Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Don Smith Exhibition Coming to OCAF

Artwork of the late Don Smith, one of this region's most talented local artists, will be on display at OCAF starting on Friday. Don's son Kirk is a good friend of mine (Kirk is also probably mortified to be mentioned in a post so close to one about David Brooks), and I love his Dad's stuff -- eclectic, classy, and often truly emblematic of the unique culture of Athens and the surrounding community. Don also collaborated with Watkinsville artist Roy Ward on Churches, one of several great local books that Dr. Ward has been involved with.

Anyway, find out more information here, and be sure to stop by and check it out. There is an opening reception Friday night.

Brooks Beast

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists, along with Tom Friedman. Many thanks to reader Leanne who pointed me back to David -- I have had a busy two weeks and have not had time to read his columns lately. I did so tonight, and was struck by the wisdom in each of them.

In his column today, he calls out and explains in clear detail the necessity of a bailout plan, and more importantly, the necessity for true leadership in Washington. He correctly analyzes that most house Republicans somehow think they will benefit if this thing doesn't pass, and says that they "have once again confused talk radio with reality." Amen.

One of his earlier pieces takes a close look at McCain pre-campaign. While the odds against Sen. McCain seem to increase everyday (especially in the wake of his failed gamble on the bailout package), this column reminds me why I liked him in the first place.

The other earlier piece is a forward looking piece that describes the financial markets and challenges America faces down the road as we work to get out from under the piles of debt we have sold as we have run up deficits. Since I am in the middle of Homestead right now, much of it rings true. Lets hope we aren't too strapped financially in the wake of bailouts for whoever wins this next election to step up to the plate.

The fact is, it is 2008 and America has yet to really get ready for this century. Our economy, our educational system, our infrastructure (transportation especially), and our energy situation desperately need a tune up, and perhaps an overhaul.

I have often said that perhaps hard times will force America to make these necessary changes -- however, as hard times loom this doesn't seem very appealing. Do we still have the strength, the wisdom, the steel in our spine to make hard choices and compete? To be the best? Because this century we are truly competing -- with the whole world.

Or will we choose to be soft, to depend on a benevolent government and to be content with mediocrity in our institutions, our governments, our businesses, our childrens' education?

I don't think most Americans are content to settle. I know most people in Oconee County aren't content to settle, and will work hard in their own way to support their community and their nation. But I do believe most Americans want a leader who will challenge them to do more than spend money to support the economy, who doesn't shy away from asking them to sacrifice, who will inspire them to greater heights, and inspire pride in our nation once again.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Congress doesn't get it. There are times you don't listen to Rush, Hannity, and even your constituents (especially when they are whipped into a frenzy by the aforementioned talk show hosts and they know less about the details than you do). There are times when you show leadership. Today was one of those times, and they missed the boat.

While people may have been concerned about the nature of the bailout, I pity congress when people begin to blame them for job losses and decimated 401(k)s. To be sure, there were flaws in the bill. On any bill this size, there will be. It was rushed, and perhaps more time should have been allowed for review and vetting of the bill.

The focus now has to be on a better bill and better communication. Here's my six step formula for success:

1) Don't make promises in terms of timing for a new bill; this just sets up unrealistic expectations and messes with the market.
2) Don't align the bill with President Bush (or Nancy Pelosi, for that matter).
3) Don't give the Tresury Secretary cart blanche.
4) Don't trust leadership to deliver the votes.
5) Listen to the people and address their key concerns.
6) Explain how this crisis will soon impact everyone's pocketbooks in ways much more significant than a tax increase.

The downside of allowing this economy and our banking infrastructure to slide further is tremendous. The downside on this bill -- while potentially large -- is unknown and frankly far in the future. Congress needs to do something. History will not look kindly upon them if they do not get their act together soon.

Perhaps more information will emerge in days to come that will change my mind about the need for action -- I certainly am not a fan of rushed decision making except when absolutely necessary, and I hope congress is right and I am wrong in this instance. That said, I certainly hope that Congress is hard at work in the meantime to come up with a new bill and that investors in our momentum driven market hold together until then.

P.S. Leading the charge for classless communication on this effort was our own Rep. Paul Broun. While some of his points may be valid, his graphic imagery strikes one as anything but classy. I'm so glad my own representative is unwilling to eat cow feces (yes, you have to read it to believe it).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Talk about backfiring.

While his shot in the dark VP choice Sarah Palin obviously gave him a lift, Sen. John McCain's most recent gamble just comes off as silly. While I see the logic in trying to seem presidential and serious about the economy, the reality is that most Americans would agree that bringing the two presidential candidates back to D.C. for a few days of "hard work" in the Senate would do nothing but distract from a critical effort to work through an incredibly complex bailout plan. The plan itself is necessary on some level to stabilize markets, but it is critical it be structured in such a way (if possible) that it doesn't bail out people who borrowed more than they could and banks who irresponsibly gave them the money. Whether bundled mortgages can be "unwound" and cleaned off the balance sheets of financial institutions without ending all sense of personal and corporate financial responsibility, I have no idea.

And given McCain's history with bank regulation, I don't really think he's the expert you need on hand to deal with the issue. I have been a lukewarm supporter of McCain through this campaign. But the reality is only a few hail mary passes are going to turn out to be completions, and he already had one. This one has fallen incomplete.

McCain desperately needs a compelling message at this point beyond Sarah Palin. He has to find a way to communicate around a few winning issues, articulate a responsible economic plan, and get back to what made him a special candidate -- his willingness to advocate ideas outside the norm for Republicans, find the middle, and not try to appeal to the "dittoheads" and Hannity fans out there. He got them in the fold with the Palin selection.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Magic of Small Towns

Jason Winders doesn't think there is any magic left in small towns.

I disagree.

That said, I don't necessarily disagree with a lot of the points in his article, just that it is a sweeping generalization. Yes, there is poverty in many smaller communities. There are drug issues. Some are lacking in opportunities.

But I would argue that there is magic left in a lot of smaller communities. A quick drive to the communities that surround Athens would yield some interesting examples. The merchant who knows your name. The downtown that fights to survive -- or even thrives. The bed and breakfast that hosts world class concerts on an old family estate. The entrepreneur who finds a way to make it big in a small town. The pastor who keeps his flock downtown and his church growing. The neighbor who prefers the kindness of others to the "kindness" of the federal government. The retiree who comes back to restore the old homeplace. The families who stay -- despite being able to find more opportunity elsewhere -- because they want their children around family and the values of their church, their community, and their friends. The rural scenery. The quiet.

Indeed, I often feel like much of the anti-growth dialogue in this region is a natural and instinctive reaction by many -- old and new alike -- seeking to protect and preserve the essential "smallness" of their community, their area, or their town. If people didn't feel so passionately about that lifestyle, why would they invest so much energy to fight change that often clearly brings the higher wages, the industry, and the opportunities that are missing in so many smaller communities? They like things the way they are.

The bottom line is that just like there are good cities and bad cities, good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, you can't generalize about small towns. They are evolving, as they have for hundreds of years (check out the history of Arcade if you want to see this in action).

Some will fade, some will go away, some will "grow away," and some will retain their identity. Life will get harder in some, and easier in others. But I would argue if there is "magic" anywhere in America, it is often found in its small towns. After all, if Boo Weekley had grown up in a city or suburbia, would he have galloped down the first fairway at the Ryder Cup? Doubtful.

And yes, they will always remain a part of the American political narrative. Too many Americans have roots there, or imagine they do. Few people yearn for a "faster pace." Most don't seek out more traffic. And while there are some who will, most of us don't necessarily want to accept that petty crime is going to be part of our life, as it is for many who live in larger cities. There is a reality behind the symbolism of the small town in our political dialogue.

All that said, the scary part about our culture is that due to a number of factors, life in a small town doesn't necessarily imbue the neighborly characteristics we expect. The values and ethics that were once more rigorously instilled and enforced by neighbors in a smaller community are often superseded by the rot that can be accessed online or on television, or even in the human soul. Whether you're in a big city or small town, certain values -- honesty, courage, tolerance, respect, kindness -- should be American hallmarks. Regardless of geography, all too often they aren't, and that's too bad.

P.S. Kudos to Mr. Winders for starting a thoughtful conversation.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Go Dog Go!

When my daughter was younger, one of her favorite books was Dr. Seuss' Go Dog Go.

My favorite part was always at the end. After all their "going," the destination of the dogs is finally revealed -- It's a Big Dog Party! She always thought that was great.

Well, as it turns out, we have our own "Big Dog Party" here in Watkinsville called Grace's Birthday Party. It's a unique canine celebration that celebrates the life of Grace Shearon, who resided with the Shearons at our very own Ashford Manor. Last year more than 250 canines and their human friends found their way to Ashford Manor for the event. It benefits the UGA Vet School.

Press release follows.

WATKINSVILLE, Ga., June 17, 2008 – Watkinsville has again gone to the dogs as more than 600 canines and their two-legged companions will dress in their finest Mardi Gras costumes and gather at Ashford Manor Bed & Breakfast on Sunday, Sept. 21, to celebrate the tenth annual Grace’s Birthday Party. This Mardi Gras themed masquerade will raise funds to support the Grace Memorial Foundation at the University of Georgia’s Veterinary Hospital as well as a host of other local animal advocacy organizations. The party will last from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and will be held rain or shine.

Guests will enjoy a fun

-filled day of doggie games, costumes, contests, refreshments and more – along with some fun stuff for humans too. A highlight of the party will be the prominent display of artist Peter Loose’s portrait of “Mardi Gras Grace.” All dogs attend free, while adult humans pay $15 and children pay $5.

Jim Shearon, a proprietor of Ashford Manor, began the tradition almost a decade ago as a birthday celebration for his beloved Airedale Grace. Just months before her planned second annual birthday party, Grace was diagnosed with cancer and sadly did not live to see the occasion. Rather than mourn his companion’s death, Shearon decided to celebrate her life by continuing to host the party and fundraiser to honor Grace and collect money for animals in need. The party’s success continues to grow each year, attracting hundreds of pups and their pals.

“It is always sad to lose a companion, but this party is a fun way to celebrate Grace’s life while raising money for several great canine causes,” said Shearon. “People and their pups come from all over to this event, and even though they may not know each other, they all have something in common – they’re dog people.”

Last year, approximately 275 canines joined more than 350 of their human companions to raise more than $17,000 for local charities including the Oconee Regional Humane Society, Oconee Animal Control, Athens Area Council on Aging Home Delivered Meals Program, Southeastern Guidedog Institute and University of Georgia Small Animal Teaching Hospital G.R.A.C.E. Fund.

Beyond the fun and games, there is also a silent auction featuring valuable items, services and vacations donated by local individuals and businesses. “The support we’ve received from local pet lovers has been tremendous,” said Shearon. “Businesses and individuals alike are eager to help in any way possible, and we are certainly grateful for their contributions.”

For more information on Grace’s Birthday Party and the Grace Memorial Foundation, visit them online at www.gracesbirthday.com.

About the Grace Memorial Foundation

The Grace Memorial Foundation supports the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine Small Animal Teaching Hospital’s G.R.A.C.E. Fund by providing assistance to clients who have demonstrated financial need. Funds are available to assist with medical procedures for dogs suffering from illness or injury, or who are in need of routine care. The Grace Memorial Foundation also provides assistance to the elderly and those recovering from illness by providing food and routine care for their companion dogs.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Perspectives on Rockets, Golf, Pottery and Politics

A few takes on current affairs and events local and national:
  • Good story from Blake Giles in this week's Oconee Enterprise on the local economic impact of golf. His point about how golf helps raise funds for charity is certainly a good one -- while there can be too many golf charity events, the overall impact of the sport in the region is pretty amazing.
  • Another neat golf tidbit -- UGA alum Brendon Todd, who led the Athens Regional Foundation Classic until a last round collapse, won last week's Nationwide Tour event and will likely be on the PGA tour next year. He has had a very successful first year on the Nationwide Tour. Brendon got his shot when the Athens Regional Foundation gave him a sponsor's exemption into their event, where he performed well and was able to secure entry into more Nationwide Tour events. Congrats to Brendon and kudos to the Athens Regional Foundation for helping this young man's dream come true. (Full disclosure -- my company does the PR for the ARFC).
  • On a totally separate matter, the McCain campaign is getting dangerously close to overplaying its hand by limiting Sarah Palin's interaction with the media. I'm glad she's talking with Katie Couric next week. Her interview with Charles Gibson was not sterling -- it was solid in most places but not being able to articulate the Bush doctrine is pretty bad and her unqualified response inviting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO makes me nervous. Palin doesn't need to be something she isn't in these interviews (swing voters don't expect her to be an expert on foreign policy) -- she needs to be herself and be somewhat accessible to balanced reporters. And no, Sean Hannity doesn't count. Neither will Bill O'Reilly.
  • Back to the local scene, I've gotta say last weekend's Friends of the Oconee County Library Book Sale was awesome. You could get a bag of used books for $3. They had rare books and first editions for incredibly low prices. Definitely something to put on your calendar for future years. Even Sunday afternoon, there were still huge crowds looking for books. Whoever says the printed book is in danger is dead wrong. Newspapers.... perhaps a different story.
  • Also Sunday, I visited Perspectives. As always, the art was wonderful. Unlike past years, the prices weren't. WHOA! For some reason, it seemed like everything was 30-50% higher than in years past. I walked into Rocket Hall expecting Watkinsville art prices (maybe a slight premium) and felt like I had traveled to Atlanta. I was also suprised that top local potters like Jerry Chappelle and Rebecca Wood (R. Wood) apparently were not participating.
  • Still, visiting Rocket Hall (known by us kids of the 80s as the Booster Club Gym) always evokes special memories -- I can still smell the popcorn, feel the stickiness of Skittles and Sprite spilled on the floor, and feel the cold temps in the gym as we stripped down to shorts for games and practice. Angry parents, tired refs, manual scorekeeping, no 3 point shot, creaky floors, and bad basketball made for some great times. I can also remember getting run out by the Watkinsville PD after "sneaking" in the gym during Christmas break (thanks for those keys, Donnie B.!). Good times.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Land of the SPLOST

At our last city council meeting, we discussed the potential impact of SPLOST revenues on the city. Unlike many other communities, in past SPLOST issues, Oconee County's municipalities have not received any of these sales tax revenues. That is all set to change if the next SPLOST passes, where Oconee's municipalities will get a share of the revenue based on their percentage of the overall county population.

The city of Watkinsville would be slated to receive more than $3 million over the life of the penny tax -- a solid infusion that would make a world of difference to our community. Projects being considered -- but not finalized -- include additional sewer lines in the Watkinsville industrial park, greenspace acquisition, significant improvements in our existing parks, new sidewalks, necessary road repavings, police vehicles, and other capital equipment costs.

In a city with a budget as small as ours, these funds could make a huge difference. For our other (and even smaller) cities in Oconee, it could be even more transformative. The City of Watkinsville will be holding a public hearing to discuss options for use of SPLOST funds in more detail and to hear from citizens what they want. Stay tuned for those dates and more information!

Biotech Future

The Athens Banner-Herald included a fascinating round table discussion on the future of biotech in the Northeast Georgia region in Sunday's paper.

First of all, a pat on the back for what is a very substantive article; these kinds of roundtables on a variety of key industries in Athens would be great for readers. I also think it is great that they included the perspective of Mike Wanner and Frank Milward, who both offer valuable private sector perspectives from both the small and large corporate sectors.

I thought Milward's point about agriculture being a key towards the end was particularly salient. Given our state's history and our continuing reliance on agriculture (both plant and animal) I often wonder why we don't focus our biotech investments more aggressively into those areas. Indeed, one of our most unique local biotech start-ups involves genetic crop modification. Our state is a leading exporter of poultry and pork, as well as other row crops.

It just so happens that we have a fading federal institution in Oconee County called the "Experiment Station." Its original purpose was agricultural innovation and experimentation, but some in Washington believe its work is done. We can't defend the status quo forever, especially with a congressman who does not believe in earmarks. This area needs to articulate a future vision for this space.

Since those in the article and elsewhere are decrying the need for laboratory and incubator space, wouldn't it make sense to have an agricultural innovation incubator/biotech hub atop the hill on "Experiment Station" road adjacent to Highway 441? Preserve the surrounding greenspace for experimentation. Across the street you'll find Gainesville College and adjacent is UGA's horticulture farm. How about we take the buildings -- or add new ones -- and create a 21st century complex that could revitalize the mission of the station and accomplish its original goal -- to provide better crops and agricultural products to Americans through cutting edge research through a joint public-private investment in research.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Saxon Vs. Broun

Bobby Saxon, the Democratic candidate for the 10th congressional district seat currently held by Paul Broun Jr., attended our Watkinsville City Council meeting tonight. I had heard about Saxon from some folks, but had not met him yet.

We talked briefly prior to the meeting, and then again afterward. Based on what he told me, I came right out and asked him the obvious -- if you favor a strong national defense, are conservative on most values-based issues, and frequently disagree with the national party, why are you running as a Democrat? He explained that he grew up poor, goes to church and feels it is his duty to take care of the poor, and that Republicans aren't committed to assisting the poor at all.

"The Democrats don't make the distinction between those who are poor and those who are sorry, and that is too bad," he said. He added that at least they are considering the poor at all.

I can respect that reasoning, even if I don't totally agree with it. We had a wide ranging coversation; some highlights below:

  • We discussed the idea that sometimes in politics, pragmatism has to triumph over principle in order to accomplish anything.
  • When asked about his favorite past politicians, he listed folks like Lincoln, Reagan, Jefferson, and Sam Nunn.
  • He is an Oconee County native (grew up on Flat Rock Road). Lives in Jackson County now. Has been a small business owner.
  • He has served our nation for 8 years as an enlisted man. He has had an overseas tour of duty and has worked in the Pentagon. After 9/11 he gave up a lucrative business to re-enlist as a reservist and has been stationed in Baghdad. He has had top-secret security clerance and seemed very up to date on national security issues.
  • Sees immigration as a homeland security issue.
  • Supports drilling and a strong alternative fuels effort to end dependence on foreign oil.
Overall, I walked away impressed with Bobby and look forward to learning more from him about what he'd like to do if sent to Washington.

Then I hopped in my car and noticed an e-mail -- apparently Rep. Broun announced today that he is unwilling to debate Saxon in Athens or anywhere else in the district, apparently. This is just weak. I guess there is just too much baggage to contend with, and perhaps a front runner doesn't feel the need to debate what many perceive as a long-shot challenger. If you ask me, if you believe in what you stand for and are representing our district in Washington, you shouldn't be afraid to put it on the line, whether it is against an opponent in a debate or with anyone else, regardless of the setting.

If Saxon can meet enough people in the district between now and November to overcome his lack of media dollars, and if there is a strong Democratic push as a result of the Obama energy, this could be a race. Saxon makes a good first impression and is going to appeal to a lot of conservative to moderate folks in the district, especially those who pay attention and have concerns about whether Broun's ultra-principled but ultra-conservative approach in office is indeed what is in the best interest of this district.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Palin Factor

It's been a week and a half since John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. As I expected, she has withstood the scrutiny and has had a truly transformative effect on the presidential contest, turning what looked like a landslide for Obama into a close race.

The two best write ups I have seen on how this has worked out come from David Brooks in his "Surprise Me Most" column and Camille Paglia at Salon.com (how often do these two get joined at the hip?). Be sure you read these if you are into some navel gazing about this year's election and the state of the nation. Brooks' basic point: that with the Palin choice, McCain took over the role of "most surprising campaign" from Obama and earned the momentum and embrace of independents hungry for change. A key excerpt:

"If I were advising the candidates, I’d tell them to double down on weirdness. Obama needs to occasionally criticize his own side. If he can’t take on his own party hacks, he’ll never reclaim the mantle of systemic change. Specifically, he needs to attack the snobs who are savaging Sarah Palin’s faith and family. Many liberals claim to love working-class families, but the moment they glimpse a hunter with an uneven college record, they hop on chairs and call for disinfectant. Obama needs to attack Bill Maher for calling her a stewardess and the rest of the coastal condescenders.

If I were McCain, I’d make the divided government argument explicit. The Republicans are intellectually unfit to govern right now, but balancing with Democrats, they might be able to do some good. I’d have McCain tell the country that he looks forward to working with Congressional Democrats, that he is confident they can achieve great things together."

Whether you agree or not with her levels of experience or qualifications, no one can argue that the gamble hasn't already paid off politically for Sen. McCain. In a Kasparov like move, he instantly changed the narrative of the campaign, energized the party base, intrigued (at least) women across the country, earned space on main stream talk shows, increased photoshop sales, and forced Sen. Obama to take deep breath, shift resources to battleground states, and go on the offensive by becoming more negative. Even Oprah has taken a hit.

What is fascinating is that McCain is actually being eclipsed by his running mate. Apparently, more people are showing up to see her than him, and more Palin signs are in evidence than McCain signs at joint rallies. If I were a Republican strategist, this would worry me. Republicans also need to be careful about overplaying the "media bias" card -- while some was in evidence, this can't be used as an excuse for not allowing her to be interviewed by some of the most respected members of the national political press.

I will also say this -- her official politics are well to the right of mine, although she has shown a willingness to compromise that is impressive. With a Democratic Congress, a Palin-McCain administration could engage in just the right amount of change that will help move our country forward without forgetting where we come from and our tradition of self-reliance. I have always said that most healthy policy is passed when the legislative and executive branches are in different hands, and I hope that will be the case next year.

Since I first posted my first review of the Palin choice, a lot of my democratic friends have asked me why. Most were stunned by the choice, and I think the vehemence of the liberal/democratic reaction showcases their underlying fears and their need to tear her down. A STRONG, ARTICULATE WOMAN? REPUBLICANS? A WOMAN WITH AN INFANT? SOMEONE UNDER 55 WITHOUT GRAY HAIR? They weren't counting on this.

Big media types, government employees and those committed to Sen. Obama also simply don't understand the appeal of someone so close to normal to the vast majority of independent and undecided voters in this country. They also don't appreciate the number of decisions that the mayor of a small- or medium-sized town has to make, never mind a governor, when they belittle her experience.

Since it's college football season, I'll put it like this: The score is 21-17 with 1:00 left in the 4th quarter and one team (let's just call them the Donkeys for fun) are ahead of their hated arch rivals, the Elephants. The elephants have had two defensive touchdowns and a field goal and haven't looked good all day. It's a miracle they're still in the game. Their fans just want to return to their tailgate. The 'phants have the ball, but it's on their own 20. Hopeless, right? Well, with the Palin choice the Elephant quarterback just threw a 75 yard bomb that gets them to the Donkeys' five with :50 left in the game. The Donkeys know the Elephants will probably get the touchdown and maybe the win. The Donkeys will need to get the momentum back with one of their own miracles, or play ridiculous defense.

So does the Obama team have a good return man? A hail mary left in the arm? My advice to them -- avoid Palin. Focus on McCain. Don't go after the strength of your opposition. Go after the weakness. You aren't going to beat Sarah Palin. Ironically for Republicans, the weaker politician is our presidential nominee. Fortunately for Americans, if McCain is elected, we will have a good president in office.

9/16 UPDATE: Peggy Noonan reached the same conclusion (three days later) -- the Obama campaign must focus on McCain!!!!