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$10M gift fuels Goodwill expansion

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71-acre farm under contract for proposed development

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Good things come to those who are patient, and for Goodwill of Middle Georgia and the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA), the 13-year vision of an intrepid journey to build an Agri-Tourism campus at Lake Oconee came to fruition in December 2020 when Goodwill received a $10 million contribution from acclaimed writer and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. 

It was one of the 384 organizations selected by Scott after months of due diligence. The donation will be used in part to support the organization’s educational mission, Helms College. Helms College launched its degree program in Culinary Operations in Resorts and Clubs (CORC). The Augusta-based institution accepted its first group CORC Program students in April 2021.

“Our local Goodwill is deeply grateful for MacKenzie Scott’s recognition of our organization’s strategic delivery of vital services to people with the greatest needs,” said James K. Stiff, president of Goodwill of Middle Georgia Inc. and Helms College. “Her visionary and impactful capacity building investment will be transformative as we thoughtfully invest her gift to build career pathways out of poverty.  Our team of more than 800 employees are feeling more energized than ever as we roll up our sleeves to carry this blessing forward to every person who comes to us for help. Now we can open more doors faster and wider. 

“The December gift to our local Goodwill charity has allowed us to move forward on a purchase of land to build an Agri-Tourism Campus at Lake Oconee and serves as an invitation for other philanthropists to amplify the impact of the Scott gift in the lake region.”

As a result, Goodwill has a contract for the purchase of the 71-acre Godbey farm property on Harmony Road in Putnam County and will present its project proposal to the Putnam County Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday, June 24. Goodwill will begin the process of applying for PUD zoning consisting of two sections: a Town Center and a Luxury Eco-Tourism Hospitality Development.

The development will be undertaken in two phases, and according to Goodwill, the organization was guided by local business and community leaders to embark on a strategic capacity expansion initiative to bring new human and economic energy to its service territory in Georgia’s Lake Country. The innovative, two-phase development will build eco-tourism and agribusiness to drive commerce, educate and train the local workforce and fuel sustainable growth in the wake of the pandemic.

The first phase of development will focus on expanding and centralizing Goodwill’s traditional workforce training and employment placement services. A multi-use facility will be constructed to house a larger retail training store and warehouse and an enhanced regional career center to increase access and services to the area’s unemployed and underemployed residents, as well as a bakery that will operate as an experiential learning enterprise for Goodwill’s Helms College culinary programs. 

Phase II will establish the Lake Region campus of Helms College with the addition of facilities for the School of Hospitality, the School of Health Services and a related applied learning healthcare business partner. The second phase will be centered around the Goodwill Farm Campus, which will employ traditional and hydroponic farming techniques to cultivate all-natural produce to supply local farm-to-table restaurants and food vendors throughout the state of Georgia. Additionally, the farm will provide product for Edgar’s Hospitality Group, an existing Goodwill applied learning business that operates in concert with the Helms College School of Hospitality. With plans underway to launch a future Helms College culinary agriculture degree, the farm will eventually serve as an academic training ground for post-secondary students. 

Phase II will be further defined by the expansion of private development to include high-end retail and luxury hotel and event space. These enterprises will also be supplied by the farm campus and will partner with Helms College and Edgar’s Hospitality Group to provide work and training opportunities for students enrolled in the college’s Culinary Operations in Resorts & Clubs degree program and a forthcoming Hospitality Management degree with vibrant connection to hotel operations. 

“The vision to build an Agri-Tourism campus at Lake Oconee began to develop in 2008 as Helms College achieved national accreditation and Edgars Hospitality Group (both named after the Methodist Minister founder of Goodwill Industries) opened the first applied learning restaurant in our autonomous Goodwill’s 35-county territory,” Stiff said. “From its origin in Macon to the building of the first branch of Helms College in Augusta in 2013, and as part of my work routine, I drove back-and-forth through the lake region. The rich farmland surrounding Lake Oconee looked fertile to launch an Agri-enterprise with education experiences to provide farm to table gourmet vegetables and fruits for our School of Hospitality, our growing Edgar’s upscale dining venues and high-end hospitality venues throughout Georgia. I hope to find as many generous philanthropists at the lake as I’ve found glorious sunrises and sunsets.

“Goodwill’s ministry has been my calling over three decades of my life. In this final decade of my service, it is my dream to see this campus become a vibrant center of hospitality that will nourish appetites, launch meaningful careers, and build goodwill among the residents and visitors of Lake Region. I hope that every person will come to the campus hungry and leave fulfilled. I hope every donor will come to reap the blessings that come by way of building a sanctuary of healing and growing that will impact infinite generations.

“It will become sacred space where people will be led beside the green pastures and down to the still waters to experience: Edgar’s on the Lake, a world-class farm to table rooftop restaurant, a deep tissue massage of essential oils at Grace Spa, and world-class experiential learning for all people seeking to discover and develop their gifts. I invite all neighbors in the lake region to visit Edgars Grille ( or Edgars Above Broad ( in Augusta to get a flavor of the experience we want to create at the lake.”

Why here? Why now? Why Lake Country?

Goodwill of Middle Georgia and CSRA has, over several decades, provided hundreds of thousands of Georgia residents with a hand up out of poverty and onto a path that allowed them to become productive, contributing citizens. Now, in addition to sites in Augusta, Macon and Aiken, Goodwill is launching a $6 million investment initiative in Lake Oconee for a central part of that path - Helms College. 

The complex economic and social problems linked to joblessness only deepen as the community’s population grows and the need for services (and more workers) increases in tandem. But if potential employees have no training, no work experience, and limited motivation, economic growth is hamstrung by an inadequate supply of labor. In the Lake Region, the booming healthcare and hospitality industries are likely to be hardest hit by the lack of a trained, qualified, middle skills workforce. 

Meanwhile, students with financial, personal, intellectual or other socio-economic challenges often become part of the high percentage of non-completers at technical and traditional state college system institutions, which frequently lack the intensive, specialized support resources these students need to overcome their challenges and achieve success. 

It is exactly this type of student the Helms College model was designed to serve. The college’s exceptional whole-person approach to student success includes personal, academic, and life skills counseling, real-world work experience and paid training. The Hand Up Campaign for Lake Oconee will enable this successful educational institution to expand crucial components of its operations into the area to educate and train skilled professionals to address the area’s industry needs in hospitality and health services.