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Area leaders wrangle with Liberty County issues
SPLOST, BRAC, workforce development identified
0602 Workshop 2-2
Dr. Seth Borquaye and Hinesville Mayor Pro Tem Charles Frasier discuss issues that face the county Thursday during the Liberty Countywide Planning Workshop at Coastal Electric Cooperative in Midway. - photo by Danielle Hipps

The annual Liberty Countywide Planning Workshop wrapped Friday after two days of sessions held within county lines for the first time.

The annual Liberty Countywide Planning Workshop wrapped Friday after two days of sessions held within county lines for the first time.

During planning for the workshop, which aims to bring together representatives from each municipality and community organization, county leaders expressed reservations about modifying the event’s location, time and structure. Historically, the planning sessions have been held on Jekyll and St. Simons islands over a three-day span, but event organizers opted to hold the event locally to increase participation and decrease costs.

"This feels a little more laid-back than that, but as long as you get the same results, it’s fine," Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette said.

This year, 59 participants registered at a cost of $110 each for the two-day event at Coastal Electric Cooperative in Midway. Last year, 62 registered for the workshop at the King & Prince Resort on St. Simons Island.

Workshop coordinator Debbie Whitehurst said the costs incurred were about $6,000 for catering with Southern Image, print materials and hotel accommodations for two facilitators. That cost will be shouldered by the registration fees.

Entities represented at the event were Fort Stewart; the Liberty boards of commissioners and education; the cities of Hinesville, Midway, Riceboro, Allenhurst, Flemington and Walthourville; and county and downtown development authorities, planning commission, hospital, magistrate court, and the sheriff’s office.

Georgia EMC facilitators Pat Merritt and Niki Knox guided the group’s discussion and helped prioritize issues and identify solutions.

"The purpose of this meeting … is to come up with ideas that you can take back to your own organizations and partner with community organizations on action plans that we’re going to develop today to see which issues the community really wants to tackle over the next 12 to 36 months," Merritt said.

She acknowledged that some priorities, such as infrastructure and job creation, are "ongoing processes" that never end.

The top five issues to emerge, based on preliminary individual rankings and then table-based prioritization, were: quality of life, workforce development, base-realignment and closure affecting Fort Stewart, the 2015 SPLOST and education.

The current SPLOST, or special-purpose local option sales tax applied of 1 percent applied to local sales tax, is set to expire at the end of 2014. Leaders plan to place a new SPLOST referendum on either the July or November 2014 ballot, but a list of capital projects to be included in the referendum needs to be established.

The quality-of-life group focused on housing issues and retail attraction — a residual issue from the 2012 workshop that already is being addressed.

In workforce development, the group acknowledged that several soft skills — such as resume writing, work ethic and timeliness — are lacking among the available workforce, and they began brainstorming ways to combat the issue.

As for base realignment and closure, or BRAC, Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas spoke about the efforts of the Southeast Georgia Friends of Fort Stewart and Hunter and how all of coastal Georgia needs to present a united front in fighting to add troop strength to Fort Stewart.

Allenhurst resident Lynn Pace is the longtime owner of Dixie Stables and also is a commissioner with the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission. Though she has attended past retreats held at resorts, she said she was among the advocates for keeping the event local.

"What I like best is that all the county entities can come together, hear each other talk and learn things they haven’t learned before," Pace said. "Everybody assumes that they know what’s going on — and they do — but they don’t know what’s going on in another department, and it’s hard to get everybody together at a particular time."

Walthourville Mayor Daisy Pray agreed, saying the event is a way for multiple agencies to touch base.

Assistant County Manager Bob Sprinkel said after lunch Friday the event seemed to have the same level of participation as when the retreat is held farther away.

"It seems like people hung around," he said. "We’ve lost a few, but we lose them down there, too. It’s all about participation."

The Courier will examine the issues and the established action steps in a coming series of stories.

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