After spending two days at its annual retreat trying to come up with a vision for Effingham County, the Effingham Chamber of Commerce now wants to start putting that foresight into motion.
“We can focus on negative things sometimes. But there are so many positive things going on in our community,” said Stan Sparks, the chairman for the Chamber’s legislative affairs committee. “So we started talking about some of the positive things, some of the common areas that seem to be there, and we decided to start talking about a vision for the community, areas of commonality everyone can get behind.”
Sparks said the Chamber wanted to find those areas of common interests that would have broad, countywide appeal, but the group also didn’t want to interfere with the plans of the individual governments.
“The county has some needs it has to accomplish,” he said. “Each individual city has its own agenda. We’re not trying to circumvent that process. What we would like to say, is take a step back and what are our common interests — a county that has a great way of life, that is growing and a place where people want to live.”
The Vision Effingham team will be a champion for the overall vision, Sparks said, and it will produce a written document on the action items. Stephen Newsome, a Meldrim resident and community activist there, has been tapped to lead the Vision Effingham community.
The Vision Effingham chairman needed to be a resident but not someone who held an elected or appointed position, Sparks said.
“I just like to do anything positive,” Newsome said. “I have no personal agenda. I just want to do anything positive. As long as it’s positive, I’m fair game.”
Georgia Power regional economic development director Peggy Jolly, who shepherded the annual retreat, said the theme retreat attendees found was that everybody came to the table to make a difference.
At the retreat, participants were asked to rank their top issues. Topping the list were the east-west corridor through the Industrial Development Authority’s Research Forest Tract that would link Hodgeville Road to Highway 21 and the Effingham Parkway. Alternative funding sources, education, county parks, a best practices and critical access hospital designation, cultural and performing arts venues, an increase of offerings at the Savannah Technical College campus and the Old Augusta Road corridor also made the list.
“It’s an ongoing process and it’s something you need to continually stay on top of,” she said. “This is a vision for growth management; it is not a part of the comprehensive plan.”
The topics were broken down into four “buckets” where shared objectives and hurdles were — growth issues, quality of life, transportation and education.
With growth issues, Jolly asked where the community wants to be in 20 years. She also advised them to appreciate what they have but struggle to make it better.
“It’s much easier with everybody on board,” Jolly said.
She also said the approaching Census will have an impact on many areas, particularly the amount of funding for which the community could be eligible.
“It amazes me how few counties pick up on this and I’m glad to see this was a priority,” Jolly said.
In order to lessen the reliance on certain tax revenue streams, the community could tap into community development block grants or enact a hotel/motel tax, along with other special tax programs. She also said a joint grants writer could be hired to pursue funding at the state and federal levels.
Improving the gateway into the county also was a priority and the community needs to make sure that people know they are coming into Effingham County, Jolly said.
The hotel/motel tax could be used to promote and develop tourism opportunities, such as cultural and performing arts venues, and the discussed countywide park with cross country trail at the IDA’s Research Forest Tract could be a tourism draw.
An accurate Census count could help in stabilizing the state’s funding of the school system, but Jolly said other action steps may be required.
“Take risks to fund what you need,” she said.
The school system, which has land off Fort Howard Road for a potential school, needs to look to add schools as growth demands and there needs to be a focus on a possible arts or magnet school. Also, programs such as nursing need to be established at Savannah Tech to meet growing needs.
Jolly also commended the Chamber and the retreat attendees for approaching its challenges in unison.
“I went in years past where it did not feel like we were on the same page,” she said.
Sparks said some of the objectives are those that are “low-hanging fruit” and could be achieved easily and others could be reached with a little bit of effort.
“A lot of what you heard are things that are already going on,” Sparks said. “This is very forward-thinking and very long term.”
The Vision Effingham team also will maintain a focus on common goals and priorities, he said, and will act as a think tank for ideas.
“They’ll look for ways to move the ball forward,” Sparks said.
The Chamber has commitments from the county, the cities, the major boards and the business community, Sparks added.
“This is open to any and all individuals who want to make a positive impact in Effingham County,” he said. “This is a call to action. This is not a government effort. It is not an effort by any established board in the county. We want this to be a community action. It’s very pie in the sky, but that’s what any vision is.”