Fire sale of Georgia town a sign of desperate times

Posted September 25, 2018 12:23 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- It's after 1 p.m. and I've been sitting for 45 minutes on the raised sidewalk outside the old brick bank building at Main and Railroad streets, the historic heart of Toomsboro, Georgia.

It is quiet. Eerie quiet. The only humans to pass by are the occasional motorist or the drivers of the kaolin trucks that rumble past every couple of minutes like clockwork.

More stray dogs are afoot (two) than humans (zero). If I had arrived two hours earlier, I would have seen a few living souls downtown. But by noon, the post office and City Hall are closed.

I'm visiting Toomsboro, 35 miles east of Macon, because it's in the news again as the town for sale. A New York television station ran a story headlined, "You can buy entire Georgia town for the price of NYC luxury apartment."

That's not exactly true. It's almost the entire downtown: An opera house, a hotel, a cotton warehouse, a train depot, a pool hall, 30 other buildings and a bunch of land.

Most of the 470 locals here bristle at the suggestion that their entire town is for sale, as it implies that they are human amenities being packaged into some rich guy's deal. Years ago, the property owner erected a for-sale sign saying "THE WHOLE TOWN," but the townsfolk prevailed on him for truth in advertising and he added a small "almost."

This town-for-sale story has been written several times over the past couple of decades. Entrepreneurs with a big dream originally aimed to turn this dusty burg into an Entertainment Destination Place, but they later moved to dump it after realizing this out-of-the-way destination is forlorn for a reason.

The story regained currency two weeks ago when owners David Bumgardner and his son, Tim, slashed the price by $1 million. The new sales tag: $1.7 million.

"We're going to lose a large amount of money," the son said. But the Bumgardners, who bought much of the town 16 years ago, finally are motivated to get rid of their withering asset.

"We have an affinity for historic towns and entertainment," Tim Bumgardner said. "This is a diamond in the rough."

The story ended up on the Drudge website, he said, so they're getting calls galore.

"We drove through it (back in, like, 2001) and saw possibilities," he said. "It was our dream. Unfortunately, things change."

In the 1970s, local political leader Joe Boone opened an informal country music venue downtown that drew thousands of fans on weekends, putting Toomsboro, once a bustling railroad stop, back on the map. He called it the Swampland Opera House.

But as the century changed, the property swapped hands a couple of times, ending up in the control of the Bumgardners, who kept amassing nearby parcels. Now they are trying to move the whole shebang -- all 30-some buildings -- as one big package.

Said Tim Bumgardner, "If you get 15 people together, you could pull it off."

OK, friends, who's with me on this?

But the all-or-nothing sales approach is not working, said James Green, the city's attorney.

"We feel they might sell if he separates the property out," said Green. "If he piecemeals it, maybe we can get some business here or industry."

Hardly anything illustrates the plight of rural Georgia -- or rural Anywhere for that matter -- like downtown Toomsboro sitting unloved on the real estate market for all these years. From 2000 to 2010, the city's population dropped 24 percent to 470 residents and is probably down from that.

Residents leaving, businesses closing, and tumbleweeds blowing have been the state of rural America for decades. Last week, as I drove south to Toomsboro, legislators from the House Rural Development Committee powwowed to figure out ways to save Georgia's boonies. Extending broadband cable is one idea, as is job training, tax incentives and a myriad of other schemes that are being trotted out to stem the irresistible tide of sociological and economic realities.

Toomsboro Mayor Joyce Denson, who was elected last fall, is a cheerful, optimistic woman set on getting something -- anything -- downtown to help stanch the municipal stagnation.

The buildings are quaint and still largely in good shape. How about a place for conventions? she asks. "We have people fishing and hunting here," she said. "They could stay here."

But the plans don't have to be grand.

"We could have a Huddle House," the mayor said. "Who doesn't like a Huddle House?"

I peer into the window of the bank to see its old-timey wooden counters. You can almost see Bonnie and Clyde shouting and waving their pistols. You can also gaze upon the rows of empty seats in the silent Swampland Opera House. Or pool tables in another building. Or barber chairs. It's like life in a bustling town froze in time.

"I don't like to use the word 'potential' because lots of things have potential but aren't worth the salt. But this could be valuable," said Denson, a young-looking 68 who grew up in Atlanta but married a Toomsboro man.

She knows keeping the kids rooted to their rural home can be just as hard as peddling a slightly used bank. Denson and her husband raised their daughter's three sons after their daughter was killed in a wreck. The oldest boy is in college in metro Atlanta and doesn't seem keen on returning.

Several residents grumble that the owner of the buildings has kept the town in suspended animation.

Jasper Cardwell, the 83-year-old son of a sharecropper, moved away at age 13 to work. Now he lives in the home he bought for his parents 50 years ago. It is across from the depot and the bank.

He's the embodiment of the sturdy country guy, having just rolled in after cutting an acre of grass in 94-degree heat.

Cardwell remembers five grocery stores in town. Now there are none.

The past couple of decades "have sucked the life out of the town," Cardwell said. "I'd like to see something come back."

He'd love to buy a building for a senior center. Now he needs 14 other partners.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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