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Lee, Dougherty fortunes intertwined

As the push for the ongoing census count neared its day of reckoning, the chairmen of the Dougherty and Lee County commissions -- Jeff Sinyard and Ed Duffy, respectively -- planned a joint photo op on Ledo Road at a sign that the two counties purchased together.

And while rain washed out the event, the symbolism of that moment wasn't lost on longtime citizens. A decade or so ago, such a joint venture would have been unheard of.

Over the past 10 years, Lee County has emerged as one of the fastest-growing communities not only in Georgia, but in the entire nation. Much of Lee's growth has come at the expense of Dougherty, where white flight and a quest for educational opportunities have cut deeply into the once-thriving county's tax base.

But opportunities like the joint sign purchase have become more the rule than the exception in the two neighboring counties as a progressive group of leaders in both has put aside the festering enmity that once dictated policy and concentrated more on issues that benefit both.

Doing so is not the product, however, of mere change of heart. Leaders in both communities say adjusting to the growing symbiotic relationship between the counties is just good government.

"One of the things that's been accepted by the people in authority in both counties is that we all must work together," Albany City Manager Alfred Lott said. "If one (community) prospers, we both prosper. And if one fails, so does the other."

That spirit of cooperation has become more than a random occurance. Increasingly, Lee/Leesburg and Dougherty/Albany leaders have put their heads together to tackle issues that affect both. And since the majority of Lee County's citizens who work for a living have jobs in Albany, officials say it just makes sense.

"Given that so many of our citizens work in Albany and Dougherty County, Lee County has become the very definition of a bedroom community," Lee Chamber of Commerce Director Winston Oxford said. "What's good for one community is good for the other.

"What I've seen in the last several years is a complete 180-degree turnaround, an about-face in the attitudes between the two communities. There's an openmindedness where the leaders of the two counties are working together to find ways to take advantage of the strengths of both."

GROWING COOPERATION

Lee's Duffy points to a growing number of areas in which leaders in the counties have worked in a spirit of cooperation.

"The chamber and elected officials in Lee County realize that success and growth in Albany/Dougherty County will also be shared by Lee County," he said. "Over 85 percent of working people living in Lee County work in Albany/Dougherty County.

"(Lee County Administrator) Mr. Alan Ours, Mr. Al Lott and (Dougherty County Administrator) Mr. Richard Crowdis meet on a regular basis to discuss challenges in our area. And Lee County, Dougherty County, Mitchell County, Baker County and Terrell County participate in a joint development authority. All of these counties have their own development authority, but we work together as a region to attract industry and community development."

Lott adds another key component to that list.

"We work particularly closely through our law enforcement agencies," he said. "We have the same kind of agreement with all the agencies in the region, and that's important when you have criminals that cross county lines.

"As far as cooperative thinking goes, that's a very good place to start."

While such mutual efforts have opened the possibility of even further cooperation between the two counties, those who have lived in either for an extended period of time know it hasn't always been that way. In fact, open hostility was more the rule of the day not that long ago.

"Yep, there was a time when many of the officials in both counties would rather have died than have done anything to help the other," one local citizen with government ties, who asked that his name not be used, said. "It was no secret; it was discussed openly in government meetings.

"Some of these officials threatened emergency personnel with termination if they crossed county lines to help someone in the other county."

A long-time Lee County resident who owns forest land in Dougherty County offers a perfect example of the potential for clamity such an attitude can engender. She said fire on a Lee property that adjoins her Dougherty property got out of hand and started burning a stand of pine trees on her land.

"The owner of the property in Lee County had some guys clearing his yard of trash, and they decided to burn it," said the landowner, who also asked that her name not be used. "They called the Lee County Fire Department, and fire trucks responded quickly. However, they stood and watched my pines burn because they said they weren't allowed to come into Dougherty County and fight fire.

"A (Georgia) Forestry unit came and put the fire out eventually, but we lost several trees. And I just wondered what might have happened if it had been a home that was on fire? Could emergency personnel morally and ethically stand by and not offer aid when there are lives and property at stake?"

RETHINKING REGIONALISM

Sinyard said even with the growing spirit of cooperation between the two counties, there remains work to be done to eliminate the territorial mindset that still exists in both counties.

"Unfortunately, there remains an element of controversy, a lot of it left over from the '80s and '90s, relative to racial tension, the school systems and other social issues," the Dougherty Commission chair said. "One of the things that will most remedy that is to bring in more jobs. That's going to benefit both communities.

"Look, we've got to get awy from the color issue and concentrate on character. I know this is a very sensitive, emotional and difficult issue, but people in both counties are going to have to work to get past it."

One of the key components to a cooperative future between Dougherty and Lee counties may very well be state mandated. With a shrinking budget growing ever tighter, the state is preaching "regionalism" as it looks to spend available funding most wisely.

"Every time I go to the Capitol, I hear 'If you want to get something done, do it as a region,'" said Lee County Commissioner Rick Muggridge, who has an insurance business in Albany. "With all the budget cuts in the state, there's not a whole lot being funded, but what is being funded is usually beneficial to a region rather than a single county. I think those days are pretty much over.

"I think you're starting to see that approach taken by the leaders in Lee and Dougherty counties. The (Albany) Water, Gas & Light Commission has run their fiber optic cable right up (U.S. Highway) 19 into Lee County, and we are discussing using their services. And some of the businesses on Ledo Road that are actually in Lee County get their services from WG&L. I think we're at a point where most of us realize neither (county) could exist without the other."

Albany Area Chamber President Catherine Glover said the businesses both the Lee and Albany chambers represent understand all too well the importance of regionalism. More than half of the Lee chamber's members own businesses that are physically located in Dougherty County, and almost a quarter of the larger Albany chamber's membership is shared with its Lee counterpart.

"One of our board chairman's (Jimmy Wilson) priorities this year is regionalism; he's said many times it is one of the best ways to prepare for the future," Glover said. "There's no question the census is going to show our region losing population and representation, so we're going to have to work together in Southwest Georgia to present a united agenda.

"Jimmy gets that; he sees the big picture. Both (chambers') boards are on board, and Winston and I are about as amicable as you can get. We've visited the businesses of our shared members to let them know we're going to work together in every way possible."

MUTUAL BENEFITS

From their shared regional transportation planning commission to shared law inforcement intelligence to economic development boards working in harmony, there's no denying the growth of the spirit of cooperation between Dougherty and Lee counties. And as the downward economic spiral continues to negatively impact the citizens of both communities, even the most hard-core "separatists" are starting to grudgingly acknowledge the benefits.

"Issues like water use and transportation are vital not just to Dougherty and Lee counties but to this entire region," Sinyard said. "You can't talk about Dougherty County's major industries -- the Marine Base, MillerCoors, Procter & Gamble -- without mentioning the work force, a good amount of which is in Lee County. We all need to be sure we're speaking out of the same hymn book when we discuss these issues.

"We're all in this together, and while we can continue to respect each others' individuality, we also need to be good neighbors. Because the bottom line is, we're attached at the hip. What's good for Dougherty County is good for Lee County, and what's good for Lee County is good for Dougherty County."