Getting away from the familiar has a way of changing our perspective.
As has become our October custom, this week my wife and I traveled with dear friends to one of our favorite getaways – the Red Hills region of Southwest Georgia – a place where creatives have discovered the civic magic in historic preservation and true community redevelopment.
I happen to like old places with a rich history; that feeling of continuity and the strength and stability of things that last.
This year, we stayed at The Cairo House, a beautifully restored and comfortably appointed 1930’s four-bedroom home offered as a well-managed and licensed short-term rental – with burnished hardwood floors, a formal dining room, and wood burning fireplaces in each bedroom that hearkens back to a more genteel era.
The home is in Cairo, Georgia, situated between Thomasville and Bainbridge, two historic communities with elegantly restored downtowns, each offering an eclectic selection of upscale boutiques, specialty gifts, coffee shops, craft breweries, and a variety of excellent dining experiences all tied together by a vibrant arts scene.
While touring Bainbridge’s quaint town square, I met the talented artist and milliner Eldrick Jacobs, the friendly proprietor of Flint and Port Hat Company, who is resurrecting the traditional art of custom hat making for a discerning clientele. The intricate process begins with a 45-minute fitting session by limited appointment where every aspect of your handmade creation is decided before Mr. Jacobs begins crafting your hat from fine beaver felt.
Learn more about this impressive young man’s creations here: https://tinyurl.com/rbxy6zu
While walking in this quaint city center, civic pride was evident everywhere, and the Downtown Development Authority recently accepted the Georgia Exceptional Mainstreet (GEM designation) for their redevelopment efforts.
By adopting sense-of-place initiatives into the regeneration of the community’s downtown, entrepreneurs and private investors are working closely with visionary city planners to develop mixed-use infill projects which incorporate historic attributes while making use of all available space, with residences in upper-levels of historic buildings to encourage a more inviting and walkable city center.
The plan is drawing people back to living downtown in beautifully renovated second and third floor spaces – bolstered by complementary creative and entertainment districts that are repurposing existing façades to house galleries, eateries, and other businesses with artistic leanings.
The comparative experience between the economic, civic, and social progress of many small towns in the region and the stagnation in much of the Halifax area remains palpable – and, once again, proved the benefit of evaluating the success of others and how those ideas might translate here at home.
It made me wonder if our elected and appointed officials ever explore outside Volusia County?
One glaring difference I noted was that, rather than hiding projects behind cryptograms like “Project X” – they utilize the concept of whole community decision making to bring people together and seek innovative ideas during the inclusive planning phase.
Early on, this collaborative approach resulted in the Bainbridge Renaissance Strategic Vision and Plan that brought public entities, nongovernmental organizations, private foundations, leaders from other successful communities, and citizens together to focus on placemaking – building trust, encouraging early buy-in from all stakeholders, and capitalizing on community assets important to residents.
In Bainbridge, this incredible transformation is highlighted in before-and-after photographs on display in a wonderful town square park – complete with pavilion, public art, attractive pond, and landscaping, with historic markers along a well-manicured walking path.
In one innovative project, a former livery stable was gutted and festive lights added, transforming it into an adaptable space for events like an open-air market, concerts, or a wedding venue.
This commitment to honoring the past while building a future where creativity and innovation can thrive was evident in the impeccable cleanliness and order that has become an outward expression of pride.
Now, these innovative communities – where politics simply got out of the way and allowed vision and creativity to flourish – attract residents, tourists, and entrepreneurs who can appreciate its unique attributes.
Look, no community is perfect – and each of these places we visited still have work to do – but they have built a strong, diverse, and resilient foundation. Something I find very special.
It’s good to be home. Just in time for Trucktoberfest. . .ugh.
Let’s take a look at the week that was:
While traveling, I read the news of the day here on the Fun Coast, keeping up on current events by monitoring social media, and staying in electronic contact with civically active friends on the rumors and gossip.
For those who pay attention, the political maneuvers and machinations are never dull here on this salty piece of land we call home. . .
I’ve said it before – there is an inherent dishonesty in politics. That is the reason I never had the stomach for it.
God knows, I’m not the best example of ethical and moral purity, just another unrepentant sinner lost in the wilderness. But the lack of clarity in politics bothers me – the stark difference between what those we elect tell us and what we see with our own eyes.
The ability to paint a mental picture that does not match what your constituents see outside their window is an operational necessity in local government – a surreal place where money is no object because it is simply a matter of raising taxes when you need more slop for the voracious hog. . .
For instance, last month, the City of Ormond Beach – like many other area governments and taxing districts – voted to increase the budget and raise taxes despite the hue and cry of strapped area residents – a “process” that has become a foregone conclusion year-after-year.
With city coffers now brimming with cash – supplemented with enormous reserves and federal coronavirus relief funds – on Tuesday, the Ormond Beach City Commission voted 4-1 to gift $20,000 of our hard-earned tax dollars to offset the estimated $52,000 for a plinth that will support a bronze statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune in the perpetually under construction Brown Grande Esplanade, located in the publicly improved and tax incentivized Duchy of Hyattona.
According to an informative article by Jarleene Almenas writing in the Ormond Beach Observer:
“It’s unprecedented and historical that we’re living through this moment in time where for the next 100-plus years the statue in the U.S. Capitol that represents the state of Florida, one of the two, will be a hometown resident and trailblazer of civil rights and social justice,” said Nancy Lohman, president of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, at the City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 19.
The statuary fund is seeking a total of $52,000, with $25,000 already committed by the city of Daytona Beach.”
Look, Mrs. Lohman is an incredibly generous philanthropist, patron of the arts, and humanitarian who gives munificently to various charitable causes.
Me? Not so much. . .
I have publicly praised and supported Mrs. Lohman’s stewardship of the outstanding Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund board of directors, a group of dedicated civic leaders who collected private donations for the beautiful marble statue which will stand in perpetuity in the United States Capitol – and I admire the good work she and her husband Lowell have done to improve our quality of life – including their recent $4 million endowment for diabetes research at Halifax Health.
True Angels in our community – and you can’t blame her for asking, right?
However, in my view, elected officials allocating public funds for a privately commissioned work, one administered by a non-profit organization which will stand in a neighboring community, is wrong.
In explaining his lone dissenting vote, Commissioner Troy Kent rightly explained, “It’s not me writing a check for $20,000,” Kent said. “It’s easy to do that, I think, when it’s not coming out of my personal account.”
Mr. Kent and I rarely agree – on anything.
But his assessment of this glaring misuse of public funds is spot-on.
Then, in the most tenuous connection ever made from a public dais, Mayor Bill Partington justified spending public funds on a private endeavor by reminding us of the generosity of our fellow Ormond Beach philanthropist and Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. . .who died in 1937.
“Mayor Bill Partington told Kent he made a good point, but argued that John D. Rockefeller, one of Ormond’s most famous residents in history, was a huge supporter of Bethune.
“Ormond Beach has a history of supporting this,” Partington said.”
My God. . .
I don’t make this shit up, folks.
Then, on Wednesday, we were reminded of our recurring public support of local billionaires by lavishing private, for-profit, projects with various tax incentives, cash infusions, infrastructure support, and other camouflaged corporate welfare – a lucrative return on investment for their outlandish campaign contributions to hand-select candidates who always seem to be of a like mind with their political benefactors.
In an informative article in The Daytona Beach News-Journal by business editor Clayton Park, we learned that the publicly funded, yet perpetually struggling, One Daytona complex – which is owned by International Speedway Corporation – is welcoming several new businesses, intrepid investors willing to try their luck where many others have failed.
For the record – One Daytona received “…$40 million from the city of Daytona Beach and Volusia County for infrastructure, such as new roads and utility lines,” on the tired promise of “creating thousands of new jobs.”
To show their appreciation for our collective largesse, ISC now charges all-comers an “enhanced amenity fee” – essentially a one percent before sales tax levy on all goods and services purchased at the Speedway’s “symbiotic” entertainment and shopping complex that you and I helped subsidize.
I call these giveaways the “new normal” – public/private partnerships where We, The Little People get screwed coming and going. . .
According to Mr. Park, “To date, One Daytona has created hundreds of jobs, but it remains doubtful that the number of people employed there are in the thousands.”
Of course, former Daytona Beach City Commissioner Carl Lentz IV, who in 2014 voted for the One Daytona “economic incentives,” a commercial realtor and managing partner of SVN Alliance Commercial Real Estate Advisors, was able to dream up a self-serving explanation based upon how stupid he thinks us rubes are:
“People have a hard time understanding tax incentives. It’s easy to say they (NASCAR) are getting something for nothing, but sometimes incentives are the only way to make a development viable.”
In my view, if a for-profit project is not economically viable with private investment, based on a level playing field where businesses stand or fall on their own merits, not artificial props – unable to sprout or survive without public support and “incentives” that most small enterprises will never know – then they should not be considered (or approved) in the first place.
I disagree with local government’s continued meddling in what should be a free, open, and fair marketplace – time-after-time providing multimillions in public funds to underwrite the private endeavors of those extremely wealthy insiders with a chip in the game.
But what do I know?
I’m still getting comfortable with my new charitable role – our historic connection to John D. Rockefeller – as an esteemed (if involuntary) Ormond Beach philanthropist. . .
That’s all for me. Have a great weekend, y’all!
Angels & Assholes will return next week – I hope you will too.