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Posted: December 29, 2012 3:44 p.m.

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Better home town is the spirit of social circle

In January, 2013, our Better Hometown Program will celebrate its 15th year anniversary. The Better Hometown Program, launched by former Governor Zell Miller, is a downtown revitalization effort for smaller cities sponsored by the Georgia State Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in partnership with Georgia Power, the Georgia Municipal Association and the State Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism. The first five pilot BHT cities in Georgia received a small "welcome-to-the-program" monetary grant. After that, state assistance to BHT designated communities has been in the form of technical assistance, manager/board training and coordinated networking opportunities. The program relies on dedicated volunteers to provide creativity and muscle to make it work.

After learning about the program, a group of citizens in Social Circle were inspired to try to "do something" about our own declining downtown and commercial base. This group consisted of Wesley Cobb, Jean Williams, Bill Thornton, City Manager Don Dye, Pat Jarvis, Diane Johnson, Madeline Burgess, Dee Joseph, Louis Van Dyke, Myra Hargrove, Linda Cobb, and Bill Barnes. The group divided into sub-committees and worked to prepare the detailed application required by DCA for a BHT designation, which was achieved in January of 1998. Never did they dream that it would generate the support and enthusiasm that it has enjoyed until this day.

One of the first actions taken by our newly designated Better Hometown program was to conduct a community-wide strategic planning session to garner input from various members of the community and establish a work program and priorities for short and long-term goals for Social Circle. This strategic planning session, held in March of 1998, was attended by 84 community minded citizens, facilitated by DCA and Georgia Power staff. Attendees were asked to identify issues facing the City to be addressed in the current year and for the next three years. Out of this session, a number of major goals emerged, including improve the infrastructure - water, sewer, and streets; building an alternate truck route to bypass the downtown area; maintaining a small town atmosphere; addressing public safety issues - crime, drugs, and traffic; upgrading the zoning ordinance and sub-division and land development regulations; preserving historic places; and making Social Circle clean and beautiful. Many of these goals have been or are being implemented, e.g. upgrading our infrastructure, building a truck by-pass around Social Circle, establishing a city police force, activating the City's Historic Preservation Commission, conducting semi-annual city-wide cleanups, etc.

The goal of revitalizing our commercial and retail base downtown has been expressed in all of the subsequent BHT annual retreats. This has proven to be more elusive, particularly the matter of attracting and sustaining retail establishments. Like most small towns, people are drawn to nearby "big box" stores because of lower prices, variety of merchandise and convenient parking. One of our most promising revitalization options currently underway through our BHT program is the "Paint the Town" project which is designed to build rapport with downtown merchants and building owners and seed additional investment in building enhancements and improvements to attract new businesses.

To become eligible for the BHT program, participating cities were required to maintain part-time or full time staff, paid or volunteer. In this regard we have been fortunate to have had highly motivated program managers who have provided exemplary leadership in meeting goals and expectations of the BHT Board of Directors. Past managers of the program include Becky Aliffi, Joy Scarborough, Dee Joseph, and Jamie Peterson.

Because of an increasingly number of BHT sponsored activities, the City expanded the role of the BHT Manager, making it a full-time position with dual responsibilities. The current BHT Manager, Mike Miller, manages the BHT program and has additional duties as a member of our City staff. Mike has turned out to be a "human sparkplug" in invigorating the Better Hometown Program. He joined the City upon retirement from the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, where he served for 35 years. His skills in organization management, youth development and working with volunteers has greatly benefited our City. Mike has a special ability for spotting talent and reaching out across the community for participants in the program.

In addition to Mike, we have a truly dedicated Board of Directors who have contributed a great deal of time and energy in serving our community. Our BHT Board of Directors raises funds to help promote Social Circle and works closely with two local government bodies, the Social Circle Downtown Development Authority and the Social Circle Historic Preservation Commission, to promote businesses while preserving the history of our town. Some of the programs and activities that have been initiated and/or expanded under their leadership include:

Monthly Merchants Coffees: Our monthly "Meet and Greet" coffee hours for downtown merchants and building owners, businesses and civic minded citizens has gained momentum since they were initiated in 2010. Initially, attendance at these meetings was small, with only a handful of participants, and now they attract an increasing number of merchants and business owners who enjoy mingling with each other and learning about "what's going on" in the City.

Annual Friendship Festival: This event is held on the first Saturday of October. This year, we had 89 volunteers to help organize the event and we had a record number of visitors and vendors in attendance. Our kick-off parade was also the longest and best ever. To add a little zest, the BHT initiated a scarecrow contest where participants decorated their homes, offices, church buildings, etc. with scarecrows. The first place winner of this competition was "Grillin Bob and Tilling Joe" created by Social Circle resident Stefanie Holmes.

Semi-Annual Citywide Cleanup: This event is scheduled twice a year, usually on the Saturday before the Annual Citywide Yard Sale and on the Saturday before the Annual Friendship Festival. We now have volunteers from approximately 50 participating schools, neighborhood associations, churches, businesses, civic organizations, etc. Our cleanup events typically begin at 8 o'clock in the City's Welcome Center where participants are greeted with some type of entertainment and fed sausage biscuits before beginning their work. This year the Church at the Grove in Social Circle supplied the biscuits and participants were serenaded by the S.C. High School marching band.

The Social Circle Ambassador Program: Former BHT Manager Jamie Peterson recruited and trained a group of committed volunteers who meet and greet visitors to our Welcome Center and provide staff support to the BHT Office. According to Mike Miller, "Our Welcome Center (and Heritage Center) is open an average of 20 days a month, staffed by BHT Ambassadors. This is a major accomplishment for a town our size."

Junior Ambassadors Program: After coming on board with the City, Mike Miller mentioned that the one thing he missed about his job with the Boys and Girls Club was working with youth. With this in mind, he established a program for "Junior Ambassadors." In this program, applicants must agree to volunteer at least four hours a month learning about how a city is operated and assisting with community events. The Junior Ambassadors for the current year are A.J. Howard, Savannah Licktieg and Melissa Barrett. Successful completion is rewarded with recommendations for college and a small scholarship.

Annual Lighting of the Tree: This event has blossomed from attendance by a handful of hearty residents gathering in the Post Office park where children listened to a reading of "A Night Before Christmas," to a major family event on the lawn of our new City Hall with community choirs, marshmallow roasting, hayrides through town and a fabulous tree lighting ceremony. Members of the BHT Design Committee selected downtown merchant Faye Kitchens (Dolls & Stuff) as first place winner in a new Christmas Window Display Contest. Over 400 families attended this event on December 1 where about 100 children visited with Santa.

Our BHT Program has truly become the spirit of Social Circle. Mike Miller commented that "Our partnership with the citizens, businesses, industries, schools, civic clubs and churches brings our town together for programs such as Veterans Day, Fourth of July, Circle of Lights Christmas Tree Lighting, Friendship Festival and our Junior Ambassador Program. All depend on our citizens taking part and volunteering to make Social Circle ‘Georgia's Greatest Little Town.'"

Madeline Burgess is an active volunteer in Social Circle and the wife of former Mayor Jim Burgess.


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