Hinesville Mayor Allen Brown said the city is on its way to becoming a regional shopping destination, thanks in large part to the opening of Oglethorpe Square.
Brown, speaking at the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce’s annual “state of the city” address Thursday at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center, said he and County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette “have cut so many ribbons lately we’ve been getting dizzy, and we’re looking forward to many more.”
Brown said the growth in retail business is helping fill local tax coffers, especially with the renewal of SPLOST.
“A low estimate is that as much as 30 percent of our SPLOST will be paid by people not from Liberty County and that should go up,” he said, estimating that Oglethorpe Square alone is expected to generate about $55 million in retail sales annually while also adding $17 million in payroll and $300,000 in property taxes.
“And that site was mostly an abandoned trailer park a few years ago,” Brown said. “This is big for us. We don’t want to stop there.”
The mayor, whose speech capped the chamber’s April Progress Through People lunch, urged those in attendance to make sure SPLOST doesn’t disappear again.
Liberty voters rejected SLOST in 2014, and officials say it cost the community millions in sales taxes.
“Don’t ever take it for granted,” Brown said. “The community needs it. We can’t just tax everybody to death.”
Brown touched on a number of topics during his remarks to Chamber members, from base realignment and closure, or BRAC, to the city’s plans for its share of the recently renewed SPLOST funding during the next six years.
Those include lowering the millage rate while spending approximately $6 million in sales tax funds on public safety vehicles for the city, paying about $3 million on debt service and adding about $600,000 to realigning Ryon Avenue and Highway 84 to improve the entrance to Bryant Commons.
“We want to fix that so that it’s got a real entrance,” Brown said, noting school kids recently said they weren’t comfortable going to the park because it felt as if they were trespassing on private property.
The city also plans on improving the intersection of South Main Street and Veterans Parkway.
“If you’ve been there you probably said some bad words when you got there,” Brown said.
In addition to other road improvements, Hinesville also plans to build a new main fire station to replace the current one built in the 1970s, add a park on the south side of the city and improve Bradwell Park.
Brown said he recently attended Melting Pot of Art's Art in the Park event in Bradwell Park and was impressed with the number of artists participating and the crowd who showed up to take part.
“Did you know we had 25 people in Liberty County who did art? I didn’t, but that was a great event,” he said.
Brown, who served as mayor from 1992 to 2000 and then was elected to a third term in 2015, said he’s adjusting to changes in the city, which has grown by an estimated 20,000 residents since his first two terms.
“I’ve had to learn a lot all over again, and (former mayors Tom Ratcliffe and James Thomas) took it to a new level,” he said. “We had four or five departments when I left and now we have 10 or 15, and they’re all important.”
Brown said one of the biggest and best decisions the city made so far during his new term is in replacing longtime public works provider OMI with ESG. He lauded the company’s work so far and also that of other city workers, saying Hinesville residents “get world class service.”
He also said relationships between the mayor and council are improving, and those between Hinesville and other governmental entities are strong.
“We’re an ideal community, growing and progressive,” said Brown, who noted the priorities set at a recent countywide workshop on St. Simon’s Island include working on ensuring all county residents are counted in the 2020 census, putting a penny sales tax for roads on the ballot for voters to decide and adding a summer work program similar to that in Riceboro.
Brown said a new health department building is also a priority. And he took a shot of sorts at those who’ve been critical of the retreats on St. Simons.
“I’ve been going there for 27 years and haven’t been to the beach yet,” he said, then took a swipe at the Courier’s anonymous Soundoff. “No matter what those people say who call the whine line or whatever that thing is called.”