After questions and concerns about the Research Forest Tract, the Effingham Industrial Development Authority is thinking about how to get its message across to citizens and officials.
Effingham County commissioners are scheduled to hold a second reading tonight on the IDA’s rezoning request for its Research Forest Tract. Two weeks ago, after more than an hour of public comments on the issue, commissioners voted 5-1 in favor of the rezoning, which encompassed 2,454 acres.
“There was a perception we hadn’t done anything,” IDA member Rose Harvey said.
Added Chap Bennett: “It’s unfortunate we’ve done all that planning and prep work and nobody thinks we’ve done anything. We need to improve how we communicate those things, most importantly with the county commissioners.”
Under the first reading, the IDA has to have a traffic analysis completed, along with other requirements, such as each lot meeting the I-1 zoning regulations and all wetlands impacts receiving a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit.
“We had the same stipulations at I-16 before any building permit or certificate of occupancy is issued,” IDA CEO John Henry said.
The IDA also agreed to work with various pertinent agencies on transportation for the tract.
“I think we have some very good, well-thought out conditions,” Henry said.
But the IDA also believes there was misinformation about their plans. There are no plans to four-lane Hodgeville Road, for instance, and the timetable for buildout in the Research Forest Tract is 20 to 30 years.
“We meet every single month, and most of these meetings have been about transportation or I-16 and Research Forest Tract,” Bennett said. “There’s a laundry list of third-party studies that have been done. I hate for us to work to get all this together and be criticized because we haven’t communicated it well.”
Bennett suggested a short synopsis to present to county officials and to the public that could better explain what the IDA has in mind and how it was going about pursuing its goals.
“We know the impact of industry on the ground,” he said. “We have to be able to take that and say, ‘it’s a good deal, and here’s why.’”
Bennett also recommended compiling the financial studies that have been done on the Research Forest Tract and showing citizens what the tax digest will look like in 25 years with industrial development there and what the digest would be without it.
“We need a document that summarizes all that work,” he said. “It is a significant impact and aid to everyone in the community. Let’s get it summarized where it’s easy to explain to the residents and the county commissioners.”
An Armstrong Atlantic State University Center for Regional Analysis study projected the Research Forest Tract could lead to 13,000 jobs, plus more than $710 million in annual payroll and a $3 billion annual economic impact.
“If we don’t take the tax burden off the residential (sector),” Henry said, “it’s only going to get worse.”
The IDA also wants to turn the wetlands buffering the heart of the parcels into recreational areas, and IDA members have traveled to Florida to see how Titusville turned retention ponds into recreational attractions at Chain of Lakes Park. The Research Forest Tract has approximately 450 acres that could be turned into recreational use.
“We’re talking about extensive amounts of recreation area,” said IDA Chairman Dennis Webb. “When you talk about bringing a walking trail or a ball field, that hits home.”
Webb also said the IDA could hold a workshop to present the Research Forest Tract information concisely to commissioners and city councils. He also said members of the transportation advisory board pondered their next steps after the Transportation Investment Act, also known as T-SPLOST, was defeated soundly at the polls.
“We came up with priorities and part of the priority list affects I-16 and Research Forest Tract,” he said.
Said Henry: “Everyone on that committee realizes the impact of those properties.”