ST. SIMONS ISLAND — Developing action plans for three issues in Liberty County was the focus for day 2 of the county-wide planning workshop at The King and Prince resort.
Wednesday afternoon, county leaders and department representatives chose three issues to discuss: Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax, beautification and economic development in the three city gateways to the county — Riceboro, Midway and Walthourville — and county-wide Wi-Fi coverage for digital education.
The leaders were divided into three groups, which rotated to discuss each topic. During the sessions, they set goals, identified stakeholders, listed benefits and obstacles, developed action steps and established timelines. They suggested a person or persons to be in charge of tackling that issue.
The first group to discuss economic development in the three city gateways talked about a plan already in place to enhance the beauty of those areas.
Leah Poole, the CEO of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, talked about plans to install updated signs for historic areas, trails and other sites. She mentioned that the work for improving gazebos in the county, such as the one in Midway near exit 76 of Interstate 95, is underway.
County Engineer Trent Long mentioned a landscape grant for the intersection of Coastal Highway and Highway 196.
Then the discussion shifted to economic development in areas off of the I-95 interchanges in Midway and South Newport (exit 67).
Former Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas said, “We need economic development at those interchanges because you won’t have money for beautification (projects).”
There were suggestions to have more restaurants, gas stations and hotels in the areas coming off the highway and to develop an incentive package for potential investors. Liberty County Board of Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovette mentioned that with the Parker’s gas station being built in Walthourville and the construction of the Highway 119 Freight Connector, to bypass Hinesville, more businesses will be attracted to Walthourville.
Countywide Wi-Fi access
Discussion about expanding Wi-Fi access for students turned into having Internet access for the whole county, especially in rural areas.
Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee discussed plans to park school buses with hot spots around the county on certain days and times for students to access the Internet for homework and other digital education. Leaders felt that expanding the idea to provide coverage for all residents in the county will boost opportunities for virtual learning and increase an educated workforce.
Shawn Brown, the Liberty County director of the Department of Family and Children Services, said, "We need to know if we're solving a problem that really isn't a problem or if it's just a small area that needs access."
Dionne Lovett, aging services director at the Coastal Regional Commission and a facilitator of the countywide planning workshop, said another group suggested a feasibility study to research what areas need Internet access.
Riceboro City Council member Chris Stacy suggested that different community representatives form a committee that will monitor the project and keep leaders informed about the challenges of having Wi-Fi access.
Some of the obstacles listed were cost, maintenance of the system, coverage and range of Wi-Fi connections, and current service providers perceiving the project as competition.
For SPLOST, one group suggested that the county commissioners host community forums in their districts. Some felt that more people need to be educated on the projects completed with SPLOST funds and future projects. Leaders feel there is a negative perception of SPLOST and that it is important to address those concerns.
"We need to establish a strategy to respond (to those comments), because that's the narrative out there," Hinesville Assistant City Manager Kenneth Howard said.
Board of Education Chairwoman Lily Baker suggested that city officials inform their residents on which projects in their city were completed with SPLOST funds. Howard said there should be SPLOST advocates throughout the county. State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said promoting SPLOST should be treated like a political campaign.
After brainstorming over each topic, attendees broke for lunch and heard from Camila Knowles, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Knowles commended Liberty for being designated as a Plan First community. Plan First is a program that recognizes communities that show a pattern of successfully implementing a comprehensive plan.
She talked about the different ways DCA is currently partnering with Liberty County and grants that have been awarded to the county. For example, Knowles said that since 2011, DCA has awarded $1.4 million to Liberty County and Riceboro for sewer projects.
Leaders then returned to the main meeting room to review the action plans for the three discussion topics. For countywide Wi-Fi access, the action items included doing a feasibility study, hiring a consultant, holding public forums about Wi-Fi access, developing a comprehensive plan and informing the public about current hot spots in the county.
Thomas, who presented the action plan, suggested approaching Gov. Nathan Deal about funding a portion of the project.
The action plan for SPLOST includes distributing fact sheets or information cards, engaging with citizens one-on-one and talking about projects that have been completed with SPLOST money. Attendees chose the Board of Commissioners and Chamber of Commerce to lead the efforts; however, many agreed that all county leaders and department heads should be informing citizens about SPLOST. County officals and employees can only inform for SPLOST, not campaign or advocate.
Plans for economic development for the county's gateway cities included organizing a committee to oversee the project, collaborating with owners of large properties, approving prior plans for landscaping and sign updates, and address lighting concerns at exits 76 and 67 off of I-95. Leaders felt that improvement of these areas will positively affect the quality of life, increase tourism and provide more jobs.
Coastal Regional Commission representatives who facilitated the group discussions were Allen Burns, Lovett, Don Masisak and Lupita McClenning.