This is the third part of an ongoing series of Q& A’s with local leaders. Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter and Bryan County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger ran Dec. 2 and 9, respectively. Click on the links to read those stories.
Today is Pembroke Mayor Judy Cook.
Q: From your perspective as mayor, how did Pembroke handle the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: COVID was a big issue, but we got amazing cooperation from our citizens, who realized the seriousness of the situation. I was very proud of the way they handled COVID. To aid in relief during that difficult time, Council voted to suspend utility cutoffs and penalties. Amazingly, our residents didn’t get behind, they kept up.
Q: Also looking back, Pembroke gained approximately 200 residents over the last decade and now has a population of 2,685, according to the 2020 Census. What’s your take on the numbers?
A: To me it’s not a true picture of our city, because there were so many glitches. No. 1, they did it online, and that was a negative. And then when they followed up person to person, well a lot of people won’t talk to a stranger, no matter how many IDs they have or who they say they’re representing, so I don’t believe it’s an accurate picture. I’ve thought that every 10 years, to be honest. But I do think we will be better in our next census in 2030.
Q: There is a perception from the outside that Pembroke hasn’t grown much, but the city has seen residential and business growth, correct?
A: We’ve had more construction, more people, and more businesses open up in 2021 than people realize. We now have senior housing, townhomes under construction, and a subdivision in the beginning stages of development. We opened our new City Hall, we’re renovating the old city hall into our police department and we’re renovating fire station 1. We also opened another fire station on Garrison Street. St. Joseph’s new infusion center and Curtis V. Cooper’s facility have recently opened. We have Stoner’s Pizza, Sovereign Ink Tattoos, Southern Grace Marketplace, Mc-Coy Home inside Storehouse Salvage, and Totally Creative Photography that have opened up just in the past year and a half. We’ve also seen residents move into Ash Branch Manor and the GICH houses on Camellia Drive. And what is unusual about Ash Branch Manor is it’s not just Pembroke or North Bryan residents moving in. They’re coming from Savannah, some from Florida, even one or two from South Carolina. National Church Residence (the owners of Ash Branch Manor) have also purchased McFadden Place, a senior apartment complex. McFadden Place was one of my first projects when I came on as mayor in 2000.
Q: What’s the relationship like with the city of Richmond Hill and Bryan County?
A: We have a great working relationship. They know what our needs are and they’re very cooperative. I couldn’t say that 15 to 20 years ago, but right now I couldn’t ask for better cooperation. We work together for the good of our respective cities and the county.
Q: Your city was also party to the service delivery strategy negotiations and court-ordered mediation over disputes between Richmond Hill and Bryan County. What was that like for Pembroke, which wasn’t directly involved in the dispute?
A: We were at the table the entire time. Richmond Hill and Bryan County had to work out their issues, and they worked hard and finally came to a resolution. We were involved, and I believe we were treated fairly in the end. That’s what it’s all about, communication. There will always be bumps in the road, but communication is the first step in finding a resolution.
Q: What are some things on the horizon for Pembroke?
A: We’re looking at a complete renovation of the (Mikel Foxworth) gym on Ash Branch, because there is a desire for recreational facilities in Pembroke. We’ve had to make it handicap accessible, had to put a new roof on it because of storms, and we’ve upgraded the electrical. We have a sewer rehab project going on we’re paying for partially with a community development block grant. Another project that I’m excited about is the newly acquired Dingle Building. This building was the site of the old African American high school in the days of segregation. We were fortunate enough to obtain it from the Board of Education and we want to do some kind of museum in the original high school building. We’re not going to start with anything until after the New Year. We will also be updating our wastewater treatment plant at a cost of approximately $6 million. We want to continue to upgrade our departmental equipment, like adding more vehicles to our police fleet. For the past several years we have tried to upgrade equipment for Public Works. The city recently purchased a street sweeper, the first in Pembroke’s history. It’s a small unit, but it meets our needs. It doesn’t take much to excite me, I just like seeing us build up all of our departments. Back when Ernie Hamilton was in charge of our public works, he said all he had was a tractor, a bush hog and a shovel.
Q: You’ve become a champion of TSPLOST, the one-cent sales tax for roads. Why?
A: That’s the best thing ever to happen to Pembroke. In the past, we’ve had to rely on state funds (Local Maintenance Infrastructure Grants) and we’d have to put in a percentage of funds. With TSPLOST, we’ve been able to do so much. To me, TSPLOST is such a benefit to the citizens, I’ll champion it on and on and on.
Q: What are some of the transportation projects in the works?
A: Realigning Harry Hagan Road, and we’re talking with the state about realigning Camellia Drive to intersect with Highway 67. There’s also a streetscape project to improve sidewalks and lighting planned for District 2 and 3. These projects don’t happen overnight, though. They take time to plan and implement.
Q: Perhaps the biggest development that could happen to Pembroke in coming years could be due to the Bryan County Mega-Site, which is about 12 miles down Highway 280. What’s your thoughts on it?
A: We’re already getting phone calls about it from people who are interested in Pembroke because of it, and fortunately, we have some time. Sean Register (former development authority chairman) has offered to take me and a few council members to a small city that has faced something similar, so we can talk to the people there and learn how they dealt with the growth. Hopefully that will help us avoid some growing pains. If we know about it, we can prepare for it.
Q: You’ve long spoken in favor of controlling growth, which isn’t always easy.
A: I know. I and the council want controlled growth. We don’t want hit and miss, we want a plan. That’s the reason you need a vision, and you need a plan, and you need good people who can administer it and be on top of it. You need planning and zoning, you need city fathers. You also need good partners, and in our case the city of Richmond Hill is a partner, Bryan County is a partner, the state is partner. There are a lot of players.”
Q: A lot of people say government should be run like a business. Is that realistic?
A: There are too many variables. Most businesses have one goal to achieve. With government you have so many rules and regulations, and so many unfunded mandates. You also have different departments with different needs. You have to deal with council, where each of them have different personalities, different interests, you’ve got the public to answer to, and you’ve also got government to answer to. If it was real simple to just run it like a business, I’d be first in line to do it. About the only thing businesslike about it is you have finances and a budget. But we have to provide certain services, and that costs money.
Q: You’ve been involved in Pembroke government for longer than anyone in its history, as both a clerk and then for what will be five terms as mayor when this one ends. You’ve got two years left in what you’ve said will be your final term. Do you worry about what comes next when you’re no longer mayor?
A: At the end of this term I’ll be 79. Personally, I think I’ve got a few more years both physically and mentally, but I feel like the time has come for the next generation to move Pembroke forward. So, if the people who are elected in the next administration are people who put the citizens of Pembroke and their needs first, I’ll feel better about retiring. I know we’ve got a lot of new people coming in with some new ideas, and that to me is a positive. Sometimes we get settled in the way we think and the way we do things and we have tunnel vision. With new people coming in, it’s going to expand what we can learn. I think that’s a good thing. And life goes on, it ain’t going to stop with me. Nobody is indispensable. I just hope whoever comes in will love Pembroke and its citizens as much as I do.