In the opening scene to Ayn Rand's groundbreaking and apocalyptic novel, Atlas Shrugged, the heroine's assistant decides to walk back to his office on New York's Fifth Avenue because the street's relative prosperity -- only one in four store fronts are vacant -- gives him a sense of assurance amid the rampant economic and social chaos enveloping the world of Atlas Shrugged. Yet in downtown Austell, the scene is similar, with all too many vacant storefronts reminding residents that the city has seen better days.
Yet amidst this depressing evidence of decline is a shining monument to its civic leader for over two decades: A pristine bronze statue of Mayor Joe Jerkins, encapsulated by a well groomed and manicured mini-park, replete with benches so citizens can sit and relax while contemplating the likeness of his honor.
The contrast between this statue and park and the evident decay around it is stark. To the casual observer, the questions that inevitably arise are: Why has the City bestowed such an honor on his honor when it is apparent under his watch that the City has gone downhill? After all, with approximately one in four storefronts vacant in downtown Austell, there must have been a time when there were higher occupancy rates. Otherwise, why would the storefronts have been built in the first place?
Moreover, how much did the park and statue cost? The answer is: over a quarter of a million dollars. The City justifies the cost by pointing out that it was paid for with development money from the railroad, with no direct cost to the taxpayer. Yet given the sordid shape the City is in, surely there could have been better uses for that money. For starters, how about updating the City's website? As it stands, it is a relic of the last century which doesn't even have the City's Charter posted on-line.
Or it could have used statue money to modernize the Water Department to provide electronic billing and quick pay. Electronic billing would save the City money over the long run by reducing the costs of printing, handling and postage. And quick pay would improve cash flow and make it easier for customers to pay their bills on time, or avoid making an otherwise unnecessary trip to City Hall to pay their bills.
As for the sad state of decay symbolized by the now vacant Austell Supermarket (which the Mayor once touted as a symbol of downtown revitalization), it is time for the City and the business community to put its heads together, and look for ways to revitalize its downtown. Are there ordinances and codes which stand in the way of growth? Could the City learn from the success of other local cities and move its Farmer's Market from a place where vendors and shoppers fear to tred, (its in a vacant, dusty lot, blocks from downtown) and instead have it located where people naturally go when they want to shop in downtown; i.e. in the parking area behind the storefronts?
The sad decline of Austell did not happen overnight, and its revitalization will likewise take a long and concerted effort. However, for that process to begin, we need new leadership which is committed to the City's future; a future which does not immortalize the failed policies of the past with a statue.