The little City of Arcade in Jackson County has never had a very good reputation.
The town was the first local place to sell beer in the 1940s when the rest of Jackson County and most of North Georgia was dry. It was reincorporated in 1961 with a low local beer tax, a move that made the town the beer capital of the state because of its overall low prices. For several decades, the town supplied cheap beer not just to thousands of nearby UGA students, but also bootleggers all across North Georgia.
In the early 1970s, Arcade became the first local town to sell liquor, again with very low local taxes.
Changes in state law eventually gutted Arcade’s ability to sell cheap booze and more towns in North Georgia went wet, moves that undermined the town’s boozy political and economic standing. It was no longer the beer capital of the state, but its seedy reputation had been firmly established in the public’s mind.
Arcade’s reputation as a place to conduct dodgy business ventures endured even after the booze days were over.
In the early 1990s, a big waste disposal firm made a strong push to have the town annex land to build a major landfill. Although the county government wouldn’t approve such a landfill, some Arcade officials sanctioned the idea since the firm promised untold riches for the community.
By annexing into Arcade, the landfill company could avoid county zoning regulations and have a “friendly” government to work with.
But strong public opposition to the landfill plan and a lawsuit eventually killed it and a backlash political coup brought new leaders to power in the town.
And of course there was the infamous Rip Cord strip joint in Arcade a few years back, a sleazy lounge that further tainted the town’s reputation as a home for vice. The city eventually closed it down.
For a time, things were looking up in Arcade. New leaders brought new blood to the fore and the community began to move away from its shady past.
But then the state widened Hwy. 129 from I-85 toward Athens with Arcade in the path. Arcade leaders convinced the state to lower the speed limit through the little town, supposedly for safety reasons.
In reality, the lower speed limit allowed the town to create a traffic trap and Arcade soon had a huge police department that aggressively stopped motorists for traffic fine money. It was nothing more than legal extortion by a city government.
Arcade’s reputation as an abusive traffic trap captured a new generation of people as motorists from all over the state came to know the community as nothing more than a stereotypical Southern redneck town. (And we’re not talking about Mayberry.)
Eventually, the state raised the speed limit in Arcade and the town’s huge police department was downsized after it nearly broke the city budget.
Now the town is moving toward an action that would once again confirm its reputation as a place to engage in questionable business ventures.
Walton International, the huge land speculation company out of Canada that has been buying up a massive amount of land in Jackson, Barrow and other North Georgia counties, has asked Arcade to annex over 1,000 acres in South Jackson into the town.
In doing so, Walton wants to change the zoning on that rural land from low-density agriculture and residential to high-density mixed use of commercial, residential and industrial.
To understand why that’s important, you have to understand Walton’s business model.
Walton (and its multi-layered affiliate firms) buys cheap undeveloped land in what it believes will become major growth corridors outside of major cities. It then divides that undeveloped land into small increments, typically $10,000 per share, and then sells those shares to small investors at a price far above what Walton paid for the raw land. Many, if not most, of the investors who buy these speculative shares are in Asia and have no direct contact with their investment.
Walton promises the investors it will get the land rezoned to a higher density commercial use, thereby increasing the value of the land. The way the investors make their money is if someday in the future, a developer comes along and wants to buy the land for a project and is willing to pay a huge price for the property.
Local government officials often get the impression that Walton itself plans to develop the property, but that’s not the firm’s typical business plan. Still, small town officials sometimes get blinded by the idea that in approving an annexation or rezoning, their community will soon be the hub of a major development. (That happened in nearby Statham with a similar Walton deal.)
As for Arcade, this isn’t the town’s first rodeo with Walton. A few years ago, Walton bought the old 4-W Farm and syndicated that property to investors. Arcade eventually annexed the land, but only after failing to pressure the county to give the town water rights to the land. Arcade doesn’t have a water or sewerage system and the county already serves that area.
Still, Arcade leaders know Walton’s real business model and aren’t neophytes when it comes to dealing with the firm.
So the question is, why would Arcade want to annex this South Jackson property which is miles and miles away from the town? What’s in it for Arcade and its citizens?
It’s easy to see why Walton wants this annexation. A couple years ago, Walton attempted to have its remote South Jackson property rezoned by the county government. Residents in the area raised a howl and Walton eventually withdrew the request when it became obvious the BOC wouldn’t approve it. (The BOC had already turned down the property’s previous owner for a similar rezoning request.)
Last summer, Walton had an affiliate company, Bear Creek Land, LLC, buy up 320 acres in 14 tracts around Brock Road. Those purchases created a land bridge between Arcade’s current city limits and Walton’s 702 acres it wants rezoned.
Obviously, Walton is trying to avoid the county government for its rezoning and hopes Arcade will annex the land and then rezone the property for high density development.
Walton and its investors stand to gain big bucks if Arcade annexes the land and does the rezoning.
None of this is really surprising. Arcade has a history of being nothing more than a political prostitute for speculative business and self-serving interests.
It was a political prostitute for the booze and bootlegging business for decades.
It wanted to be a political prostitute for a large landfill company until lawsuits and a political change axed the effort.
It was a political prostitute for money when it ran an aggressive traffic trap.
And now the town is politically prostituting itself in a bid to help a private company get a rezoning it otherwise would likely not be able to get from the county government.
You can’t blame Walton for any of this. The blame for this situation falls clearly on Arcade’s city leaders and the town government’s long history of being a political whore for questionable business interests.
You’d think that after all the decades of bad publicity, Arcade would want to come into the 21st Century and clean up its tainted reputation.
Arcade leaders appear determined to put the town’s government in bed with land speculators. If the annexation happens, Walton International will own over 40 percent of the town’s land and Arcade’s city map will stretch like a giant snake down Hwy. 129 almost to the Clarke County line.
The question is, what does Arcade get in return for prostituting its political power for the enrichment of private land speculators?
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.