Note: Look for more coverage in future stories on issues raised at the retreat.
Water. Infrastructure. Jobs. Education. Taxes.
For the second straight year and the third time since 2010, about 25-30 local government and chamber leaders got together in a room at the Richmond Hill City Center to talk about the big issues facing Bryan County and what to do about them.
Billed as the 3rd annual Bryan County Community-Wide Strategic Planning Retreat, the event was sponsored by Coastal Electric Cooperative and drew a range of officials and planners representing Bryan County, Pembroke, Richmond Hill, the school system and Fort Stewart.
Coastal Electric’s Mark Bolton also attended. He said Coastal hosts the workshop as a public service.
"Coastal Electric Cooperative strongly supports community and economic development programs in the counties we serve," he said. "One of the services we offer is to provide a professional staff member to facilitate community-wide strategic planning exercises like this one for county commissions, city councils, chambers of commerce, development authorities, planning and zoning boards, boards of education and other community groups. We feel it is essential for these groups to come together at least annually to identify goals and to develop a shared vision for the county."
The meeting was led by Georgia EMC facilitator Jenny Robbins on behalf of Coastal Electric, who guided officials through various stages as they discussed issues and how best to tackle them.
"I facilitate all over the state," Robbins said. "This is a very positive group and very diverse as what they bring to the table. It’s really been a joy to facilitate for them."
Officials say the most pressing issues facing Bryan County is water, but those at the meeting also listed the I-95 interchange at Belfast Siding, along with transportation in general, education and possible cuts to Fort Stewart as among the biggest challenges the county faces.
Diversifying the tax base and adding jobs by recruiting more industry was also among the issues discussed at this retreat, which mirrored one held last year at the Center.
Bryan County Chairman Jimmy Burnsed said the yearly sessions matter because they get people from various governments and boards talking about problems and solutions.
"I think it’s extremely useful, and this is the third year we’ve done it," he said. "It’s not only envisioning what the community should be, but also focusing on what is important and then getting some of those things done. Some of them take longer than a year, but I’ve been impressed with how much we’ve got done over the last 12 months."
Among those things moving toward being completed is the much-anticipated I-95 interchange, which though still a few years away is on the latest Georgia DOT State Transportation Improvement Plan after decades of lobbying. Other accomplishments range from Richmond Hill’s landscaping and sign ordnances to steps taken by Bryan County Schools to provide work based learning, an internship program of sorts which gives local high school students a chance to get on the job experience.
Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher said the retreat helps all work for one goal.
"Anytime you can pool all the entities together, including the school system, and start having conversations about what they can do for the good of Bryan County as a whole, how we can all work together, then we’re not working in isolation," he said. "We’re working in the same direction on the same pace and at the same time."
Pembroke Mayor Mary Warnell also attended the retreat, which included lunch and dinner and was paid for by Coastal EMC. She said those who participated added a few wrinkles this year.
"One important step we made this year was assigning someone who will be responsible for each of the tasks so we will have some follow through," she said. "Six months out there will be a follow-through meeting and we’ll be able to check up on progress. That is vital."
Coastal EMC engineer Chris Fettes is also chairman of the Richmond Hill-Bryan County Chamber of Commerce. He’s attended all three retreats and sees a process that is evolving.
"The first one appeared to be more big perspective," Fettes said. "It was recognizing the need for us to continue to meet and become more cohesive. Since then, we have strengthened those relationships between cities and the county and the chamber and the development authorities and the schools, all the leaders in the communities."
Those relationships have allowed folks to start talking in more concrete terms about what needs to be done and how to do it, Fettes said. All while sitting at tables bouncing ideas back and forth.
"It’s resulted in us being able to focus. We’ve started broad and ended up with a short list of obtainable objectives to at least get momentum going. Sometimes you don’t know where the idea or the spark came from, sometimes all you need is the idea to surface to start getting there."