Despite an uncertain economic picture on the national level, Columbia County leaders are optimistic about the county’s prospects for growth in the coming year.
Representatives from the county’s governing bodies, municipalities, school system and Fort Gordon gave an update on the past year’s accomplishments and a forecast of future growth to a packed room at Grovetown’s Liberty Park gym Thursday at the State of the Community Address, sponsored by the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce.
Speakers, which included Grovetown Mayor George James, Harlem Mayor Bobby Culpepper and Commission Chairman Ron Cross, painted a picture that residents have become familiar with: more houses will be built, more roads will be extended and widened, more businesses will seek opportunity and more children will pack the county’s ever-expanding school system.
A big chunk of growth has been tied to the expanding national security mission at Fort Gordon, and the post expects to continue that relationship in coming years, said Col. Sam Anderson, Fort Gordon’s garrison commander.
Anderson said in his two decades in the Army he’s never seen a healthier, more supportive relationship between a community and a military post than that of Fort Gordon and the Augusta area.
“That relationship is far in excess of anything I have ever seen in my career,” he said.
Anderson said the prospects are good for another surge of growth in Fort Gordon’s near future, should military leaders select the post for a new Cyber Center of Excellence to unify and modernize Army cyber-related training efforts. That sort of expansion could bring another 3,500 families to the area, which will have an immediate impact on traffic patterns to and from the post and will bring a big influx of children to local schools, he said.
Anderson pledged to work closely with county officials to keep them informed and to smooth problems such rapid growth might create.
He cautioned, however, that area business leaders should not make any bets on that growth until an official decision is announced in Washington, whenever that might be.
“That decision is well above the pay grade of a colonel,” he said.
Even without that possibility, county leaders are already planning for more booming years.
Frank Neal, Grovetown’s city planner, said an $8 million improvement to Robinson Avenue, the city’s main access to Fort Gordon, was planned for the coming year.
The plan includes expanding the street, adding sidewalks and green space and creating a “true downtown” for the city. In addition, development plans for two new neighborhoods will bring more than 600 houses to the city. An overall urban redevelopment plan is expected to be ready to begin implementation by the spring, James said.
Regina Buccafusco, the chairwoman of the Board of Education, said the county’s booming growth has added more that 700 children to classrooms this school year.
The county school system has been able to meet the demand for growth by building and opening two schools this fall. This is despite cuts from the state that have amounted to more than $100 million to the county over the past nine years.
Budgets are tighter and the school board did approve a property tax increase this year to make up for some of those cuts, she said.
“The good news is that we have moved into these new schools and we have no debt,” Buccafusco said. “We are totally debt free.”
Cross told the audience they could expect “just about every road you drive on will be torn up” in coming months for new construction and expansion, but that was the price of progress.
He said the county’s leaders, including the two municipalities, had a spirit of cooperation and were working better together than they had in many years.
“I think the best for all of us is yet to come,” he said.