On Monday, November 14, 2022 the Bulloch County Commissioners held a Town Hall meeting at the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center near Portal. Nearly two dozen citizens came out for the meeting. This is the third Town Hall meeting they have held. The first was in Nevils, the second was in Portal.

Portal resident, Sheila Leach catered the event with delicious refreshments.

Willow Hill
Portal resident Sheila Leach catered the event Credit: Grice Connect

Dr. Alvin Jackson and Dr. Gayle Jackson welcomed the audience and gave a brief history of the center.

“With added Heritage to our name to pay homage to our decedents the former slaves who founded the school shortly after the civil war ended,” said Dr. Alvin Jackson. “The word renaissance was also added to signify the importance of looking forward to the future and find new ways to reach the children who are our future.”

Dr. Jackson attended school at Willow Hill and has worked to publish a book on the rich history of school.

The Jackson’s purchased the school and the 9 acres it sets on in 2005 along with 12 descendants of the original founders of the school.

The main structure they use today was built in 1954. With funding from grants they were able to make significant upgrades to the center and museum inside the center. They were also able to construct a large pavilion and add internet access throughout the building and grounds.

They have completed and now house over 500 oral recordings of local African Americans history and 15,000 obituaries which provide a great source of information on the history of the community.

The Jackson’s hope to continue expanding opportunities for the communities they serve and are looking forward to continuing a conversation of identifying funding and resources to continue this work.

He added that Commissioner Ray Mosley and Commissioner Anthony Simmons are products of Willow Hill School.

“This school could be crumbled down to like many others around the community. But because of you and this community this is an amazing resource to the community and entire county,” said Chairman Thompson. “I want to say thank you. You have much to be proud of here.”

Commissioners and attendees touring the center Credit: Grice Connect

Public Comments

Chairman Thompson opened the meeting for comments from members of the audience. The theme of the comments and questions were centered around helping find sources of funding to sustain the center, help bring more opportunity to that end of the county and improve emergency services to the Portal area.

The first speaker was Pastor Grant Turner.

“When will there be some information on outcomes. Smaller areas are overlooked. There is not a lot of attention paid to smaller areas. Considering the amount of proven work that has been done in this center, I think there should be some serious consideration to provide support to keep this viable. When will we have a decision,” said Grant Turner, Pastor Scarborough Grove Church.

Tom Couch, Bulloch County Manager responded to Turner.

“During our budget process we solicit applications for consideration for funding. We are setting our budget calendar now for our next budget year which begins July 1st. In February or March we will probably accept applications packets. Then we finalize the budget in May. That will be the opportunity for you to reach out to us for consideration of funding,” responded Tom Couch, Bulloch County Manager.

The comments continued.

“I am a fifth generation Portal resident. My career was in museums. The last was in Macon. Many arts organizations struggle. They don’t have the funding to open the doors daily. For this institution to have an impact and reach its potential it needs substantial funding to hire the staff to operate it properly. The tourism tax is a tax that is not restricted once it goes to the institution. This might be a resource that could be looked at. The most successful museums and arts centers have substantial city and county support,” said Sheila Leach.

“Key words I have heard are investment and partnership. Portal is part of Bulloch County. This can be a multipurpose resource center for the Portal community. I know you can find the money to fund this,” said John Robinson. “The passion the Jackson’s have for this project and for his community is remarkable. Imagine what our community could be if we all had the type of energy and enthusiasm the Jackson’s poses.”

Robinson also pointed out one area of concern for the Portal community is the need for more emergency services.

Chairman Thompson responded by saying on the agenda for Tuesday’s Commission meeting is adding on the Portal FIre Station with a goal of increasing fire service and adding an ambulance there in the near future.

“The Jacksons’ are two fine people and have done a terrific job for the Portal community. Our kids need opportunities. They are trying their best to provide these opportunities. We also need some sort of transportation that help people from Portal get to town,” said Jerry Lanigan, Council Lady for the town of Portal.

“One of the challenges we have is walking trails. We have been trying very hard to get them here and a play area for young children so parents can bring them out. If we are not open an outdoor area would provide some recreation. We are mostly open on weekends when we are not working”, said Dr. Alvin Jackson. “Willow Hill was a private school until 1920 when they sold the school to the Bulloch Board of Education for $18. When we purchased it back in 2005 we paid $124K to purchase something back they paid $18 for,” said Dr. Alvin Jackson.

“I am concerned about the distribution of wealth. Brooklet seems to get more attraction than Portal. I am concerned that our commissioner is not working with the Mayor to get things for Portal. I have heard we are getting a park since 2017. Still no park,” said Yvette McCall, resident of Portal.

“The City of Portal does not have infinite resources. What is encouraging is what we have all learned tonight that we are trying to provide more robust emergency services to Portal. In regard to growth and development in Portal, you are correct the growth is in the East and South. We can work with Portal to attract more resources in businesses,” said Tom Couch, Bulloch County Manager.

“We meet twice a month. It was referenced tonight that you don’t feel you have representation. Come to the meetings and find out what we are doing. It is easy to say things when you don’t have all the information. My challenge to you is to come to the meetings. It is good to see people from all over the county come to the meetings. That way you can hold us accountable”, said Commissioner Anthony Simmons.

“Thank you all for coming out. I have reached out pretty regularly to people. But it is rare to hear back. The only way we can make a difference is to reach out and show up. Give us a call. We will meet you and talk at any time. This is a great start. Hopefully this will be the start of many great conversations and opportunities,” said Commissioner Ray Mosley.

Chairman Thompson closed the meeting by thanking the citizens for coming and for the hospitality and great work the Jackson’s had done in rescuing the Willow Hill school.

After the meeting concluded they provided tours of the center.

Video of the full meeting

There are two videos. The first video includes the opening, then they paused for refreshments and then reconvened.

Part One:

Part two:

Herschel DeWayne Grice is the founder of Grice Connect an online news and information company in Statesboro, Georgia. DeWayne has been active in the media for over three decades. He brings a unique insight...