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Growth the main topic at Chamber breakfast

POSTED: November 16, 2017 10:49 a.m.
Ted O'Neil /

Richmond Hill students in Russ Carpenter's government class at the 4th Annual Grits and Government Legislative Breakfast Thursday. At left is Sen. Ben Watson, next to Carpenter, with Rep. Ron Stephens on the right.

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Growth and infrastructure were the topics of the day at the annual Grits and Government Legislative Breakfast Thursday.

The fourth annual event, hosted by the Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce, the Development Authority of Bryan County and the North Bryan Chamber of Commerce, was held at the Richmond Hill City Center.

State Sen. Ben Watson and State Rep. Ron Stephens both discussed the growth of Georgia in general and Bryan County specifically, with both citing the widening of Highway 144 as a priority.

The Georgia Department of Transportation had said it would seek bids on the project in the spring of 2018, but over the summer removed the project from its priority list as the department finishes redoing environmental studies.

“It’ll be back on the table,” Stephens said. “GDOT’s list is fluid.”

Watson said it was “unfortunate” the project was taken off the 2018 priority list, but that he is confident the widening will happen.

Stephens, chair of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, said Bryan County is primed for growth, noting the new interchange on I-95 to be built at Belfast Keller Road.

“If we could look in a crystal ball and see what that will do, it’s hard to comprehend the opportunities that will create,” he said.

Local officials also discussed Bryan County’s future and what they hope to see the state delegation focus on.

“The growth is coming,” County Administrator Ben Taylor said. “People want to move here, but our infrastructure is taxed. We’ve got 400 miles of roads to maintain.”

Taylor said T-SPLOST, scheduled for a vote in May 2018, would help. If the transportation-specific Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax passes, the county along with the cities of Richmond Hill and Pembroke would receive several million dollars in additional tax revenue.

Alex Floyd, director of the Pembroke Downtown Development Authority, said the county seat is looking at how to fund an upgrade to its sewer and water system.

“It’s about 75 years old and still made up of cast iron and terra cotta pipes that systems of that age commonly are,” he said. “We’ve also learned from the last two hurricanes that Pembroke needs some sort of public warning system.”

Superintendent Paul Brooksher said Bryan County Schools has embarked on a 10-year, $150 million capital outlay program. The bulk of that money will go toward a new high school, middle school and elementary school in South Bryan.

“We’re hoping the state will fully fund the education budget to help high-growth districts like ours,” he said.

Watson said Georgia’s growth has led to some discussion about expanding the state assembly. Georgia was the 10thmost populous state after the last census and is now up to No. 8.

“Most of that growth is occurring in the Atlanta area and here in Coastal Georgia,” he said. “The rest of the state has been somewhat stagnant.”

As the state grows, some are talking about increasing how often legislators meet. They are now limited to 40 days per year.

“The states with full-time legislatures pay a lot more,” he said. “I think it’s important we have people who return to the community when our session is done. People in the private sector know what it means to balance a budget and meet payroll.”

Sens. Isakson and Perdue, along with Congressman Buddy Carter, were in Washington, D.C., but sent staff members to the breakfast.

Anna Chafin, CEO of the development authority, told them it is important that Georgia remain business-friendly and that the $4 billion in economic impact to the area from Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield is kept in mind when discussing military spending.

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