ST. SIMONS ISLAND — County and city leaders attended their annual two-day countywide planning workshop, Wednesday and Thursday at The King and Prince resort to discuss new initiatives and review department activities.
The workshop started with status reports on the three issues chosen at the 2015 workshop to tackle that year: business development, branding and the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax.
Attendees then heard updates from different entities, including the Hinesville Housing Authority, Liberty County School System, Liberty County Department of Family and Children Services, city of Flemington and Liberty Regional Medical Center.
During lunch, Dan Bucey, of Resource Land and Consultants, talked about the reclassification of wetland areas. He explained that the criteria used to define wetland areas has expanded, which can negatively impact future development.
After lunch, Melissa Jones, LCPC planner II, presented the draft Liberty County Comprehensive Plan. Jones explained the process of putting the plan together and some of its critical components.
Choosing three issues
There was an open forum where attendees expressed their opinion on what issues they felt were important in the county and initiatives that require an action plan. Suggestions included economic and landscape development projects for the county’s three gateway cities — Walthourville, Riceboro and Midway — the HHA collaborating with other municipalities, SPLOST, more homes for veterans, bike-riding paths in Hinesville, Wi-Fi access for digital education and supporting the Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen, or REACH, program.
The top three issues chosen were SPLOST, Wi-Fi access for students, and landscaping and economic development in the gateway cities.
At dinner, state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, reviewed significant action that took place during this year’s legislative session.
Liberty County Board of Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovette was honored and presented with a gift for serving on the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority board. Lovette will not renew his term on the board.
On day two, leaders were divided into three groups, which rotated to discuss each topic. In the discussions, they set goals, identified stakeholders, listed benefits and obstacles, formed action plans and established timelines. They also suggested a person or persons to be in charge of tackling that issue.
Landscaping and economic development
The first group that discussed landscape improvements and developments in the three gateway cities talked about a plan already in place to enhance the aesthetics of those areas. Leah Poole, the CEO of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, brought up plans to install updated signs for historic areas, trails and other sites. She also mentioned that work improving gazebos in the county, such as the one in Midway near exit 76 of Interstate 95, is underway.
County Engineer Trent Long said the county received a grant for landscaping improvements at 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 those areas and to develop an incentive package for potential investors. 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, 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.
School System Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee 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 county-wide Wi-Fi access to all residents will increase and educated workforce and boost learning opportunities.
Liberty County DFCS Director Shawn Brown 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 a feasibility study was suggested to research what areas need Internet access.
Some 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. Attendees felt more people need to be educated on which projects were completed with SPLOST funds and future projects. Leaders also felt there is a negative perception of SPLOST.
“We need to establish a strategy to respond (to those comments), because that’s the narrative out there,” Howard said, adding there should be SPLOST advocates throughout the county.
Williams said SPLOST should be promoted like a political campaign.
Camila Knowles, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs was the guest speaker for lunch. She talked about the different ways DCA has partnered with Liberty and grants that have been awarded to the county.
Leaders then reviewed the action plans for the three issues.
For countywide Wi-Fi access, the action plan included: doing a feasibility study, hiring a consultant, holding public forums, developing a comprehensive plan and informing the public on 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 included distributing fact sheets or information cards, engaging with citizens one-on-one and talking about projects that have been completed with SPLOST funds. Attendees chose the Board of Commissioners and Chamber of Commerce to lead the efforts; however, many agreed that all county leaders should be informing citizens about SPLOST. County officials and employees are not allowed under state law to advocate for SPLOST, only provide information.
Plans for the economic development of the gateway cities included organizing a committee to oversee the project, collaborate with large property owners, approve prior plans for landscaping and sign updates and address lighting concerns at exits 76 and 67 off 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.