'Always Something Going on': Georgia town embraces past and future

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 (AP Photo/The Rome News-Tribune, Paul Halfacre)

Sometimes, Winfield Myers doesn’t get into his car for a whole week.

He’s not averse to driving. It’s that all he needs to see and do are within walking distance of his new home in Rome, Georgia, located in the foothills of the Appalachians and at the center of a triangle between Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Birmingham.

In his previous life in Wilmington, Delaware, he and his wife Dena worked for a dozen years and he was not unhappy. But the beckoning of a more connected existence led him to return to his home state in 2010 after snapping up a Victorian house close to the city’s downtown. He’s since renovated it.

The return to small-town living has been deeply satisfying.

Instead of not really knowing his neighbors, Myers serves as president of his neighborhood association. He’s become a proud advocate for a town he says perfectly merges its historic tradition with a drive to stay modern and manage growth in an appealing way.

“I’m not leaving again,” Myers, a think tank editor who telecommutes, joked of life in Rome and his return to his home state. “They’ll bury me here.”

Rome Rising
While the town was burned by General Sherman’s forces in the Civil War, its civic trajectory today is on fire. It’s blending an expanding business climate — tire maker Pirelli has its national headquarters in Rome — along with growing medical and academic communities that have replaced the textile mills that once kept the region booming.

Rome, in many ways, is new again, offering the benchmarks demographers say are crucial to luring new people to town and allowing many young families to return.

You can walk downtown where storefronts are nearly full. There are plenty of new restaurants, walking trails, a large and active tennis community, and local organizations to get involved with, Myers said, noting its suitability for retirees and also young families.

“It really was a perfect package. It was far more affordable than living in the Northeast,” he added. “You feel a sense of community and belonging that is difficult to achieve in a larger urban setting.”

Myers said it’s easier to get to know people in a smaller area. “People here tend to be more trusting, more open to outsiders moving in. You might think if you weren’t born here, you won’t belong. But we’ve found precisely the opposite. It’s easy to be accepted here. It’s also easy to be more involved in civic groups.”

He jokes of Rome’s appeal: “It’s easy to get to larger cities, but you don’t have to pay for them or put up with them.”

Barbara Beninato sings Rome’s praises, too, from her offices at the Rome Symphony Orchestra, where she serves as president. It is the oldest symphony in the South, founded in 1921, and a coup for a town of about 36,000 people with up to 65 professional, paid orchestral players during a typical season, depending on the repertoire.

Beninato and her husband, John, an oral surgeon, are from Nebraska. They arrived in Rome in 1990 after he completed his dental residency in Atlanta, seeking a place to establish a business — he bought a practice there — and also raise their then-two small children.

“We fell in love with Rome,” Beninato says.

They are satisfied with where they chose to settle, an area close enough to Atlanta, Birmingham, and Chattanooga, all about an hour or so away. That allows them access to big-city amenities. Not that she feels they are missing out.

“There is something always going on in this town,” she says, noting sporting events related to the city’s academic gem, Berry College, which touts itself as “27,000 acres of opportunity” as well as an annual hand cycling competition, a Shakespeare festival, and an active community theater group.

“It’s just a really neat town. We’re lucky that the arts community — both visual, theater and our orchestra — is very vibrant and well-supported.”

Beninato says her oldest daughter, who left, has also returned home after swearing as a teen she’d move on. “She said, ‘I’m never going to live in Rome.’ Guess where she lives?” The daughter is now raising her own young family right where she grew up.

Ken Johnson, a professor of sociology and senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, charts return migration, which is often good for a small town.

“There is sort of a nostalgia among many for rural America,” he says. “I think that sometimes, places are often better in memory than in reality. But for others, I think some of the return migration of older adults in a rural area is about that (sense of) community they may have felt as young people.”

Blessings of Location
Interstate 75, a major north-south travel corridor on the East Coast, missed Rome by about 25 miles when it was first constructed. This has kept out growth and traffic, but also protected the city, making it less of a drive-by stop and more of a community.

“We’re an outpost. We’re still kind of unheard of here, but we’re getting more and more attention,” says John Druckenmiller, a Florida native who moved his family from suburban Atlanta, with its traffic and tough commutes.

Druckenmiller owns and edits Rome’s Hometown News website, keeping track of local events, crime and governance. He also has a radio show and is active in several civic groups. He calls it “kind of an independent town” that focuses on its own interests but in which development is “astronomical.”

“During the most recent recession, we didn’t have that huge real estate issue that other communities had where they were in growth markets. When it did fall apart, we were OK.”

He adds, “Our economy really is balanced,” with two major hospitals, a large clinic, low taxes and sports, including a small Atlanta Braves minor league baseball team, the Rome Braves.

“People are relocating here and buying homes at the $400,000, $500,000, $600,000 level. But we also have a lot of smaller homes at the $80,000 to $90,000 range. There’s a large diversity of economics.”

The Demise, and Rise
Rome was once a center for iron foundries as well as a cotton capital. Its barges were filled with the white fluffy material that floated down the river on flat-bottomed steam boats. The town was fueled by its mills. All that vanished after the boll weevil appeared in the early 1900s, followed by better railroad transportation that diminished the need for a regional agriculture center.

“But education and medicine saved us — those things have kept us going. And our local Chamber of Commerce has done a fantastic job recruiting new employers. We’re seeing reinvestment from corporations already here.”

Residents add that while Rome remains a fairly small town, it’s managed to achieve an enviable balance — that familiar and hospitable spirit coupled with a modern view of what can be. That’s part of its allure, a place where history is visible — it boasts the state’s second-largest contiguous section of Victorian homes outside of Savannah. But it’s also where developers are looking ahead as new condos are going up downtown.

“We want to hold onto the heritage and also grow with the time without getting too big or getting off track,” says Beninato says of Rome’s livability. “There is a real emphasis on having a thoughtful process on getting where we want to go.”

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