2018 Year in review
Highlights of the year 2018 in White County were largely shaped by elections, forces of nature and new life given to some local landmarks. Here’s a rundown of top stories from the past year.
• Elections draw huge turnout
At every phase of the 2018 mid-term elections – primary, general, and even runoff – voter participation was far higher than what would normally be expected in a non-presidential election year. Moreover, in some cases nearly half the ballots were cast in advance, rather than on Election Day. In addition, more statewide candidates chose to campaign in White County – including several appearances by Brian Kemp, who was ultimately elected governor of Georgia.
• Yonah Preserve park opens
When Yonah Preserve finally opened to the public in June, cyclists from throughout the Southeast flocked to the 1,000-acre park to check out the bike trails. White County officials are now making plans for boating/fishing access on the lake, and construction on the recreational ballfield complex is wrapping up. Also, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which originally owned the land, has turned over the deed, giving the county near-total control of the park’s management.
• Forces of nature
In late May, tropical storms dumped massive amounts of rainfall on the northern half of the county, generating “50-year floods” in Helen and Sautee. White County’s state parks, as well as the Chattahoochee National Forest, suffered extensive damage, and the Helen-to-Hardman Trail, which had just opened to the public, was virtually destroyed. On top of everything else, on Dec. 12, White County felt the effects of a 4.4-magnitude earthquake – but fortunately it caused no damage.
• Oak Springs School gets new lease on life
In July, the Cleveland City Council voted to renovate the historic Oak Springs School on Campbell Street, which had been built for black students when segregation prevented them from attending white schools. The city has hired an architect to convert the building into a police precinct. Later, when the police headquarters moves to the Talon property, the plan is to convert the school into a civic complex and museum.
• School system undergoes big changes
Last spring, White County Schools superintendent Jeff Wilson left to take a similar job in Floyd County; he was replaced by Laurie Burkett. White County High School principal John Osborne retired and was replaced by Mary Ann Collier. Also, the Ninth Grade Academy was moved into a brand-new building near the high school.
• Historical preservation becomes a priority
After sitting vacant for years next to the Cleveland downtown square, the Kenimer-Telford house (c. 1870) found a buyer in August. New owners Russ and Polly Gregson said they hope to renovate the 4,240-square-foot building and possibly turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. Meanwhile, in the Sautee area, history buffs are trying to raise money to restore the Stovall covered bridge. Also, along the Chattahoochee River, the city of Helen dedicated a park in honor of local war veterans, and the Georgia DNR built a lavish interpretive trail running from Helen to the historic Hardman Farm. (It was damaged by a storm, but has since reopened.)
• Big steps for TMU
Truett McConnell University announced the single-largest private donation in its history, just over $3.7 million, in January. The gift, from the estate of Mildred Ruth Brown, was used toward the university’s purchase of the former Cleveland Worship Center property nearby that would go on to house The Peter and Gredel Walpot School of Education. Funds were also used to acquire condominiums for additional student housing and parking. More than $2 million is to be designated for constructing the first new independent academic building on campus since 1958.
• SPLOST shares change, and voters ultimately renew
County and city governments negotiated a proposal for the next round of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax when the current round expires in 2020. The cities of Cleveland and Helen sought to increase their share from 13 percent each to 20 percent each, after lowering their shares in previous SPLOSTs. County commissioners ultimately voted 3-2 to approve a distribution that gave the county 60 percent and each city 20 percent of roughly $28 million in projected revenue that will be used on capital projects such as public safety vehicles and equipment, public buildings, parks and recreation improvements, water and sewer infrastructure and more. In November, voters approved the SPLOST referendum by a nearly 2-to-1 margin (64.6 percent in favor) to continue the 1-cent sales tax.
• Cleveland, county share cost of NOK water upgrade
After bickering over who should pay, in March the White County commission and City of Cleveland agreed to split the cost of upgrading water lines along Hulsey Road. This would chiefly benefit the Freudenberg-NOK manufacturing plant, but also accommodate future growth along phase 3 of the Cleveland bypass.