By Dan Pool, Editor
If anyone tried to cross what was once referred to as “the big road” this weekend, they know tourism is thriving. Or should we say tourism is thriving to our north based on the traffic going up Highway 515.
Locally, it appears that the vast majority of people continue to pass through Pickens on their way to Gilmer and Fannin counties.
From any vantage point along Highway 515 you can look greedily at the commerce represented by those SUVs with metro plates travelling north. But like any dream of gold, we should be careful what we wish for.
On the one hand, businessmen, politicians and different development authority members have cited the flow of dollars going right by us as a golden opportunity.
In the past year, we have seen a big expansion of tourist-related businesses throughout Jasper and Talking Rock. While Jasper weekends are more busy than ever before, it’s not packed downtown. Talking Rock has never seen anything like the crowds they are seeing now but with it comes growing pains also like never before.
On the other hand, we have, (thus far) been spared the misery of an overwhelming flood of visitors cramming onto our two-lane roads, stalling traffic at red lights, clogging our restaurants and overtaxing our public safety. We haven’t reached a point that locals don’t come out because it’s too crowded – at least not yet.
To get a glimpse of what this might look like, take your family to eat in Blue Ridge on a weekend and you’ll need either a reservation or time to wait.
For residents in the scenic apple growing areas of Gilmer County, the fall is like a JeepFest that lasts from late September through November.
Last week, my counterpart in Ellijay, Andy Ashurst of the Times Courier, wrote a column about how in a moment of forgetfulness he went to an apple house on a Saturday. He had forgotten the mass congestion and that he should have known better than to venture out there on a fall Saturday.
I sure don’t ever want to write an editorial that I wanted to go somewhere in Pickens on a typical fall weekend but knew it would be too crowded.
My visits to friends in both Gilmer and Fannin show further what happens when unfettered tourism transforms a town.
As a longtime friend in Gilmer bemoans how he loved seeing new restaurants open but now he can’t get a seat at the bar and doesn’t know the bartender or anyone else there.
Worse still for him with his Gilmer river cabin and people on the Toccoa River in Fannin is the floating armada that changes the scenic waterways into amusement parks on most weekends throughout the summer.
What has happened on those rivers is a lesson that could be applied to Pickens. As we hope to cash in on tourist dollars, set limits/controls up front – as in right now. Whether it’s an amphitheater park in Jasper, a rail-to-trail in Talking Rock or some new use for the historic Tate depot, start out with the understanding that your best case scenario may also be a worst case scenario – the [whatever it might be] proves so wonderful people come from far and wide – and they all need parking, bathrooms and want to stay until past midnight.
At the planning stage, if a county applies limits when granting permits – whether it be an outfitter, agrotourism spot, wedding venue, campground or restaurant – it might keep the genie in the bottle.
But history/current situations show it is mighty hard to impose controls later. How do you tell a business or a group of businesses to cut back simply because they are succeeding too much?
So, as we cast our gaze upon that line of traffic on 515 every weekend this fall, we need to remember that not all that glitters is gold with tourism.