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Local stimulation: How the feds have helped the economy before

Public works projects as an economic boost nothing new

POSTED: February 22, 2009 12:00 a.m.
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Dawson County library: The old Dawson County library building opened in 1976. The county also built a courthouse that opened in 1978 and a jail that opened in 1976. All three projects were funded with federal dollars.

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Joe Lane Cox remembers the rough times of the late 1970s and early 1980s - high jobless and interest rates among them.

Even as Dawson County's then-sole commissioner, he and his wife each worked two jobs (his as a night watchman) to keep paying the bills.

"Those were pretty lean years," said Cox, now Dawsonville mayor.

Those times might pale in comparison to today's economic freefall, considered by many the nation's worst since the Great Depression.

But the federal government's at least partial response to the crises - infusing money into public works projects - was welcomed by local governments then, just as officials now are lauding the payouts from President Barack Obama's just-passed economic stimulus package.

"They built a lot of libraries, jails, courthouses - that type of stuff," Cox recalled. "It put people back to work in pretty well-paying jobs, better than the ordinary."

The projects were widespread across North Georgia, including public buildings or structures in Dawson, Lumpkin and Hall counties.

Some work wasn't immediate, such as the Dahlonega connector, which was built in the early 1990s from plans that formed in the 1980s, but the motive and end result was the same: stir up jobs and rev up the local economic engine.

"When we built (the connector), there wasn't anything on it. See all the buildings on it now," former Lumpkin County Commissioner J.B. Jones said of the road.

He was particularly proud that "we didn't move a house" as part of the project. Jones served as Lumpkin's sole commissioner from 1973 to 1997.

Carlyle Cox, retired Gainesville city manager, worked in economic development for Gainesville-Hall County at the time, during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He recalled the East Hall High School football stadium as a project receiving federal funding.

The stadium was dedicated in 1978, said Gordon Higgins, spokesman for the Hall County school system.

The government initiative during those years was a "public works jobs bill, but it was very close to a stimulus package," Cox said.

"There were double-digit unemployment figures in several of the counties around here," Cox said.

One of the major projects of the time was the Joint Administration Building, which houses Gainesville and Hall County offices.

"We joined grants together and that's how we built it," Cox said.
The building opened in 1979.

"We had to start construction in 90 days," Cox recalled of the project. "While the plans were being finalized, we were moving the dirt out there preparing for the foundation."

Larry Glasco served as executive director of the Georgia Mountains Area Planning and Development Commission in Gainesville during those days. The group later became the Georgia Mountains Regional Development Center.

The Georgia Mountains Center in Gainesville was funded in part by the Economic Development Administration, which is under the U.S. Department of Commerce, he said.

The commerce department was created in 1965 "for the purpose of stimulating the economy of areas that had lagged behind the rest of the country for some reason," Glasco said.

"We had to justify (the center's construction in 1980) based on economic impact," he said. "Job creation was the thing we used to justify the funding."

Glasco recalled the federal department's Public Works Impact Program during that time.

"You had to have your project fast-tracked and ready to go," he said. "The whole idea is the project itself, when you got it done, would facilitate some economic development. But it would create ‘x' number of jobs just by building it.

"It was the trickle-down philosophy and I think it worked."

Obama's $787 billion package is supposed to work in much the same way, pumping dollars into "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects, but it also is supposed to help prop up financially strapped state governments, beef up jobless benefits and provide tax relief for workers, plus much more.

Glasco said Dawson and Lumpkin counties benefited largely from public projects, from renovation work to new construction.

"I don't mean to cast any stones at anyone, but when you had sole commissioners, they could move so fast (on projects)," Glasco said. "People like J.B. would call me and say, ‘Glasco, let's do this.' ... That was a very rewarding time.

"I wish I had a list of projects, because we cranked them out night and day, and they worked. And we had to specify a certain number of jobs that a project would create. We pretty much had to do it in blood."

Jones, who said he worked closely with then-Dahlonega Mayor Haines Hill, said that Lumpkin voters had their say on major projects.

He recalled President George Bush the elder opening up money for airports as a way to stimulate the economy, which had begun to lag when he took office.

"We had a study and one ready to go," Jones said. "... But the (residents) didn't want an airport."

Federal money would have paid 90 percent of the costs, and the state would have kicked in another sum.

"All we would have had to do was furnish the land, which we already had," Jones said.

Ed Jenkins, who preceded U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, in Congress as a Democrat, served through economic peaks and valleys during his 16 years in Washington.

Government leaders like Jones and Cox "were very good at getting their share" of public works money, said Jenkins, a Young Harris native. "They worked hard. They did a good job."

He recalled President Jimmy Carter's "enhanced public works bill" and Reagan's tax reduction plan in the early 1980s.

"None of those compared in size to this stimulus bill," Jenkins said. "Of course, it was a different economic time, also. We didn't have the problems that we have today."

He believes the newest rescue plan "will definitely help the economy."

U.S. House members he has known through the years "were deeply fearful" of a long, deep recession, Jenkins said.

"Probably, if I was of that accord, and I don't know all the facts, I would have probably been supportive, even though I was a very much balanced-the-budget type (lawmaker)," he added.

"But I know there are times you have to stimulate either through public works projects or certain types of tax reductions or both, which they did in this bill."

Jones said the country needs some kind of boost from its government.

"I'm not a socialist, but the country is in bad shape," he said. "... There's something wrong when the most powerful nation on earth is at a standstill, and we are."

Public projects worked well in his era, Jones said.

"We were very grateful for them, and they brought people together."




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