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Hundreds expected for Groundhog Day

LAWRENCEVILLE - At 14, General Beauregard Lee - Snellville's furry forecasting rodent - is finally getting used to the Groundhog Day hullabaloo.

It's a shame that today may be one of his last.

"He's getting up there," Yellow River Game Ranch CEO Art Rilling said of his iconic prognosticator. "We're probably going to have to start thinking about getting a young replacement for him. We're not going to tell him, but it's getting close."

For nearly 30 years, General Lee and his predecessor have maintained an accuracy rate above 90 percent in his forecasts, Rilling said. He did not want to specify the exact percentage to save Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil from embarrassment.

But this year, the results may be different. With the National Weather Service predicting clear skies this morning, there's a good chance that General Lee will see his shadow when he exits his "Gone With the Wind" replica mansion, forecaster Stephen Konarik said. That would mean he predicted six more weeks of winter.

Unfortunately for General Lee - but fortunately for Georgia residents - the National Weather Service is predicting temperatures much warmer than the typical winter weather, beginning Sunday.

"Our long-range forecast calls for above-normal temperatures, rather than below-normal," Konarik said. "The first part of next week, highs may be as warm as 70 degrees."

Normal highs are in the 50s this time of year.

Rilling said he wouldn't venture a guess as to General Lee's prediction, saying he left that work to the groundhog. But this year, he said, General Lee will likely have to spend more time meditating with the Super Bowl, Super Tuesday and construction on U.S. Highway 78 biting into his day.

Brett Harrell, the director of the Evermore Community Improvement District, will be the official who shares General Lee's decision with the hundreds of people expected to show up this morning. The CID is responsible for the project that will bring a median to U.S. Highway 78.

While Harrell said he has been to the Game Ranch before, this will be his first Groundhog Day.

"I'm excited about that," he said. "I'm paying attention to my shadow."

This year, Rilling said General Lee will awaken to a lawn of wood chips instead of grass, in deference to the drought.

Despite his many years celebrating Groundhog Day with the critter, Rilling said he does not know why there is such widespread interest in the holiday. Each year, the ranch gets calls from around the world, Rilling said, asking whether General Lee saw his shadow.

He said the fact that there has been snow this year, coupled with the fact that the holiday falls on a weekend, may mean even more interest in General Lee's prediction. In the past, as many as 600 people have showed up at the Game Ranch to share the day with its namesake.

"If you had a bad winter, you're looking for anything to tell me this is over. It's just something people do. It gives them something to talk about," Rilling said. "It reminds them we still have a winter, whether it usually shows up or not."