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Crane

Georgia has well over 500 municipalities. My own home county of DeKalb has 13 cities. In part due to the pandemic, many of these cities in rural areas are struggling for their continuing existence, while dozens are not only surviving, they are thriving. When I see promise in my ongoing travels, I will periodically share that here. Today we visit Watkinsville, where strategies focused on spaces, places, and people are providing many wins and rewards for everyone.

Think of Mayberry crossed with a state college town, and you might have something close to Watkinsville in mind. This historic and growing county seat of Oconee County, a more conservative and bustling bedroom community adjacent to Athens/Clarke County, lies due west of the University of Georgia. The Oconee River winds through the region and forms multiple local borders, and while Watkinsville is not the only municipality in Oconee, its 2,800 residents flourish in many of the county’s highest-performing public schools (among the consistently highest-scoring schools and graduation rates in the state). The historic square and center of the city is walkable and populated with county offices, businesses, boutiques, and restaurants, the vast majority locally owned and operated.

A light industrial district is just up the road and across the railroad tracks from downtown, including the re-development of a former Southwire Plant. The new Wire Park will be a game-changer for the small burg, with a live/work/play mix of six commercial spaces, 56 condos, 21 townhomes, and 53 single-family homes coming in Phase One. The old wire/cable factory was once Oconee County’s most significant employer, and the plant sat vacant for nearly a decade, as it is now springing back to life. The site had its second Wire Park Christmas this year, despite the pandemic, hosting an estimated crowd of 5,000, nearly double the population of Watkinsville. And Watkinsville is also the hometown of one of my youngest’s favorite restaurant chains, Zaxby’s.

Next door to a modest Watkinsville City Hall (annual municipal budget of only a few million dollars), is the headquarters of the nonprofit, Extra Special People Inc. (ESP). ESP assists and supports students and adults with learning disabilities and other developmental delays to lead happier, healthier and fuller lives. The nonprofit runs the co-located Java Joy coffee company and franchises its operations to provide employment opportunities and training as well for this community. ESP’s adjacent Miracle League Ballfield and a new adjoining playground are a $2.5 million project, funded primarily with donations, with the city contributing the site and $400,000. I often write about using public dollars as catalysts for more extensive public/private partnerships, and the leadership of Watkinsville understands this in spades.

The town is encircled by a variety of parks and greenspaces. Harris Shoals Park will receive a complete renovation during 2022, and the Watkinsville Woods, just off the town square preserves 6 acres of medium to old-growth forest, with a creek, walking trails, and numerous places for kids to play outdoors while connecting four long-established neighborhoods to the city’s Main Street.

The arts are important to Watkinsville as well. Their unofficial motto is “The Artland of Georgia,” perhaps most in evidence at the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation (OCAF), a regional arts nonprofit that has helped preserve several historic buildings, as well as provide gallery and loft space for multiple artists and exhibits. Waters Walk is a 55-plus community under development just off Main Street, to provide high quality and affordable housing for seniors in 60 new units. Longstanding community pillar, Oconee State Bank, brought its corporate headquarters back into downtown Watkinsville, along with 40 high-paying jobs in a new office building anchoring the northern end of Main Street.

Working alongside the well-regarded Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, Watkinsville has its own police force, operating with a community policing model, and the small department is also equipped with all current technology. Watkinsville’s Police Chief, Shannon Brock, is a former Marine who relocated from St. Mary’s to lead the department. No place is perfect, and Watkinsville is not without occasional controversy, but appearances are that the bulk of community leadership works as a team and are all rowing in the same direction. That certainly makes for more rapid results, whether you are heading upstream, or down.

I’ll keep up my travels, and point out success stories, as well as leadership by example. Thankfully, Georgia has plenty of those stories yet to be told. In the meantime... watch out for Watkinsville.

Readers may contact Bill Crane at {span class=”markdf10g0leo” data-markjs=”true”}bill.csicrane@gmail.com

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Bill Crane is a syndicated columnist based in Decatur. He has worked in politics for Democrats and Republicans, respects the process and will try and give you some things to think about. Your thoughts and responses to his opinions are also welcome, bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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