Tuesday, December 21, 2010

21 DEC 10: Garden or Plantation?

The "Great Recession" has affected a lot of people in a lot of ways. But only on Monday did we learn the impact on one of this area's top tourist attractions. The staff at this attraction apparently smiled through all sorts of personal trials and said nothing about them. That's how cult rumors start, you know....

Callaway Gardens officials confirmed the staff has endured four weeks of furloughs over the past two years, and will face one more furlough week in 2011. I presume the unpaid days were staggered carefully - because no one's complained to me about the flowers looking limp and discolored.

On top of that, employees have been required over the last two years to perform 160 hours of volunteer work at Callaway Gardens events. So staff members cleaning up the course at the Steeplechase actually may have been earning less money than prison inmates aboard Columbus garbage trucks.

The financial troubles at Callaway Gardens came out in the open because a former employee blew the whistle about it to WTVM. Hopefully it was an attractive bird whistle, which didn't distract from the natural ambiance....

Tauna Pierce resigned from Callaway Gardens last month, saying she was fed up with employees being used in a "slave labor program." The Black History Museum will have to tell us how many slaves long ago received paychecks 50 weeks a year.

Tauna Pierce hinted several current and former employees at Callaway Gardens may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. She says employees should be paid for the 160 hours they've been required to "volunteer." After all, Fort Benning soldiers serve in a "volunteer Army" - yet they're paid just enough to afford nice tattoos.

In the same report, a current employee claimed Callaway Gardens has created "a culture of fear." And it could be worse, you know. Imagine if Callaway Gardens took control of Wild Animal Safari....

In response, Callaway Foundation Chair Edward Callaway said the recent cost-cutting not only was necessary - it was "lawful, ethical and appropriate." And you'll notice no employee was ordered to fill in with the "Flying High Circus" trapeze act.

Other Callaway Gardens employees said they don't mind the mandatory "volunteer" hours. One manager explained they allow for interaction with visitors on the grounds. And if they volunteer to serve during Fantasy in Lights, the manager's identity is hidden a bit by darkness.

It seems to me Callaway Gardens is following the lead of Georgia's Department of Education. For years students have been required to put in hours of "community service" in order to graduate. You either work for nothing now, or work for minimum wage for years later....

I haven't heard of other Columbus-area organizations requiring furloughed employees to put in hours of volunteer work. But then again, it's already expected in some jobs. Ask any teacher who grades papers at home, while watching prime-time TV.

Let's see what else happened on a Monday with several curious stories....

+ Columbus arson investigators told WLTZ someone tried to set fire to a grocery aisle at the Cross Country Plaza Publix store two weeks ago. Really now - there must be a better way to test brands of lighter fluid.

+ Columbus Police reported someone broke into the Formal Elegance bridal shop on Veterans Parkway and stole $120. The store has no surveillance camera - which shouldn't be surprising, because that protects the management from getting caught serving mimosas to customers again.

+ Columbus Police also told WTVM two suspects were caught attempting to steal copper pipe from the demolished old Carver High School and the soon-to-be-razed Baker High School building. A few Baker graduates were stunned by this news - because they thought they'd removed all the valuables from that building already.

+ WRBL reported new Census data ranks Muscogee County among the top ten in Georgia, when it comes to population growth. I'm not sure if this is due to Third Brigade soldiers coming home, base realignment becoming a reality - or Talbot County residents getting tired of making long drives to and from a Target store.

+ Georgia State Rep. Mike Cheokas of Americus announced he's switching parties, and becoming a Republican. I'm starting to think Republicans should change their animal symbol from the elephant to the dolphin - you know, as in Flipper.

(After doing some online searching, this switch isn't really that surprising. Mike Cheokas manages a "Party Center" in Americus - so he's simply party-hopping, the way customers probably do.)

+ The Auburn School District announced an agreement with college football assistant coach Trooper Taylor. Taylor's lawsuit involving his son's braids will be dropped, as the district develops a dress and grooming policy for all sports. Rule one: no sagging pants in any sport involving a lot of running.

+ Callaway and LaGrange High Schools played a basketball doubleheader at Philips Arena, before an Atlanta Hawks game. The teams played in front of a lot of empty seats - so they can experience what it would be like to play N.B.A. games in New Orleans.

+ Instant Message to Columbus Cottonmouths left wing Orrin Hergott: You say you've played here seven years. So why did you show up at a pediatric ward Monday wearing a New York Yankees hat? And on the 150th anniversary of Southern secession, at that?

2010 IN REVIEW CON'D: February was a thrilling month for some people in Columbus, as significant snow fell on the city. It wasn't enough to get the new skating rink in South Commons changed to be open-air, but it was a good try.

Thousands of children were rewarded for "good behavior" with a Columbus Cottonmouths hockey game in February -- but they saw a huge first-period brawl. Maybe next year, the children should see the "Micro Wrestling Federation" athletes instead.

The big political story of February was the sudden resignation of Judge Robert Johnston, during a state investigation. He set a fine example for Doug Branson, who resigned as Columbus State men's basketball coach weeks later before he could be fired.

Former Tuskegee mayor Johnny Ford caught our attention in February, by declaring the closing of Victoryland a "civil rights" issue. Ford later brought Al Sharpton to east Alabama, to suggest his State Senate race was a civil rights issue. Yet 2010 ends with Ford 0-for-2, and still exercising the one civil right he has left - giving TV interviews anywhere he can.

We were on the road a bit in February, so we may have missed some things. But we know it was the month when "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" built a fancy new house in Pine Mountain in one week. It practically made the St. Jude Dream Home seem rustic and nostalgic.

Changes in the Columbus car market were evident in February. Gateway Lincoln-Mercury dropped the Lincolns and Mercurys, to become a Mitsubishi dealership. It turns out Ford will stop making Mercurys - and a car named Lincoln probably is hard to sell in the South, anyway.

Another February change involved Columbus radio. WSTH-FM stopped being "Rooster 106" and returned to the name "South 106.1." Yet listeners decided country songs with a new name aren't any more upscale.

History was made at Lake Walter George in February, when a man reeled in a blue catfish weighing more than 80 pounds. I think that's big enough to qualify as Ezell's "catch of the day" for ten consecutive days.

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