Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Savior with $2.5 million sought for dying town

TOOMSBORO, Ga. — Where is Kim Basinger when you need her?

Much of this Middle Georgia town is for sale and Basinger, the one-time Hollywood star who 22 years ago purchased a large tract of Braselton northeast of Atlanta, would be an alluring landlord. Downtown Toomsboro has been lovingly restored to turn-of-the-century splendor with an old hotel, syrup mill, cotton warehouse and the Swampland Opera House.

Asking price: $2.5 million.

For a dying, no-stoplight town? Where trains no longer stop? And mangy dogs amble past the crumbling depot in the midday sun? Toomsboro looks like a backdrop for "The Walking Dead" or another post-apocalyptic cityscape devoid of people and hope.

Sadly, Toomsboro could stand in for hundreds of rural communities across the nation, towns that bleed businesses, people and hope. Just about all of them, though, believe they possess a certain specialness that, once tapped, will resurrect civic life and personal fortunes.

Toomsboro's salvation, Bill Lucado says, lies with Basinger and other Hollywood types.

"It would make a hell of a movie set," said Lucado, who once owned many of the buildings and is now marketing the town for the Florida client he sold it to. "That would be ideal."

Chances for a happy ending, though, are faint in Toomsboro, population 472 in 2010. A decade earlier, for example, the town claimed 622 residents.

The emptying out of rural America is not a new phenomenon, just a trend that accelerated as the recession worsened and the young realized that opportunity, and survival, were to be found elsewhere.

In all, rural America accounts for just 16 percent of the nation's population, the lowest tally ever. Doug Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia, said that 50 of Georgia's 159 counties lost population between 2000 and 2010. Maybe 40 counties did the previous decade.

Nearly half of Toomsboro's residents are at least 50 years old. Statewide, only a quarter of the population is.

Businesses won't relocate to Georgia's small towns because they can't find enough qualified workers. So families splinter. In some places, kudzu swallows up homes. Local shops — Toomsboro once tallied four or five food stores — schools and churches close. And everybody looks for the magic revitalization bullet.

"These small towns have been dying for decades," Bachtel said. "Somebody needs to stand up and do something about it. What are they going to do to attract new industry, new jobs?"

Toomsboro is like the unlucky suitor who gussies up pretty only to be let down time and again. A once-thriving cotton railhead, the town 120 miles southeast of Atlanta and 35 miles east of Macon transitioned from agriculture to kaolin, the chalky substance strip-mined from the neighboring hills and valleys that gives magazines their glossy shine.

In 1975, Joe Boone — one-time publisher of the Wilkinson County newspaper, clerk of the Georgia House of Representatives and administrator of the nearby state mental hospital — opened the Swampland where country, bluegrass and gospel musicians would play Saturday nights for hundreds of toe-tapping customers.

Lucado, a preservationist born in Atlanta, bought the music hall and other buildings in 2000 and set about restoring them. Two years later, he sold his part of the town to David Bumgardner, a used-car salesman from Florida, for $650,000.

Bumgardner eventually cobbled together 85 acres and two dozen properties with plans to turn Toomsboro into a time-gone-by tourist attraction. He spent $1 million fixing up the Willett Hotel, a cotton warehouse, syrup mill, hardware store, schoolhouse, restaurant and several homes near downtown.

"One of the things that lure people to Toomsboro is the fact that it's rural and remote," Lucado said. "There is no interstate, 7-Eleven or McDonald's. So you'd be buying quality of life. It's not a bad place to spend the weekend fishing, pitching horseshoes or eating fried chicken. Ain't nothing wrong with that."

Bumgardner closed the music hall, which peeved locals. Toomsboro has searched for an identity ever since.

Promises of a state park along the nearby Oconee River never materialized. The syrup and Indian festivals died off. A company announced plans a decade ago to turn old tires into electricity, but locals wonder whether it will ever open. Rumors abounded that Dolly Parton, Native American gambling interests and the Nuwabians, a defunct religious cult in nearby Eatonton, inquired about buying the town.

"When Bumgardner bought the town he said he'd open everything back up and get us back to where we were thriving," said Thompson, who nonetheless takes umbrage at perceptions the entire town is for sale. "But that didn't happen. It's just been a mess."

Bumgardner and Lucado, though, have a vision for Toomsboro's future. All it takes is a creative soul with $2.5 million to burn.

"It would make a hell of a recording studio. Or a hell of a concert venue. Or a permanent movie set," Lucado said. "But Kim Basinger probably has her fill of small towns."

In 1990, Basinger, who grew up in northeast Georgia, and business partners spent $20 million for Braselton's bank, industrial park, 50 buildings and 1,700 acres of land. The Batman and 9½ Weeks star talked of turning the town 40 miles northeast of Atlanta into a "major" film or recording studio.

The Basinger partnership eventually sold the property for $4.3 million. The actress couldn't be reached for comment.

Towns, though, do sell. A Vietnamese businessman bought tiny Buford, Wyo., in March for $900,000. Pray, Mont., is for sale for $1.4 million. North Carolina's Henry River Mill Village, where scenes for The Hunger Games were filmed last year, is on the block for the same amount.

In all, about a dozen U.S. towns have been sold the past decade. But attempts in 2003 to sell the historic district of Rocky Ford in Georgia on eBay didn't pan out.

Lucado insists there's something special in Toomsboro.

"You've got to have an imagination and some money," he said, "and you can have the biggest time of your life."

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