February 19, 2018|By Bob Thomson| Community Development
Porterdale is small village 35 miles east of Atlanta, Georgia. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the entire historic section—comprised of our downtown, river access and main park—is less than one square mile. But our little town has been doing big things, and has become a regional model for how small communities can use their natural and cultural assets to transform themselves and spur balanced economic development.

Not so long ago, it was a different story. Ten years ago, Porterdale was known as a dumping ground, scattered with decaying buildings and broken physical and cultural infrastructure, all bisected by the ignored, littered Yellow River.

The upward trajectory began with the 2011 Comprehensive Plan, built on taking advantage of the triad of Preservation, the Arts, and Natural Resources. This plan was created by citizens, stakeholders, elected officials and the leadership team—a very active, community-based visioning group of local volunteers, appointed Historic Preservation Commission and Zoning Board members, the city attorney, city engineer, business owners, elected officials, reps from the faith-based community, and facilitators from the University of Georgia.

Between 2011 and 2018, city officials and volunteers christened the Yellow River Water Trail and established a kayak launch, created a bird sanctuary, rehabbed, restored or repurposed civic buildings, and formed an effective Historic Planning Commission that has contributed to a complete turnaround in the condition of the housing stock.

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The Yellow River Water Trail includes a kayak launch. Photos by Bob Thomson.

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Before rehabilitation, the historic Porter Memorial Gym was in shambles (left; photo by Bob Thomson). Now it hosts concerts and events, such as the Georgia Theater-sponsored concert “T Hardy and the Hard Knocks” (right; photo by Alec Stanley).

In that same period, through the successful utilization of over $2.5 million in grants, Porterdale has acquired trailheads, improved the sanitary sewer system, built sidewalks, created neighborhood “pocket parks,” paved trails, and began the process of creating a new Yellow River access point with an accessible whitewater overlook.

 2 19 whitewaterDawn near the new whitewater overlook. Photo by Bob Thomson.

By 2015, we had gotten to a solid point in our progress, but we were looking for ways to keep our momentum going in the right direction. Stacy Funderburke of The Conservation Fund’s Southeast office took notice of what Porterdale was doing, and suggested that we would benefit from attending their Balancing Nature and Commerce course.

Offered through The Conservation Fund’s Conservation Leadership Network (CLN), the Balancing Nature and Commerce workshop helps rural communities that are “gateways” to public lands and natural areas achieve both conservation and economic development goals. The workshop brings together teams made up of community members, government, local business and more to engage with experts in topics such as economics, community character, natural resources and partnership building skills. This workshop creates a collaborative learning environment that serves as a catalyst for communities to create positive change and build thriving economies while protecting the natural and cultural assets that make them unique. To date, they’ve worked with 700 communities across the country.

So in February 2017, our Porterdale team attended the Balancing Nature and Commerce national workshop in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Our diverse team included a range of community, regional and state leaders, and we worked on creating an action plan for Porterdale’s future. The focused time at the workshop enabled us to find common ground and develop ideas for implementation back home.

2 19 porterdaleteamatBNCThe Porterdale team at the 2017 Balancing Nature and Commerce national workshop. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

We left the course armed with a river-based master plan, which now plays a vital role in defining the town’s future.  With the workshop’s focus on implementation, the master plan ties in the efforts of local trails organizations, the Georgia River Network, and our Yellow River Trail non-profit.

Complementing the river-based trail plan, in cooperation with the Georgia Department of Transportation and three other impacted jurisdictions, we’ll have an estimated $10 million gateway to outdoor recreation activities linking Covington (the county seat) and Porterdale by late 2022, with interconnected trails, sidewalks, native landscaping and a dedicated/separated bike path. We are also removing asphalt and gravel from two old paved lots to create a green trailhead to the Yellow River Water and pedestrian trails.

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 Cedar Shoals Park on the Yellow River (left), and Bird Sanctuary, Yellow River Park (right). Photos by Bob Thomson.

The guidance and inspiration our team took away from the Balancing Nature and Commerce course gave us confirmation we were on the right path, and opened our minds to a wealth of other resources we utilize on an almost weekly basis. In fact, we are in the process of planning a regional Balancing Nature and Commerce workshop focused on communities across the state of Georgia to be held October 23-25, 2018. We’re extremely grateful for the results, and happy to serve as model for other communities trying to revitalize their towns by utilizing their natural resources.

 The next national Balancing Nature and Commerce in Rural Communities and Landscapes workshop is only a year away! Click here to find out more information and apply attend February 26-28, 2019 at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia!