The Grovetown of Mayor George James’ childhood was a sleepy Southern town where everybody knew everybody and a trip to Augusta felt like visiting New York City.
It grew slowly over the years as families flocked to Columbia County. The installment of Grovetown’s first sewer system in the late 1980s helped spur growth, and businesses and residential development followed the rising population, James said.
Around 2000, James said, city leaders began considering how to accommodate what they expected to be an increase in population over the next decade.
Now the short-term goals for the city surpass anything James, a life-long Grovetown resident and mayor of eight years, could have imagined.
With a surge of new residents expected with the incoming Army Cyber Command headquarters at Fort Gordon, along with steady growth over the past decade, Grovetown is preparing for the future with new residential and commercial developments, a plan to create a vibrant downtown and a dedication to beautifying buildings and roads.
“Some people would say, ‘Oh man, you’re dreaming,’ but I envision Grovetown growing in a way that will draw people here, that will still have that small-town feel but will be a bustling city,” James said. “I’m envisioning great things.”
Between 2000 and 2012, Grovetown’s population grew by 100 percent to 12,210. Planning Director Frank Neal projects more than 14,000 residents by the end of this year.
A 70-unit senior living facility and a 500-unit single-family home complex are under construction in the suburban edges of the city, and more than $14 million was invested in residential development last year.
After Neal was hired in 2013 as Grovetown’s first city planner, the city council adopted a form-based code zoning ordinance, a relatively new method of managing growth that shifts the focus of construction throughout a city to architectural design and physical form rather than building use.
Ten major businesses, including a Wal-Mart, restaurants, pharmacies and a pediatric clinic, opened in the city limits within the past two years.
Neal said the city is pushing developers to keep aesthetics and architectural design in mind when building, and the majority of mobile homes dotting the city have been razed and replaced with single-family homes. ‘‘We’re in a rare state where we can really shape what the future of Grovetown looks like for many years to come,” Neal said.
But there have been growing pains. The city’s infrastructure has had trouble accommodating the surge in population.
Traffic quickly becomes gridlocked along the main arteries of Wrightsboro Road and Robinson Avenue in the mornings and afternoons, creating a frustrating bottleneck for residents.
“That’s the largest change we’ve seen with all of this growing, is the traffic,” said Louise Whigham, a co-owner of Best Built Trailers on Wrightsboro Road. “When people are getting off work, going to school, it’s hard.”
With funding from the Transportation Investment Act, or T-SPLOST, approved by voters in 2012, two road-widening projects totaling $11 million are scheduled to begin next year to alleviate congestion on Wrightsboro and Robinson, though the problem could worsen before it gets better, Neal said. The projects will take almost two years to complete, so drivers can expect to navigate construction sites instead of just congestion.
However, the upgrades will help accommodate one of the city’s most ambitious projects – the development of a downtown district with restaurants, retail stores and housing.
James said this project will depend on the investment of private developers who see potential in the city’s future growth and is a way to keep residents from going elsewhere for shopping and entertainment.
The vision is to have multi-use buildings along Robinson Avenue that could feature a store on the ground floor, offices in the middle and loft apartments on top.
“I see people being able to walk to downtown, which is something we’ve heard people wanting for a while,” he said. “Something unique and different.”
Grovetown historian Charles Lord said that as the city evolves, he hopes its rich history is also preserved and remembered.
Lord helps maintain the city’s museum next to City Hall, which features memorabilia dating back to Grovetown’s incorporation in 1881.
Founded as a rural community and evolving into a military town, Grovetown was always a place of hard workers that produced many notable residents, Lord said.
The museum displays a preserved flower wreath that was sent to the widow of Confederate poet Paul Hamilton Hayne after his death in Grovetown in 1886. Outside, one of the last historical markers erected by the Georgia Historical Society is dedicated to Hayne, who wrote much of his poetry while living in Grovetown’s Copse Hill, a mile west of the marker.
The museum also has a replica of the city’s train depot, which was torn down in 1972 but was the cornerstone of the town for generations.
“I hope Grovetown will be remembered for how it used to be, but we can’t live in the past,” Lord said. “The future is bright, too.”