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Community loses long-time garage in road widening

By Justin Boron

A spray-painted farewell stings customers as they approach the garage doors at Gilbert's Auto Service.

"Thanks to God, Dad, Friends, and Family 1961-2005 44 years."

The banner of self-inflicted graffiti tells the visitors the almost half-century old Jonesboro mainstay is shutting down – a necessary casualty in the $15-million worth of right-of-way acquisition that the Georgia Department of Transportation needs to widen the part of Ga. Highway 138 connecting Clayton and Henry counties.

The four-mile stretch of road from Walt Stephens Road to the Henry County line is one of the last parts of the east-west corridor between Intestates 75 and 85 that doesn't have at least four lanes. The widening will complete a long-desired project intended to improve traffic and safety on the road.

But on the eastern edge of Jonesboro just beyond the city limits, the writing on the wall doesn't convey the enhanced efficiency of a major thoroughfare.

Instead, the wavy black letters spell out a family's final submission following a decade of hoping the road project would never come and fighting it when it finally did.

Last month, the Gilbert family, along with a few faithful employees, dismantled car lifts and finished up the last of repairs for the shop's long-time clients.

David Gilbert, 41, who purchased the store from his 78-year-old father Elbert, said he would miss it.

"This is the only job I've ever had," he said.

Aug. 26 was the store's last official day of business, and the building had to be de-occupied by the end of August, Gilbert said.

For the workers, the closing is an end of a place where they could work hard enjoyable.

Steve Stewart, 43, an employee at the store, said he loved the job.

"I enjoy this job enough to make less money than I could actually make. You got to enjoy what you're doing," he said.

A customer and neighbor said it was a loss for the community.

"Man, that's going to be sad," said Buddy Martinez, 56, whose property was also purchased for the project. "It's like a landmark."

On the less-developed side of Jonesboro, the icon is almost hidden away from the stream of pavement, gas stations, auto-shops and convenience stores that developed along major thoroughfares like Ga. Highway 54 and U.S. Highway 19/41.

Elbert Gilbert, called "Pops" by family and friends, opened the garage with no doors. It was a simpler time then, he said, when security along the then dirt stretch was knitted together by neighborly relationships.

"Then, you trusted people more," he said.

As for his customers, he said, "I knew most all of them."

Besides, having put all his money up just to erect the building, doors at that point were a luxury.

"I couldn't afford them," Gilbert said.

Like the other $155 million of property subject to right of way acquisition in the state last year, the garage on the eastern edge of Jonesboro has been engulfed by what has become a symbol of metro Atlanta's growth – wider, faster roads to move more cars.

No doubt the strip of the road needs the facelift, transportation officials say, with 17,000 cars passing along it each day.

The transportation department has been eager to complete the project since the early 1990s. But because metro Atlanta failed air quality standards, the necessary funding wasn't available and the project was sidelined.

It was bad news for DOT which is charged with facilitating efficient transportation in the state.

But for the Gilberts, the region's air pollution problems meant a stay-of-execution on their proud operation.

A decade passed while the family continued operating the shop. During that time, they even used emissions equipment to test on behalf of the state for the very chemicals that inadvertently had saved their business.

But eventually the project returned.

The right of way process usually starts with a letter that tells people that their land might be needed, said Karlene Barron, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department.

Then, the negotiation process begins. Ninety percent of the land transactions are settled without a fight, Barron said. And only 1.5 percent of the 10 percent that actually go to court need a jury for settlement, she said.

Barron said the transportation department is sensitive to ensuring a mutually acceptable resolution to a property acquisition, sometimes going to extremes.

"Right-of-way can hold up a whole project," she said. "We try to ensure that there are no undue hardships to any particular person.

"There are some situations that are just unavoidable," Barron said.

In the case of the Gilbert garage, right-of-way officials worked long and hard with the family, which she said "is a testament to the fact that we wanted to do all that we could make sure all parties are happy."

But for David Gilbert all the negotiating in the world wouldn't do much for something that he said is difficult to give a monetary value.

He said the matter is still in court and is unsure when or where he will reopen the family garage.

"By the time you get through court," David Gilbert said, "It just about does the business in."