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Dahlonega mans ideas spurred holiday decorations
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Dahlonega's town square does not take Christmas lightly.

The charming mountain town holds a contest each year to encourage downtown merchants to festively decorate their storefronts for the season.

"We've been doing the decorating contest for 10 years now and it gets better every year," said Bill Hardman, the longtime Dahlonega resident who started the contest. "It's really beautiful."

Each of the more than 70 storefronts is unique, but the downtown square's decorations are unified by an old-fashioned Christmas theme - lots of greenery, red ribbons and white lights.

"The merchants doing this are fantastic," Hardman said. "They spend a lot of time and money."

Merchants have plenty of incentive besides Christmas cheer to compete. The top prizes are always big - last year's winner won a three-night stay in Charleston, S.C.

"I don't know of another city that has such nice prizes," said Bill Hardman's wife, Helen Hardman.

Friend and neighbor Tony Claxton said Hardman is a visionary who saw a lot of potential in his beloved town.

Hardman started the decorating contest a decade ago in memory of his first wife.

"He's a big thinker," Claxton said. "He's the kind of guy that wakes up at 5 or 6 in the morning and keeps a legal pad by his bed to write down ideas."

Hardman was the state's first tourism director who brought in Georgia's first eight welcome centers and sent the state's first float to the Rose Bowl parade, Claxton said.

"He's always got something going on," he said. "He knows what it takes to make anything successful."

Gayle Jones, owner of Jones & Co. on the Dahlonega square, is a three-time winner of the decorating contest.

"A lot of us do different things every year," she said. "Bill and Helen are up here always encouraging the merchants."

This year, Jones accented her decorations with cloved fruits and plaid ribbons. Next door, little red cardinals in nests adorn the garlands.

"It's a total community thing," Jones said. "It's all done lovingly by hand."