Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas said he is optimistic for the city’s future at a Liberty County Chamber of Commerce Progress Through People Luncheon Thursday.
The mayor delivered his annual state of the city address at the meeting at Liberty College & Career Academy. There was a twist this year. Leaders of other public institutions and a bellwether industry also spoke.
“We have weathered our fiscal storm,” Thomas began what he called a “fiscal shape of the city” presentation. Last year, he said the city had to use some of its reserve funds to maintain programs and services. This year, he and the council had to raise property taxes. Thomas called these “tough decisions,” but something they “had to do.”
Some services had to be cut and new routes were implemented for the Liberty Transit System, but Thomas reiterated his support for keeping the system, saying there are still people in the city who depend on it. He said there were a number of projects the city would be working on, starting with a new entrance to the public works department, repairs to South Main Street and widening Veterans Parkway, Central Avenue and eventually Airport Road. He said the city’s 25-year-old water treatment plan also needs upgrades.
The city is planning to annex areas off E.G. Miles Parkway and Airport Road. He then talked about preparations for a new VA medical clinic, a new library and a Liberty campus for Armstrong Atlantic State University.
“The future of our city is promising,” Thomas said.
Thomas also summarized a forum from Monday on Fort Stewart that he and other city, county and business leaders attended.
Some of those leaders also spoke at Thursday’s luncheon.
“We’re very proud of where our high schools are going,” Dr. Judy Scherer, superintendent of Liberty County Schools, said. “(They) now work together, plan together... they’re all working from the same page.”
Scherer said the biggest challenge for the school system is money. She said enrollment is down, explaining that fewer students mean fewer state and federal dollars. She said schools have worked under annual 8.6 percent austerity cuts for the past eight years. Students are getting a quality education, she said. She had special praise for the Career Academy. Its culinary arts students prepared the lunch.
Rene Harwell, marketing director for Liberty Regional Medical Center, talked about the $14 million expansion under way that will add 30,000 square feet to the emergency room. It would double the size of the emergency department. More parking spaces are also being put in, she said.
The county has attracted several new businesses and industries, according to Allen Brown, chairman of the Liberty County Development Authority who noted that industrial sector employment had decreased nationally but increased in Liberty County. He noted, however, there are challenges.
“Our biggest challenge is our workforce,” Brown said. “We don’t have enough qualified people for these jobs.”
He praised the Career Academy and Savannah Tech for their partnership in preparing young workers for technical jobs. He also thanked Fort Stewart for its “Heroes for Hire” program that prepares soldiers for the civilian job market.
Chamber Chief Executive Officer Leah Poole talked about several events and projects completed, as well as upcoming events. She said there are currently more than 500 members. As head of the convention and visitors bureau, she said the state reports that more than $94 million in tourist spending in the county last year, contributing to $3.3 million in state taxes and $2.8 million in local taxes.
George Holtzman, chairman of the Hinesville Board of Realtors, said there is adequate housing in Hinesville, noting that 696 homes were sold last year. He said though the cost of homes is down, as homes sales increase nationwide, the increasing cost of materials will raise the costs of homes locally.