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Smithville struggles with U.S. 19 decision

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

SMITHVILLE -- As Sonja Montgomery and her daughter, Ericka Adkinson, add condiments to customers' hamburgers, hotdogs and fried chicken sandwiches on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the owner of Sonja's Kitchen here offers her take on a theme that pervades this tiny community.

"We've been open 26 years, and it's as bad now as it's ever been," Montgomery said. "People see us serving folks on a busy day and they'll say something like, 'Y'all are really making the money.' But with the poor people that live here, we can't mark up the prices on our food where we can make much money. If we did, no one could afford it."

Asked what's changed to make things so bleak, Montgomery doesn't hesitate.

"It's that road," she sighs.

"That road" is the recently completed U.S. 19 bypass that takes travelers from Leesburg north to Americus on a route that's a good couple of miles from the Smithville city limits. Now, Smithville doesn't even register with drivers who once passed through the quaint community while making the Leesburg-to-Americus trip.

There are a number of theories as to why the Department of Transportation chose to leave Smithville, a community of 964 that was established in 1863, out of the loop when it built U.S. 19. Many blame the City Council ... others say the mayor is at fault ... still others blame the city's attorney, who insists the plan was solely a DOT decision.

A few things, however, are certain. On Nov. 17, 2005, the Smithville City Council passed a resolution approving the DOT route for U.S. 19. And on that same day, Mayor Jerry Myrick signed it.

The results: Business for Smithville's handful of merchants has trickled almost to a halt.

"Sadly," a local politician noted ominously, "the only people who travel to Smithville now are going there for a reason."

When people in Smithville want to eat out, they go to Sonja's or Dot's Country Kitchen. They buy necessities at Smithville 66, the Smithville Super Market, Main Street Pecan Co. or the Citgo convenience store. The city has a post office, a small library/governmental building and the Dismuke Public Safety Building that houses the four-person police department.

According to census figures, most of the people in Smithville are poor and poorly educated. That more than 70 percent of the community's population is black is a factor that some hint is as much a cause for Smithville's current woes as anything.

"Smithville's got a population of about 1,000 people, and 70 percent of them are black ... You do the math on that one," said Police Chief Artie Gardner, who headed the Sumter County Sheriff's Department's investigative division for more than 20 years before, at age 56, taking the chief's job that he's held since 2003.

"I'm sure with all the growth that's going on in the southern part of the county, if the folks in the county could give Smithville to Sumter County, they would. When you talk about all the money that's coming in in Lee County, we generally get left out."

Lee County officials have trumpeted the fact that the County Commission has voted to spend millions of taxpayer dollars in and around Smithville in recent months. Among the projects they point to is planned construction of a fire/EMS station adjacent to U.S. 19, the purchase of an ambulance to serve the community, an addition to the community's library and the surfacing of roads near the city.

"I'm not taking credit for it, but the commission has voted to make some improvements in Smithville and northern Lee County," Commissioner Dennis Roland, who represents the huge Smithville/Chokee district, said. "We've used SPLOST money to pave Old Smithville Road and to build a fire station.

"Of course, that fire station was on the SPLOST referendum eight years ago, and I really can't say why we're just now getting around to building it. I think the people in that district are thankful, but a lot of them are wondering why it took so long."

Smithville's residents have long held to the notion that they've been forgotten by the rest of the county, according to the community's attorney, Tommy Coleman. The recent growth spurt that made Lee County one of the 10 fastest growing in Georgia did nothing to dispel that notion.

"What you've got is a very poor community in the middle of a very wealthy county," Coleman said. "The folks in Smithville pretty much feel that all of the tax dollars in the county are going to benefit the folks moving into the southern part of the county."

And, Coleman notes, the location of the U.S. 19 bypass has further divided the community.

"A lot of people blame the City Council and the mayor for the location of the bypass, but that route was established by the DOT," he said. "We challenged it; we wanted Smithville to be a part of that route, but we had no success."

There are those who say that one decision is the beginning of the end for the once thriving small town. Former Mayor Jack Smith, who owns the Smithville 66 and is a lifelong resident, falls into that group.

"You might as well say that bypass is what will kill this town," said Smith, 75, who led a belt-tightening effort in his decade as mayor that reduced Smithville's millage rate from 13.99 to 4. "In time, there won't hardly be a store left open here. We've gotten business from the (highway) construction workers the last little while, but when they leave it's going to get bad.

"That's sad because this used to be a going little town; we were flourishing there for a while. I don't know what really happened with that bypass, but I know an effort was made to acquire property that would have brought it through here. Then the council passes a resolution and the mayor signs off on it, and we're out of the picture."

A number of attempts to reach Myrick for comment were unsuccessful.

But Gardner, for one, has no problem with speaking his mind. He says the people of Smithville are thought of by the county only as a means of adding to the census count.

"They get more money the more people they have in the county, so that's about the only time we matter up here," he said. "I mean, you look at a county as big as Lee County and they don't have one black deputy on their sheriff's department? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

"The county folks can say they're including us all they want, but I think it's pretty clear we're being left out because of who we are and where we are."

The community was recently awarded a grant that will allow it to improve its cityscape, and City Councilman Vincent Cutts lauds grant- and SPLOST-funded projects that will finance housing and infrastructure improvements. The question many Smithville residents have, though, is whether such projects be enough to keep the city's faint pulse beating.

"I grew up here, and I plan to die here," Smith said. "But I really don't know how long the businesses here are going to be able to make it."