If you were tuned in to last nightís meeting of the Franklin City Council or read todayís front page already, you probably heard Judith Allain speaking to the council about a thing called No Hitchiní.

If you didnít catch any of those, donít worry. Youíre going to be hearing a lot more about it.

Those of you kind people who have been reading this meandering, sometimes incoherent dribble for long enough will recall that I promised I would practice what I preach in terms of revitalizing this community. In that regard, I actually have to thank Ė hold on to your girdles and garters Ė St. Mary Parish Government.

See, way-back-when the whole Amelia Belle thing caught most of us at unawares and I threw a hissy fit about being blindsided and betrayed as a tribal member as well as a St. Mary citizen, it dawned on me that part of it was my fault. I had spent my second tenure here at the Banner pontificating about Patches, fly-fishing and lawn-mowing and while you wonderful people embraced those words and Iíll forever be humbled and gratefulÖI wasnít doing my job. Oh, sure there was the occasional temper tantrum at some political fiasco or another, but as a columnist in a small community with only one newspaper, I was seriously slackiní.

That awakening made me open my eyes and look around. Kinda like this: You ever ride with someone in a car down the route you drive every day, to work, or wherever? Do you notice things you didnít before as a passenger rather than a driver? Thatís kinda how I suddenly saw this community: Whereas it had faded in my vision to sort of a hazy gray backdrop to all my daily activities, I had ceased seeing it. When I started looking, really looking at it again, I was startled by its assets and dismayed by its mood.

Thus the preaching began. After awhile, I realized I needed to not be a hypocrite. Sure it would have been easy to rest on the laurels of, "I am doing something in the course of my journalistic cheerleading," but thatís a cop-out, really. I just didnít know what to do.

Luckily, the answer came to me. Mrs. Allain contacted me and said she was getting a small group of people together to talk about some ideas for helping the community, and invited me to participate. Well, that small group turned out to be 15 people, representing a slice of the great diversity of this community.

That was almost a year ago, and weíve been at this nonstop. Judith unveiled our plans last night. See todayís front page in print or at www.banner-tribune.com for the background. Teche Talk will also do a report from the city council meeting Thursday.

Hereís the lowdown on the hoe-down.

Colquitt, Georgia, population under two grand, was in the grip of economic decline, like many rural communities with abandoned buildings, overgrown yards and few meaningful jobs, as an AP story cited. A citizenís group got together in about 1992 and starting with just $700, they embarked on a mission to save their community, their people and their history all at once.

They called it Swamp Gravy and what you need to understand right here and right now is that this is not theatre as you know it. Techeland Arts Council, our nonprofit group, prefers to call this a community performance or community production, because we are not out to compete with or duplicate the fine and outstanding entertainment provided by our own Teche Theatre for the Performing Arts group. Be clear on that!

Swamp Gravy began with the group of people, committed to saving their community, collecting the oral history of themselves and Colquitt. To make a long story short, they hired professionals to turn that into a script and subsequently a production and from that meager beginning in 1992, now some 40,000 people a year go to see Swamp Gravy.

They have been nationally recognized as a model for cultural tourism, and were invited to perform during the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 as well as the Kennedy Arts Center in Washington.

The groupís budget is now about $2 million, they employ 60 people and the overall economic impact of Swamp Gravy on the local community is estimated at $2 million a year.

Let me tell you some things about the fine little town of Colquitt: Itís 50 miles from the nearest major highway; you gotta drive over miles and miles of two-lane roads surrounded by pine trees, cotton fields and peanut fields to get there. They were hoping to just get some senior citizens to come from nearby now and then. They had to acquire an old cotton warehouse and convert it into a theater.

But now: The council in Colquitt runs an after school arts and enrichment program for children; obtained and refurbished a historic downtown inn and opened a store in the town square to feature arts, crafts and antiques. There was a mural project that blossomed into a huge initiative to paint the blank walls of some buildings downtown with scenes from Swamp Gravy. The state designated them "Georgiaís First Mural City."

Since the launch of Swamp Gravy there have been 14 new business opened downtown. A tour planner 45 miles away first heard about the plans for the production with skepticism but now incorporates them into a tour.

Letís get down to the nitty-gritty. Proud as I am of what Colquitt has done, we have so much more already in place than what they started with. We have a magnificent theater already. We have wonderful curb appeal in this town. And we have so many stories. So many, many stories.

The stories in Swamp Gravy change a bit annually, so itís never exactly the same production from one year to next. So will ours. We decided to call it No Hitchiní in honor of that famous declaration on our famous lampposts downtown: DO NOT HITCH, from the days when it apparently was troublesome to hitch horses, cattle or whatever to the posts. And we intend to cover the spectrum of the cultures this area has to offer, to create a historical narrative in dramatized form of a community that knows no equal: Ours.

Listen to me carefully: I know some of you couldnít give a rip less about stage productions. We know this isnít everyoneís cup of tea. Many of you will love it and come see every show. Many of you will probably never step foot in the foyer of the Teche Theatre. Itís OK. We know itís not for everybody.

But what we do need, desperately, is your vocal support. Just stand behind us, cheer us on, and be our cornerstone. Thatís all. Just catch our backs against the naysayers and doom-reapers.

Weíre stepping forward with a plan that we think will be a part of the nurturing of this community. Itís not for everybody, but then, weíre doing it to bring people in and spend their money here, and weíre well-aware of that. We will promote our local businesses and attractions loudly and strongly while visitors are with us.

But what weíre doing is only one thing. Remember I keep preaching about "clusters"? No Hitchiní may be successful as all get-out. It may flop like a wet mattress. But the important thing is that we are trying, we are committed and we are working on the nourishment of this community.

Think clusters. How cool would it be if someone could see No Hitchiní and, after the curtain falls, walk out of the Teche Theater and board a horse-drawn trolley for a tour of some of the places featured in the production, or just a tour of historic homes, or even just a ride to dinner at one of our fine eateries?

What if, if folks who had been sitting in a theater for two hours want to stretch their legs a little, and can stroll over to the Old City Market for the farmerís market going on their at the same time?

What if there was an art show at the Blevinís Building of all local artists?

Do you see what I mean about clusters? Give visitors a choice of things to do...not swing in for a single thing, be it a production, farmerís market or an art show and then hit the highway for home. Keep Ďem, show Ďem a good time, and this community gets word-of-mouth applause when those visitors leave and tell others about us.

Okay, thatís enough for now. Youíll hear more from here on out. Hereís our website:

www.techelandartscouncil.org

Itís still in development, but check back often as weíll be adding information as we go.

There it is, then. I promised I would practice what I preach, and I have. No hypocrisy here, and the 15 of us are going to give this our all.

We need your support and your encouragement and your cheerleading, and like your mama probably told you, if you donít have anything nice to say donít say anything at all.

Better yet, go do something you think is more your speed. I donít care what it is. Just do something, and we all have a chance of getting out of this mess alive.