First of two parts
One of Liberty County’s two state representatives told business and community leaders Thursday that he is now in a position to fight for Fort Stewart.
Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, gave an overview of this year’s legislative session at the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues breakfast at La Quinta Inn and Suites in Flemington.
He outlined legislation passed that he sponsored, as well as giving his thoughts on controversial bills that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed. The breakfast was sponsored by Georgia Power.
Williams pointed out that he was appointed by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to the House Study Committee on Base Realignment and Closure. Williams noted how important Fort Stewart is to the local economy.
“The Port (of Savannah) is great, and it is an economic engine for Georgia,” Williams said. “But I submit to you that the money that gets spent at stores and on gasoline and food in this area comes from Fort Stewart. It has a direct dollar impact on our quality of life — almost $5 billion a year.”
While it does not appear likely that Fort Stewart will be closed in the foreseeable future, Williams said it is important to at least maintain the number of personnel the post has.
The most recent round of BRAC, announced last year, called for Fort Stewart to lose 950 soldiers in addition to civilian personnel by the end of 2017. Fort Benning took a much larger hit, with a cut of 3,400 soldiers by the end of next year.
“We can’t afford to lose a battalion,” Williams said. “We can’t afford to lose a brigade. So we don’t want to be downsized at all.”
He recalled the pain this region experienced when an additional brigade was promised — causing the area to gear up with construction of a new middle school, sewage plant and housing developments — only to have the Department of Defense change course.
“We took a huge economic hit,” Williams said. “We don’t need to go through that.”
The BRAC committee will hold five public hearings across the state, including one in Hinesville, Williams said, adding that he is assembling a list of people who will participate in the local hearing from both Hinesville and Savannah, as well as points in between.
Williams highlighted House Bill 821, the Military Spouses and Veterans Licensure Act, which is supposed to make it easier for military spouses to receive business licenses when moving into Georgia.
He said the bill allows spouses who are licensed in another state to receive a temporary license in Georgia immediately. This license will be valid until the process for obtaining a permanent license is complete. Deal signed the measure into law, and it takes effect July 1.
Williams spoke of Petula Gomillion, the executive director of Atlantic Area Court Appointed Special Advocates. A military spouse, Gomillion was a registered nurse in Texas and moved to Liberty County. She was granted a license to practice nursing in Georgia six months later, and “she had already gone on another career track,” Williams said.
New shopping center
Oglethorpe Square shopping center, on which ground was broken last month, will bring several prominent national businesses to Hinesville. The five that have been named so far are Dick’s Sporting Goods, T.J. Maxx, Hobby Lobby, PetSmart and LongHorn Steak House.
Williams said he played a role in helping pave the way for the center, which is scheduled to open next year. He said that “after a few conversations along the way,” the Georgia Department of Transportation agreed to place the shopping center entrance where the developer wanted it, even though GDOT did not initially agree with the location.
“Every once in a while, government has to get involved to help private business,” Williams said. “And then they’ve got to get out of the way and let business do what it does best.”
The shopping center is being built between Wal-Mart Supercenter and Ralph Quarterman Drive.
Williams admitted that even he sometimes reads the Coastal Courier’s “Sound off” to see what readers are saying. Callers frequently question the need for MidCoast Regional Airport at Wright Army Airfield.
“We need the airport so you and your children can have better jobs one day,” he said.
Williams said that before MidCoast, prospective business officials visiting Liberty County “used to have to land at ‘Walthourville International Airport,’” drawing laughs from those attending. “It was tough.”
He said prospective business officials “do not come on a Greyhound bus,” but prefer to use their own aircraft. A community that has a good airport and other infrastructure can help form a good first impression and entice these businesses to locate in Liberty County, he said.
“If you want to stay in Do-wah-diddy, Georgia, then you want to look like Do-wah-diddy, Georgia,” he said. “Which means we ain’t been nowhere, we ain’t going nowhere, and we don’t want nothing. I’ve been to a few of those places. They don’t have anything.”
Williams referred to the recent GDOT announcement of road improvement grants, including $200,000 for projects in Liberty County. He said the money is a “direct result of House Bill 170,” the transportation funding bill that was passed in the 2015 legislative session.
The transportation bill did increase the state fuel tax and impose a $5-per-night surcharge on hotel stays, but Williams said it was the only way the state could afford to improve infrastructure.
The second part of this report, which will appear in Wednesday’s Courier, will focus on Williams’ thoughts on the “fair tax,” the Liberty County Re-entry Coalition, Deal’s vetoes of “campus carry” and “religious freedom” legislation, and Medicaid expansion.