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Funding for Cleveland Bypass thrills residents
Money for project approved earlier this month
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A day after the announcement was made by the Georgia Department of Transportation, some 60 to 70 people gathered in Cleveland for a public discussion - and celebration - concerning the Cleveland Bypass project.

"The last two or three years, being either a (Lumpkin County) commissioner or a member of the DOT board, you don't get a chance to deliver good news," said Steve Gooch of Dahlonega. "But this was one meeting where it was clear that people in the audience were tickled pink. It was a meeting that some people in White County probably never thought would happen."

Many residents have lauded the state's move to finally throw construction dollars at the long-awaited loop around heavily congested U.S. 129, which feeds into Cleveland's downtown square.

Traffic backs up during rush hour and festive times, particularly leaf-watching season.

"This project will not only impact White, but Hall, Lumpkin, Union and Habersham (counties)," said Gooch, who is stepping down from the board in January as he joins the state Senate.

"... There is a lot of tourist traffic, especially on weekends, that uses the road," he said. "This will be a huge relief for everybody."

The State Transportation Board voted Dec. 9 to spend nearly $17.8 million toward construction of a 1.76-mile segment of the bypass.

The four-lane segment, phase one of the project, would run from U.S. 129 at Hope Drive, or across from Walmart, around the west side of Cleveland to Ga. 115.

The DOT doesn't have all the needed money in hand, however.

Phase one is expected to cost $22.3 million, said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the DOT's Gainesville-based District 1, which includes Hall and White counties.

"But we aren't ready to begin construction yet," she said in an earlier interview. "We hope to be able to find the balance of funds before right of way is finished, so it won't delay the construction."

Gooch said the project's first phase should be under construction within a year.

"That's our goal," he said.

The planned route has the bypass continuing north in an arc back over to U.S. 129/Ga. 11 north of Cleveland and then along Hulsey Road to end at Ga. 75.

Area officials, who have long supported the new road, attended the December meeting with Gooch.

"Not to sound trite, but we would like the funding from whatever source they choose to bring it from," said White County Manager Carol Jackson in a July interview. "We just want the bypass."

Judy Walker, president of the White County Chamber of Commerce, has said she has heard concerns that the bypass would empty downtown of traffic.

But she said she believes the bypass will be able to ease congestion while keeping downtown "a destination with businesses that will attract (visitors)."

Gooch said that, as a Lumpkin County native, "we had concerns when our ... bypass (in Dahlonega) was developed and people thought it would hurt downtown. In fact, it helped businesses on the square. We've had a huge development opportunity on our bypass.

"It's just amazing how much more businesses have flourished because of it."

Lula City Manager Dennis Bergin, a former White County commissioner, said he "couldn't be more thrilled" about the project.

"It'll offer tremendous opportunity," he said.

"It'll be a challenge on how the square survives, but I think it'll be a transition (for that area). The traffic is so bad (now) that people are reluctant to stop."

At least one area resident is still skeptical about the project moving forward.

"I'll believe it when I see it," said Paul Brown, who lives near Mount Yonah. "Mama always said, ‘Don't believe nothing you hear and half you see.' "

He went on to say he has heard "of approvals" for 30 years.

"Maybe with a local governor, it might happen, but I'm going with Mama's advice until I smell the diesel fuel of the road graders."