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Shoppers turn out for sales-tax savings

9 minute read

MA_01A

Midstate shoppers turn out for sales-tax savings

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Friday, Jul. 31, 2009

 

Ready, set, shop. It’s a sales-tax holiday.

The four-day sales-tax holiday kicked off Thursday, and many area stores saw crammed parking lots and congested shopping aisles as a result.

So far, in 2009, retail sales nationwide have dropped about 5 percent, said John Heavener, president of the Georgia Retail Association. But in Georgia, numbers could be better than in other states because of this weekend’s sales tax holiday, which promises to lure in cash-strapped consumers who might not otherwise make purchases.

“We believe that with the combination of strong discounts and the sales-tax holiday, Georgia can stay above the national retail average,” Heavener said.

It’s still early in the weekend, but area stores are bracing for the best, too.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and those in the Macon Mall said they expect to see full parking lots Saturday and Sunday.

Already, before the end of the workweek, some stores have noticed a frenzy of consumers reaping the discounts of the holiday.

At the Best Buy store on Presidential Parkway in Macon, hordes of shoppers came out Thursday to save money on high-ticket computers and accessories.

“We’ve seen a lot more customers than usual,” said store manager Eli Douglass. “We haven’t seen this amount of people in a while.”

One of those customers, Patricia Adams, bought a new laptop which she plans to use to communicate with her son, who is a Marine deployed in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been needing a computer so I can e-mail him, but I’ve been holding out to buy it until this weekend,” she said. “Now I’ll feel a little closer to him while he’s overseas.”

At Staples, back-to-school shoppers such as Adrienne Bershinski, took advantage of the sales-tax break to stock up on supplies.

“I’m on a tight budget lately, so I figured I’d get my school shopping out of the way when I can avoid the extra tax,” said Bershinski, who starts class at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law next month.

Clothing qualifies for the sales-tax holiday, too, and many area department stores have made the necessary preparations for the weekend.

At the Kohl’s on Watson Boulevard in Warner Robins, 20 extra employees will be on hand to handle the spike in traffic, manager Derek Meredith said.

“We’re expecting a lot more shoppers, especially in the clothing and shoes departments,” Meredith said.

At the Target in Macon on Thursday, Peche Ellis, of Griffin, was one of the first of those shoppers. She filled her cart with new blouses and dresses for fall.

“I only meant to buy one dress coming in here. But after seeing what better deals I can get, I’m buying a lot more than I expected,” she said.

The tax-free weekend will last through Sunday. Only school supplies, clothing and certain electronics qualify.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

College officials: Enrollment up at midstate colleges

9 minute read

Click here to view article online at Macon.com

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Monday, Aug. 17, 2009

Enrollment at midstate colleges is higher than ever this fall as the sluggish economy compels students to work toward the safeguard of a college diploma, officials say.Picture 4

At Georgia College & State University, 6,665 students are set to start classes today. That’s a 15 percent increase from last year’s enrollment.

“Young people these days are starting to figure out that, in this economy, they’re going to need a college degree if they want to keep up,” Georgia College and State University spokeswoman Judy Bailey said. “And our dorms are filled to capacity."

To handle the spike in students, 13 additional professors have been hired and two buildings have been constructed, including a health sciences facility, which will house nine new classrooms.

Fort Valley’s State University’s enrollment is skyrocketing, too.

Between 3,800 and 4,200 students are expected to begin class at FVSU today, a massive jump from last year’s record enrollment of 3,106 students.

Terrance Smith, the university’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, said FVSU is ready to accommodate the influx with recent improvements to the campus.

Wildcat Commons, one of FVSU’s new residence halls, will house 378 additional students, and University Villas, a nearby apartment complex, will house 138 students. A 10,000-seat stadium is expected to be completed within the next week.

“We’re poised for another successful year,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, officials expect more than 6,500 students will begin classes today. That’s a 2 percent increase from last year.

“It’s still early, but our numbers are definitely up,” said John Cole, the college’s vice president of advancement.

Of those 6,500 Macon State students, 2,000 of them will be attending classes at the college’s Warner Robins campus, where a new $5 million lecture hall will open.

At Gordon College in Barnesville, enrollment is expected to climb from 3,800 to more than 4,000 students .

“We are expecting a record-setting number of students,” said Ben Ferguson, director of admissions.

Gordon College has entered into an agreement with the city of Barnesville to use the football field parking area adjacent to campus to accommodate the increase in students.

Enrollment numbers for private schools such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College won’t be finalized for a number of weeks, but all signs point to similarly healthy gains in those institutions as well.

At Mercer, more than 600 new freshmen will move in on campus Saturday, making it the largest incoming class in a number of years.

“It’s looking like record enrollment for us, too,” university spokesman Larry Brumley said.

Brumley said he’s expecting about 8,000 students to be enrolled by the time classes start Aug. 25.

That’s a 19 percent increase from last year.

And at Wesleyan College, spokeswoman Susan Welsh said she’s expecting 20 percent more students to be enrolled this fall than last year.

“It’s going really well for us,” she said.

Cochran home infested with estimated 1,000 bats

16 minute read

 

Update: Follow-up story ran on Jul. 30.

Cochran home infested with bats

Owner can't afford $10,000 extermination price tag

By Carl Lewis

Saturday Jul. 18, 2009

COCHRAN — It smells foul on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Really, really foul.

Walking down the street toward Victoria Jackson’s home, the musky stench gets even worse. Stepping inside, it grows almost unbearable.

“It’s a very, very bad odor,” the homeowner said.

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It’s the scent of the droppings from what exterminators estimate are more than 1,000 bats that have made Jackson’s home their roosting spot.

Jackson, 70, has been living with bats since she moved into the house in 1983, but the problem’s gotten worse in the last six months.

She’s tried getting rid of the flying mammals, but the exterminator she consulted told her it would cost about $10,000 to complete the job.

“There’s no way I can afford to do it,” said Jackson, whose efforts to get government grants to help eliminate the bats have been rejected.

The bats are entering the house through gaps between the walls and roof, Jackson said. Usually, the nocturnal creatures stay in the attic, but more and more, particularly at nighttime, Jackson has noticed them squeezing their way into her kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom.

“I’ll see one flying around at least once a day,” she said.

One of the bats bit Jackson’s daughter, Ann Cumby, while she was staying at the house one night two years ago. Cumby was able to kill the bat with an iron, put it in a plastic bag and take it to the doctor’s office, where it tested negative for rabies.

But that doesn’t mean Jackson and her daughter are safe from the disease.

“Just because one bat tests negative for rabies doesn’t mean the others don’t have it,” Jacob Polsky, an environmentalist at the Bleckley County Health Department in Cochran, said. “It’s a huge risk to be living in a house like that.”

Polsky recommended that Jackson and her daughter receive rabies treatment if they continue staying at the home.

Jackson hasn’t been bitten by a bat yet — at least as far as she knows.

“It’s possible that she has been bitten in the middle of the night and never even knew it happened,” Polsky said.

Rabies isn’t the only health issue Jackson and her daughter have to worry about. Wade Green, an extension agent in nearby Twiggs County, said the mother and daughter are at risk for developing histoplasmosis, a serious respiratory disease caused by a fungus that grows on bat droppings.

“When people breathe in the air from bat droppings that have developed the fungus, they can get fever, chest pains or even develop a chronic lung disease,” Green said. “In the elderly, it could even become fatal.”

Jackson’s neighbors who breathe in the air are at risk, too, Green said.

Tyrone Elvine, who lives down the street from Jackson with his wife and kids, said he can smell the bats from sitting inside his house watching TV.

And Rose Coley, the 84-year-old who lives next door, said she’s scared the bats will make their way into her house next.

“I can smell them really strong, especially when a breeze blows through,” she said. “But what really scares me is the thought that one will come here and bite me.”

The bats can be heard chirping above the walls of the house almost constantly. Next-door neighbor Coley said the chirping noises the bats can grow so loud at times that it interferes with her sleeping.

The creatures can be seen flitting around inside through cracks in the roof, and bat droppings and carcasses blanket the edges of the house's foundation.

Earlier this week, Jackson’s daughter had a friend try to plug up the holes on the outside of the house where the bats have been entering, but so far, she’s been unsuccessful in her efforts to eradicate the creatures.

“It’s going to take a professional,” Cumby said. “And that’s something I just don’t think we can pay for right now.”

Truetech Pest and Animal Control is one local company that specializes in bat removal.

Michael Pope, who manages the company, said bat removals can cost anywhere from $200 to thousands of dollars, depending on the nature of the structure and the type of bats roosting there. Rather than traditional pest removals, bats have to be siphoned out of homes through special tubes and equipment.

“We’d be glad to come out Monday and give her a free inspection and see what we can do to help her from there,” Pope said.

In the meantime, Jackson said she and her daughter are still trying to save up enough money to get the bats removed.

“It’s definitely a problem,” she said. ”Hopefully, we’ll be able to do something about it soon.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Tuition ammunition

16 minute read

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Tuition Ammunition

New G.I. bill offers midstate veterans a full ride to Mercer, Wesleyan

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2009

From a young age, Elyse Jones wanted to be a dermatologist.

But when she was called to active duty with the Air Force in 2002, Jones, who was 19 at the time, almost gave up her plans to go to college.

“I put everything on hold, and I wasn’t sure of what would happen or if I’d be able to go to school in the future at all,” she said.

Now, the 26-year-old may finally be getting the chance. Beginning next month, her classes at Wesleyan College should be covered under new benefits she earned from her military duty.

Jones is one of the many midstate service members who plans to reap the benefits of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill that takes effect in August.

Under the bill, a limited number of qualified Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans will be able to attend private colleges such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College for free or minimal tuition. And they will get expanded benefits at public institutions, too.

Dan Hines, a third-year Mercer law student, hopes to be one of the five students who will receive an additional $4,000 in financial assistance in the fall, half of which will come from federal coffers.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of this program,” said Hines, who served 13 months in Iraq and is president of the Mercer Law Military Veterans Association.

In the past, the federal government has helped pay for veterans’ tuition and fees at private colleges, but only up to an amount that matched the tuition at the most expensive public college in the state.

Yet at pricier private institutions such as Wesleyan and Mercer University, tuition exceeds that cap, which in the past has often forced service members either to make up the difference themselves or choose a public school instead.

However, under the Yellow Ribbon campaign — a component of the new bill — the government and participating private colleges will jointly cover the remaining difference to pay the entire tuition cost. At Mercer and Wesleyan in Macon, that means qualified veterans will receive a full scholarship.

According to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mercer will contribute $11,625 per student, per year for 17 undergraduate students, while Wesleyan will contribute $8,750 for 10 students. Veterans Affairs will then match those amounts.

Mercer also has committed to covering the difference for at least 28 veterans to attend its graduate schools and regional academic centers and will contribute $2,000 in assistance to five veterans attending its law school.

A number of other veterans already have expressed interest in taking advantage of the program to attend Mercer, said Rick Goddard, who’s heading up the program at the school.

“These are veterans who may not necessarily have been able to afford Mercer without this assistance,” Goddard said. “And Mercer’s glad to have them. They bring a world of experience to the university, and the university feels an obligation to serve them.”

At least six veterans plan to attend Wesleyan in the fall using Yellow Ribbon money, Susan Welsh, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

At public colleges, veterans can expect to see enhanced benefits, too, though not as dramatic of improvements as their peers in private institutions are seeing.

In keeping with past GI bills, all qualified service members at state schools would still receive free tuition, but they now can transfer their benefits to family members more easily and may, in some cases, receive higher living stipends, said Tammie Burke, who handles VA programs at Georgia College & State University.

But while the bill does provide some new advantages to students at state colleges, it’s not expected to be a major change.

“At GCSU, it’s going to improve the way in which student veterans receive benefits, but it’s not really going to affect the amount of benefits they receive,” Burke said.

Officials at Macon State College and Fort Valley State University echoed Burke’s sentiments, saying that while the bill is a great improvement, it should not cause any major influx in veteran enrollment.

The new bill does have stipulations. To qualify for full assistance, veterans must have served at least 36 months for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Waugh said. Other service — such as Homeland Security missions or participation in the Active Guard and Reserve Program — may not qualify for benefits under the bill.

As for Jones, she’s getting the chance to attend a school she might not have been able to afford otherwise.

“I love the small, private setting of Wesleyan,” she said. “It gives me opportunities I might not have gotten at a big state school.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Eyes on the ‘flies

12 minute read

Eyes on the Flies:

Annual Macon butterfly count keeps tabs on ecosystem

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Tuesday Jul. 7, 2009

The van rumbled along the damp clay road as Andy Rindsberg narrowed his eyes upon the thicket of verbena and kudzu scattered underneath the Georgia Power lines.

The vehicle screeched to a halt. Rindsberg grasped his camera, binoculars and field guide and leapt out of the car.

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“Look at that!” he exclaimed, gesturing at what appeared to be a clump of average roadside weeds.

Nearly invisible to the naked eye sat a tiny, drab, mostly brown butterfly atop the leaf of a buttonbush.

“It’s so ornate,” Rinsberg said as he squinted into his binoculars. “It’s a Creole Pearly Eye. I’ve never seen one of those before.”

Rindsberg was one of eight volunteers who joined wildlife officials Monday for Macon’s annual butterfly count. Participants split into groups and counted as many different butterfly species as they could in one day to keep track of population trends.

The count surveyed a 7.5 mile radius, including parts of Bond Swamp, the Ocmulgee National Monument and Central City Park.

Early in the day, volunteers had a difficult time finding butterflies because of the drizzly wet weather.

“The butterflies don’t like to move around much when it’s rainy like this,” said Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

At 11:30 in the morning, after walking down the banks of the Ocmulgee River for about two hours, a group of butterfly counters at Bonds View Road had only found 10 species.

“It’s really kind of dead right now,” Keyes said.

Just as volunteers prepared to retire for lunch, however, the sun emerged from behind the storm clouds and butterflies began to whiz around.

Keyes and his crew put off lunch until 1:30 p.m. because they kept finding more butterflies.

They found yellow Fiery Skippers flitting near the sycamore trees on the river’s banks, Red Admirals darting across the pathway and stately Hackberry Emperors sipping on the puddles in the road.

“The male butterflies like to have puddle parties right after a big rain. They’ll come out and drink up the water and take it back to the females,” said Rindsberg, who is a professor at the University of West Alabama.

By early afternoon, the group had counted 28 different species, but Keyes said he expected at least 40 species to be identified by the end of the day.

Identifying butterflies can be a cumbersome task, Keyes said. Usually, the two winged-insects zip by so quickly that a bystander isn’t able to get a good look at them.

To make the process easier, volunteers brought cameras to snap pictures of the butterflies before they flew into the bushes.

“Some of them are just naturally shy but others are paparazzi hogs and love to be photographed,” Rindsberg joked. “But, always, the first thing I do is try to get a picture.”

Once Rinsberg captures a photo on his digital camera screen, he can almost always identify which one of Georgia’s more than 120 native butterfly species the specimen belongs to within a matter of seconds.

“It’s really not that hard to do. Anyone can do it if they spent a few days studying (butterflies),” he said.

Rinsberg said butterfly counts are important not only because they keep tabs on how butterflies are doing, but because they indicate the health of the ecosystem as a whole. “We absolutely must keep doing these counts, because they’re the first warning sign if something bad is about to happen,” he said.

To volunteer to be a butterfly counter in next year’s count, call the Department of Natural Resources office in Macon at 994-1438 or visit the Web site of the North American Butterfly Association at www.naba.org.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Home schooling

10 minute read

 

Home schooling

Georgia College Foundation hopes to save home of pioneering black educator

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009

MILLEDGEVILLE — Fifteen-year-old Deandre Hooks crouched on the porch of a crumbling, wood-planked house Wednesday morning to complete a writing assignment.

The house was nothing special and the heat was blistering, but it didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, he felt perfectly at home.

“I’m meant to be here right now,” Hooks said. “It’s part of who I am.”

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It’s the same porch that black students like Hooks sat on 100 years ago.

Back then, the four-bedroom house on Clarke Street belonged to Sallie Ellis Davis, one of the first black educators in Georgia. Davis often mentored students at the house, which she lived in until her death in 1950.

But for many years, the historic home has been left to decay.

Now, officials from Georgia College & State University and the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation are trying to raise money to renovate the house and open it as an African-American cultural center.

In 2008, the Georgia Trust added the Davis house to its “Places in Peril” list because of the structure’s deteriorating condition.

“This is an important piece of African-American history that we desperately need to preserve,” Judy Bailey, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

Bailey said it will cost an estimated $380,000 to renovate the home and $25,000 to stabilize it. So far, the foundation has raised about $15,000.

“We’re looking for all the help we can get. We’ve got a long way to go, but we have to make sure we’re able to save this place,” Bailey said.

Davis was born in Milledgeville in 1877 to a black mother and an Irish father, Bailey said.

She attended the Eddy School, where she later served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years.

Her house, which was built in 1890, changed hands numerous times before Georgia College purchased it in 1989.

Bailey said she hopes the Davis house will inspire people to follow after Sallie’s legacy and enter the field of education.

“Sallie Davis educated black students during a period of time when they didn’t have access to education. Hopefully, this house will motivate people to become educators themselves,” she said.

Camille Tyson is the principal of Early College, a school for students in seventh through 12th grades that holds classes at Georgia College. Tyson took her students to see the Davis home Wednesday.

“Either you can be a pioneer or a settler,” Tyson said. “Sallie Ellis Davis was a pioneer, and these students can be pioneers, too. That’s what I want them to realize.”

Hooks, who is a 10th-grader at Early College, said Davis’ story has inspired him to pursue a more ambitious future.

“I’m going to go to college and be a professional when I grow up. (Davis) spent her entire life trying to make sure our ancestors could do that, and I don’t want to let her down,” he said.

To make a donation to the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation, call Lee Snelling at (478) 445-8129.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Outside the big box

17 minute read

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Outside the big box

Macon Mall turns to arts, entertainment to fill empty space

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

Instead of showcasing his art in a downtown gallery like other artists, Michael Paul has chosen a different, less obvious place to share his work: the Macon Mall.

Paul is taking part in a new program called Artspace, which, along with a laser golf course, is one of the mall’s recent efforts to help reinvent itself.

The mall will offer 18 of its vacant stores in the east wing to artists, who can then transform the space into galleries, studios and offices. Three artists already have been recruited to display their work at the mall.

Mall manager Brian Olivi said he hopes the program will attract more people, increasing foot traffic and hopefully increasing sales for other mall retailers.

“We want to make the mall an art destination, to make it a fully functioning art colony for Middle Georgia with artists working on and showcasing their work around the clock,” Olivi said.

The idea for the program came from a sister mall in St. Louis, Olivi said. That mall was able to fill 45 empty stores with paintings, sculptures and dance studios.

“It’s a ‘win-win’ situation for everybody,” Olivi said. “It helps retailers, it helps artists and it even helps the community by providing a place to view local artwork,” Olivi said.

As part of the program, artists will receive discounted rent, flexible lease terms and 24/7 access to their spaces.

Paul said the mall is a perfect place for him because, unlike other galleries, it allows him to keep 100 percent of the profits from his paintings rather than being charged a portion of the sale.

“I’ve considered putting my art in some of the galleries downtown, but this makes a lot more financial sense,” Paul said.

Another benefit of locating at the mall, he said, is that it makes his artwork accessible to people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to see it.

“Hopefully, people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a downtown art gallery but who would go to Macy’s or Sears on Eisenhower Parkway will see my art and get inspired,” Paul said.

Artspace is not the mall’s only effort to increase its traffic. In April, the mall recruited Lunar Mini Golf, a laser putt-putt company out of Akron, Ohio, to open a location in the second level of the east wing, near the former Dillard’s. Olivi said the business has already brought a new demographic to the mall.

“We’ve seen so many parents bring their kids there that the (Lunar Mini Golf) course is now our No. 1 store in the whole mall,” he said.

Despite the traffic from the laser golf course and other retailers, Macon Mall may not have an easy time getting artists to invest in the program.

The 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center has at least 40 vacant storefronts and its sale is pending after going into foreclosure last July.

In 2007, Parisian, a 104,000-square-foot department store, closed its location in the mall. A year later, Dillard’s, another anchor store, relocated to the Shoppes at River Crossing, an outdoor shopping center in north Bibb County.

Macon Mall’s current management company, Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle Americas Inc., is “constantly out trying to attract new tenants,” Olivi said.

But in the past year, more than 35 stores have left the mall, according to the mall’s June 2008 directory compared with the June 2009 directory.

Some of the stores that have closed include Gap, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Eddie Bauer, Lane Bryant, Wolf Camera, Starbucks, Piccadilly Cafeteria and Ruby Tuesday.

Last January, Dallas, Texas-based Movie Tavern Partners LP announced plans to open a 35,000-square-foot dinner theater in a portion of the former Parisian store, but after further consideration, backed out of plans for the location.

“The initial plans for the theater didn’t turn out to be cost-effective, so the ownership decided to table the project and look elsewhere,” Olivi said.

Olivi maintains, however, that Macon Mall still has the ability to attract new tenants in the future, especially if the condition of the national economy continues to improve.

“Last year alone, the mall had 13 million visits from a 22-county area. We are still the premier shopping center of Middle Georgia, and our losses have been mostly because of the national recession,” he said.

Olivi said the mall houses the only Macy’s department store in the region and that a new Verizon Wireless store just opened in the shopping center this month.

Melissa Goff, a spokeswoman for Macy’s, said the company has no plans to close its store in Macon Mall at the current time.

Unlike other retailers at the mall who lease their space, Macy’s owns the property where its store is located. At least seven of the mall’s retailers have duplicate stores at The Shoppes at River Crossing, including Aeropostale, American Eagle, Belk and Sunglass Hut.

Olivi said he is not worried that The Shoppes will replace the mall anytime soon.

“Nobody wants to spend two or three hours outdoors in the summer heat shopping there. Here at Macon Mall, it’s 72 degrees year-round,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Peach of a party

9 minute read

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Peach of a Party

Opening event a big draw at Georgia Peach Festival

The Sun News

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jun. 17, 2009

Ask Andrew Mathis to name his favorite food and he’ll tell you in an instant.

“It’s peaches, no question,” he said.

Mathis, a 70-year-old from Fort Valley, worked at a peach farm earlier in life and hasn’t missed a single Georgia Peach Festival since the event was launched in 1986.

Saturday, he made it out once again to the festival’s annual kickoff celebration at the Peach Shops of Byron.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” he said.

The celebration began at 5 p.m. and featured live music, arts and crafts vendors, a fireworks show and a foam party for the kids.

Festival director Rich Bennett said it was the biggest crowd he’s ever seen for the celebration.

Brandi Trivette, a vendor at the event who sells peach-scented candles she makes at her home in Warner Robins, said the crowd was good for business.

“The peach candle has been a real hit tonight. People here in Peach County sure do love their peaches,” Trivette said.

But for some people, such as Janet Wynne and her husband, David, this year’s Peach Festival isn’t just about the titular fruit.

“Peaches are great, but we’re more into motorcycles, which is why we’re here,” she said.

Wynne said she had never been to the Peach Festival before until she rode in the festival’s first Poker Run Saturday morning.

On the other hand, Wynne’s 3-year-old daughter, Erika, said she loved the foam party.

“It looks like snow,” she said.

J.B. Roberson, an author from Warner Robins, was at the celebration signing copies of her latest children’s book, “Cuddlee Bugs: Revenge o’ the Peach Potion.”

“It’s a book that’s actually a lot about the Peach Festival,” she said.

The bands 2 Finger Jester and The Skeeterz performed free shows during the celebration.

“I was a little worried Two Finger Jester might be too loud for the festival, but everybody seemed to love them,” Bennett said. Mathis, however, said he was holding out for The Skeeterz, a more traditional country band.

“I may be old, but I love to dance when they play my sort of music,” he said.

The festival concluded with a fireworks display shot off from behind the shopping center.

“The fireworks are always the best part,” Bennett said.

As the kickoff to the festival drew to a close, Bennett said he held high hopes for the rest of it.

“This is looking like it might be one of the best Peach festivals yet. We’ve already gotten more involvement than last year,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Seeds of community

11 minute read

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Seeds of community

Vegetable gardens help bring Macon neighbors together

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Monday, Jun. 15, 2009

Tucked away in a vacant lot behind Centenary United Methodist Church on College Street sits a humble plot where pole beans, tomatoes, eggplant and okra grow.

"But what we're really growing is hope," said Mark Vanderhoek, founder of the Beall's Hill Community Garden.

Volunteers broke ground for the garden in May as a joint project of the church and the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association.

The people who tend the garden share the food among themselves, and they donate much of the produce to the elderly and disabled in the community.

"The idea is to bring people in Beall's Hill neighborhood together through the garden. Everyone is the same when they have dirt on their hands," Vanderhoek said.

Vanderhoek got the idea for the garden last fall after hearing about a similar community garden in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

Inspired by what the Pleasant Hill garden had accomplished, Vanderhoek, a Mercer University employee, pushed for a garden in the Beall's Hill neighborhood near his workplace.

In February, he brought the idea before a meeting of the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association, where it met across-the-board approval from residents.

Ellen Byron, the neighborhood association's president, then secured a $1,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in March to fund the project.

Since it opened May 2, volunteers have planted seven different vegetables and four different herbs.

"We're going to be making food baskets soon to take out to the people in the neighborhood who need to eat," Byron said.

She said she's excited at how the garden has given the neighborhood a sense of unity.

"A lot of different people live in Beall's Hill. This has given them all a common purpose," she said. "The first day we came out to work the garden, people who had never come out for anything in the community before showed up."

Mary Anne Richardson, who heads up the outreach ministry at Centenary, said she hopes students from Mercer University, which is across the street from the garden, will get involved.

David Davis is a professor of English at Mercer whose class volunteered at the Pleasant Hill community garden this spring.

He plans to have his freshman seminar class work at the new Beall's Hill garden in the fall.

"The class will have an environmental focus, and I think it'd be great for us to work in the garden," he said.

Naomi Johnson and Peter Gizens, owners of the Pleasant Hill garden, have been tending a patch of land on Craft Street since 2004.

Over the years, they've recruited about 30 steady volunteers to help them work the garden and have produced more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables to donate to people in need.

"All of our vegetables that aren't picked by our volunteers are given free of charge to seniors and physically challenged people in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood," Johnson said.

Johnson said that community gardens like the ones in Pleasant Hill and Beall's Hill not only help revitalize the area around them, but they also help people develop better eating habits.

"I had to tell the people helping us not to fry the tomatoes. I don't recommend eating fried green tomatoes. They're not very good for you at all," she said.

But perhaps the best part about neighborhood gardens, in Johnson's opinion, is that they bring people together.

"In the dirt, everybody's kin. And that's just something that money can't put a price tag on," she said.

Commemorating history

9 minute read

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Commemorating history

Annual Juneteenth festival celebrates liberation, educates about struggles of slavery.

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Sunday, Jun. 14, 2009

Four years ago, Nduta Mwangi, 39, lived in a small tenement apartment in Kenya, where she and her sisters sewed traditional African dresses for a living.

Saturday, she brought those dresses to Macon and put them on sale at the annual Juneteenth Freedom Festival at Tattnall Square Park.

“These dresses represent who I am and who we as African-Americans are. It’s our living symbolic legacy,” she said.

The festival was a daylong celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday which commemorates the liberation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.

“It’s sort of like an African-American Independence Day,” said Michelle Fitz, a festival organizer.

But Fitz said that Juneteenth isn’t just for African-Americans.

“It’s a way to educate people of all races about the struggles of slavery. So many people have no idea or they forget what our people went through,” she said.

The festival featured live jazz music, arts and crafts vendors and educational presentations.

Festival director George Muhammad said he expected as many as 1,000 people to attend the festival by the end of the day.

Baatin Muhammad, a member of the Middle Georgia Jazz Allstar Band, said the festival is one of the band’s best opportunities to play yet.

“We’re really excited to play at this event in particular because of what it means to us. It means freedom. It means liberty. It means everything jazz music is supposed to be about,” he said.

One of the festival highlights was a Civil War era re-enactment that demonstrated the black freedom struggle.

Clifford Price, who’s been putting on the re-enactment in his spare time for the past 22 years, said his lifelong mission is to teach people to appreciate the hardships faced by black Union soldiers.

“We want to teach people what our ancestors did during the Civil War, about how they gave up their lives for that elusive word called freedom,” Price said.

James Simpson, a 49-year-old from Macon, has been bringing his wife and five kids to the festival for as long as he can remember.

“We come every year with lawn chairs and a cooler of sodas and stay all day. It’s not only fun, but it’s a great way to teach my kids something,” he said.

Simpson said he was particularly impressed with the variety of merchandise being sold at this year’s festival.

“I just got me a brand new yard hat,” he said.

Ankur Patel, a junior at Mercer University, said he heard the music from the festival as he was walking down College Street and decided to see what the event was all about.

“It’s pretty amazing to hear all this history. Even though I’m not black, I can appreciate it. It’s important that we all support events like this that teach people history and will change the way they look at things today,” he said.