Note: This is the first of a series of stories in which the Bryan County News reaches out to local leaders to get their perspective on issues facing the community.
Up first, Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter.
Q: Looking back at 2021, what were the most important issues you faced this past year and how did the city handle them?
A: Dealing with COVID was, in 2021, still a major issue, especially with the surge in cases in the fall. We decided quickly that there would not be another shutdown, but still sought to mitigate the threat of the variant. Other issues included a city election with Les Fussell being elected. The opening of new businesses (St. Joseph’s/ Candler Urgent Care, among others). New companies at Belfast Commerce Center are coming online, soon bringing new jobs. The completion and opening of the Great Ogeechee Parkway, and the completion of Highway 144 widening.
Q: The last few years have been marked by some ‘disagreement: between the city and county, which resulted in a lawsuit, arbitration, etc. You announced in 2020 those issues have been settled. Have they been?
A: The county and city reached an agreement, and our lawsuit was withdrawn. Since then, both governments have worked well together (the aforementioned roads, a major sewer agreement, etc.)
Q: What is the status of a new library?
A: That’s a better question for the County. As I understand, the County decided not to move forward with the library at the Town Centre, but instead will be renovating the current facility.
Q: COVID shut down a lot of things, but in 2021 the city started coming out of its shadow and began again holding events. How important to you is it that the city holds these celebrations and commemorations?
A: Our residents, we felt, wanted a return to normalcy. From the Memorial Day observance, to our Independence Day celebration, then the Chamber’s Seafood Festival, and finally our Veterans Day ceremony, all events saw record numbers in attendance. We were thrilled to once again be back in action. It is these types of events that make our community what it is. Richmond Hill is a uniquely inviting, engaging City. Of course, I have to say that, but it is true.
Q: The city did not take the rollback rate this year on property taxes, again, but you maintain this is not a tax hike. Would you like to elaborate on why you believe this is not a tax raise.
A: It’s somewhat hard to explain. The state defines as an increase, but we did not raise the millage rate. If your home is valued more than it was last year, your tax payment will be higher, but the millage rate did not go up.
Q: 2021 is the year TAD got rolling, and you’ve already had meetings with both the school board and the city, so what’s the next step?
A: The next step is getting the County and school board on board, pardon the pun. As you stated, our meetings have gone well, and both raised valid questions that we are answering. The longevity of the TAD is a valid concern that we are addressing. Both have been exceptionally easy to work with on TAD.
Q: Related question: The numbers given by (TAD consultant) Ken Bleakly say the city’s first TAD will generate big investment and tax revenue over the life of the district. If so, that could change the way the I-95 exits at 144 and 17 look. What are your expectations, and how soon do you think residents will be able to see tangible results of the TAD?
A: Like anything, TAD is a very slow process. If and when it is implemented, it can take 2 plus years to first attract private investment to revitalize a property. That is my best hope for TAD — revitalization of older properties on Exit 87 especially. New development is needed to keep that exit from remaining stagnant when the new growth on Exit 82 (new interchange) takes off, which is coming fast.
Q: One of the projects mentioned in the TAD presentations is a civic center on 17 somewhere around where the old A1 motel sits? What sort of civic center is being envisioned? Are there sketches or renderings of a possible facility?
A: A civic center is just a hypothetical idea that was suggested that would be possible with a TAD. There are no concrete plans for one at this time.
Q: Why was it important to you to go with a TAD rather than impact fees?
A: Comparing the two is apples to oranges. TAD is one tool in the tool box to help with economic development, especially with aging areas of town. An impact fee is another tool that can be used for infrastructure and other services through development. TAD primarily focused on redevelopment.
Q: One of the city’s mantras in recent years has been infrastructure before development. One criticism of that has been from longtime residents who’ve seen the increase in traffic in ‘old’ Richmond Hill from the booming population in South Bryan over the past two decades. While it’s unfair to blame the city for having to deal with growth outside its borders, the city has also annexed in a large swath of land where there are plans to build thousands of new homes and businesses. In short, outside of some disaster, there’s likely no way growth slows down anytime soon. How will the city handle that growth?
A: It took the city a while to get ahead of the growth, and we struggle to maintain that status. In the new part of the city by Exit 82, we put our money where our mouth is: infrastructure, including water, sewer, and roads, were put in before the first home was built. Development in the old part of town has been better managed through strict guidelines and requirements. We’ve tapped the brakes on several developments so that they better fit our vision for our city. It’s a difficult balance sometimes, protecting the city from run away growth while also protecting property rights.
Q: Your administration has seen the development of a number of parks, and one would think there is more that will be done in that area in the coming years. What does the city have planned in regard to recreation?
A: We have a major asset with J.F. Gregory, utilized by thousands every week. Sterling Creek Park, however, isn’t used as much as we would like. We will be marketing it better in 2022, and making some changes there. It has the potential to be another important recreational asset. I envision it to be a swimming, fishing, and camping hub one day. Also, we will continue to improve Boles Park.
Q: A growing city means a growing need for services. What are your priorities as far as public safety is concerned?
A: We have increased our fire and police departments exponentially. RHFD Station 3 comes online next year, and we recently added four new officers to RHPD. The traffic cameras on Harris Trail have been extremely successful in protecting our school children, as has adding another traffic control officer in the morning.
Q: Has there been any movement on the Robert E. Lee statue? Are there any social justice initiatives coming in 2022?
A: The city, I believe, has made progress in being more inclusive of all our residents. Dr. Martin Luther King once said he longed for the day when “little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” That is our hope, as well as the policy of the city of Richmond Hill. I understand why the Robert E. Lee statue in J.F. Gregory Park concerns some of our residents. It’s removal concerns some others, and the City has strived to balance both sides. Nonetheless, we are constrained by state law as it applies to the removal of certain historical monuments. In the end, the presence of the Lee statue in the park has no bearing on how the city council goes about its business or treats our residents.
Q: You enter your last term in January. What do you hope to get accomplished over your last four years? And what do you plan to do after your time as mayor is over?
A: Realizing the potential of Sterling Creek Park. Continuing to include some underrepresented residents in making an already great city even better. Our residents, especially our teenagers and children, need more to do in the city. The drive-in movies in the park were a hit, so we will expand that and similar events. Bringing in a certain chicken restaurant and supporting our current restaurants. We have some of the best seafood restaurants on the coast, and excellent steak and Southern food options. Not to mention Mexican, Italian, etc. Realizing the job-creating potential of Belfast Center and the new parts of our city, better managing growth, especially traffic. Maintaining our small-town feel. Remaining accessible to all our residents. The current City Council is exceptional in this-accessible and active in everything happening in our city. We are all busy and we love it. Perhaps a run for a state house seat. I’m praying about that. Right now, being Mayor is what I must focus on.