Possible Art and Cultural Exhibit for Americus discussed at County Board of Commissioners meeting

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, October 21, 2020

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AMERICUS – The Sumter County Board of Commissioners (BOC) held its monthly meeting on Tuesday, October 20 and, once again, did it virtually due to lingering concerns over COVID-19. At that meeting, a local non-profit group called the Social Exchange Group (SEG) presented their proposal to the BOC to have an art and cultural exhibit overlay displayed in Americus for the purpose of brightening up an area of the city that is considered by many to be a blighted area.

According to the SEG, this proposed art district would encompass an area that includes portions of Lee Street, Finn Street and Jackson Street.

According to SEG CEO Summer Murray, part of this exhibit would include portions of the train depot on Jackson Street, at which Americus Mayor Barry Blount would like to see a music park developed. The exhibit would also include an area where the old Furlow School building is located.

“What we can do with our vision is the rehabilitation of this area, creating an area of substance,” Murray told the BOC. “This area will also include the school (old Furlow School building) in hopes that we can possibly get some grants and what not to rehabilitate that as well.”

Murray went on to explain that an art district is an area where temporary artistic installations are done. “There will be murals. There will be sculptures. There will be certain types of events we’re planning on doing,” said Murray. She added that the SEG is planning an event at the end of October at which they will bring awareness to social problems. “One of the things that we’ve taken on is social ailments. We’re counselors,” said Murray. “Social change, those kind of things, are at the forefront of our mission and our work.” Murray went on to say that the SEG did some work creating murals at the Atlanta Living Walls back in July and that those murals were created for the purpose of bringing awareness to the social injustices that are going on in society.

Murray also stated that at the group’s event at the end of October, the SEG plans to create murals that will bring awareness to addiction. “It is something that is plaguing our country,” said Murray. “We named the event “Horrors of Addiction”. It is meant to move. It is meant to educate and empower…to bring awareness to how serious this is. We ourselves in the community have lost many lives to addiction.”

Murray went on to say that after the event in October, the SEG has plans to do an international food festival in Americus to bring cultural inclusion to the area.

“Lots of things going on,” said Murray. “We’ve got a studio that is the old Cash and Carry that is adjacent to where our admin building is on the main property.”

Murray continued by saying that the group wants to create a printing museum, as well as an art gallery. She added that the Americus City Council is well aware of the SEG’s plans to develop an art district in Americus. “We’ve actually presented it to them (Americus City Council) and we’ve talked individually and they’re all on board with it,” said Murray.

SEG Chief Financial Officer Elaina Lockhart told the BOC that their organization is working on getting several different grants that will help to fund this proposed art district. “We are working with the National Endowment of the arts (NEA) for a creative place-making grant and we also have contacted the EPA in connection with getting help with removing asbestos from the Furlow School, which would be a big undertaking, but there are funds and availability to do that,” said Lockhart.

Lockhart also stated that the SEG plans to use the old Furlow School building as an institute of learning for arts and humanities.

Lockhart also mentioned that she is on the Sam Short Line Excursion Board and that the Sam Short Line is very excited about partnering with the SEG in creating an “Art Train”. Lockhart told the BOC this train would bring in more tourism to the area when the temporary art installations are done. “People would get off the train here in Americus and come down Finn Street,” said Lockhart.

She went on to say that the SEG plans to work in connection with the colored museum doing art projects with them regarding Civil Rights, as well as a tour through Downtown Americus. She added that the SEG would like to partner with Sumter County in creating an arts and culture authority that would work to facilitate the Arts and Humanities. “The Humanities are very healing to people,” said Lockhart. “We also are doing art therapy for children and people who have anxiety and depression. Art is very therapeutic. We have over a city block of property so we have plenty of social distancing to do art events outside,” Lockhart continued.

She went on to say that the SEG is working on getting grant funding from companies such as Publics and Geico Insurance as well as Georgia Power.

Carl Reid, who also represented the SEG at the meeting, said that the organization is asking the BOC to get on board with what it is trying to do because, in his opinion, it will create revenue streams not only for Americus, but for Sumter County as well. “We’re looking for Southwest Georgia to be the epicenter of arts and culture in our area,” said Reid. “I don’t see why, because our county is so small, why we can’t be a leader in showing how community unity….coming together through arts, culture and healing, why we cannot be a leader in showing that there is community unity regardless of what’s going on in our nation.”

This is the train depot on Jackson Street in Americus. It is at this ttrain depot where the Sam Short Line, the train that goes from Cordele to Plains, picks up and drops off passengers in Americus. According to the Social Exchange Group, the group that wants to construct an art district in this area, the train depot is also close to where Americus Mayor Barry Blount would like to see a music park be built.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Reid reiterated to the BOC that the SEG’s plan has already been presented to the Americus City Council and that the council is on board with the idea. “We have letters of recommendation from the Tourism Board, from Sam Short Line. We have also worked with students at GSW, so this is encompassing all of Sumter County. We’re trying to get all communities of Sumter County involved in this,” said Reid.

BOC Chairman Clay Jones asked the SEG representatives what they would need from the BOC. Reid replied that they are asking for assistance from the BOC with applying for enterprise zoning. “This would help us in raising funds and allowing small businesses to get started in the area,” said Reid. “Also, we would like the Board to know that most of this land is privately owned and being graciously donated for this work, this community work,” continued Reid.

Murray added that the area in which the SEG would like to develop the art district is a very blighted area and that what is needed is for the county to assist the SEG in facilitating an area of development. “In order to do that, we have to have the city and the county on board in terms of incentives and that kind of thing,” said Murray. “We want businesses to come here to this area to cultivate the arts, humanities and culture and in order to do that, that’s where your city and your county comes in.”

As far as the financial cost to this endeavor, Lockhart stated to the BOC that the SEG wants to offer the opportunity for people to invest in their property by giving tax incentives. “That would be an area that you guys (BOC) can assist in,” said Lockhart. She went on to say that the City of Americus is working with the SEG to make it possible for someone who wants to open a business in the proposed art district not to have to pay the $100 business license fee, which would be an incentive to open a business in that area. Lockhart added that the SEG has spoken with the art department at Georgia Southwestern State University about making it possible for art students to come outside and paint on certain buildings and do their work. Lockhart added that having an art district in Americus would entice new business to come in and develop the land by building new structures or putting up temporary art installations. “That’s where you guys (BOC) could come in with the Art and Cultural Authority where we can work together in appropriating some funds to develop that for the students,” said Lockhart.

She also stated that the SEG has partnered with AT&T to bring in Broadband so that they can host up to 50 students live streaming virtual classrooms at one time. “With the large area that we have, the kids can be outside and the warehouse studio is just under 6,000 square feet, so we have plenty of space where kids can come and get on the Internet,” said Lockhart. “It’s not rinky-dink internet. It would be like the internet at an airport.” She added that by the beginning of 2021, the SEG would have already signed its contract with AT&T to make this possible. “As a non-profit, we are going to be funding this, but it is for university students and the public and private school kids to utilize and for the entire community,” said Lockhart. “We’re hoping that the Wi-Fi Broadband would also include the train depot so that there would be also complimentary Wi-Fi when people get on and off while they’re waiting for the train.

Murray added that the SEG is very focused on the youth of the community, in particular, the area of Preventative Services. She added that the SEG is working to provide education through knowledge and through treatment. “The Arts and the Humanities are very healing and it’s also a way to cultivate and to build and develop,” said Murray.

Board Chairman Jones asked the group whether or not they’re trying to go through a certain entity to get their funding. Lockhart replied that the SEG is trying to create an art and culture development authority and would like to partner with Sumter County to help with funding to make the art district possible. “We also provide our own funding as well,” said Lockhart. “It’s not just about money. We also want to be inclusive of the county. It’s not just something we’re working with the city with. We want to be as inclusive as we can with all of our local governments so we can all work together,” continued Lockhart. She added that while the SEG is doing a lot of the work to make this a reality, they need the support of the community to make it happen and that it will benefit everybody in the long run.

Jones asked the commissioners what they thought about the proposed art district and everyone of them though it was a good idea. “I don’t see where the county wouldn’t stand behind you guys (SEG) and support this,” said Commissioner Mark Waddell. “From a financial standpoint, that’s a different picture here, but from just a support standpoint, if there’s something that you guys need, you can give it to Chairman Jones and we can look at that and support you guys,” continued Waddell.

Commissioner Scott Roberson echoed the SEG’s sentiments that the area in which they would like to put the art district is a very blighted area. “Anything you can do will improve it, believe me,” said Roberson.

Jones asked County Financial Director Janice Jarvis what she though about the idea and she replied that it is a fantastic idea. “I think the concept is absolutely wonderful,” said Jarvis. “I’d like to see it come to fruition.”

Jones told the SEG group that he noticed that it has an ordinance with the City of Americus and asked them if they need anything from the BOC, such as a letter of support. Reid replied that a letter of support would be great, but added that what the BOC had in its possession from the SEG was not an ordinance from the city for the creation of the art exhibit. “The Social Exchange (SEG) did all the investigation and all the research,” said Reid. He added that the SEG presented its idea to the Americus City Council and that they are in the process of working out the details with Americus City Attorney Jimmy Skipper to make sure that the proposed art exhibit complies with all of the city ordinances. Reid added, however, that the SEG could use help with drafting with the DCA an enterprise zone. “These are new waters for us and apparently, for the City Attorney,” said Reid. “We can use help on that end in support or being able to glean from experiences or resources or knowledge that the Board can extend to us.”

While the BOC made no official approval regarding this endeavor to create an art district in Americus, Board Chairman Jones told the SEG representatives that it would do what it could to make this endeavor a reality.