Big land purchase will spur industrial park project

mlee@macon.comFebruary 24, 2014 

ATLANTA -- When the east side and the west side of the Fall Line Freeway finally meet at U.S. 441 below Milledgeville, there’s going to be an industrial park because of a big land purchase now in its final stages.

“This is a project that’s been 14 years in the making,” said Jonathan Jackson, executive director of the Development Authority of Wilkinson County. That agency is one of the partners in the Fall Line Regional Development Authority, which is buying the land and handling the project.

The authority is acquiring 477 acres of Bartram Forest property that falls in both Baldwin and Wilkinson counties at what will be a four-way intersection. The two counties will divide the purchase price, $581,000, but there are no details yet on the particulars, whether through cash on hand, a bond sale or some other funding mechanism.

“One of the first things” on the site will probably be a truck stop, Jackson said, but “I think when all is said and done, we’ll have mixed use,” industrial and commercial tenants.

“We’ve already had some interest,” he said.

The Fall Line Freeway and U.S. 441 will be alternatives to Interstates 20, 75 and 95, Wilkinson County Commission Chairman Dennis Holderer said in a written statement. With the new intersection, “you could be looking at great opportunities for economic development, possibly the next Commerce, Georgia,” he wrote.

Commerce, north of Athens off Interstate 85, is a one-time mill town turned outlet shopping destination, thanks in large measure to that traffic.

Of course, road planners at the state of Georgia aren’t the first people to think the intersection site is a place worth going to, though for different reasons.

The surrounding landscape is named the Bartram Forest for 18th-century English naturalist William Bartram, who traveled Georgia and was the first to thoroughly describe its backwoods and catalog its plants for a European audience.

Today, it’s owned by the Georgia Forestry Commission and has a history as part timber lot and part educational forest, where students, the public and landowners can take tours to learn about the ecosystem. It includes more than 2,100 acres.

However, the last full-time interpreter position got axed during a 2010 budget cut, so it’s been a more passive site since then, open to hikers, bikers and picnicking. And there’s bow hunting, an amenity added because of the high number of deer-car collisions on 441.

“It’s still going to be a fairly intact forest” of more than 1,000 acres, said James Johnson, chief of forest management for the Forestry Commission, even after the freeway is completed and the future industrial site is transferred to developers. It will still be managed to maintain a healthy forest and will be open to visitors, he said.

But retired biology professor Harriett Whipple, of Milledgeville, mourns the forest she used to show to students, a home to everything from wildflowers to longleaf pines. It’s now bisected by a road construction site and nibbled away by the industrial park.

“I think the best thing we could hope for is it’s still managed the right way,” she said.

The cash from the sale goes into the state’s general bank account, not the Forestry Commission.

For the project to move forward, the sale must be finalized by the state Legislature in the next few weeks by passing Senate Resolution 788 by state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell. No opposition is expected.

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