Promoting friendship in Summerville, Georgia, brings lessons on promoting small towns

Mar. 3—John Turner is a man on a mission. The retired school teacher wants the world to know Summerville, Georgia, as the friendship capital of the world — and he’s traveled all over the region and nation to spread the word.

Turner said he has carried the Friendship Flag to all 40-or-so of the towns in the area between Atlanta, Chattanooga and Birmingham, Alabama, making friends and taking photographs flying the flag near each town’s landmarks.

“Since we have so many friendly people and such beautiful country, we want to try and encourage people to come and visit our small towns and see all the pretty little parts of nature God has given us,” Turner said, calling the area the Big Friendly, like New Orleans’ the Big Easy.

Civic leaders in Summerville have supported him in his efforts to promote the town, seeing it as a valuable way to help them attract tourists and new residents to their town of over 4,000. The town even helped him sponsor a Friendship Festival, a community event that was so successful last year that organizers plan to repeat it this year at the end of July.

Susan Lockleer, executive director of Summerville Main Street, recently finished putting up decorations for St. Patrick’s Day in downtown Summerville. She and her team of about 20 volunteers decorate downtown for every holiday, she said in a recent phone interview.

In her role for nearly eight years, Lockleer is in charge of the Main Street group’s mission to “manage and enhance the development of downtown as the cultural, historic, social and economic center of the community,” as described on its website.

Lockleer praised Turner’s work for what it does for the town — and what it does for the world. Friendship is universal, and she said it doesn’t take much to be a good neighbor or friend. Again this year, a week of friendship activities is planned for the Friendship Festival, like Buy a Friend a Coffee Day and Lunch With a Friend Day.

Summerville is in the perfect place to celebrate the small towns in the triangle, Turner said, because it’s located right about in the middle. He said he hopes the friends he’s made during his journeys through the Big Friendly come to the festival this summer, to see what’s unique about Summerville — and learn how to spotlight what can make their own towns stand out, too.

Part of a national organization with experience in many American small towns, the Main Street group has four focal points: design, promotion, economic vitality and historic preservation.

“It’s a proven method,” Lockleer said. “Follow it, and you will see vitality and see change.”

Turner’s dedication has been great for Summerville’s tourism industry, which falls under the Main Street group’s goal of economic vitality, Lockleer said.

“He’s gone all over Georgia and Alabama promoting us as the Friendship Capital of the World,” she said. “He’s done nothing but promote, promote, promote, so I consider him a volunteer … just in a different form.”

Both Turner and Lockleer agree that Summerville is a special place.

The town features one of the only working train turntables in the Southeast; Paradise Garden, designed by artist Howard Finster, whose work is featured on the Friendship Flag; Many parks, history and natural opportunities nearby.

A turning point, Lockleer said, was when the pandemic hit. People started thinking more locally, she said. Investors have taken note of what’s going on in the town, and she expects a lot of new businesses to start opening soon.

On his travels, Turner said he’s seen other small towns in the region bouncing back too, even after Walmart “took a chunk” out of their business base decades ago. When Turner visits a new town, he visits city hall to meet local officials, their most prominent landmark, and if they have one, their train depot.

Turner usually travels with his wife, Debbie, and sometimes with another retired friend. There’s more pride in small towns now, Debbie Turner said, and a slower pace of life that many people prefer. Because of that, she thinks there’s a population shift happening in the country right now.

“People are leaving the cities and wanting less,” Debbie Turner said, before her husband jumped in to finish her thought.

“A little more country life,” he said.

The Friendship Flag has been flown by Turner all over the country: Cape Canaveral in Florida; the Capitol in Washington DC; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and many others. He said he’s jumped out of a plane at 14,000 feet with the flag and buzzed the Jekyll Island Golf Club with it in a bi-plane.

Sometimes Turner flies the flag on football fields — “logo to logo, building the mojo,” as he calls it. In Atlanta, the flag was raised on Stone Mountain; in Birmingham, at the Vulcan statue; in Chattanooga, on Lookout Mountain at the Incline Railway.

The project began with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when Coca-Cola sponsored Turner’s Rotary-related club for students to send 7,000 friendship flags all over the world. Since then, Turner said, he’s mostly sponsored it himself, saying that it’s a better use of his money than any other hobbies like golf. He’s especially excited that young people appreciate his effort, and he thinks this is the generation that will “get ‘er done” when it comes to world peace, he said.

“But everywhere we’ve been, people have just thought it was great, and it’s just been two old codgers, two old retired school teachers, out on the trail,” Turner said.

Even with his sense of fun and adventure, Turner sees his work having a deeper meaning, often as referring to the power of symbolism, sharing energy and Bob Dylan’s famous peace anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

“I feel like it has a destiny. I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m 75 years old,” Turner said. “If I didn’t feel like it didn’t have a destiny, I wouldn’t be doing all this. But I do feel like we need it.”

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.

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