Nancy Hardigree is the fifth generation of her family to live in Hartwell, Georgia. She’s proud to be part of a long line in the town, and she describes Hartwell as “an old southern town” that has always been very welcoming and open to change. In 1982, Hartwell elected its first female mayor, Joan Saliba to whom Nancy credits much of Hartwell’s current success. Mayor Saliba created a Historic Preservation Commission and a Downtown Development Authority, both of which Nancy has been a member of since their creation.
Since then, Nancy has been an integral part in helping Hartwell stand out among neighboring towns. Even with its meager population of about 5,000 people, Nancy says that the town really has been able to shine due to the local organizations created to make the downtown special. Her favorite part of her volunteer role is working on the town’s Main Street and finding ways to make storefronts more inviting. But whatever she is involved in, it’s the other people that make the biggest impact on her.
“Nothing I have accomplished has been without the help and guidance of many, many other volunteers and staff people,” Nancy says. “These relationships are as precious to me as our beautiful and vital downtown.”
What inspires you to volunteer?
I guess I was brought up that way, and I’ve saved a lot of things from my family’s past. I still have my grandmother’s PTA minutes from when she was the secretary of the local PTA. My grandfather was the county school superintendent. My father was always involved in Kiwanis, and he was a commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars during the Korean War where he would have to preside at the funerals when the boys would be sent back home. I just always had this feeling that you give back. If you want your community to thrive, you’ve got to get out there and work. It’s not going to just happen. You can’t sit on the sidelines and complain about things.
Describe your volunteer roles with the city of Hartwell?
I was very much involved in the conception and the very first stages of quite a few things in the city. Since the late 1980s I have enjoyed being involved in many aspects of downtown development and revitalization through the City of Hartwell’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and later the Main Street program. It has been a joy to see our sleepy little town transition into a flourishing tourist destination.
In the late 1990s, I assisted the DDA director as a major support person in obtaining federal funding for a massive streetscape and courthouse grounds landscape project. In this capacity I helped coordinate city and county government’s needs and funding responsibilities. This also involved many design consultations with the municipal contractors. I also chaired a campaign to sell twenty park benches to individual families in memory of loved ones.
Then, you know you’re old when you’re on the cemetery board (laughs). I was asked to be on the cemetery board, and it’s a historic cemetery – lots of people were buried there in the 1800s. The cemetery committee was really created to maintain the cemetery, but there was lots of interest and people wanted to be buried in it. However, there wasn’t any more land to sell cemetery lots. So, we created a columbarium garden. We had a civil engineer, a lawyer, a guy who was a retailer and my role was landscaping. It’s lovely, I’m very proud of that.
Also, a friend wanted Hart County enrolled and involved in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. We created a community action team. We’ve got 800 kids in Hart County and they get a free book in their mailbox every month. That’s been very fulfilling.
Additionally, I helped with the starting of a YMCA here in Hartwell, which is unheard of in a town the size of 5,000 people. I work at the food pantry and I’m in the garden club – I just have always enjoyed being involved. You meet so many interesting people.
What makes Hartwell so special to you?
I guess I could say it’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve always been happy here. I had a nice childhood and coming back into Hartwell [after college] I got involved and I have just enjoyed it. I feel a real sense of home and I’ve always wanted the best for my hometown.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Well, our city has exploded, and we’re sort of the envy of surrounding towns. During COVID the streets were full of people because they moved out of Atlanta. Their kids weren’t in school and they moved to their lake houses. Then, it seemed like they ended up thinking, “Hmm, you know, the school systems here are pretty good, maybe we’ll just move here.” I think we put so many things in place to enable the growth to happen and the prosperity of the town. So that has to be the most fulfilling part.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Every project you’re involved in, you pick up a set of skills. I was an interior design major, I’ve always liked design, but never knew much about architecture or building. So, I learned those skills through my work with historic preservation. And when I was working with the DDA, we had to match this federal grant that we got and we were working with politicians going back and forth to all these council meetings, city council meetings, county commissioner’s meetings – that experience was eye opening. It made me realize how difficult it is to get anything done.
If you put yourself out there, there’s going to be a skillset that you’re going to have to educate yourself about and, in order to be effective, you’ve got to learn.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
A great resource for Hartwell and Hart County has been the University of Georgia’s Archway program. It connects you with graduate students. We’ve got a Railroad Street project, which is on a back street, and because I’m involved with the façades and historic preservation, the backs of the buildings are exposed to this new railroad street park. We’ve been trying to figure out how we could help the store owners with money, like the façade grants, and also help give direction, because there are city regulations that you’ve got to adhere to. So, we called Archway in to help us with that and this will be a student’s project, to come up with a design.
Why is it important for others to get involved in causes they care about?
Oh, it’s one of life’s most fulfilling things. If you can just get yourself out there, get into your community, learn about what’s going on, enjoy people and you will make relationships that last forever. Open yourself up to opportunities that you can help people and you will get fulfilling things back. You know that just is kind of what makes the world go around.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Giving back to your community – your community benefits from it, but you benefit from it as well, if not more.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Nancy? Find local volunteer opportunities.