Monday, October 20, 2008

New Entries in Downtown Dining

Had the pleasure this weekend of trying out two new restaurants in Watkinsville.

On my rainy day off on Friday, I tried out Miss Gail's for lunch. Unfortunately, Gail was almost out of BBQ chicken and had run out of salmon, which several people had come in for specifically (maybe this is the signature entree?). I went with the veggie plate (good fresh tomatoes, middling mashed potatoes, outstanding squash casserole, good green beans) which was pretty good overall -- about what you would expect for a meat and three. There was a good crowd there, and the service was very friendly.

Of course, anyone who has been in Watkinsville for any amount of time can't go to "Miss Gail's" without recalling the previous denizen of the building -- Aunt Gail's. I never ate there and knew it by reputation only. My most vivid memory is actually of Aunt Gail herself coming to Bell's Food Store when I worked daytime hours during summers in high school and college in the early 1990s. I'm kind of ashamed to admit it now, but bag boys and stockers would all "go on break" as soon as she came near the check out line because she always had huge amounts of food and no one wanted to bag those giant industrial-sized cans, bundles of turnips and giant sides of ham hock, etc. Bagging those groceries and then loading them up was an accident waiting to happen in the days of paper bags. I seem to recall her sometimes even asking us to load up her stuff in boxes because she would buy so much (I think this was pre-Sam's Wholesale days). I ran into Aunt Gail recently at the Oconee Farmer's Market and made my confession about avoiding bagging her groceries -- she was non-plussed.

Anyway, back to our story. Miss Gail's is open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. Owner Gail Wiley also deserves a big pat on the bag for the attractive landscaping and nice outdoor seating area that has been added on.

A more innovative concept is David Weeks' newest entry in the local dining scene, Shishkabobby's. Located in the former Gautreau's space in Town Center on Main Street, the restaurant has a bit of a Barberitos' feel -- same chips, dip station, trash cans, order set up, etc. This isn't surprising as David is the franchisee of several local Barberitos.

The food we had was pretty good, but I definitely didn't feel like I had enough guidance from the staff to maximize the experience. With a new concept, the order taker needs to be ready to offer some suggestions; I also suggested to David that they put some "favorites" together so people can have some guidance on food and side combinations that work well together.

I wound up ordering a melt but my unfamiliarity with the menu made me regret the mix of toppings I chose. Offerings include wraps, melts, salads with salmon, steak, chicken, and veggies, all grilled on skewers and a variety of fresh sides. An interesting concept that I hope catches on in Watkinsville. The more fast casual places, the better. This is a great place for families to go (our kids loved the spacious dining area and laid back atmosphere), and I hope to return and explore the menu a bit more soon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What a Weekend

What a weekend! Watkinsville was on display, and what a show.

First of all, many thanks to my brother Kevin and his band of volunteers from Oconee State Bank, who pulled off the 35th annual Scarecrow 5K without a hitch. This race has always had special meaning to me, as I ran my first road race at the Scarecrow 19 or 20 years ago this year.

I'll never forget Shawn Lomanaco and me finding the entry form in the Fall Festival brochure that went home with us from Oconee County Intermediate School (now Colham Ferry Elementary). After trying to think through how far 3.1 miles was (approximately to the Golden Pantry and back was our thought process) we decided we'd try to run. Once our parents were convinced (none of us had ever heard of a "road race" so we had to do some homework in those pre-internet days), we began our pre-race training, which consisted of a solitary 3 mile run around Northwest Woods two nights before the Saturday morning affair. Shawn showed off his superior talent, finishing in around 20 minutes to win our age group. I, unfortunately, finished in 21:47 and threw up at the finish. Faster times were to come, as the core group that ran this race and a few others started the first cross country teams at Oconee County High School in 1990.

Unfortunately, slower times were to come and they did yesterday. But I did enjoy a great run with old high school teammate and great friend Jonathan Murrow. And I also was able to run along with Phoebe as she completed her first ever one mile fun run in 12:47. Not bad!

After that, the family went to the Fall Festival downtown. You couldn't have asked for better weather. I think every kid in Oconee County was there. As always, I saw lots of old and new friends from Oconee and Athens. It was a picture perfect day, and the vendors and attendees all seemed happy despite the fact that we were competing with UGA's Homecoming game. Check out some pictures on Dan Matthews' blog here.

Later that evening, I volunteered with the clean up crew. I am always so thankful and surprised every year by how many people volunteer their time and energy to assist with the Festival -- this spirit is one of the things that makes Oconee County so great. In what seemed like no time, Rocket Field and the surrounding areas were picked clean of trash and debris, vendors were gone, and as quickly as it had arrived, the magic of the Festival was gone. Rocket Field is a bit worse for wear due to rain on Friday, but otherwise, everything looked great. If you have a chance and the inclination, be sure to thank Charles Grimes, Mike Lewis and others at the Chamber of Commerce for their annual labor of love.

After clean up, I picked up dinner for our family. I was struck by the energy that was still apparent in town. UGA fans were eating downtown and basking the afterglow a homecoming win. Teens dressed in their homecoming finery were eating at Mirko Pasta. A special event was being held at the Overlook, and the other restaurants looked full. In short a beautiful evening and all in all, quite a Saturday in Watkinsville.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How Much Change Do We Need?

As the national election nears, I am beginning to reach the conclusion that Barack Obama is likely our next president. While I don't agree with most of his policies, I have to admit it will be nice to have a well spoken, confident president who obviously has a strong intellect and has given considerable thought personally to a number of issues. While there are entrenched supporters on both sides who are locked into their decision, as the economy continues to wobble this plays to the strengths of Obama and Democrats in general. In short, odds are against McCain gaining enough undecideds to win.

Despite the early lift she offered, the bloom seems to be off the Palin rose among the undecided as she continues to avoid substantive interviews with the press and plays an attack dog role for the McCain campaign, which solidifies his base but does little else.

But what makes me increasingly nervous is the possibility of an Obama presidency coupled with a Democratic "supermajority" in the Senate.

A key theme in this campaign has been change. The understandable aversion of both conservatives and moderate Republicans to the failed policies and government growth of the Bush years is no doubt pushing many to sit this one out or vote for "change." But just how great is your tolerance for change?

I found this Wall Street Journal article insightful. It previews the Democratic agenda if Obama is elected along with a supermajority of Democratic Senators. While this is still likely a stretch, it could be a nightmare for those of us in favor of less government and taxes. Here's an excerpt:
"Though we doubt most Americans realize it, this would be one of the most profound political and ideological shifts in U.S. history. Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven't since 1965, or 1933. In other words, the election would mark the restoration of the activist government that fell out of public favor in the 1970s. If the U.S. really is entering a period of unchecked left-wing ascendancy, Americans at least ought to understand what they will be getting, especially with the media cheering it all on."
And another:
"In both 1933 and 1965, liberal majorities imposed vast expansions of government that have never been repealed, and the current financial panic may give today's left another pretext to return to those heydays of welfare-state liberalism. Americans voting for "change" should know they may get far more than they ever imagined."
Be sure to read the article if you are a moderate and undecided about your presidential or senatorial choices. Issues on the agenda once a supermajority is in place include a variety of initiatives that include unions, universal healthcare, wealth redistribution, tax increases, carbon trading, etc. (see the graphic).

As I have always said, the best governance -- although often the most ugly -- occurs when the legislative and executive branches are controlled by different parties. This allows for the natural give and take and compromise (gasp!) that creates healthy legislation and better reflects the opinions of a majority of Americans. What do you think?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debate Humor

A friend passed this along.... thought it was quite relevant to the current political climate and similar to the debates we have seen so far.

It also takes me back to my childhood TV viewing days. My brother and I loved Batman and Robin.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Time for County to Move on Downtown Real Estate?

While the economy and real estate market is weak, it should be a good time to pick up key properties for those with strong balance sheets. While I don't always agree with ex-BOC Chair Wendell Dawson, he is spot on in one of his recent posts at Another Voice from Oconee County -- the county should indeed move to acquire as much property adjacent to the existing courthouse as possible if they can negotiate a decent price with the sellers. With most of the properties having sat on the market for 2+ years, there should be some negotiating room.

Bottom line is that with the growth needs forecast for the courthouse, downtown acquisitions make sense. And there could very well be other needs in the future as the library and other public facilities age.

And even if county services don't fill up the spaces, property with sewer located in downtown Watkinsville is about as good a real estate bet as you can make in Oconee right now.

Positive Privet News in High Shoals

Privet. I despise it. Especially the Chinese kind that is amazingly invasive here in the Southeast.

So I was pleased to hear about this effort in New High Shoals -- despite all the other ongoing drama in our neighbor to the south -- to help citizens eradicate this pesky plant. If only there was a similar solution for invasive bamboo.

I wish the leaders in New High Shoals would put together a few more simple "blocking and tackling" initiatives like this one. It might help remove the focus from infighting at council meetings and perhaps unify the citizens around a few central ideas. It's amazing what a few park clean up days and other citizen driven efforts can do to bring a city together and give it a common purpose. I often drive through High Shoals and think about what potential it has with the beautiful falls, the river, the small reservoir, a brand new elementary school, and more. There are a lot of small towns that would kill for these assets.

However, back to reality, perhaps Watkinsville can borrow the "Weed Wrench" for our next clean up at Harris Shoals park, which has plenty of its own privet and invasive species to deal with.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Special Events

This is a great time of year in Northeast Georgia for those who enjoy being outdoors. In case you missed it, the weather is great and there's something going on for everyone. Here's my recommended itinerary for the next few weekends in greater Watkinsville (which includes Athens):

This Saturday: Kick off the morning with a brisk run or walk at the Scarecrow 5K and 1 mile/run walk at Watkinsville First UMC. This is the kick off for the annual Oconee County Fall Festival. Then take your family to the festival, which is one of the classic Oconee County events -- go early if you want to see the Dawgs kick off against Vandy or go late if you want to avoid the crowds. If you have kids, park at Harris Shoals Park and ride the old fashioned tractors downtown. And if you're so inclined, check out the Don Smith exhibition at OCAF while you are in the area.

This Sunday: While the weather is perfect, take a hike or enjoy a walk at Harris Shoals Park, The State Botanical Gardens, Heritage Park, or on the Birchmore trail in Athens. If you have kids, let them splash around in the "big creek" or try the big slide at Harris Shoals park -- my kids love it!

Next Saturday: Dust off your bike and take part in the Jittery Joe's Metric Century ride from the Watkinsville Jittery Joe's, which benefits the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity. Depending on which distance you choose, recharge with a nice late breakfast at the Big Easy or lunch at the Krimson Cafe. If you prefer a more low key start to the day, check out Art in the Garden at the Botanical Gardens. Then enjoy watching the Dawgs beat LSU from the comfort of your own home (time TBD).

Next Sunday: Oenophiles will enjoy the OCAF Wine Fest at Ashford Manor from 3 to 6 p.m. Endurance athletes will enjoy the 4-mile Jack-o-Lantern Jog at Sandy Creek Park in Athens at 2:30; kids under 10 can participate in a costume contest at 1:45 and then jump in the kids race.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Tax Man Cometh

This week's Oconee Enterprise has a front page story on the tax assessor's office and the 640 protests it received that defies belief. Check out this quote and the excerpt that follows:

"People thought that with the economy on a downslide, their taxes would go down. Only house values have held, so taxes have remained much the same or edged up," Skinner explained. These days it is possible to buy a house in Oconee, which many could not afford before, because developers are reducing the prices on new houses considerably and homeowners, eager to sell their property, are reducing prices." In other words, Oconee County houses are holding their value.

What? The story just said that in the market, prices are being lowered, and this is obvious to anyone who is looking at new homes in Oconee. The only one who sees the value holding is the government.

A quick look at the handy Q-public site shows that the houses that are selling are indeed doing so for more than they were a few years ago. This makes sense. Only someone who is desperate is going to sell their home for less than they paid for it.

But overall, sales are down (according to the Enterprise, which cites this as one of the slowest years for real estate sales in a long time) and that is the key. There is nothing that I can find in the assessor's office methodology that measures how many people either 1) choose not to sell because they don't think they can get the value out of their homes 2) have to leave their house on the market for a long time to get the value out of it or 3) put their homes on the market and never sell it because they can't get the asking price.

Here's my example. Earlier this year, a rental property I own in Watkinsville was reassessed aggressively for the second year in a row. The first year it was understandable -- I had made significant improvements to the property, particularly inside. The housing and rental market were strong.

The second year, I had done little to the house and there was noticeable softening in the local market. I sent a letter of protest referencing the busy street it was on, an abandoned home next door, and the lack of comparable product. The tax assessor's office promptly sent someone out to look at the property and guess what -- they "discovered" a patio that had been there since the home was built more than 30 years ago, and they actually increased my assessment. Unbelievable -- I was punished for protesting!

When I talked to the assessor, he asked if I thought I could sell it for the assessed value. The year before, sure. Now, with tight credit, conservative banks, etc? I told him I doubted it.

Look, as a city councilman I understand the pressure on local governments in a very real way. The state is basically abandoning local governments at almost every level, whether it is education, infrastructure, etc. The latest target is transportation, where the GDOT board has decided that rather than lay off any of its bureaucracy, it would rather abandon the Local Area Road Paving (LARP) program, which is critical for local goverments. Thank goodness legislators are declaring that idea DOA.

In short, the pressure on the board of education, county, and city to maintain a certain level of service is tremendous. But the assessments in Oconee, in my opinion, are out of control.

The most plausible reasoning I have seen for holding the line on assessments was in the Dallas Morning News last spring. Their point is that the impact of declining property values runs about one year behind because assessors pull previous years comps to establish values. These lower prices are then reflected on the next year's assessments.

But I don't think we'll see lower prices in Oconee. I think we may have a market that stays quiet until prices come back. And this should be taken into account in assessments. It isn't about what sells, it's about what isn't selling.

Local leaders -- or state legislators if need be -- need to consider a change in methodology to account for a lack of buyers in the market, or expect an even larger taxpayer revolt -- next year, 640 protests may be a drop in the bucket.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sad News

Word arrived today that Jim Shearon had passed away. I was shocked.

I didn't know Jim as well as many in Watkinsville. I do know that he along with Dave, Mario and Louise have been wonderful additions to our community and truly have made a difference on so many levels in Watkinsville and the region. Jim's gift for design was amazing and evident if you ever stayed at Ashford Manor or visited Maison Bleu or Sweet Retreat. His creativity and work ethic were also a constant -- simply put, Jim was a force! I remember him being one of just a few to ever make it through an entire city council budget hearing and still being awake enough to offer support as well as outside the box ideas for improving Watkinsville. We often heeded Jim's advice.

Julie Phillips wrote a nice piece on Jim here. Two things that struck me about her piece -- Jim was definitely a straight shooter. You always knew where you stood with him. And he and the rest of the Ashford Manor bunch also have the wherewithal and talent to work anywhere in the world. Our community is a much better place because they choose Watkinsville.

Jim, we miss you already and know that you are now in a wonderful place. God bless and rest in peace.


This is why people are so jaded about politics. The Senate has the courage to actually pass the bill, and then we learn it is full of crap like tax breaks for makers of wooden arrows and rum producers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Unbelievable.