By David Miller,
with Decatur Co. Admin Asst. Barbara Parsons
ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Though not technically on the coast, Decatur County is home to an important Georgia port: The City of Bainbridge.
Bainbridge and Decatur County are vital hubs of commerce where the states of Florida and Georgia converge.
Decatur County can be very proud of its most recent accolade: It was one of six winners of this year's County Excellence Awards, sponsored by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and Georgia Trend magazine.
According to ACCG and Georgia Trend, Chatham, Cobb, Decatur, Heard, Liberty and Mitchell counties all provided citizens with services and facilities, displaying innovation, creativity and hard work.
The competition rewards good ideas that are well executed. Winners are selected by an independent panel of judges convened by ACCG.
The awards, says ACCG Executive Director Jerry Griffith, "showcase how counties are developing unique programs and facilities to meet the needs of their communities. This program provides a forum to celebrate their accomplishments and to inspire other local governments."
Palmer Rich has privileged memories of the stirrings of wildlife in the misty dawns at Silver Lake, an 8,400-acre tract of land in Decatur County outside Bainbridge he says looks much the same today as it did when Native Americans hunted and fished the wilderness thousands of years ago.
Rich once managed Silver Lake, when it was owned by International Paper Company (IP) and when its prehistoric beauty and populations of turkey, deer, quail, ducks and other critters could only be enjoyed by a small group of well-connected outdoorsmen.
"Now Silver Lake belongs to every Georgian," says Rich, today the chairman of the Decatur County Commission and one of the leaders who helped find the $3 million his community had to raise as part of a $38.6 million fund the state of Georgia used to purchase the Silver Lake property from IP and turn it into a public Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
In addition to offering a dramatic landscape and bountiful fish and game, the Silver Lake WMA holds rare and endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and gopher turtle. "There are 150 or so plants in there that grow nowhere else but in this area," says Decatur County administrator Tom Patton.
The August 2008 opening of the Silver Lake WMA followed a hectic scramble by Decatur County commissioners and other local leaders in a partnership with state agencies, conservation groups and charitable foundations to gather the money the project required. At the same time, the county commission organized public forums to hear from local citizens and to inform them about the project.
"All of this happened in less than 18 months," Patton says. "It just so happened the opportunity corresponded with our SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) referendum."
The Silver Lake tract of land includes the 350-acre namesake body of water, as well as seven large ponds, all teeming with bream, largemouth bass and other fish that will only add to the county's reputation as an angler's paradise, thanks to nearby Lake Seminole, the Flint River and a number of creeks that surround the new WMA.
After hearing all the details, locals voted to use the SPLOST revenues to fund their $3 million contribution to the Silver Lake WMA. "Our citizens realized this was such a rare opportunity, and they are the ones who passed the issue by an overwhelming majority," Rich says. The WMA is expected to attract scientists, hunters, anglers and hikers with assets like its substantial stand of natural longleaf pines and its unique ecosystem. "This is something we can preserve for future generations, and it can never be developed or lost," Rich says.