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POSTED: April 26, 2014 7:00 a.m.
Photo by Michelle K.W. Ricketson/

Liberty Countywide Planning Workshop attendees listen to a facilitator during Wednesday’s proceedings on St. Simons Island.

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Liberty County community leaders and elected officials met for the 23rd annual planning workshop on St. Simons Island this week. On Wednesday, about 54 people reviewed progress made on the top five goals from the 2013 workshop — BRAC, education, quality of life, SPLOST 2015 and workforce development — before deciding on 2014 goals.
Commissioner Justin Frasier said the quality of life committee looked at ways to ensure dollars earned in Liberty County are spent in Liberty County. He said many people use their disposable income outside the area because Liberty lacks leisure and retail offerings.
Liberty County Chamber of Commerce CEO Leah Poole gave an update on contractor Retail Strategies’ progress. She said Liberty County had representation at six commercial/retail conferences, and that approximately 20 meetings were scheduled for the upcoming International Council of Shopping Centers RECon Conference set for May 18-20 in Las Vegas. Retail Strategies’ focus for Liberty County includes recruiting retailers such as department, sporting goods and large grocery stores along with fine-dining restaurants.
Poole said Retail Strategies received a letter of intent regarding Hinesville’s now-empty Food Lion building on Gen. Screven Way. Poole and Liberty County Development Authority Chairman Allen Brown confirmed that a national restaurant chain, which they would not name, is planning to open an eatery in Liberty County in the next 12 months.
Hinesville Development Authority members Kenneth Howard and Frasier reported on data from two feasibility studies by Georgia Southern University. Both studies provided data regarding the possible creation of an events center and a family entertainment center in Liberty County.
“My job was to get the data. The numbers back that we need something like this,” Frasier said.
Howard said the number of hotel rooms drives the size and type of events that a community can host. Liberty County has 938 rooms, compared to 14,700 in Chatham County, 1,214 in Bulloch County, 94 in Effingham County and 23 in Long County.
“A midsize facility is what I think would do well in our region,” Howard said. He also showed a floor-plan of a 20,000-square-foot building that offered space to accommodate 840 for dinner or seat 1,400 for events, such as a graduation.
 “We’ve all heard people say there is no place to have an event for 200-300 people. There is pent-up demand,” Howard said.
Hinesville City Councilman Keith Jenkins asked Howard whether the plan presented could be expanded to accommodate future growth. Howard said that based on current numbers, the sketch presented would meet current and future needs. He also said that with the use of removable walls, the interior space could offer a smaller ballroom, plus four smaller rooms or one open space.
“Many of our groups have annual banquets. I think this is important for our community,” Hinesville Mayor Pro-Tem Charles Frasier said.
An event center made the list of priorities for 2014.
An education taskforce was charged with improving the image of public education and impacting pre-K through 12th-grade students. Hinesville public-relations manager Krystal Hart said the committee is focused on developing a county reporting mechanism and launching a marketing effort to debunk rumors about the district’s perceived problems.
Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards made a passionate plea for community members to step up and talk about the quality education offered by local schools. School board member Verdell Jones asked the group to keep education at the forefront and to engage people from all sectors of the community in an attempt to garner support for the district. Education will remain on the priority list for 2014.
Liberty County Development Authority CEO Ron Tolley said he has collaborated with the Liberty County School System, Savannah Technical College and area manufacturers on workforce development. The result, he said, is a two-year, paid apprenticeship program that will begin in the fall semester. Tolley also said Georgia Tech is conducting two workforce studies regarding soldier transition and soldier spouse employment opportunities.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas summed up previous updates regarding base realignment and closure. He said that, “after every war, we’ve had a reduction in all forces. But we are taking a regional approach with military communities in Georgia and South Carolina to present a unified message, asking for minimal cuts to coastal installations.”
BRAC received the second-highest number of votes for 2014 priorities. However, it was decided that Thomas would continue to convene elected officials to contend with another possible BRAC round. After BRAC, rural fire protection became the topic.
Liberty County officials are collecting ideas for the SPLOST 2015 list, which will go to voters Nov. 4. County Administrator Joey Brown reviewed the $125 million in projects that have been funded through SPLOST during the past three rounds. He also said projects approved in previous SPLOSTs still have $18.5 million in outstanding debt. Those projects are the Liberty County Justice Center ($9.5 million), MidCoast Regional Airport ($4 million) and Hinesville City Hall/public works complex ($5 million). If another SPLOST is not approved by voters, these debts likely would be added to local tax rolls. SPLOST 2015 is on the priority list for 2014.
 “Some of these issues come up again and again. Let’s make a difference starting today,” Commission Chairman Don Lovette said.


 

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