Mighty Joe at the Bat

 

Grillo at the bat

 

The outlook was uncertain for the Heroes squad that day:

The score was thirty-thirty with one inning left to play,

And then when Craig singled to left and Ally did it too,

Two ducks were on the pond for Joe, whose work here wasn’t through.

 

Joe grabbed a bat that fit his grip, and rolled up to the plate;

His steely look of confidence foretold the pitcher’s fate;

He stared the hurler up and down, and held his bat up high,

The pitch came in, Joe took a swing, and hit a mighty fly.

 

The pitcher’s spirits plummeted as the ball disappeared;

It sailed right past a jetliner into the stratosphere,

Then into orbit, toward the moon, the ball went into space,

Outward bound, toward Jupiter, as Joe rolled to first base.

 

The crowd went nuts as Joe took second, then glided to third,

The ball flew right past Saturn’s rings (at least, that’s what I heard).

As Joe crossed home triumphantly (his wheels had touched them all),

A groan swept through the ballpark as the umpire cried, “foul ball!”

My Son Is

Random thoughts on the most important boy that I know in the waning weeks of Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month:

 

My son is a constant loop in my thought track.

My son is the boy you can hear from outside the house or the room, making sounds that seem to have no form.

My son is quiet, sometimes for hours at a time.

My son spends most of his time inside, in his wheelchair or on the floor, watching movies, listening to music or stories, making fancy moves, playing with me.

My son is the boy with clenched hands, held up in the air as if in protest, tight hands that close like vice grips because the part of his brain that says “let go” is on sabbatical.

My son stands out in a crowd even though he can’t stand by himself.

My son was diagnosed as an infant with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, and if you’re sincerely interested in learning more about that, there’s a lot of great information on the Internet that’s worth your time.

My son is fine, and that’s exactly what I’ll say when you ask, “what’s wrong with him?”

My son’s diagnosis doesn’t define who he is; everyone is different and should be valued for their individuality, including people diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy.

My son sometimes has scratches on his smooth and brilliant face, some of them fading, some of them fresh, because he can’t quite control his hands, and because his fingernails are often really hard to trim close with those clenched hands.

My son has a smile with no strings attached, a gigantic smile for you and especially for me whenever I enter his space, because my son, inexplicably, hasn’t tired of his old man yet.

My son can walk, with help, and for those who are willing to help, it’s time well spent. In fact, you might find yourself dancing with him once you get him up and going.

My son laughs at fart sounds and roughhousing and curse words, and at other people’s laughter, because he wants in on the joke, expects to be in on the joke, in spite of a world that mostly considers him an afterthought.

My son is a minority within a minority, but he doesn’t have many advocates crying out for his civil and human rights.

My son may not deserve your love, but he deserves your respect.

My son and his parents live life on the brink, and the brink is consistently being redefined or moved.

My son loves super heroes and music, especially music.

My son has good taste in music, but is patient enough to listen when I play it, and encourages me by singing along to whatever tune I happen to be scratching at, especially Ripple. He loves Ripple.

My son sings out loud in wordless joy, smiling at his mother’s silly dancing, always up for a live show, always unabashed in his appreciation.

My son loves an adventure, especially if it includes a fast, bumpy ride that puts the wind in his face, which inevitably elicits fancy squeals and delighted screams.

My son cries when I sneeze, almost always, tears and everything, but he isn’t a baby, and if you respect him, you won’t speak to him like one. He is quirky.

My son is brave, proud, strong and sincere.

My son is social, and friendly, and forgiving, and honest, and damaged, and perfect.

My son is a troublemaker, sometimes frustrating, sometimes scary, and very funny.

My son is a work in progress, like your son.

My son is a teacher.

My son is wonderful company, and his company is a gift that few people seem to want or understand, but it is a gift that I can’t seem to get enough of.

My son is loved, fiercely.

My son has very few friends his own age. He doesn’t have many visitors. But if he gets lonely, he doesn’t show it, at least not in ways we understand yet.

My son always says please and thank you, without using those words.

My son hates long drives. For now.

My son is approachable and accepting and loves your company, if you’re willing to share it, and if you really want to know him or be with him, he is within reach, and he’s totally worth your time.

My son can be a tough taskmaster. He doesn’t give his parents any days off, just like other sons.

My son is unique.

My son needs me, and his needs are ever-changing, and the older he gets, the more he needs me, and the more I grow.

My son would be left behind if it were not for a handful of people who are physically capable and otherwise compelled to care for him, and the bigger he gets, the harder it is to care for him, and the easier it is to leave him behind.

My son will never be left behind as long as I’m alive.

My son is a constant loop in my thought track, and I don’t plan on pressing the stop button, because he’s my son.

Lucky Meeting

I’m from Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia. Johan is from Stockholm, Sweden. Our paths crossed in Fenway Park in the middle of March, several weeks before opening day.

We met because flags were flying at half-mast and he wanted to know why.

“Nancy Reagan just died,” I said. “That must be why.”

“Right, of course,” he said. “I heard about that. What’s strange is, the last time I was in America, Michael Jackson died.”

“I’m surprised they haven’t cancelled your visa,” I said. “You’re kind of like the angel of death for famous Americans.”

He laughed, said, “Would you believe that my nickname is ‘Lucky’?”

The tour guide, Cheryl, took us through the visitor’s clubhouse, let us sit in the oldest bleacher seats in baseball, and in the seats on top of the green monster, showed us the rooftop vegetable garden, took us into the press box, filled us with history – Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth (before and after the curse), Teddy Ballgame and Tony C. and Yaz and Fisk and Game 6 – 1975, not 1986.

Fenway is 104-years-old. It has been the site of some of the greatest thrills and heartbreaking tragedies a game can conjure, and the workplace of some of the game’s most compelling figures. Its ghosts have ghosts. Cheryl relived for us the miracle of 2004, when the Red Sox ended the 86-year curse, and the catharsis of 2013, when they finally won the Series at home, a gift to all of Boston following the deadly marathon bombing.

She showed us the seat in the right-field bleachers where a sleeping fan was hit on the head by a 502-foot Williams home run, the longest ever hit at Fenway. The seat is painted red.

It was the first time Johan or I had ever visited Fenway, this sports cathedral, an outdoor theatre that has been staging a passion play called Red Sox baseball for more than a century. But I wanted to know why a Swedish psychologist visiting Boston to teach an advanced course at MIT was shelling out 18 bucks to tour a ballpark on its day off.

Turns out, he lived in San Diego a while back, spent a couple of years there and managed to get bit by the baseball bug, in spite of the Padres.

“But I’ve always wanted to visit Fenway Park,” Johan/Lucky said. “I think this place is bigger than the game.”

 

 

Campus Carry: Terrible Idea

A NEW NOTE:  With the dimwitted bozos under the Gold Dome pushing for guns on college campuses again, figured I’d dust off this story from a couple of years ago and provide a little bit of background information.  

At the time when it was written, the legislature was attempting to turn Georgia into a 59,000-square-mile version of Deadwood with gun laws that would arm pretty much anyone in anyplace, including college campuses. The campus carry provision didn’t make it into the whacko law that was eventually passed, but this story came out before the vote, and the text I turned in included comments from college students and parents, folks who had a lot at stake.

The publisher of the magazine where I was employed at the time chose to cut all of the comments from students or parents, sources who were eager to openly discuss the issue with a reporter. So, an important voice was eliminated from the public discussion, the voice of stakeholders in the state’s university system. 

Now I’m part of that system, and I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of adding guns to a crowded campus filled with stressed-out, often socially-awkward, and potentially high-strung students, professors, staffers, and so forth. If the campus carry provision becomes the law, I will feel the exact opposite of protected. Anyway, here’s the story, with quotes from college students and parents.

 

I’ve never seen the man before, don’t know his name. But he’s definitely local or he wouldn’t be embedded at the local gun store, where he presents an air of native permanence, while I’ve only lived in this rural Northeast Georgia community for 15 years. So, I’m the gatecrasher here, asking questions about the hundreds of firearms on display, taking notes, handing out business cards.

He takes the card, looks at it, smiles and asks, “you a liberal or conservative?”

I say, “I’m not here to talk politics, I’m here to ask about guns.”

Except, this guy knows better. Any discussion about guns becomes a political debate faster than you can say, “reach for the sky,” especially in Georgia, where policymakers are pushing legislation to radically overhaul the state’s gun laws. That’s kind of like firing a gun with a plugged barrel while wearing a blindfold, according to people who have experience studying the issue.

“The problem is, what can we do to reduce the number of firearm deaths and injuries and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners,” says Mark Rosenberg, former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) at the CDC, and now the president/CEO of the Centers for Global Health, based in Decatur. “We can’t rattle off ideas at the top of our head and expect to get anywhere. We need to do the research, because the fact is, we don’t know what works, so it wouldn’t be fair to ask policymakers to try and pass legislation if they don’t know what works.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills has a different angle – he believes in enforcing laws that already exist. “I wish the legislature would call us sometimes,” quips Sills, a veteran cop and immediate past president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association. “I am adamantly opposed to anything more than what we have now. We already have a plethora of laws to deal with criminals who use guns and I’m telling you, it’s not being utilized.”

But when it comes to guns in this country, reactionary partisanship sparked by emotion or the deep pockets of the gun lobby (think the National Rifle Association) or both, is the norm. In 2013 the General Assembly considered bills that would not only arm public school teachers and administrators but also allow weapons on college campuses (the controversial ‘campus carry’ provision), or in churches, bars, airports, government buildings, on public transportation – places where guns are typically restricted. Supporters of this kind of thing claim that looser gun restrictions will make Georgia safer.

“Now, anywhere you go you are in danger,” says Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, which helped craft some of the legislation proposed in 2013. “There’s too much gun control now, as far as we’re concerned. We feel that we should be able to defend ourselves any place we go.”

Meanwhile, critics are puzzled by the urgency of the latest effort to increase the presence of firearms, and the timing (in the wake of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.).

“I think we should support reasonable gun legislation,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “But for some reason, the tide is turning on even the most reasonable protections against gun violence, and I don’t believe that’s the right direction for this city, this state or this country.”

The man at my local gun store isn’t interested in what Mayor Reed thinks because right now he’s got a point to make with me.

“You take this business card to some places I know in Kentucky, like you done here, and they’ll put a gun on you, escort you out the door,” he says, as a matter of fact, because he’s spent a lot of time in Kentucky.

And I say, trying to match his good-natured tone, “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time someone aimed a gun at me.”

It was two guns actually, pointed at my chest from a few feet away, because police officers are trained to aim at the largest center of mass on a human body. Fortunately, the officers weren’t looking for me. I happened to be opening the back door of my family’s print shop when they happened to be looking for an escaped convict who had shot and killed a local preacher. My experience staring down the menacing maw of eternity is the American experience, because we are a nation of guns, gun owners and potential gun victims.

Missed Target

More than two-dozen gun-related bills were filed during the 2013 session. The two biggies, Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 512, went down to the wire (the ‘campus carry’ provision was the sticking point). They didn’t survive the session, but you can bet your last bullet that they’ll be back in some form or fashion in the 2014 session that begins next month.

“Some kind of strong gun legislation is coming up again,” promises State Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun), chairman of the Rules Committee, and a chief sponsor of HB 512 (the Safe Carry Protection Act).

“I thought it was a good bill, but if it could be made more palatable to the other side, that might be something we’ll look at,” adds Meadows, who carries a little Ruger pistol in his back pocket. “But if my name is on it, I want it to be good legislation, not just something that’ll flare up and make everybody talk.”

Opponents of ‘campus carry’ talked plenty last session, from grassroots advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense to the University System of Georgia (USG), whose chancellor, Hank Huckaby (a former legislator) told lawmakers, “adding loaded weapons to an already potentially volatile mix of youthful exuberance, stress, and yes, at times alcohol and other factors, could lead to a tragedy of our own making that we could otherwise avoid.”

That was in March. Even with such widespread opposition to the campus carry concept, HB 512 received overwhelming support by House Republicans and made it as far as the Senate’s Judiciary Non-Civil Committee before time ran out on the session. By September, the entire public university system had developed a case of self-imposed laryngitis, underlying the sensitive political nature of the hot-blooded, often emotional issue of gun rights.

“At this time, we will not be making any statements or comments regarding this subject,” came the response from USG spokesman John Milsaps to an interview request. It was the same “no comment” from every university we contacted except one.

“We are committed to providing a safe education and work environment for our students, faculty and staff,” says Bonita Jacobs, president of the University of North Georgia. “We believe the law as currently written best achieves that.”

One officially-gagged university spokesperson who did not want to be identified says, “we’ve been told by the University System not to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole.”

Georgia State University administrators did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but a number of GSU customers did.

“I think it’s a bad idea, because there are people that can buy guns that don’t really know how to use them,” says Angelica Currens, a GSU senior with a double major in psychology and criminal justice. “You have to take a test to get a driver’s license, but you’re not required to get any training for a gun, which can potentially be more dangerous, and that bothers me.”

Ollie Hudgins and his mom Jennifer have a different point of view. “Crime is on and around my campus, so knowing that there could be qualified and licensed gun-owners nearby makes me feel safer,” he says. Under the campus carry provision, only students who are at least 21 with a Georgia Weapons Carry License (it costs about $80 and part of that is for a G.B.I. background check) would be allowed to pack heat at school.

“College students are adults that have the rights of any other adult,” says Jennifer Hudgins. “College is not a bubble and we are not doing them any favors by treating them as children and protecting them from the outside world. The right to carry a concealed weapon should be theirs if they are willing to go through the responsible, legal steps to obtain the proper license.”

Vicki White Warneke has two daughters at GSU, one who witnessed a gun death on campus, a drug deal that turned violent. “More guns on campus is not the answer,” she says. “There are so many people these days with anger issues and no common sense. I would hate to see what happens if and when someone who is carrying gets pissed off.”

So, the current gun laws survived another year, and the Meadows crowd circled the wagons to discuss what form their legislation might take in 2014. Don’t be surprised if ‘campus carry’ is axed, which makes sense to State Rep. Scott Holcomb.

“You had universal opposition to the extension of gun rights on college campuses,” says Holcomb (D-Atlanta), who spoke against HB 512 on the Capitol floor. “You had a group of Democrats and Republicans who think reasonable restrictions are appropriate. “But you also had a core group of ardent Republicans who believe guns should be allowed virtually anywhere at anytime for anyone under any circumstance whatsoever. That isn’t logical and it can’t be justified.”

Deadly Aim

April 16, 2007 is branded on Brenda Kendrick’s broken heart. That’s the day Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the university campus.

“My niece was killed that day, in French class. Austin Michelle Cloyd. She was my younger brother’s daughter, a freshman. It was a week before her 19th birthday,” says Kendrick, who is a school psychologist for the White County School District in Northeast Georgia. “I’d never really thought about the gun issue before.”

That day changed her perspective, but it was the Newtown massacre a year ago that inspired her to take action. The day after the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an Indiana woman named Shannon Watts started a Facebook page called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has since become a non-profit modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Kendrick  joined immediately.

With chapters in all 50 states, Moms Demand Action is targeting state and federal lawmakers, companies and educational institutions to establish what it considers common-sense gun reforms, such as background checks for all gun and ammo purchases, restricting military-style weapons and ammo, establishing product safety oversight of guns and ammo.

“Teddy bears are more regulated than guns, they have to meet consumer health and safety standards, but guns don’t,” Kendrick says. But teddy bears don’t have quite the lobbying power that guns do. Guns are big business in the U.S. (a $33 billion industry supporting about 220,000 jobs). They are also prevalent (about 300,000 Georgians with permits to carry handguns; about 300 million guns in the U.S., and the number rises about 4 million a year, according to the NRA).

And deadly: there are about 32,000 gun deaths a year in the U.S., approximately the same as the number of traffic deaths (although two thirds of the gun deaths are suicides). But for some, the very idea of “gun control” is intolerable. The NRA is the fattest cat on this side, shelling out about $3 million a year on federal lobbying efforts (and a reported $25 million during the 2012 election cycle) to oppose such things as restrictions on assault weapons or the registration of firearms. In response to several requests for an interview, an NRA spokesperson finally sent this comment via email: “NRA is working closely with legislators and Second Amendment advocates across Georgia to benefit law abiding gun owners in the upcoming 2014 legislative session.”

Veteran lawman Sheriff Sills was a bit more lucid, and firm, saying flatly, “I am not in favor of gun control,” adding, “The term ‘assault rifle’ is just bogus hyperbole. It is meaningless. The problem isn’t the gun, it’s the person holding the gun.”

He bases his opinion on four decades of blood-stained experience. “I have seen every kind of carnage there is. I carried a person’s foot in my pocket once. I’m desensitized because I’m supposed to be. I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he says. “But dear God, I really believe we have become desensitized as a people, all these violent movies and games and what’s available on the Internet for young people. When we played cops and robbers as kids, we never saw somebody’s head blown off. Kids today, by the time they’re 16 they’ve seen so much gory stuff.”

So, it isn’t the guns, he says. The problems, in addition to the breakdown of the American family, include a disintegrating system to treat the mentally ill, and a broken criminal justice system. “Its a five year sentence for a person to possess a firearm if they are a convicted felon. If you carry a firearm in the commission of crime, that carries a 10 year sentence,” he says. “But those firearm charges are usually the first thing that gets chipped away in a plea negotiation. If we wanted to send a message and stop people from committing crimes with guns, we have laws to do it.”

Sills cites example after example of recidivist criminals who commit violent acts, such as the murder last year (a few days after the Newtown massacre) of a Clayton County police officer, who was reportedly shot to death by a man with a history of gun-related convictions who was out of prison on parole.

Of course, none of that can fill the loss or ease the pain Kendrick and her family feels, so they continue advocating for what they consider common-sense gun laws that also protect Second Amendment rights, which is exactly what Mark Rosenberg and his former arch enemy are trying to do.

In 1983, Rosenberg went to the CDC to help establish the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, with the idea of applying a public health approach to studying violent injury, which was a leading cause of death for young people (ages 1 to 44). In particular, they wanted to take a close look at the rising number of firearm deaths with the goal of prevention in mind. So, they researched the underlying causes of gun violence.

The researchers uncovered some useful information, such as the likelihood of being shot and killed in your home is significantly greater if you have a firearm in your home, which is a no-brainer. Some of the numbers were inflated, and have since been adjusted (instead of 43 times more likely, you’re three times as likely to be shot and killed if you’ve got a gun in your home), and the methodology of the study was questioned by criminologists and other scientists, but more importantly, by the powerful NRA. The NRA had an influential front man in Congressman Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas), who led the fight to shut down the CDC’s research into gun violence, which is exactly what happened. That was in 1996, when Rosenberg and Dickey couldn’t imagine occupying the same room together without an eruption. Something else happened instead.

“He came to my office one day, when things had subsided a little,” says Dickey, who is retired now.

“We talked about our children, discovered we struggled with some of the same things as parents, got to know each other and became friends,” Rosenberg says.

They kept a dialogue going, and last year they co-wrote an editorial that appeared in the Washington Post calling for more research, from a public health perspective, into gun violence. According to the editorial, since 1996, “the United States has spent about $240 million a year on traffic safety research, but there has been almost no publicly funded research on firearm injuries. As a consequence, U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries?”

For Rosenberg and for the gun-toting masses, the Second Amendment is nigh on sacrosanct (but it clearly doesn’t give me the right to carry any weapon I want in any manner I choose for any purpose). He doesn’t want my gun (I only have one, an old .22 rifle) and probably doesn’t want yours. This isn’t a black or white, all or none issue.

“It isn’t legal in our country to take guns away from law abiding citizens. That would be totally unconstitutional,” Rosenberg says. “We don’t know if registration and licensing would make a difference. We don’t know if restricting access for people adjudicated mentally ill would make a difference. We haven’t done the research.

“So, we have two goals – reduce firearm injuries and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners. That’s what Jay and I agree on. You can do both,” he says. “You can do both.”

Visitors Welcome

Erin Grasso beams at the edge of a frigid muddy pitch, a baby in one arm, another in utero, while her husband Mike whoops it up like a maniac in a big, yellow John Deere excavator, its hydraulic insect arm ripping at the earth. A few moments earlier, he was tearing around the property of Tank Town USA in a British armored personnel carrier, living a diesel-fueled Captain America fantasy while helping sustain a $51-billion reality.

“First he drove the tank, now he’s playing in the dirt. He’s in his glory,” says Erin. “This was his Christmas present. He was really surprised.”

For $50, you can drive a tank for 10 minutes. For $500, you crush a car with a tank. And there’s the John Deere excavator, which Mike really dug, and dug with.

“The tank was awesome, no question about it, but you’re driving around in circles, and it was pretty easy,” he says. “The digger, though, that took some getting used to. That was really cool.”

The Grassos drove two hours north from Atlanta to get to Tank Town (in Morganton, on the Appalachian Highway), one of the few businesses of its kind in the U.S. and one of the newest attractions in Georgia’s pulsing, cephalopodan tourism industry.

“Most people don’t realize that tourism-related employment accounts for 10.4 percent of the payroll workforce in Georgia, one in 10 jobs,” says Kevin Langston, who runs the tourism division at the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD) as deputy commissioner. “We’re a major factor in the state’s economy, and the opportunities for growth have only gotten better.”

Last April, Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 318 into law, amending the Georgia Tourism Development Act, a state tax incentive program to expand and encourage more tourism attractions. The project must cost a minimum of $1 million, attract at least 25 percent of its visitors from out of state by its third year, and not directly compete with existing Georgia businesses.

As the governor signed, State Rep. Ron Stephens of Savannah felt like doing a touchdown dance. Or rather, another touchdown dance. The 2013 amendment was Stephens’ bill, and so was the original version that passed in 2011 – but that was like a touchdown called back for illegal motion in the backfield.

“I had black hair when we started working on the tourism bill,” says the gray-haired Stephens, who also authored Georgia’s now-famous film incentives law. “This has taken seven years. It was a hard sell. But so was the film industry bill. And what’s interesting is, these two pieces of legislation are so well connected.

“We’ve seen what the film incentives have done for that industry.”

The film industry had an economic impact of $242 million in 2007, before the production tax credits were in place. This year, the impact is about $3.5 billion. Hence, those incentives have made Georgia a favorite location for movie and television production.

Not only that, these movies and TV shows have created a niche tourism industry – fans come from all over the world to see the spot where their favorite character from The Walking Dead was eaten or walk in the footsteps of Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games films.

“The film incentives have helped drive a new kind of tourism,” Stephens says. “It’s something we’ve seen for years in Savannah, where people want to see the places where Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Forrest Gump were filmed.

“Now we’ve got this new tourism piece. It’s the biggest thing the state has ever done to incentivize the tourism industry. It’ll be interesting to see the development that plays out over the next 10 years and the jobs it will create. It could be staggering.”

New Tool

Sam Zamarripa knows about the jobs that a tourism surge would create. He’s spent the past couple of years studying the subject, which he calls the Essential Economy, an occupational group traditionally comprised of low-wage, limited-skilled workers whose jobs are mostly labor intensive. Think hotels and restaurants, ballparks and snack bars, places where the hourly people in the trenches overwhelmingly outnumber management.

“The tourism industry as a whole could not exist without the Essential Economy,” says Zamarripa, a former state senator who co-founded and co-chairs (with another former state senator, Dan Moody) the Essential Economy Council, a bi-partisan, non-profit organization that initiates research to illustrate the value of this economic cluster.

He definitely sees the tourism development act as a jobs creation thing.

“I see it as opportunity, not the creation of low-paying jobs. These are jobs that can’t be outsourced,” Zamarripa says. “For every tourist that comes to Georgia, there have got to be X amount of Essential Economy workers. The industry relies on them.”

In 2012, according to figures from GDEcD, the tourism industry supported more than 400,000 jobs in Georgia. These are people who are directly employed in tourism (at attractions, museums, restaurants, hotels), and indirectly connected (finance, insurance, real estate).

Total tourism demand in Georgia in 2012 was $32.3 billion, 12 percent higher than pre-recession levels. (This includes visitor spending on accommodations, recreation and other spending streams that directly support tourism and travel, including government spending and capital investment.)

The total economic impact of $51.2 billion includes all of that, plus indirect impacts (wide-ranging stuff like printing/publishing, aircraft manufacturing, resort development, sanitation services, financial services, etc.) and induced impacts (food and beverage supply, personal and business services, etc.).

The industry generated $2.8 billion in state and local taxes in 2012. Put another way, according to GDEcD, each household in Georgia would have to cough up an additional $767 a year to replace tourism taxes received by the state and local governments.

Now, because of the new tourism development incentive, “we’re seeing more interest in the state among attraction developers, everything from theme and water parks to convention center and conference hotel developers, across the spectrum and across the state,” Langston says. “The incentives have the potential to draw a tremendous amount of traffic to the state.”

Former State Rep. Jeff Lewis introduced a tourism incentives bill in 2007, and Stephens took it on five years ago. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed it three times because he didn’t like some of the provisions.

Even when the Georgia Tourism Development Act first passed in 2011, there were misgivings. State agencies, like the Department of Revenue and Department of Community Affairs, suggested lawmakers fix the thing before any rebates were offered.

“It gave a lot of people heartburn,” Stephens says. “Especially the part that gave the governor the final call on where these projects would be located. Now, the commissioners of the departments of Community Affairs and Economic Development have to agree that a project is significant enough to warrant the investment.”

Initially, developers had to invest at least $140 million for a project to qualify because, Stephens says, “the intent was to get a Disney World kind of thing, a mega attraction.”

Instead, they lowered the qualifying minimum investment to $1 million for a new project or an expansion, like the $6.3-million water park that opened last year at 89-year-old Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park in Rossville, near the Tennessee line.

In order to qualify, projects must also attract at least 25 percent of visitors from out of state following the third year, and they can’t directly compete with existing Georgia businesses.

Stephens points to LakePoint Sporting Community and Town Center, a 1,200-acre sports and entertainment complex under development in Bartow County, and the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta (opening this fall) as two projects that will benefit from the tourism development incentive, which allows approved projects to keep a portion of sales taxes they collect for 10 years.

“Pulling that College Football Hall of Fame out of South Bend [Indiana] was a real coup,” Stephens says. “I don’t think it would have happened without the tourism incentives mechanism.”

Places to Be

Georgia’s got the world’s busiest airport (Hartsfield-Jackson), a slithering system of roads and interstates, the seaports, the railroads. Lots of people pass through, and that’s how a good bit of those 50-billion-or-whatever travel and tourism dollars are generated.

But even without a tourism development incentive, Georgia has been a favorite destination, the largest state east of the Mississippi, with lots of space filled with interesting stuff for people to do in their spare time – attractions, entertainment and sports venues, the great outdoors, museums, historic sites, pretty much anything from the profound to the profane.

Amusement parks like Six Flags (Austell), Wild Adventures (Valdosta) and the aforementioned Lake Winnie still pack (collectively) millions of people in each year to ride the rides and see the shows. Some have water parks connected to them, and some call themselves “theme parks.” Either way, the basic underlying idea is faster, higher, louder, scarier, wetter.

Meanwhile, the area around Centennial Park in Downtown Atlanta has been a favorite destination thanks to the Georgia Aquarium (about 2 million visitors a year) and the World of Coca-Cola (about 1.5 million), not to mention Philips Arena, the World Congress Center and numerous other venues.

In May, the city gets a new showcase attraction when the $70-million, 42,000-square-foot, LEED-certified National Center for Civil and Human Rights opens next door to the World of Coca-Cola (on land the soft drink maker donated). The neighborhood gets another top draw in the fall when the College Football Hall of Fame opens.

“And we’ll be connecting all of that to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district with the new streetcar,” says Langston, who also expects more visitors than usual to visit Georgia’s various Civil War sites.

“This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, the Atlanta campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea, so it’s a big one for Georgia in the ongoing Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration,” Langston says.

It’s also the 150th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Andersonville, a National Historic Site that offers a different kind of heritage tourism experience, a concept known as “dark tourism,” or the act of visiting sites associated with death or tragedies.

“Visitors come here with preconceptions, and there is no one reaction to what they find here,” says Eric Leonard, chief of interpretation and education at Andersonville, which houses the National Prisoner of War Museum and the Andersonville National Cemetery as well as the historic prison site. “It runs the gamut. There are people who walk out of our orientation film in tears, and that is absolutely appropriate. We have a hard story to tell.”

Over the next year, they’ll tell it to a larger audience.

“There has definitely been a more focused interest here at Andersonville because of the Civil War sesquicentennial,” Leonard says, “and we expect that to dial up dramatically this year.”

While Georgia hasn’t unveiled an official plan to market its dark tourism assets, it is pushing another growing trend, film tourism. Last year, GDEcD launched a new website, http://www.ComeTourGeorgia.com, promoting the state’s film and music history, film tours, locations, destinations and so forth.

For example, a few months back the Atlanta History Center started offering a “Capitol Tour” of the historic Swan House in Buckhead, which served as the Capitol and the home of President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland), the bad guy in The Hunger Games movies. Clayton County (where some of the films were shot, and are being shot) is offering its own version of The Hunger Games tour.

“This is a big deal for some communities,” Stephens says. “You’ve got a place like Covington, where 75 percent of their tourism is based on the fact that In The Heat of the Night [and other TV shows and movies] were shot there.

“And don’t forget, there was a movie called Deliverance that was shot 40 years ago in Northeast Georgia, and it created a whitewater industry.”

A number of river outfitters went into business and have thrived in the region, and river running is still a major draw in Northeast Georgia, although the state’s newest and most interesting fast river offering is in Columbus, where thousands of thrillseekers have rafted the world’s longest stretch of urban whitewater rapids since the opening last summer of a new course on the Chattahoochee River.

But there is a special charm about a mountain region where the classy and the brassy rub shoulders, where popular upscale wineries and the inherent affectation and clientele there live in the same regional neighborhood as Elvis Presley’s wart (the Everything Elvis Museum in Cornelia), lederhosen-clad revelers (Alpine Helen), zip lines (they’re cropping up everywhere), corn mazes (ditto) and tanks, among other things.

“Our region not only has a distinct flair and flavor, it has a bunch of them,” says Cheryl Smith, GDEcD’s regional tourism manager for Northeast Georgia. “The wineries are a perfect example. No two are alike. They’re all different.”

But nothing in North Georgia, or pretty much anywhere else, can come close to Tank Town USA. Todd Liebross, who founded Tank Town almost a year ago, knows this for a fact. He’s checked.

“I was hunting around for a career change, and I found a guy who was doing this, one other place, in Minnesota,” says Liebross, who grew up in Union County and spent 12 years working in the engineering rooms of large merchant ships. “I’ve always collected old Army jeeps and trucks, so I already had an interest in this kind of stuff and I thought, you know, it would be really fun. I mean, come on, you’re driving a tank.”

Actually, it’s an armored personnel carrier, a British made FV432, if you want to get technical, and a handful of customers have, says Liebross, but even those guys are gushing like 8 year olds when their 10 minutes are up.

The Verners drove 115 miles from Athens to get to Tank Town. This is Stephen Verner’s 40th birthday present, and you can hear him screaming, “absolutely awesome,” over the dinosaur diesel roar as he finishes a lap.

They’ll spend the night somewhere close, probably Blairsville. Tourism dollars. Direct impact. Induced impact. Stephen Verner doesn’t care about any of that right now as he takes his son for a spin in the tank. His wife, Brandy, is literally hugging herself against the cold with joy.

“He told me, ‘I want to do something crazy for my 40th birthday, like drive a tank,’” Brandy says. “And, voila! Who is wife of the year? Yeah, that’s right.”

 

This originally appeared in a monthly Georgia business magazine that used to pay my salary.

The Force was with us

The last date I took to see Star Wars became my wife.

Even though these two events (taking her to see Star Wars and marrying her) happened years apart, they are not mutually exclusive. Only a woman mad enough to join my quest for the perfect campsite (sight unseen, parts unknown) and then cheerily hike through dark New England woods so we could drive 20 miles to see a re-released movie that I insisted she must see, could possibly marry me.

The summer of 1982 I was working at a bowling alley in Coram, which is basically the geographic center of Long Island, and she waited tables in a Westhampton restaurant that was probably owned by the mob. We’d been dating since the previous fall and wanted to get away together for a few days before the next college semester.

She’d never been camping and I’d never been to New Hampshire, so we borrowed a tent from one of my coworkers, stocked up on food and booze, bought a map and took off. That was the extent of our planning, and we were incredibly lucky.

We caught a late ferry from Port Jefferson and crossed the Long Island Sound to Bridgeport then I drove the old Pinto through the night, amped on coffee and mescaline. We saw dawn break over the White Mountains and scanned our map for likely places to camp, looking for spots where the remotest-looking roads crossed running water.

Somewhere near one of these innocuous intersections, we saw an unmarked trail, pulled over to park, loaded all of our stuff on a thick tarp (because we didn’t have a backpack between us). We set off, single file, into the woods, lugging our stuff, the Swift River (or a tributary of it) to our left.

About a mile in we found our spot – flat and open, not 20 yards from the river. Nobody had been here for some time – we had to make our own fire pit. At night, we saw more stars than we’d ever seen before and slept to the sound of rushing water that didn’t come from a faucet. We cooked all our meals over the campfire, except for that one date night.

The morning of our arrival, while scoping out potential sites, we drove back and forth along the highway and passed through the village of North Conway where Star Wars was playing at a little downtown movie theater.

This was the original film from 1977, recently re-released with the subtitle, Episode IV: A New Hope. The first sequel in the series, The Empire Strikes Back, had come out two summers earlier. So, the original installment was five years old already.

Naturally, I’d seen both films, probably about five times each. I’d somehow managed to even take dates a couple of times. These were one-offs. Apparently, salivating over space adventures isn’t the best way to keep a girlfriend. But this one … she was different.

As we drove by the marquee she said, “Star Wars. Is that still playing? I never understood all the hoopla.”

After composing myself, I said, probably with a tone bordering on indignant and incredulous, “have you seen the movie?”

“No.”

She would have left the conversation right there and been fine, but I persisted.

“So, how can you form an opinion about it,” I asked, defensively – she’d only questioned the hoopla, not the film’s quality, but a plan was forming.

“Just sayin’,” she said.

“Well, you’ve got to see it,” I said.

“Fine, whatever,” she said.

Two nights later, we set out from our campsite (trusting in the gods of such things that we would find it unmolested by man/beast/other when we returned later that evening) for an unusual date night.

We ate dinner in North Conway then saw the movie. She loved it. We loved it. We talked about it on the drive back and then on our flashlight-illuminated hike to our campsite and then as we lay on a blanket outside our tent, looking up at the stars.

It occurred to us then, as we peered into the brilliant vastness hovering above New Hampshire, that our eyes perceived starlight that began blinking long, long ago in galaxies that were far, far away. If our life together were a movie, this might have ensued:

They lay there for a few minutes, staring at eternity, when he said, “I love you.” She waited a beat, squeezed his hand and responded, “I know.”

Of course, neither one of us had the gumption yet to utter those three weighty words, “I love you,” to the other (nor the timing and wherewithal to respond, “I know,” when it finally did happen). We were just babes, really, and the story of “us” had barely begun.

Still, though, the sentiment of the words had already rooted itself and now, all these years later, it feels older than starlight.

 

 

Meeting Yogi Berra When I Wasn’t Supposed To

I met Yogi Berra on my birthday one time when I wasn’t supposed to. Here’s what happened.

My family had a print shop in Covington, Georgia. I left a job as a sports writer to join the family business. But I had some regrets. Mostly, I missed going to sporting events for free. So I made a plan. It was called The Hillside Tattler.

This was 1986, a great year for Major League Baseball, unless you’re Bill Buckner or a diehard Red Sox fan. Anyway, it was a long time ago.

Back then, before the advent of electric carrier pigeons, if you were a newspaper on the fringes – meaning, you weren’t a metro daily covering major league sports on a regular basis – you got into major league games by writing to the ball club’s media relations department, stating your intentions on a copy of your newspaper’s letterhead. That’s how I’d done it as a legitimate journalist, when I had a press pass.

But now all I had was a press, and a print shop. So I designed a masthead for the phony The Hillside Tattler, shrunk it down to create a piece of letterhead and typed a letter to the Braves media guy (I think it was the late, great Wayne Minshew), begging for a pass, claiming our newspaper, located in a distant rural Georgia town I made up, wanted to write a feature story about what it’s like to play out the string of a major league season. Our uncultured rube readers would get a real kick out of that, I wrote, more or less.

The red hot Houston Astros were coming to Atlanta to play the Braves for a late September three-game weekend series. The Astros were on their way to an epic National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. The Braves were on their way to the cellar. I asked for two passes for a Friday night game, which happened to be my birthday – one for a writer (me, the fake editor of the fake newspaper) and one for a photographer (my brother Steve, who actually is a great photographer).

The passes arrived in the mail and we went to the game. Got there in time to see batting and fielding practice, saw NBC broadcasters Tony Kubek and Bob Costas. My brother, who is a little over 5-foot-8, smiled as he noted how short the 5-foot-7 Costas is.

Then we met Yogi, also 5-foot-7, but that didn’t elicit any cracks from my brother or me. We’d grown up with a father who was a big Yankees fan so Berra was something between a saint and a super hero in our house, the archetype clutch player, one of the greatest catchers ever, who helped the Yankees win 10 World Series then led both the Yankees and the Mets to the World Series as a manager. The bow-legged Berra could have been the size of a bowling trophy. He was still a giant.

He was coaching the Astros at the time, standing near the third-baseline watching the team workout. He kindly answered a couple of questions, and I wrote it down in a reporter’s notepad that I later asked him to sign – further proof that I wasn’t an actual journalist at the time, and I don’t know if Yogi saw through the facade or cared.

The thing is, he didn’t give me any Yogi-isms, just answered my questions about the Astros’ pennant run, said something about the season Houston ace Mike Scott was having, how he looked forward to playing his old team, the heavily favored Mets, in the upcoming NLCS and how he was pretty used to busy Octobers, what with all of his postseason history. “What am I gonna do,” he said, “go on vacation? This is my vacation.”

Then he went back to work.

The Braves won the game, 5-4, then lost seven of their last eight games.

Eventually, we lost the print shop and I went back to sports writing for about 10 years. Covered a lot of baseball games, got to cover some World Series, including the Braves championship run in 1995. Those were some great times, and all of it on the up and up, with actual stories written on deadline and everything.

But the first Major League game I ever covered was the Yogi game, and I was there under false pretenses. So, I didn’t write about it until now, almost 30 years later. Next time, I won’t wait for Yogi Berra to die to get around to it.