A Southern Revival, Rooted in Community

Growing up in Appling County, Baxley City Manager Keri Orvin was always told about the community’s once glorious past.

“We heard for years, ‘Downtown was bustling in the 1930s.’”

“We heard for years, ‘Downtown was bustling in the 1930s,’” Orvin said. “We’d see pictures of people crowded in the streets and hear about the fountain shop, for example, but that’s not something I was able to experience growing up.”

Baxley, like many small towns across America, saw fewer people working, shopping and living downtown as people and industries migrated to more urban areas.

To bring that energy back, Appling County looked to fuel change from within, using its existing resources.

“I know from my time in economic development that a large percentage of growth in any community comes from supporting and helping existing businesses and individuals and using the resources that you already have,” Orvin said.

In Baxley, that means preparing its workforce, improving its infrastructure and maximizing its prominent timber industry.

Every step of the way, the University of Georgia has provided expertise and support to help the community fully harvest its resources, including its workforce.

Developing Community Leaders

Orvin first called on UGA’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development in 2017 to reboot the community’s adult leadership program, Appling LEADS.

“That 2017 class served as a catalyst for getting program graduates into leadership positions now in local government, the chamber board and community organizations,” Orvin said. “The leadership program has helped build and connect a large, diverse group of people to each other that is ready to engage in community projects.”

One of the first Appling LEADS graduates, Santina Fryer, has completed several UGA Fanning Institute leadership programs and has since put her leadership skills to work in the community as both a Baxley city councilwoman and the founder of Gents & Glam, a youth leadership and mentoring program designed to empower, engage and educate young people.

“UGA’s training played a key role in sparking my leadership journey.”

“UGA’s training played a key role in sparking my leadership journey and encouraging me to continue,” Fryer said. “I have learned to think strategically to grow my organization.”

Tapping into the resources and relationships nurtured through the leadership program for community support, Appling County has expanded its partnerships with UGA Public Service and Outreach, participating in the PROPEL (Planning Rural Opportunities for Prosperity and Economic Leadership) program through the UGA Institute of Government and the university’s Connected Resilient Communities program through the Archway Partnership.

Over that time, downtown Baxley alone has seen five new businesses and two additional building renovations on Main Street that are available for lease, Orvin said.

Powering Partnership

Existing businesses and industries in Baxley are also reaping the rewards of a thriving partnership between UGA and the community.

“The foundation from Warnell is truly top-notch, but the fraternity, especially coming from the small classes, helps form business partners for life.”

At the heart of this collaboration are Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources graduates like Jonathan Braswell, area procurement manager for the Interfor Baxley mill, and Chuck Bennett, mill lead.

UGA graduates like them are helping to form a tight-knit workforce in the Baxley community.

“The foundation from Warnell is truly top-notch, but the fraternity, especially coming from the small classes, helps form business partners for life,” Bennett said.

Joint research projects between the university and timber businesses are helping sustain the long-term viability of the industry.

“We rely on research and information from UGA to support our daily timber operations, from tree planting to extension research, and assisting landowners in generating income, and so much more,” says Wes Godbee, a UGA alumnus who oversees all Interfor mills in the Southeast.

Constructing Community

Leslie Browning, HR coordinator at Interfor Baxley, leveraged her upbringing in the pine straw industry along with her psychology major from UGA to transition into the field of human resources. Browning highlighted how the relationship between Baxley, Interfor and UGA bridges the gap between the timber industry and everyday life, mainly by providing the growing community with a stable source of jobs.

With 13 Warnell graduates on the procurement staff at Interfor and many more in various roles throughout the business, the strong UGA-Interfor partnership not only enriches career opportunities but also contributes to the stability and growth of Appling County. The connections and shared resources have helped nurture a thriving ecosystem within the Baxley community, much like the fruitful collaboration between UGA and Appling County itself.

For Orvin, that collaboration sets the tone for a bright future.

“I have two small children,” Orvin said. “Hopefully, if we keep building our community, they will stay here and be able to have opportunities for success and enjoy the small-town life that I have.”