By Dan Pool, Editor
The problems hampering business growth in Pickens County can be summed up with an exchange I had with an older Georgian from the metro-area while I was on vacation.
When I said I was from Jasper, his response was, unfortunately for our image, the typical, “Oh, I know where Jasper is. We drive through there on our way to Ellijay and Blue Ridge.”
We are a drive-through county.
Our identity or brand, as the marketing crowd likes to say, is “Pickens County is that place people drive through to reach the mountains.” To get a perspective of just how many of these people are passing through on the way to somewhere else, watch traffic on Highway 515 heading north Friday and coming back south on Sunday evening.
I’ve thought for some time we should demand that Cherokee County give us their brand motto “where metro meets the mountains.” It’s an inaccurate description for Cherokee County with no relevance at all for Woodstock and south Cherokee. They are purely metro and no significant mountains rise inside their borders.
We are where metro from the south meets mountains to the north.
For our own calling cards, we have Jasper’s motto “The First Mountain City,” which isn’t bad. But, it appears that Pickens County is just Pickens County, Ga. They do not claim the Marble Capital of Georgia on their website and several state tourism websites inaccurately list Jasper as the marble capital, rather than the county or more accurately Tate/Nelson/Marble Hill.
The Chamber of Commerce uses the tag line, “where business meets the great outdoors,” which seems more aspirational than accurate, with the decided lack of business meeting us as the root problem. “Where business meets the great outdoors” has a nice ring and perhaps the county should use this one as well to develop a uniform character for the county.
New graphics and a snazzy motto would be nice. Just like lights on our downtown building are nice. Having the Old Jail open regularly is nice. None of these are game changers and no one claims they are. No one expects the lights to suddenly create a shopping mecca here.
But all the efforts help. Just like it would be great to see the city of Jasper install some kind of median beautification plan on Highway 515, like Ellijay’s crepe myrtles or Blue Ridge’s flowers, something to let people know they are somewhere when they arrive here on 515. A fourlane streetscape representative of the qualities of this county shows that our community cares, and it might inspire a few people to see what the businesses there offer.
We certainly don’t want to divert all the traffic from Highway 515 or else we’d ended up like Blue Ridge – a tourist trap that has consumed the small town, making for robust cash register sales but not a place locals can congregate.
The best thing we have going for us in Jasper and Tate at the moment is the momentum of business openings. New restaurants, dessert shops and stores have given a spark of hope that the towns are on the right path to vitality.
Tourist dollars really are the ultimate in economic development as the those spending them don’t stick around to put kids in school, ask for their road to be paved and hopefully have no contact with our emergency responders.
And the county, cities and Chamber of Commerce need to support this mission. The question is how.
Assuming the state DOT would frown on us putting a gate and detour sign on the fourlane, we need to explore ideas to entice tourists to give our towns a chance to show what makes this a great place. More of the cohesive identity/marketing, better 515 curb appeal and continued work with joint economic development of the chamber/county and city may help -- eventually.
One day we may attract some of the northward migration of tourists. Until then keep in mind that coming downtown to Tate, Talking Rock or Jasper make nice outings for all of us and our support is vital to these businesses until that time.