Remember the story of “The Little Engine That Could?” That could well describe the city of Dalton, a town of some 34,000 nestled in the corner of Northwest Georgia not far from the Tennessee line.
In the oft-told tale, a long train must be pulled over a high mountain. Larger engines refuse to do it. The little engine takes on the task and tugs at the load, saying, “I think I can. I think I can.” When it finally gets the load over the mountain it exults and says, “I knew I could.”
For Dalton, the long train is the area’s quality of life. The mountain is the economic downturn which severely impacted the area and particularly, the carpet industry. The Little Engine That Could is an amalgamation of business, political and educational leaders who refuse to quit.
I first became aware of what was happening in Dalton in 2009 after President Barack Obama made a highly publicized trip to Elkhart, Ind., to plug his stimulus package. Elkhart had the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 15.3 percent. The Dalton area was second highest at 11.2 percent. However, in Dalton’s case no one but the locals seemed to notice.
The Dalton Daily Citizen editorialized that “It has been months, in some cases, years since the governor, our U.S. senators, congressman, lieutenant governor and speaker of the statehouse have graced us with their presence” and surmised, “They seem to take the area for granted during the good times and ignore it in bad.”
Of course, the politicians, including the local congressman at the time, Nathan Deal, denied they were ignoring the area, but the editorial got their attention, plus a myriad of excuses and some high-sounding promises. In truth, the paper’s observations were spot-on.
The area has been a Republican stronghold for decades, back before being a Republican in Georgia was cool. Therefore, Democrats ignore the area and the Republican establishment has taken them for granted.
I was invited to Dalton recently to see what has occurred there since the paper’s tongue-lashing. Though the unemployment rate has dropped, it still hovers around 8 percent. But there is a renewed energy about the place.
For that, give much credit to Dalton State College and to some much-needed and long-missing political clout in the General Assembly in the person of Republican state Sen. Charles Bethel, who has managed to get the attention of his colleagues under the Gold Dome.
Dr. John Schwenn, Dalton State’s president, says the four-year college, which offers 18 bachelor degrees and 22 associate degrees, has one of the lowest in-state tuition rates in the nation at roughly $4,000 a year. It belies the myth that higher education is out-of-reach financially. “It is one of the best educations you can get at one of the lowest tuition costs in the nation,” he says proudly.
Low cost doesn’t mean poor quality. The Carnegie Foundation named Dalton State Professor of Psychology Dr. Christy Price one of four “U.S. Professors of the Year” last year. Dr. Price was selected from among 300 nominees nationwide.
The school serves not only students from around Northwest Georgia but from 38 countries as well. Twenty-one percent of the student body is Hispanic. Dr. Schwenn says a major initiative is to keep graduates in the community once they have received their degrees.
Perhaps nothing has galvanized the region better than the hiring of Derek Waugh as athletic director at Dalton State to oversee the school’s intercollegiate athletic program. Waugh, at one time the youngest head basketball coach in the nation at Stetson University, has brought a palpable enthusiasm to Dalton.
Sen. Bethel said, “We get parochial about our high school teams around here but one thing we all agree on is rooting for Dalton State.”
The athletic program is funded by private scholarships with no money coming from the university.
“We are the model for how collegiate athletic programs will operate in the future,” Waugh said. They are also recruiting some outstanding scholar-athletes to the place.
The Dalton area is not out of the woods yet but it is getting there. Last year, local manufacturer Engineered Floors announced plans to build two plants in Whitfield and Murray counties for $450 million, creating as many as 2,400 jobs over the next five years.
That is good news for the area and one more boost in Dalton’s efforts to get over the steep economic mountain it has faced. The town thinks it can. I have no doubt it will.