RINCON — Facing a series of related challenges, the Effingham County School District, Effingham County Board of Commissioners and Effingham County Industrial Development Authority (IDA) expressed a desire to build “a united front.”
Numerous representatives from each entity attended a Thursday retreat at Effingham College and Career Academy to discuss and learn about strategies to deal with rapid growth. Effingham County’s population is projected to top 76,000 by 2020.
The retreat, attended by about 50 people, including new state Sen. Billy Hickman, was the brainchild of Dr. Yancy Ford, superintendent of the Effingham County School District.
“This doesn’t happen in every county where you can bring everybody together and have good, constructive conversations about the betterment of our community,” he said.
Ford expressed gratitude to everyone who attended, particularly Effingham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Wesley Corbitt and Effingham County Industrial Development Authority CEO Brandt Herndon. The event designed to bolster teamwork was three months in the making
“Instead of operating in silo, we all want the same thing,” Ford said. “It was great for us to get together and talk. We are not always going to agree on everything but it is certainly very beneficial for all of us to come together.”
Ford updated the audience on key school system bond referendum projects before giving the board of commissioners and IDA turns to lead the discussion. He mentioned classroom additions at Ebenezer Elementary School (2021) and Blandford Elementary School (2022), and classroom additions and other enhancements (auxiliary gym, weight room and field house) at Effingham County High School.
Ford again discussed the need for government cooperation.
“For example, we know when we are building schools we definitely need good roads to put our school buses on,” he said. “We are transporting about 8,000 student per day. With COVID-19, it’s about 6,200 because we have a bunch of virtual learning going on.
“On a normal year, though, it’s about 8,000 students per day so roads are very important to us.”
The superintendent said traffic-flow patterns at most schools are a concern. The elementary and middle schools at Ebenezer are especially problematic but that situation is expected to ease after athletic field additions are made at the middle school. The area where the fields are currently will be converted into a staging area.
“We are working with our architects to get some of that traffic off the road during pickup time and during departure,” Ford said. “That helps all of us. That makes us more safe as we travel our roads.”
Ford said the school system is searching for land for a new middle school and new elementary school. In addition, he said a performing arts center is expected to be built in the next few years.
“(The performing arts center) is very, very important to our community,” Ford said. “We are interested in working with our commissioners to see if there are any ideas that you may have (in order to get one built).”
During his presentation on behalf of the board of commissioners, Corbitt started by saying, “One of the things in Effingham County is that this board has always tried to govern within its means. We are not indebted. We have a good bond rating and we are very financially sound.”
Since 2009, Effingham County’s property digest has grown by 12 percent. That is less than half of the rate of population growth during the same period.
Effingham County’s digest only recently returned to the level it reached before the Great Recession of 2009.
“With all the growth that we’ve had and the needs for additional services, we’ve tightened the belt,” he said. “We maintained the high quality of services that we have with a lot less money.”
Corbitt stressed that Effingham County’s growth rate hasn’t been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of county building permits has jumped 37 percent this year and the total of water customers is up 11 percent, he said.
Corbitt moved on to discuss transportation, water, sewer and recreation, saying the county must “catch up.” Jail improvements, a new library and a new land-use plan were also mentioned.
The board of commissioners is set to initiate studies this year to address its needs in the various areas.
A TSPLOST — a one percent sales tax — will be used for infrastructure improvements if it is approved by voters Nov. 3. It would be used to fund the Effingham Parkway, intersection improvements, the widening of Goshen Road, ash road resurfacing, ashphalt resurfacing and draining improvements.
The commissioner chairman said Effingham County’s current water usage is 5.5 million gallons per day from the City of Savannah. A new booster station under design could accommodate 11 million gallons per day and be expandable to 16 million gallons.
Corbitt said the county needs to expand the capacity of its wastewater treatment facility and sprayfields. The lack of sprayfields limits the facility to half its capacity of 1 million gallons per day.
Herndon used his opportunity to speak to discuss the IDA’S industrial parks, several of which are in prime locations. They comprise a total of more than 5,000 acres.
“There is not a lot of land developable land available (in Chatham County,)” he said. “Along with Effingham, Bryan and Liberty and Bulloch (counties), we are beginning to see that flow of (industrial) prospects.”
Effingham County has advantages over its competitors because of its access to rail service, interstate highways, an airport and the Port of Savannah. He said outstanding schools and community leadership are attractive to industries, too.
Herndon said 400 jobs were created and $240 million of capital were invested in Effingham County industrial parks between the third quarter of 2018 and the second quarter of this year.
The CEO called the Effingham County Parkway a “game changer” that will give industrial development a powerful boost. He said it will result in more jobs and development.
Earlier, Ford urged the IDA to be mindful of the inducements it uses to attract industrial prospects.
“I know that there have to be tax incentives to get businesses to come to Effingham County and I am not well versed in all of that but what I can tell you — and what I feel very confident in — is that at some point in time we need businesses to get on the tax digest because that helps all of us have revenue in Effingham County,” Ford said. “That’s money that’s got to come from rooftops (homeowners) — people like you and me.”
Ford noted that the school district has a good relationship with the IDA.
“Since I’ve taken over this job in late May or early June, (Brandt) I have worked really close together to try to figure some things out,” he said.
Herndon echoed those sentiments and added that the bond with the board of commissioners is strong.
The school district is looking to obtain land from the OmniTRAX for the Blandford Elementary School expansion. Blandford is located on McCall Road across from the Savannah Gateway Industrial Hub, a joint venture with the IDA.
Some concerns have been expressed about the types of industries that will end up in the hub and when some of the surrounding infrastructure will be built. That will be determined by OmniTRAX, Herndon said.
“I will say that we want a seat at the table,” Ford said. “We want to be a part of the solution. I think our citizens are very passionate about our school district.”
The superintendent also said Effingham County residents are passionate about their lifestyle and the school district and board of commissioners want to work with the IDA and OmniTRAX to maintain it.
It was great for us to get together and talk.Dr. Yancy Ford