Low cost county-wide access to the internet could be here in the near future.
Local officials again discussed making the internet available for everyone in county at a Dec. 15 breakfast meeting at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center.
That access was one of three goals government officials set during a workshop in May on Saint Simons Island.
The other goals were passage of the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax and economic development of the county’s gateways.
The SPLOST passed in November.
Jim Thomas, former Hinesville mayor, was chosen to head the committee for Connect Liberty, the internet access initiative and said “the ultimate goal is to connect Liberty County so everyone will have access to Wi-Fi.”
The initiative started with the Liberty County School System’s Classroom Without Walls program, where hotspots are located on parked buses around the county to give students access to the internet through their school-issued iPads.
The idea expanded to include the entire county to provide service at the lowest cost for low-income families and in the county’s rural areas.
“Hargray (Communications) is our lead corporate company working with us to provide these services. They are looking at everything they can find that will allows us to provide this service at the lowest cost possible to the community,” Thomas said. “If everyone is connected, we stand a better chance at growing our community.”
The federal government has provided funds to the state for Wi-Fi access, Thomas said, and the Georgia House Military Affairs Study Committee has agreed to help secure some of those funds during the legislative session.
He said the committee agreed to help because Liberty is a military community.
“We will need some sort of development under a public private partnership that will allow us to work with Hargray in providing this,” Thomas said. “There is a program whereby people who do not have the funds for regular Wi-Fi service can get it at reduce rates. That’s what the funds from the federal government are for, to provide that service to everyone based on income, so it doesn’t compete with the regular cellular service.”
Thomas said internet service providers would put up the additional towers needed and recoup funding through state funds and payments from internet users. Thomas said there would be a tier rate for lower income families.
“It’s an industrial incentive,” Thomas said. “The more you provide, the better chance you have of having companies come into our county to do business.”
County Administrator Joey Brown gave an update on the SPLOST, which voters passed during the Nov. 8 general election.
Brown called the campaign “a team effort.”
Residents and visitors can expect the local 6 percent tax to increase to 7 percent on April 1. The money will start flowing into local coffers soon afterward.
“We will received first proceeds from the tax at the end of May,” Brown said. “Once that money comes in we will be dispersing it to different entities based on their proportions for projects.”
The county commissioners will develop a project schedule, Brown said, with some things taking precedence, such as the debt on the Justice Center and MidCoast Regional Airport at Wright Army Airfield.
SPLOST is projected to generate $54 million over six years to be dispersed among the county and each city for projects.
Graylan Quarterman, Liberty County Development Authority board member, talked about improving and creating a unified look at the gateways off of the Interstate 95 interchanges in Midway and South Newport, and in Walthourville at Oglethorope Highway and Airport Road.
Some work has already been done to spruce up those areas, such as the renovation of the gazebo in Midway near exit 76.
“The county is growing as most counties do, so either we’re going to control the growth or it’s going to control us,” Quarterman said. “We thought that if we start to look at what each municipality, each gateway, has and then what they need, then we can determine how to control growth in the county.”
The suggestions for funding included bond financing, reduced land costs and public private partnerships.
Quarterman said it is important to have uniform signage in the county that visitors will recognize. He said the committee is researching signage in other places and plans to present recommendations to local leaders and community members for feedback.
“The concept is when folks come into the county they like what they see and when they leave they see the same thought,” Quarterman said. “They got Liberty on their mind and they can say like the chairman (County Chairman Donald Lovette), they are Liberty County proud.”
He said county branding is not going to take away from cities’ branding.
“So inside the city limits, the city may want to have a sign that represents that city and hopefully we’ll come to the point where what represents that city will enhance what the county has done,” Quarterman said.
There were questions about having signs on both sides of the highways as visitors leave and enter the county, and if there could be signs on Fort Stewart for Highway 144. Quarterman said the committee will look into those ideas.
After the main three issues were discussed other departments gave updates on their activities.
Leah Poole, CEO of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and CVB, said a major television show filmed in Liberty over the past few months. Poole said she is obligated not to talk about it. Filming was completed last week and during production 150 hotel rooms were booked for two and a half months.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the financial contributions that they made to the community,” Poole said. “In March we hope to have a better number to share. The rate they paid on those rooms was $100 a night. If you do the math that is a very big number.”