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'Hill' top priority

Call it the little town that could.
Hiltonia may have its problems – high poverty and dilapidated buildings chief among them – but some residents are banding together to make things better. They’ve been meeting and planning and scheming.
And if it takes going through a long, elaborate process to craft an “urban redevelopment plan” in an effort to capture federal dollars, by golly, they’ll do that too.
The goals include improving housing, stimulating economic development and giving the town a face-lift.
Council members in the town with 390 residents agreed in March to take part in a year-long process to create the plan. Urban redevelopment plans are a good way for towns to identify their strengths, weaknesses and long-term goals in hopes of attracting grants.
They appointed a 15-member advisory committee, made up of a variety of people including an artist, a retired teacher, owners of a new assisted living facility, a police officer and some town council members.
They have created a “findings of necessity” report, looking at the town’s housing conditions, poverty levels, commercial and retail profile, vacancy rates, crime statistics and infrastructure capacity. And they have come up with a list of short-term goals and ideas for implementing them.
First, a description of what’s there: The town that covers less than one square mile includes two convenience stores, a liquor store, a number of churches and some dilapidated buildings. The report found high poverty rates; significant low and moderate income population; comparatively low per-capita income levels, with indications that this trend will continue; blighted conditions for both residential and commercial properties; substandard and/or dilapidated housing conditions; vandalism of vacant properties; cost-burdened population; inadequate private investment; limited mobility; substandard infrastructure; poor connectivity; and minimal crime data and reported statistics.
The town is “suffering from extreme blight and neglect in many areas,” the report said. “With disconnected street patterns – some paved, others unsurfaced; chronic vacancy and vandalism of structures plague the heart of the traditional residential section of town,” it said. “The commercial district too, is hallmarked by empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings.”
The town is predominantly agriculture and forest lands, with one-fourth of the land used for residential. “Given this reality, the (plan) must focus primarily on housing redevelopment, needed infrastructure improvements and revitalization of the business and commercial core,” the report said.
Preliminary recommendations include: promote housing redevelopment in concentrated areas throughout the community; remediate nuisance properties and provide for abatement where necessary; revitalize the downtown commercial district; improve existing infrastructure and previously-funded investments; and educate community residents.
The members of the committee put things in simpler terms. First item under their short-term goals is to “promote a positive image of Hiltonia.” They are planning “Hiltonia Day” at the Soda Shop art gallery in Sylvania, featuring artists from Hiltonia. The group also is planning at least four community events each year, including a fall festival this year and the third annual Christmas in the Park.
The second short-term goal the group discussed was to “educate citizens on responsibilities and importance of maintaining the appearance of the town.” Among the ideas suggested were to have a day specifically to clean up the town. The group is considering selling T-shirts to raise money for other projects, possibly with a town motto, and perhaps having a contest to decide the motto and the color of the T-shirts.
The group discussed having a guest speaker talk to the town’s children about the importance of the town’s appearance, as well as the possibility of a “best yard on the block” award each month.
They also discussed street signs and house numbers and ways to discourage vandalism. They agreed to landscape around the town’s welcome signs and ask business owners to plant flowers in front of their stores. They discussed placing trash cans around town, possibly ones painted by local children. And they talked about enforcing the ordinance regarding junk cars.
Hiltonia is a small community with limited resources but what it lacks in money it makes up for in enthusiasm, said Tricia Reynolds, director of planning and government services for the Coastal Regional Commission. She’s helping the town with its plan.
Eventually, Hiltonia’s leaders may need to consider a way to raise matching funds for grants, she said.
Members of the advisory committee are: Ethel Cooper; Ruthie Dixon, Jeremy Forehand, June Forehand, Vivian Forehand, Stanley Grant, Bob Griffin, Patti Hill, Marion Holmes, Maudie Powell, Kary Prescott, Randy Waters, Chiquita Wilkins, Floyd Williams and Marcia Williams.
June Forehand said the town has been pleased with the support that officials in neighboring communities have offered. Among those who have helped are:  Brian Barrs, Newington police chief; Heidi Jeffers, Screven County Chamber of Commerce executive director; Carter Crawford,  Sylvania city manager; Rick Jordan, Screven County manager; Gayle Boykin, executive director of the Screven County Development Authority; and Hilda Boykin, Sylvania Better Hometown manager.
One of the group’s highest priorities is to make the town look better.  “Highway 24 is a corridor,” June Forehand said. “Lots of people come through there. We want some street lighting, landscaping. You feel better when you look better.”
Later this month, the town council will consider adopting the “findings of necessity” report and will hold an open house. In September, an advisory committee meeting is scheduled.
For more information about the plan, contact: Tricia Reynolds at (912) 262-2870.