As the owner of a construction landfill, Warren Blackmon sees a lot of discarded materials pass through his gates. But earlier this year, some big slabs of concrete sparked his interest more than the usual haul.
These pieces of concrete were parts of Gillis Bridge, the famous and well worn bridge connecting two sides of campus and overlooking Sanford Stadium.
“When it was first built, it was just for people to walk from south to north campus,” said Blackmon, an Athens resident. “Then they started letting cars on there and running buses on there, and the strength of the steel has gone down.”
The bridge is being reinforced during the construction on the Sanford West End Zone, and Blackmon saw this as an opportunity to use the old pieces.
He wants to take the concrete slabs and pieces of rebar that currently sit in his landfill and make them into art pieces to sell to Georgia fans in order to raise money for Athens-area nonprofits.
Blackmon is looking into making everything from Georgia-themed patios to miniature renditions of the bridge with pieces of the concrete. With the rebar, he wants to bend it into Georgia-themed words and pictures or use a stamp to make coins out of it. He said he hopes University of Georgia alumni will purchase the memorabilia as reminders of their time in Athens.
“We were thinking that if we can give them something … then they’ll take it home and put it on their desk as a paper weight and someone else will say ‘What is that?’ and they’ll say, ‘That’s the bridge at UGA, let me tell you the story,’” Blackmon said.
For the community
Blackmon is basing his business model for this project off Give Back Real Estate, an Athens real estate company founded by Reign Streiter.
This company has only been around for seven months and has already raised $63,000 for nonprofits, Streiter said.
For every real estate deal that goes through the company, it gives back 10 percent to a local nonprofit.
“Part of the goal of Give Back is for people to consider philanthropy in everything they do,” Streiter said.
Blackmon and Streiter have worked together on real estate investments before. Lately when Blackmon has worked with Give Back Real Estate, he has chosen Nuçi’s Space, a nonprofit that helps local musicians, to receive the 10 percent donation.
Blackmon and his family used to tailgate in the Nuçi’s Space parking lot for Georgia football games, and he said the Nuçi family was so nice he wants to continue donating to them so they can further their work in the community.
“If you give back, it introduces you to many different people,” Blackmon said. “I think it builds for younger people the idea that you can help each other no matter what you believe politically, too.”
Besides commemorating the UGA football program, he also looks forward to memorializing the bridge.
“Most people think it’s the Sanford Bridge, but it’s Gillis Bridge on the Sanford Street,” Blackmon said. “That’s a story within itself because people my age and older will relate to that, because Gillis was the guy to know other than the governor in the state.”
‘The guy to know’
Constructed in 1963, the bridge is named after James L. Gillis Sr., the former director of the Georgia State Highway Board, according to the book, “Through the Arch: An Illustrated Guide to the University of Georgia Campus.”
Gillis served as Georgia’s highway director for more than 15 years and helped create Georgia’s modern highway system — changing roads from dirt to concrete and asphalt, according to his obituary in The Augusta Chronicle.
“When I was growing up in the ‘50s, he was the head of the Georgia State Department of Transportation, a very powerful position at that time,” Blackmon said. “If you wanted a road built through your county, you had to go through him.”
Early in the ‘60s, the state provided $255,000 for the bridge to be built so students could make it to classes across campus.
The bridge was named after Gillis because of his position in the transportation department, according to “Through the Arch.”
The bridge is said to have been a symbol for “tempering a civil but spirited rivalry” that existed between the “‘old fogies’ of north Campus” and the “Cow College” students on south Campus, the book said.
“When I was growing up in the ‘50s, he was the head of the Georgia State Department of Transportation, a very powerful position at that time. If you wanted a road built through your county, you had to go through him.”
“Mr. Jim,” as he was known, was also heavily involved in politics, described as a “confidant of almost every man in the state who desired high political office” in his obituary in the Savannah Morning News.
Gillis died in 1975 at the age of 83 and had two sons who were Georgia state senators: Hugh Gillis (1918-2013) and Jim L. Gillis Jr. (1916-2018).
“My daddy knew him back in the day, everybody knew him,” Blackmon said. “He’s been good for the state.”
Construction on the bridge is expected to wrap up Aug. 7. Blackmon said as soon as he has the pieces, he will begin the process of making UGA keepsakes.
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