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State takes interest in county's historic assets

Economic-development officials, at the state level, are interested in helping to make Clayton County a destination for historic, cultural and ecological tourism, with the historic Rex Village community at the center of their plans.

This week, Clayton became the second county in the state to receive a site visit from the state's recently established Tourism Product Development (TPD) Team.

The team is composed of representatives from the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Department of Community Affairs, the Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division, and the Environmental Facilities Authority. Team members spent Monday and Tuesday touring Rex Village, the Newman Wetlands Center, Olde Towne Morrow, the Road to Tara Museum, and other cultural amenities.

Over the next 45 days, it will develop an 18-to-24-month plan for the county to consider, in efforts to make Rex Village a tourism destination and improve the economic viability of all of the county's historic assets.

Bruce Green, director of the Georgia TPD Team, said the group's first site visit was in March, in Brooks County, where it created an historic downtown revitalization plan for Quitman, Ga. He said the team's work in Clayton County will focus on the idea of preparing Rex Village for tourism and promoting other historical destinations in the nearby area.

"It's [Rex Village is] an incredibly historic and scenic site, but like many historical places in Georgia, it is in fragile condition," Green said. "Rex is raw product," he said.

"It is incredibly rich, but Rex is not ready for visitors. It needs access to rest rooms, places to eat and drink. Right now, people can walk through the public streets and see the scenic views, but that's it.

"Clayton County is the second place in Georgia to have one of these resource teams," Green continued. "The idea is to have as much technical assistance as possible. We want to find a way to infuse Rex with new life ... that will make it sustainable, not just for now, but for generations to come."

The historic town of Rex, which dates back to the early 1800s, is home to Rex Mill and several other historic shops and buildings that still exist today, although the mill is inactive. Last year, the village became the subject of national attention when genealogists, hired by The New York Times, traced First Lady Michelle Obama's lineage to Melvinia Shields, a slave girl who grew up in the village.

According to Clayton County Assistant Economic Development Director Randall Toussaint, the TPD tour included interviews with local elected officials, residents, home owners, and property owners, to determine what kind of development they would like to see in the area. The team will share its initial findings with county officials today, and take the information back to Atlanta to create a development strategy.

"It is really an innovative concept," Toussaint said. "This is a community-oriented approach toward creating tourism opportunities within our area," he said. "This whole process is allowing us to think about different brands of tourism that we hadn't thought about before, including eco-tourism, agri-tourism, and techno-tourism. It [Rex Mill] was used to generate energy, but at that time, it was revolutionary.

"If we brought the mill back into fruition, we could host some educational field trips to show how that technology supported economic development," he said.

Toussaint said that the county also recently applied for a technical assistance grant for Rex Village, from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation's Places in Peril program. While the county will not learn of the status of the grant application until October, he said the site visit from the state adds validity to the county's plans to redevelop the area.

"This allows us not to just develop the historic Rex area, but to include multiple sites in an overall tourism development plan," he added. "This contributes to the momentum surrounding Rex."

Paul Abraham, president of the Rex Village Business Association, said he is excited about the state's newfound interest in developing Rex and the county's other historical assets.

"We need to open up Rex Village, so that people know it is there," he said. "It's a kick in the pants that we need, so that we can continue to go in that direction."