0711WHITEaudJudy Walker, president of the White County Chamber of Commerce, speaks optimistically about the planned but yet-funded Cleveland Bypass’ effect on the downtown area.
Larry Allen believes the economy, followed by the opening of the new Walmart off U.S. 129, have siphoned sales from the downtown square in Cleveland.
His next worry is the Cleveland Bypass, a planned 4.6-mile, four-lane road connecting U.S. 129 at Walmart to Ga. 75 north of downtown.
Downtown needs a jump-start, and “if something is not done before (the new road) gets here, we might as well forget (downtown),” said Allen, who runs Jill’s Gifts and Collectibles with his wife, Jill.
Regardless of how residents feel about the project, they may have plenty of time to prepare for the road’s effect.
The Georgia Department of Transportation is more than halfway done with buying up the needed 168 parcels for the $50.5 million road, with right-of-way costs estimated at an additional $29 million.
But the bypass “is a prime example of a project that is desperately needed and wanted by the community, but we just don’t have the funds to complete it,” said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the Gainesville-based District 1, which includes White County.
Backups and congestion on U.S. 129 heading into town is a way of life for residents and folks passing through town.
That’s particularly the case at rush hour but also on weekends and during other busy tourist times, such as fall leaf watching.
The project took root in 1998, with the DOT examining routes “all around Cleveland, at least 12 over the years,” Pope said.
“Each route had something of environmental significance — things like family cemeteries, historic homesteads, archeological findings, habitats of threatened and endangered plants and/or animals.”
In fiscal 2004, the state found a buildable route around the western side of town, beginning on the south end near where Walmart is located and traveling west around to Ga. 115.
The planned route has the bypass continuing north in an arc back over to U.S. 29/Ga. 11 north of Cleveland and then along Hulsey Road to end at Ga. 75.
“The Hulsey Road relocation part will be a five-lane section, (with) two lanes in each direction (and) a center turn lane,” Pope said.
Of the 168 parcels needed for the project, 108, or 68 percent, have been acquired.
Factor in other costs, such as preliminary engineering, and the project could run about $81.3 million.
The project has gotten a federal earmark of $1.8 million, with the state kicking in a $449,950 match.
“We expect to have some right of way funds left over,” Pope added. “Since the downturn in the economy, property is costing less than projected. Our plan is to use the earmark funds and all of the right of way funds that are left over ... and roll (that) over for construction.
“It won’t give us enough money to fund construction, but it is a start.”
Pope said the Cleveland Bypass could serve as the “poster child” for passage of the newly approved 1-cent transportation tax that districts around the state can put before voters for their approval.
The project has widespread support from officials, including White County Manager Carol Jackson.
“Not to sound trite, but we would like the funding from whatever source they choose to bring it from,” she said. “We just want the bypass.”
Mayor Donald Stanley said he doesn’t know whether there is widespread opposition to the project.
“If there is, we haven’t heard it, as council members,” he said.
“I think that most of (downtown business owners) feel like the way the traffic congestion has been ... that some relief might even help the businesses,” Stanley said.
Judy Walker, president of the White County Chamber of Commerce, said she has heard the concerns that the bypass would empty downtown of traffic.
But she believes the bypass will be able to ease congestion while keeping downtown “a destination with businesses that will attract (visitors).”
“I look to Dahlonega and I think that other leaders in the community have, and they have a bypass and look at their downtown area — it’s thriving and it’s still a destination,” Walker said.
“I think if you work on those things and bring businesses to your downtown area that will attract people, then there should be no reason to worry about what will happen to your downtown area.”