Imagine if each year the Masters Golf Tournament brought more than 1 million people to Augusta. The economic effect would be almost too enormous to compute.
On a smaller scale, that's what Harlem experiences each year when the Oliver Hardy Festival hits town. The city's tiny population is vastly outnumbered by an estimated 35,000 visitors, all of them drawn by the celebration of the late comic actor born there 113 years ago. More than anything else, the Oliver Hardy Festival defines Harlem for the world.
This year's festival has special meaning, too, coming at a time when county leaders are discussing a fundamental change to the county government that could have significant impact on Harlem's future, and that of nearby Grovetown.
Mayors of both cities are worried that if Columbia County convinces first the county's legislative delegation, and then county voters, to support incorporating and consolidating county government to create a city-county entity, Harlem and Grovetown will be forever locked inside their existing borders, unable to grow by annexing adjoining property.
The fear is understandable. But County Commission Chairman Ron Cross is right, too, when he points out that the county is limited to growth within its own borders. It already has to live with that reality, and the cities could, too.
The annexation question is just one hurdle the cities have yet to leap. Harlem leaders, particularly, also are worried about how sales taxes will be divvied up. State law requires sales tax revenues to be shared based on an agreement between the county and its largest city; if the county consolidates, it need only agree with itself.
Currently, Harlem receives a higher percentage of the sales tax than its population share in the county; after consolidation, there's no guarantee the city wouldn't see its portion - and a major source of the city's funding - drop drastically.
The good news is that there is plenty of time to work out these issues and other concerns of citizens - not just those in the cities, but of all throughout the county who are uncertain or unconvinced about the promises of consolidation.
This weekend, then, Harlem should focus its energies on putting its best face forward for the Oliver Hardy Festival guests, and worry about the politics of consolidation later.
Note: Give your view on consolidation in our online poll at www.newstimesonline.com.
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