Marshall Hooks, director of member services for the Blakely-Early County Chamber of Commerce, stands outside the Alexander Building, an historic structure in downtown Blakely that is being renovated to become a headquarters for the chamber. (Jan. 11, 2013)
BLAKELY, Ga. -- Even though time had obviously taken its toll on the historic, 110-year-old Alexander Building on this community's quaint town square, there were those who weren't exactly thrilled with the Blakely-Early County Chamber of Commerce's decision to make the building the new offices of the chamber and the county's dynamic economic development arm, Early County 2055.
Chamber Director of Member Services Marshall Hooks is quick to point to the need for restoring the Alexander Building, but he's not indifferent to the citizens in the community who are concerned about the loss of "a vital element of the town's history."
That's why a discovery made by Hooks and others after construction crews started demolition of the floors of the building, which predates the 1904 construction of Blakely's courthouse by a year, offers a little something for everyone.
"Crews started demolition work in November, about the time I came on board with the chamber," Hooks, 25, said. "During the early stages they removed the floor boards, and while looking over the site I discovered a large collection of bottles. There were drink bottles, beer bottles, medicine bottles ... some really unusual designs."
Hooks collected and cleaned the bottles and has since researched -- online and through contacts with a number of colleges and universities -- their ages. What he's found has been intriguing.
"These bottles are, to me, a time capsule from a specific five-decade period in this community's history," Hooks said. "My research has shown that the bottles date from the early 1900s to around 1950.
"There have been some people who've expressed concern that restoring the Alexander Building will diminish its historical value. But we plan to display these artifacts in the new building in what we think will be a pretty neat tie between our past and our present."
In addition to the bottles discovered under and around the Alexander Building -- including a 1946-era aspirin bottle with aspirin still in it, a 1915-era "Dr. Tichener's Antiseptic" bottle and a 1925-era Nehi soda bottle -- Hooks also found a decorative pottery shard that he has not yet dated, a 1900 Liberty V nickel, a 1903 Indian head penny and a 1941 wheat penny.
His research also yielded a 1904 Early County News ad for "Dr. Tichener's Antiseptic."
Restoration of the Alexander Building, which over the years has served as a drug store, a dental office, law offices, a downtown market, a dispensory, a five and dime store and a sports memorabilia site, is one of the final projects of the five-year public-private master plan, known as Advancing Early 2012, drawn up by Early County 2055 in its infancy.
The initiative's director of economic development, Lisa Collins, said Early 2055 has met or surpassed each of the five goals it established during the first phase of redevelopment in Blakely and Early County, including job creation, communitywide cleanup, housing development, enhanced shopping options and beautification.
"When we first set our goals, we said we'd like to work with the city to remove 35 dilapidated structures in our community, but our mayor then, Rick Hall, said we should be bold and shoot for 50," Collins, an Albany native, said. "Through a lot of hard work and the joint efforts of the city and Early 2055, we have removed 236 neglected and dilapidated structures over the five years of our early initiative.
"And while creating 84 new jobs (and more than 100 construction jobs) is not as eye-opening for a city like Albany with 100,000 people, this is in a community of 5,000 people. That's a huge impact."
Collins said the Alexander Building renovation is the final project of the Advancing Early phase of Early 2055's master plan, and the development group is getting ready to launch the second phase of the project, Vision 2020.
"We've already secured transportation grants for a gateway project at the intersection of the U.S. 27 Bypass and State Highway 62, and one of the things we'll do there is create a unique welcome center," she said. "We've also completed a hotel feasibility study, and we're looking at bringing a smaller-sized, 46-room Comfort Inn and Suites into the community."
Collins said that while the Blakely and Early County governments contributed to the $3.1 million used to complete the first phase of Early 2055's redevelopment initiative, most of the money -- including funding for the Alexander Building renovation -- had come from private sources.
Hooks, a Dawson native who was hired by the Blakely-Early Chamber not long after he completed requirements for his Master's in Public Administration degree at Georgia Southern University, said he and other young professionals who are actively involved in the redevelopment of the city and county have been made to feel like a vital part of the next generation of leaders in the community.
"One of the first days I was here, I was eating lunch at the local Chinese restaurant and I got a fortune cookie that said, 'Don't hide your feelings. Let others know where you stand,'" he said. "I've kept that fortune because that's exactly what I've tried to do in this position. And, so far, it's really working out well."