With DOC coming, Forsyth prepares for ‘busting loose’

FORSYTH — When the state Department of Corrections moves its headquarters to the former Tift College site, the long-idle campus will suddenly become Monroe County’s third-largest employment center.

The state will be one of the county’s largest employers, and public safety will be an inextricable part of the city’s character.

It’s not just the 400 or so jobs at the headquarters and corrections training center that will give the area a boost.

It’s the 200-plus probation and corrections cadets that will train there each month, half a mile from downtown. It’s that decision makers for the department’s $1.2 billion annual budget will be based in Monroe County, with a population of about 25,300.

A 43-acre campus, visible from the interstate, won’t be empty anymore and will have a nearly $50 million facelift and a bustling population.

“I’m counting on it to help us,” said Joey Pitman, who owns Pit Stop Tire & Auto just down the road from the campus’ main entrance. “It’s gonna be a lot of people working there.”

Already the signs of growth are visible, and the department won’t move in fully until sometime about late 2010. Jonah’s on Johnston, a downtown pizzeria and bakery, is doubling in size, partly because of the department’s move, kitchen manager Gene Kimbro said. The Chamber of Commerce expects new businesses to pop up near the campus.

Greater Forsyth has about 18 restaurants now, and there will almost have to be more to serve the lunch crowd, chamber President Tiffany Andrews said.

“My goodness,” said Bill Bazemore, president of Monroe County Bank. “To have 400 jobs almost near the city center is something we need.”

Plant Scherer has long been the county’s showcase employer, coming in second only to the school board in the number of full-time jobs. The Georgia Power facility has about 400 employees but swells by another 600 to 1,200 contract employees when various construction projects are under way, Andrews said.

But Scherer is about a dozen miles outside of town. The department’s headquarters and training facility will be walking distance from downtown.

“It’s definitely going to change Forsyth,” Andrews said.

Pitman describes Forsyth, with a population somewhere less than 5,000, as a city that “hasn’t quite blossomed.” With the Department of Corrections coming to town, “Forsyth’s kind of due for busting loose,” he said.

The community already benefits from the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, which residents refer to by its acronym, pronouncing it “jip-stick.” Some of the training there will move to the Department of Corrections’ new site, but the training center will remain open as well. The two facilities so close together — about a mile apart on opposite sides of downtown — will cement Forsyth as the heart of the state’s public safety training operations.

“The governor’s vision is for this to be the law enforcement capital of Georgia,” said state Rep. Jim Cole, a Monroe County Republican.

The Tift campus closed in 1987. It was later purchased by the Monroe County Commission and then by the state. The fact that state buildings — many of which are on the historic register — were sitting vacant was a big part of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s decision to move the department to Forsyth, Cole said.

The department plans to keep the character of the campus intact. Planners ordered replacement windows, for example, that match the originals, said Larry Latimer, the department’s director of engineering. The department also plans to keep intact the Tift College water tower, which is visible from the interstate, even though the campus has been hooked into the local water system for years, Latimer said.

Up to 200 people a day work to renovate campus buildings, about half of them state inmates, Latimer said. Renovations to the training academy portion of the campus will be finished first. The three dormitories — the buildings closest to the interstate — should be completed this winter, and the academy should officially open to cadets in January, Latimer said. The administration buildings will follow, with the entire campus scheduled for completion in late 2010, he said.

A shooting range for training will be kept off campus in Jackson, he said.

It’s hard to say how many new faces the move will bring from the department’s current headquarters near the state Capitol in Atlanta. Some will move, but others will retire, commute or simply change jobs. For the past couple of years, the department has tried to fill vacancies from the Monroe County area, Latimer said.

The public school system says it is ready for whatever the influx may be. A third elementary school will open this summer, Assistant Superintendent Jackson Daniel said. The two middle schools and the high school all have “growing room” already, Daniel said.

It seems the community is more than ready to welcome department employees with open arms. When employees visited recently for a walking tour of the campus and downtown, business owners stood outside to greet them and offer coupons. Kimbro, at Jonah’s, said the bakery gave away candy and pastries.

The department wants to embrace the community, too. A 630-seat auditorium is being renovated, as is the campus gymnasium. Both will be available for community use, Latimer said.

“The department is very sensitive to this being a community asset — to Tift College being a community asset,” Latimer said. “We started off saying ‘We just want to be a part of the great history of Tift College,’ and (the Forsyth) community’s response to us was similar.”

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.