There were moments during the Richmond Hill Bryan County Chamber of Commerce’s 2023 State of the Community breakfast when the county’s booming, zooming growth wasn’t being talked about by panelists.
They were few and far between, however.
From the outset, when new RHBC Chamber CEO Summer Beal told those seated around tables in the Richmond Hill City Center she was “excited to be joining the chamber in the fastest growing county in Georgia,” the topic of growth dominated the roughly two-hour event, which annually brings local business and government leaders together.
And if there was a recurring theme within the recurring theme, it was Hyundai and it’s electric vehicle plant.
Moderator Ralph Forbes, an engineer by trade, set the tone early, saying Hyundai’s 2022 decision to build its $5.45 billion Metaplant America in Black Creek “injected a steroid shot into the fastest growing county in Georgia.”
And so it went from there, though there was one early detour away from the topic at hand, as panelists ranging from Development Authority of Bryan County CEO Anna Chafin, Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher and Bryan County Administrator Ben Taylor were asked to give their thoughts on “One Bryan”– a slogan created some years back by school officials to assure North Bryan parents both ends of the county were being treated equally.
Chafin said “One Bryan” from the DABC standpoint was illustrated by having board members and industries in both North Bryan and South Bryan. “The development authority serves the entire county,” she said.
But Taylor circled back to Hyundai, using his moment to show the company’s impact on the tax base, after abatements and incentives end the South Korean automaker and related industries are expected to add some $8.5 billion to that base.
“That compares,” Taylor said, “to a tax base now of only $1.5 billion.”
That money will help fund infrastructure projects such as roads and essential services such as fire, EMS and law enforcement, he said, enabling the county to “hire people to man those stations and ride in those patrol cars and whatnots.”
And, Taylor added, the need for such services is only going to increase.
“Our population sits at about 50,000 right now,” he said. “It’s projected to be 66,000 in 2030 and 84,000 in 2050.”
If that wasn’t enough, the Georgia coast is expected to have some 1.3 million residents by 2050, Taylor said.
“All of us are working together now to continue to meet the demand of population growth.”
Brooksher’s turn was next, and he set the record straight.
“’One Bryan’, I think we started that brand almost 10 years ago,” he said, noting it set a foundation and told employees, students and the community “that no matter where you go to school, no matter where you work, you’ll receive a world class education in a great place to work.”
There were other takes on the slogan. Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield representative Steven Hood said “One Bryan” to him was an opportunity to strengthen partnerships and “highlight and promote the talent rich workforce” of separating and retiring Fort Stewart and HAAF soldiers and their spouses and family members.
The breakfast discussion went from there back to Hyundai, as Chafin gave RHBC members a rundown on the chronology of the Bryan County Mega-Site, which had its first incarnation in 2014 when state, regional and local economic developers attempted unsuccessfully to bring Volvo to Black Creek.
The now nearly 3,000 acre construction site sat undisturbed for several years, until 2021 when the state and the four-county region consisting of Bryan, Bulloch, Chatham and Effingham counties purchased the site through the Savannah Harbor Interstate 16 Corridor Development Authority, which is usually mercifully shortened to JDA.
Then came Hyundai in 2022, and what followed was “the largest economic development project in state history with $5.45 billion in investment, 8,100 jobs and 300,000 vehicles assembled a year,” Chafin said, while noting additional industries on both the Mega-Site and Richmond Hill also are in the works as LG will manufacture batteries in Black Creek and Hyundai Mobis will build power packs for the cars in Richmond Hill.
That 8,100 jobs number at Metaplant America won’t happen overnight, however.
“This ramp up will take place over several years,’ Chafin said.
The workers will come from a number of places, ranging from the military and the school system to Savannah Tech, which has already signed MOUs with both Hyundai and Sewon America, which is building a plant in Effingham County to make Hyundai parts, to help train workers.
What’s more, Chafin said, the JDA is conducting a workforce study to find ways to help both Hyundai and other industries in the area recruit employees.
At the same time, there’s expected to be people from other parts of the country who’ll move in – the vast majority of those 8,100 jobs are going to “Americans,” Chafin said – which will help small businesses in the JDA footprint.
Forbes shifted gears to transportation, setting up the topic by noting “everybody sees all this growth and commute times are getting twice as long as they used to be,” he said, asking how the officials planned to keep traffic moving.
Taylor said there’s some $250 million being invested in the Highway 280 corridor over the next few years, with the majority coming from the Georgia Department of Transportation. Other funding sources include industries that have to pay in advance to help offset their impact on traffic, TSPLOST, the penny Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax, and county funding.
Much of the work set to take place includes the roundabout at highways 80 and 280 in Blitchton, a roundabout to replace the traffic signal at Oracal Parkway, and a two-roundabout upgrade to the I-16 interchange at 280. Additional roundabouts on 280, including one at Wilma Edwards Road, a new I-16 interchange at Old Cuyler Road are among the projects in the pipeline, Taylor said.
Forbes turned the forum discussion to Pembroke, asking City Administrator Chris Benson for an update on what’s happening in the county seat where growth is beginning to pick up steam.
He listed the city’s recent completion of its comprehensive plan and work to address “significant housing issues in the city,” as well as work on traffic issues, “which will only increase,” as Hyundai grows. One traffic issue will be solved by a roundabout at highways 67 and 119 in Pembroke, Benson said.
He also touted the recent hiring of Fernanda Camacho Hauser, a recent Georgia Southern grad with an master’s degree in public administration, for the post of director of the Pembroke Downtown Development Authority to help re-engage the city’s business community.
The discussion from there wound around to schools in North Bryan, with Brooksher first taking a moment to thank Taylor for the number of roundabouts he’ll have to navigate from the I-16 exit onto 280 to his office in Black Creek, a distance of perhaps two miles. He put the number at five.
But, planning for growth is “not new for Bryan County Schools,” Brooksher continued. “We have to be proactive to put kids in classrooms that didn’t start with wheels under them.”
The county has spent $100s of millions of dollars in building new schools, especially in South Bryan, over the past decade, and plans in North Bryan include the construction of a new operations center to open in 2025 as well as a new Bryan County High School in 2028, a new Lanier Elementary in 2029 and a new Bryan County Middle School in 2030.
The new BCHS will go on land the board purchased behind Payne Road. Brooksher said the new high school will be built for 1,000 students but designed to expand to 3,000. Bryan County High School currently has 600 students.
He also noted partnerships between the DABC and the system’s Career, Technical and Agricultural Education program, and the return of “pathways” including automotive repair with an electric vehicle component, engineering and logistics.
Both he and Chafin praised the “great partnerships” between the school system and DABC, and Brooksher said he and other government officials in the room have their own workforces to take care of. “We try to support a lot of local businesses together, but one thing we need to focus on and something we look at all the time is that we have about 3,000 employees between us ourselves,” he said, adding growth in the county increases the need for more people.
Chafin followed that with talk of the DABC and BCS Industry Day, which brings seventh graders from both end of Bryan County to local industries such as firearms manufacturers Daniel Defense and C& H Precision Weapons.
The South Koreans
From Industry Day the discussion turned to Hyundai employees from South Korea.
Chafin said “a couple hundred families” moved in to help start up the Metaplant, and Bryan County School Board member Karen Krupp is now the JDA’s relocation specialist and is working with the families, who cannot buy a house and have to rent. Small businesses have also stepped up to make them feel welcome, Chafin said, noting “I think it’s wonderful how our community has embraced our new neighbors.”
Water and sewer
Forbes then diverted the course of the conversation to water and sewer infrastructure, which has been a massive and expensive undertaking.
Taylor called it “as big a topic as transportation,” because “Hyundai is going to use a lot of water.”
Because Bryan County is in the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s yellow zone, which limits withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer, much of that water will come from other counties – including Bulloch County – while the county with Hyundai is building a $130 million waste water treatment plant capable of treating five million gallons a day and expandable for up to 10 million gallons day.
Taylor said much of that funding is coming from the state, and the plant will serve the region.
Forbes then turned to Richmond Hill City Manager Chris Lovell to give an update on Richmond Hill’s wastewater treatment status. “The first time I get to talk and it’s about sewer,” Lovell responded. “I don’t know what that means, but this is actually something we thought about the last eight or nine years.”
Richmond Hill built a $25 million wastewater treatment plant in 2016 with the capacity for four million gallons a day, was “initially thought to be too big,” Lovell said, but has since given the city the ability to help Bryan County handle growth in the unincorporated areas.
The city’s need for water is increasing, Lovell said, and since it cannot withdraw more from the Floridan the city is exploring options, including drilling into the Miocene aquifer system.
“We’re looking at alternate sources of water,” he said. “We feel good about it.”
Benson said Pembroke, which in 2022 got $8.8 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant, expects to expand its capacity to treat sewer and finish work on the new $11 million plant late in 2024.
“That should get us up to speed and provide us a little bit of cushion for future growth,” he said.
The forum direction then turned back to Richmond Hill, starting with discussion on Belfast Keller and the growth in that area.
Taylor said from the county perspective the story began more than a decade ago when Richmond Hill, landowner Rayonier and Bryan County, along with GDOT, came together to get funding to build the $18 million interchange at Exit 82.
It opened in 2021, and since then Rayonier’s Raydient has begun developing Heartwood, a massive real estate development off the Great Ogeechee Parkway near the interchange.
That area will also be the site of the new Richmond Hill High School, which Taylor noted as he spoke of the new roundabout at Cranston Bluff, as well as four-laning Belfast Keller and additional intersection improvements on Belfast Keller near Heartwood.
“We’re looking at a lot of big improvements,” Taylor said. “Just like 280 it’s taking some developer contributions, so Raydient is paying their fair share with Richmond Hill and Bryan County. Without partners coming together we couldn’t be successful.”
Lovell echoed Taylor’s remarks, adding that Warren Hill Road will eventually tie into the roundabout as well, and St. Joseph’s Candler is also in the process of building a large campus near Heartwood, which plans say will eventually have some 10,000 residences.
Lovell said the Belfast Keller Commerce Park on the west of I-95, which is where Hyundai Mobis is setting up shop across Belfast Keller from the MedLine and FedEx distribution center, among other businesses, is 98 percent sold out to “end users.
“All this has been done in the last three years,” he said. “What a blessing we have to have industry come in and handle some of this funding for growth.”
That led to a reminder to RHBC chamber members to champion upcoming votes on SPLOST and TSPLOST. Which in turn prompted Chafin to announce C& H Precision Weapons, owned by Buck Holly, is expanding to a 48,000 square foot facility on Thunderbird Drive in Richmond Hill. The $10 million investment will provide some 20 to 30 jobs.