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Our Views: Marching forward toward progress
Sections show how communities are looking ahead, not back, in a tough economy
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The special Progress sections will be available only in Sunday's print edition of The Times. The Times is available at news racks and retail outlets across Northeast Georgia. To have The Times delivered to your home, click here or call 770-532-2222.

It's hard to grow a garden in a drought. When it receives no nourishment, it withers and dies.

That's what our economy has been going through for the last several months. Businesses, governments and individuals have been so focused on day-to-day survival it's been difficult to plan for long-term success. The clouds have brought only storms, not the steady refreshment needed to thrive.

But if you don't care for your garden now with the future in mind, there will be no long-term goals to achieve. Today and tomorrow are equally important.

That's why our local private and public leadership is continuing to focus on the months and years to come. While it's necessary to adjust budgets and priorities in the face of an ongoing worldwide recession, the leaders who plan for better times will be in position to succeed when the recovery comes.

There is plenty of that kind of thinking going on in Gainesville, Hall County and nearby communities, which we celebrate in today's editions with our annual Progress sections. We took a look at our area's growth in six subject areas: Education & Government, Health & Safety, Business & Industry, Sports & Leisure, Arts & Community and Poultry.

Some might think that charting our area's progress in a time of economic crisis would be a daunting challenge, and in some cases, it was. But as you'll find in Progress, there still are plenty of examples where businesses and public agencies are looking ahead, not back, in planning for the growth that will surely come in an economic future that most believe will be bright.

Even in a time of slower expansion, our area continues to grow. U.S. Census Bureau numbers released earlier this month showed that the Gainesville metro area, which basically consists of Hall County, is among the fastest-growing in the nation, tied for third overall among U.S. cities.

Hall County had 139,315 residents after the 2000 census; it now has 184,814, according to census estimates, a gain of 32.7 percent. By the time the 2010 census is done, we may be on the threshold of 200,000, a number some think we may already have reached.

That level of growth is similar to what we see to the west in Forsyth County and to the east in Jackson, two more expanding regions trying to manage an influx of residents over the last decade.

Our region is no longer a sleepy Southern outpost, and hasn't been for awhile. That's troubling news to some who prefer the less-hectic life of a vibrant, forward-moving area. But it's inevitable, so it's important that we do it right, with wise decisions to balance residential with commercial, economic success with a high quality of life.

Fortunately, our county and city governments often get it right, and when they don't, residents aren't shy about letting them know about it. That give and take is essential to making the right decisions for our future.

And the good news outweighs the bad, even in tough times, which you'll see in Progress '09.

In Education & Government, you'll read how plans for smart growth expansion are moving ahead despite the economic downturn, with the recent approval of the Special Option Local Sales Tax a key element in funding those needs. Local public schools, colleges and universities are still looking ahead with new buildings and expansion of old ones in anticipation of the challenges to come.

In Health & Safety, you'll see how the Northeast Georgia Medical Center is taking the next step toward patient treatment in several areas with a new hospital wing and plans for a new campus in South Hall. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are modernizing their efforts to keep residents secure.

In Business & Industry, you'll get a look at how a longtime Gainesville family, the Mathis clan, is continuing its tradition of community service. And while local industries face difficult choices on many fronts, the light is beginning to show at the end of the tunnel and optimism abounds in many sectors.

In Sports & Leisure, you'll see how Northeast Georgians' play has evolved, including a new minor-league baseball team just down the road that will bring visitors and exposure to the area, plus many of the traditional activities that many enjoy, from bowling to auto racing to tennis.

In Arts & Community, you'll see several communities through the eyes of a key local hub: the neighborhood post office.

And in Poultry, you'll learn how Hall County's signature industry already is adjusting to a challenging year and ready to rebound with new products and strategies to lure consumers.

The overall picture is clear: Times are tough, but Georgians are tougher, with the flexibility, can-do-spirit and vision to ride the recession wave to a brighter future. When good times return, the cities and counties of Northeast Georgia will be ready to succeed and help lead our state into the next wave of prosperity in the 21st century.

Our garden is weathering the drought, and with the right nurturing now, it will bear some sweet fruit in the years to come.