget that totals about one percent of total spending; foreign aid which comes under the State Department and International Affairs’ two percent and food stamps fall under Food and Agriculture grouped with a lot of other items, still only totaling four percent.

Confusingly, there are widely varying amounts cited for “welfare” expenditures. This discrepancy depends on what programs are grouped under “welfare.” Some figures will include Medicaid spending on non-elderly. Also included occasionally are items like Headstart funding and Title 1 grants, which do benefit poor families, but are hardly the cash handouts people think of when they hear welfare.

We certainly encourage budget cutting at the federal  level. No one is going to defend waste or squandered tax dollars. But we also encourage people to look at the details and be realistic that the challenge is nowhere as simple as it’s often portrayed.

 

A sure bet: Rural areas need casinos more than Atlanta

Our state lawmakers are considering bills to allow casino gambling in Georgia. Before approval there would be a Constitutional Amendment for voters to weigh in. Ahead of this, there is “enabling” legislation that provides details of the proposals.

The lawmakers have expressed desires to see full-fledged resort casinos to be paid for and built by whatever group lobbies enough and does whatever is necessary behind the scenes to gain access to the Peach state. 

In 2016, bills were defeated that would have allowed four casinos into the state and backers of this year’s bill hope allowing just two casinos won’t scare off votes. 

This year’s legislation also dedicates more gambling proceeds to the HOPE Scholarship program than the previous effort, another attempt to sway legislators to vote in the bills’ favor. Under this year’s bills, 20 percent of gross gaming revenues from the casinos would go toward education, up from 12 percent under the last proposal. 

We’ll not weigh in here on the larger question of whether the government should encourage more gambling; nor will we harp on how destructive scratch-off cards are to those who can least afford to lose their money to send other people’s kids to college - but there is one part of the current casino proposals that make our rural blood boil. The legislature is going to limit the roulette, craps and other amenities to only two sites and they have dictated that Atlanta be one of the sites (requiring whatever company locates there spend at least $2 billion in construction). The second site must be in a town of at least 180,000 people, meaning essentially Savannah, Columbus or Augusta. 

That is pure big city hokum. North Carolina is able to handle casinos in rural areas and Georgia can too.

We strongly oppose the idea of limiting these casino sites to our largest cities and we are absolutely flabbergasted Atlanta would even be considered for a site.

Atlanta is already flush with attractions – a zoo, the newly-built Braves stadium just north of the city, the Falcons and their new stadium and throngs of restaurants and entertainment venues. Atlanta is the ninth largest metropolitan area in the United States, home to more than 5.7 million people - and growing. 

It doesn’t need anything else. Nor can it handle anything else with our heavy reliance on personal cars and lack of mass transit. 

Atlanta is already bulging at its seams; no improvements ever help the gridlock on the roads and now they want to reward their own poor planning with a casino resort.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of places that could use the economic boost from a casino. Places easily within two or three hours drive from Atlanta and from the other major cities. 

The growth that would come with these two “destination” casinos would radically revamp dormant areas of Georgia, places that have missed the growth. The potential for new jobs alone, some estimate that it would bring as many as 5,000, would be huge for areas of the state that have struggled. 

Legislators worry about lack of hospitals in the southern half of the state. Give them a casino and you can be pretty sure money for a hospital will follow.

We would also pose the argument that at least one of the casinos should be north of the metro area. Georgians spend about $570 million annually in casinos out of state. That money will continue heading to Murphy and Cherokee, filling the coffers of North Carolina, unless we locate one of the casinos in a spot to cut off gamblers heading north.  

Instead of piling on more to the haves of the state, it’s time to provide something to the have-nots. If casinos are coming, put them somewhere that benefits rural Georgians.

 

Stand up against domestic violence

While the Pickens Sheriff’s office and Jasper Police have been on our front page recently for cracking burglary cases and getting potential pedophiles off the street - and generally doing an excellent job of keeping us safe - the issue  they deal with constantly is something that affects so many of our friends and neighbors on a daily basis.

Hands down, domestic abuse is the number one problem that local law enforcement deals with day in and day out, according to sheriff officials. One in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).

Domestic violence, relationship abuse, sexual harassment and the whole range of issues we label as gender violence have long been seen as women’s issues. But in reality, these are men’s issues. For too long domestic abuse has been seen as women’s issues that some good men help out with. But we don’t accept that. These are men’s issues first and foremost.

Many who work in the domestic and sexual violence field know that victim-blaming is pervasive, blaming the person to whom something was done rather than the person who did it. Too often, a woman is hurt by her partner and we say things like: Why do they go out with these men? Why are they attracted to them? Why do they keep going back? 

In his Ted talk about domestic violence, Jackson Katz, co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, said the whole idea of victim blaming is based in our unconscious. “Our whole cognitive structure is set up to ask questions about women and women’s choices and what they’re doing, thinking, wearing.”

But, he points out, asking questions about women who are abused is not going to get us anywhere in terms of preventing violence.”

Katz says we need to ask a different set of questions - questions about men. • Why do men beat women? 

• Why does domestic abuse remain a big problem in the U.S. and all over the world? 

• Why do so many men physically, emotionally and verbally abuse the people they claim to love? 

• What’s going on in our religious hierarchies, the sports culture, the family structure, and economics that contribute to this type of man? Katz suggests it isn’t about individual perpetrators but our society as a whole.  

Once we move away from victim-blaming and shaming and move on to the question of how we can change the socialization of boys and the definitions of manhood that lead to violence is when we can start to truly affect change. 

According to the NCADV, on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. Women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner. 

In 2013 in Georgia, 29,779 victims were served by Georgia domestic violence services and Georgia ranks 9th in the nation for the rate at which women are killed by men.

Stopping this problem needs to come from non-abusive men. At the very core of society is our interpersonal relationships and when men who know better  remain silent in the face of abusive comments at their game nights or wing nights they are being complicit in saying it’s ok. It is not ok.

When you’re hanging out with your buddies and someone says something degrading about women, interrupt and let them know it’s not funny and won’t be supported. Create a peer culture where it’s unacceptable. We should strive for a society where men and boys who act out in sexist ways will lose status as a result of their behavior.  

Katz reminds us of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “In the end what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” 

We need men who will not be silent.