Lee Chamber weighing relocation options

LEESBURG, Ga. -- At their monthly meeting Tuesday night, Leesburg City Council members voted unanimously to send a letter to the Lee County Commission asking the Commission to join them in encouraging the Lee Chamber of Commerce to stay in downtown Leesburg.

The action, which came after a discussion during which Councilwoman Debra Long said moving the Chamber from its current location in the Tax Commissioner's Office at 100 Starksville Ave. North was "foolish," followed Mayor Jim Quinn's pronouncement that Chamber officials were already in the process of planning the move.

And while many in the community, including members of local media outlets, have decried the "done deal" that will take the Chamber out of the Leesburg city limits, Chamber Director Winston Oxford said no such move is imminent.

"We are definitely looking at options right now," Oxford said Tuesday. "The Development Authority Board has instructed me, in an effort to put our best foot forward, to look for a place that would make the Chamber more visible. There are six or seven places we're looking at."

The concern among a contingency of Leesburg officials and businesspersons is that another high-profile part of the city/county hierarchy will be moving away from the downtown area toward the southern portion of the county, which is one of the largest growth areas in the state.

Of the county's 34,410 residents, only 2,980 live within the Leesburg city limits. An estimated 84 percent of the county's population lives in the southern portion, closer to the Dougherty County line. The majority of the county's working population has jobs in Dougherty County.

"We're not just jumping into something; as I said, we're looking at options," Oxford said. "We're moving slowly with this process, trying to find the right answers.

"But we have some cash on hand that's drawing only about 2 percent interest. The Development Authority Board has made it clear that they'd like the Chamber to be more visible in the community. A new, more visible Chamber building would be good use of the money available."

The Development Authority has more than $600,000 in cash on hand from the sale of land at the Oakland Meadows Business Park, money it collected as part of an agreement that the Authority would keep all funds from land sales once some $732,000 in development costs at the park were paid. Another $120,000 is expected in the next few days when the Authority closes on the sale of a small parcel (one-tenth of an acre) for placement of a cellular tower.

County Commissioner Rick Muggridge said the people who are criticizing Oxford for his efforts to find a suitable property for relocation were misdirecting their criticism.

"In reality, I'm kind of the instigator for all this," Muggridge said Wednesday. "Since I've been on the Board of Commissioners, I've tried to attend every Development Authority meeting I could. That's something I believe in, bringing economic development to our community. At one of the meetings I asked Winston if he'd ever thought about moving his offices closer to where economic development was taking place and where his membership is.

"We agreed that it was something we needed to think about, and since then I have. I've thought about whether, in this computer age, the Chamber really needs a new place and whether money spent on such a place would be the best use of the money. And at the end of the day, I really think it is. I don't want to do anything to hurt Leesburg -- there are people there I admire and love. But this is not about what's right for Leesburg or for Century ... It's about what's right for Lee County."

Still, an element in the county insists that the Chamber is being pressured politically to find a new location in the southern part of the county. Oxford said that is not the case and confirms a meeting he held recently with Development Authority Board member Gary Harrell and Quinn to discuss relocation options he's looking into.

Among the "six or seven locations" Oxford said have been or were being considered are property at Grand Island (off Ledo Road), the location of the county's new library branch/conference center (off U.S. 82), around the new development at the corner of Robert B. Lee Drive and U.S. Highway 19, an older house in downtown Leesburg, at locations near the Forrester Crossing development (near Publix, CVS Pharmacy or the new Heritage Bank location) and another as yet undisclosed location.

"In January, I was told by the Development Authority Board to start the due diligence to find a place where the Chamber could be relocated," Oxford said. "I was told to find a place that was more comfortable, was in a better location and was more accessible. That's what I've done. We're months away from making any kind of decision on any piece of property or even deciding if we will indeed move.

"I told the Board I was comfortable where we are, and I am. I spend a great deal of my time out of the office anyway. But if you look at things like the cost of construction and the price of land, the timing right now is right. I don't think anyone's talking about a Taj Mahal kind of building.

Just a facility that would allow us to better sell the community."