We were honored this week by a two-day visit from the Georgia Tourism Product Development Team, a nine-member group consisting of specialists representing several different fields of Georgia Tourism, and our community rolled out the red carpet for our VIP team’s visit. The TPD Team visit was the result of a year of planning on the parts of the local governments, tourism venues, community organizations and interested citizens who worked as a team to pull this off, and it was my privilege to work with and facilitate the local team’s efforts leading up to this, and to work with this special group of Georgia ambassadors when they arrived on Wednesday, May 24th to review our community.

The team that was chosen to evaluate Butts County consisted of:

  • Cindy Eidson, the Director of Tourism Product Development for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Cindy specializes in Downtown Development activities.
  • Chris Cannon, the Assistant Director of Tourism Product Development, also from the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Chris was the team coordinator, charged with overseeing the team visit among many other things.
  • Corinne Thornton, Regional Program Manager for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, specializing in Community Development and Funding.
  • Carrie Barnes, Community and Economic Development Consultant for Georgia EMC, specializing in Community Development.
  • Lativia Rivers, Georgia Visitor Information Center, specializing in Visitor Center Operations and Programming.
  • Tina Lilly, Grant Program Director for the Georgia Council for the Arts, specializing in Arts and Tourism.
  • Rebekah Snider, Tourism Project Manager for the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Historic Heartland District, which we are part of. Rebekah specializes in Regional Tourism and has been my primary liaison on this project during the months leading up to the team visit.
  • Tracie Sanchez, Director of the Georgia Trails Summit, specializing in Trails and Connectivity, and
  • Joshua Moore, with the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program of the National Parks Service.

As you can see, this was quite a team of specialists with advanced, in-depth knowledge of the key components toward growing and developing tourism and marketing opportunities in Georgia communities such as ours. Our team arrived the morning of May 24th and were graciously hosted in three luxury cottages provided by Frankie Willis, owner and operator of the Village at Indian Springs, a privately owned resort and historical village located adjacent to Indian Springs State Park. After check-in, the team was then shuttled to downtown Jackson for our opening luncheon, provided by the City of Jackson at the Buggy House on Mulberry Street.

A “Taste of Jackson” was their first exposure to local cuisine, with a variety of food provided by Saki Japanese Restaurant, Lucky’s Italian Restaurant, Mesquite Grille Mexican Restaurant and Jimmy’s Steakhouse. Following my opening remarks and introductions, Jeanette Riley presented our local promotional film and Byrd Garland welcomed our visitors and spoke on the merits of our community. Each of our guests were also presented with a book about Jackson and Butts County, prepared by Jeanette and beautiful gift crates that featured local products made here, including a unique piece of artwork crafted by local artist Kathrine Allen-Coleman.

Following lunch, our guests undertook a walking tour of downtown Jackson. We toured several of the local shops, including a peek at the new coffee shop coming to the corner of Mulberry and Second Street, visited Jackson Drugs, which has featured prominently in the Netflix series “Stranger Things”, as well as a visit to Bradley’s Old Tavern on the corner of Second and Oak. This beautifully refurbished space will soon open as a new restaurant and bar, featuring beautifully detailed woodwork, counters and tables, stain glass lamps and much more. We were appreciative of the time given to us by owner Jim Young, who explained the history of the location and his plans for it. We also visited the historic courthouse and Lucky’s Restaurant, which features a variety of unique memorabilia.

Our guests were then loaded on the county van and shuttled around Jackson to see the historic Presbyterian Church and the beautiful homes on McDonough Road including the Buttrill House and the Carmichael House. We had a quick stop at the Rivers Distillery, then we showcased the Veterans Memorial Park and visited the future trailhead where future trails will someday connect Jackson with Dauset Trails and Indian Springs State Park. Finishing up our Jackson tour, we were treated to a tour of the new Art Gallery on College Street, featuring three of our local artists’ workshops and gallery space. Scott Coleman, Kathrine Allen-Coleman, and Kyle Osvog were very gracious to give us a sneak peek of their new working quarters and a variety of artwork on display.

Our next stop was Jackson Lake and Lloyd Shoals Park, where our team was treated to a relaxing hourlong pontoon ride on the lake to see our biggest water recreational offering. Even though there were storms in surrounding counties, our weather was perfect and the team thoroughly enjoyed their outing and getting to see our beautiful lake. I am very appreciative to Scott Thurston and Ben Dover, as well as Jean Bonner for providing two needed pontoons and captaining our guests on their lake tour. We finished this part of the tour at the Jackson Lake Office, where Clint Brown from Georgia Power gave a presentation on the lake and how many people visit and use it each year. We also took the ride down to the base of the Lloyd Shoals Dam and enjoyed the wooden walking pier alongside the Ocmulgee River.

From there, we travelled over to Dauset Trails Nature Center, with an informative tour provided by Ike English of Dauset Trails, visiting the many attractions in the nature center. Our visitors were impressed with the facilities, especially the village that has been built on site for syrup making among other things. Ike showed them the trails that connect Dauset with Indian Springs State Park and we visited the chapel and lake. Following the tour, we returned to the Dauset Trails headquarters for an evening reception featuring refreshments by Dauset Trails and Rivers Distillery, followed by a dinner provided by the Board of Commissioners and featuring food from Fresh Air Barbecue. Our guests then took an evening walk through the wildlife exhibits before returning for a well-deserved rest at the Village. One comment I heard them make about Dauset Trails was “this is the best kept secret in Georgia” and they hope to help change that.

The reception and dinner were a great success, and we had over 40 community leaders on hand to welcome them to Butts County. I appreciate the efforts that Ike and his family, as well as the crew at Dauset Trails and the Daughtry Foundation put into making this beautiful venue into a successful event for our guests. It truly highlighted the “unity” in community.

We began our second day early with a breakfast at Pinky’s Parlor in the Village at Indian Springs, provided by Partners for Smart Growth. Nikki Sowell, Jeanette Riley and Frankie Willis did a great job setting up the venue for the breakfast from Hunter’s Cafe, and a number of Partner’s Board members turned out to welcome the Tourism Product Development Team.

A walking tour of the Village at Indian Springs began following an overview by Frankie Willis, featuring visits to the Village shops, the Indian Springs Chapel and the historic 1823 Indian Springs Hotel Museum. Through this interaction, the Tourism Team was able to get a sense of the unique history of Indian Springs and its significance as the place where the Indian Treaties were signed in the 1820’s.

We drove over to Indian Springs State Park next, where we were joined by Assistant Park Manager Leslie Mobley, who gave our group a detailed tour of the park and outlined the many things going on in the way of recent and ongoing park improvements. We visited the site of the new State Conference Center, as well as some of the recently refurbished cabins and camping sites available along Lake McIntosh and discussed how these venues would be used in the future. A visit to the famous spring house and a sampling of the mineral spring waters were a must, and we also visited the stone pavilion and the State Park Museum. We appreciate Leslie being a gracious and patient tour guide for our group and I think our guests were really able to discern the symbiotic relationship that exists between Indian Springs State Park and the Village at Indian Springs and how they enhance each other.

From there, we took our guests on a drive through the Indian Springs Holiness Campground, then on to visit the beautiful and unique Flovilla Schoolhouse, which has been beautifully refurbished and preserved as a community theater venue. The most unique attributes of the schoolhouse, aside from its architectural significance, is the classroom which has been kept very much as it was when its last class was conducted there in 1932. Old schoolbooks and historical classroom documents were there, as well as the original desks, one of which had the year 1914 carved in the top. A presentation was given by Flovilla City Councilwoman Lillian Cowell on the history of the school and guests were guided through the building by City Clerk Annie Mitchell and Assistant City Clerk Yolanda Elam.

No visit to Butts County would have been complete without a visit to Buckner’s Restaurant for lunch, and our group was treated by the restaurant to a wonderful meal while getting to observe how the restaurant operates during a busy lunchtime. Buckner’s is a destination in itself, drawing many Georgia travelers off of I-75 to enjoy fried chicken, barbecue, cube steak and a range of fresh vegetables, and our group thoroughly enjoyed this experience. A big thanks to Buckner’s for providing the meals to our group.

After lunch, we paid a short visit to Atlanta South 75 Travel Plaza, locally owned and operated by Bob Ryan and his family. Our group got to experience the volume of people who come and go from the travel plaza and its neighbors, and were able to see what an opportunity there is for getting tourism information into the hands of the many families that stop there for dining and gas on their way through the area.

On our way to Jenkinsburg, we had a stop to visit the Pepper Sprout Barn event center, located at the corner of Old Bethel Road and Wolf Creek Road, just off of Highway 42 North. Owner Juli Hall welcomed us with refreshments and a tour of her beautiful facility, which has been a tremendous success since it opened, with many bookings already down for the future months. We also learned that the name came from words in the song “Jackson” by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, an interesting bit of local trivia.

From there, we visited Jenkinsburg and toured their beautiful city park, as well as the Jenkinsburg Community Center, housed in what was formerly the clubhouse of the local garden club. Jenkinsburg has been restoring this building and transforming it into a great place for families or groups to rent for events, and the team was vocal about the potential for this new venue in downtown Jenkinsburg. They also received information about plans for the future park on the site of the old Westbury Nursing Home, which was removed in recent years. Mayor Eddie Ford, City Administrator Clare Jones and Assistant City Clerk William Mullis were all on hand to welcome the team and promote their city and its future plans. This would be our last stop on the team visit schedule and following this, the team was shuttled back to Indian Springs to depart.

Some thoughts on this that I would like to add and which I think should be mentioned here…this visit was the result of a lot of hard work and coordination on the part of many people, and I want to thank everyone that helped make this visit possible. Many of them have been named in this article already but there were others who in one way or another contributed to what turned out to be a very successful visit and each one is appreciated very much. You can see some of them in the pictures that one of our local team members, Rev. Charles Barlow, took during our stops, serving to document our trip.

I also appreciate the considerable effort put into this visit by the members of the Tourism Product Development Team themselves. I learned a lot from them during their two days here and I very much enjoyed getting to know each one of them. They all had unique perspectives and expertise and they gave insightful advice and encouragement to everyone they came across at the many different locations. This was a powerhouse group of tourism professionals that brought something useful to the table and I know we will benefit as a county down the road from their visit.

So what comes next? They will take back the copious notes they made, pictures they took and information that they learned and put it all together to provide us with a comprehensive report on how we can leverage our considerable assets to enhance and grow our own tourism product offerings. Most importantly, they will bring an outside perspective on what we have, the obvious things and probably some things we have overlooked… and when this is all done, they will come back and present their findings to us in a meeting we will hold, probably in the early fall. We hope the community will come and hear what they have to say and we can learn how to help each other maximize our tourism potential for Butts County, our three cities and our venues throughout the county. We are an important part of Georgia and I feel confident Georgia is going to hear much more about us in the months and years ahead.

In closing, let me add one more, final THANK YOU to everyone who was a part of this! We could not have done it without you!