Pause in Lee growth may be ending soon

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Personnel who deal with public safety, security, defense and law enforcement -- those who keep us safe from harm -- are well aware of the importance of rapid response.

But Lee County officials who are concerned with the well-being of the county's economic development have their own brand of rapid response team that has been instrumental in Lee's emergence as one of the state's fastest-growing communities.

"A lot of communities claim to be 'business-friendly,' but we put our money where our mouth is," Lee County Chamber of Commerce Director Winston Oxford said. "About four, four and a half years ago we put together a rapid response team where all of our bureaucrats -- our economic development, management, utilities, building inspection, planning and zoning, health department and road superintendent leaders -- can be together in the same room within 48 hours.

"These officials who are vital to the process in the county can meet with developers and their planners, contractors and architects to iron out any issues as they come up. Some businesses that have located in the county -- IHOP, the Houston Clinic and Publix come to mind -- say this was an important part of their coming here."

When Lee County's population exploded from 11,684 in 1980 to an estimated 35,790 in 2010 -- with another 11,000 projected over the next five years -- commercial development was inevitable. Many of the county's newcomers held some of the prime jobs in surrounding counties -- most notably Dougherty County and Albany -- and were looking for a place to escape the problems associated with urbanization.

They found it in Lee County, helping establish a strong, affluent demographic base that developers drool over.

The influx of citizens, many looking to take advantage of one of the state's strongest school systems, did indeed precede building and commercial booms in the county, but the recession that gripped the country for the better part of the last three years slowed the growth for a period. There are signs, however, that the stoppage was only temporary.

The Publix supermarket chain opened a store off U.S. Highway 19 recently, anchoring a development that will eventually include eight storefronts and two outparcels. Four of the storefronts are already occupied; one of the outparcels has been sold to a well-known restaurant chain, and, according to Oxford, folks are "kicking the tires" around the other locations.

Construction will begin soon off Forrester Parkway on a $6 million retirement village less than a mile from the Publix complex, closer yet to a CVS Pharmacy across 19 that opened in January. Less than a mile south, construction is ongoing on a $3 million HeritageBank of the South branch.

Meanwhile, Albany Tractor Co. is expected to move to a Lee County location off U.S. 82 soon, a short distance from the future location of a $4 million library/conference center. A developer who contacted Oxford at the recent Georgia Quail Hunt in Albany is talking about placing a pharmacy off U.S. 82, and another developer who attended the event is also "kicking tires" in the county. There is also movement with property adjacent to the county-owned Grand Island Club on Ledo Road, but nothing official had been announced by press time.

All of which, according to Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy, are byproducts of county leaders' vision.

"Lee County has always had the vision to prepare for potential growth," Duffy said. "By investing in the infrastructure necessary to accommodate that growth, we've made it convenient for businesses who are interested in our demographics.

"We wouldn't have gotten Albany Tractor if we hadn't had the sewer in place out 82. We wouldn't have gotten Publix or CVS or Heritage if we hadn't had necessary infrastructure out 19."

Indeed, Oxford said today's developers know about such issues before they even start investigating a given region.

"More times than not, before folks talk to me they already know about the area's water, sewer, EMS and ISO fire rating," the chamber head said. "They come to me for things they can't get from our website.

"Jim O'Brien with the Georgia Electric Membership Corp. in Atlanta has always said, 'There's no way someone's going to make a commercial investment in a community that doesn't meet their matrix or criteria.' (Businesses) go into the process knowing what a community has in place and if it's what they're looking for."

In a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of Lee County's economic picture compiled by, among others, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Department of Economic Development, Georgia Power Economic Development, Georgia EMC Economic Development and the Lee County Development Authority, a clearer picture emerges.

Strengths include the county's school system, its low cost of living, reasonable tax rates, affluent population growth, planned transportation improvements and availability of superior health care. Weaknesses include high commercial land costs, limited state and federal assistance, limited available trainable labor and high health care costs.

Listed as opportunities are the county's ingredients to attract retirees, new commercial corridors in planning stages and access to waterways; while threats include rising costs to meet demands for services by growing population, concerns over tax base expansion and strong competition in the region.

If county voters approve on March 15 continuation of the special 1 percent sales tax that has been earmarked for infrastructure improvements, many of the concerns addressed in the analysis will be addressed through the projected $24.9 million infusion of special-purpose dollars.

"If you look at the SPLOST VI list, these are projects that the county is going to have to fund, one way or another," Duffy said. "If it doesn't come from SPLOST, it will have to come from the general fund."

Oxford echoes the commission chairman's assessment.

"If you look at the $24.9 million (in projected SPLOST funds) over six years, you're looking at a potential 4-mill tax increase," he said. "And we've done informal surveys that show at an establishment like Wal-Mart -- which brings in almost $4 million a year in local option sales tax -- as many as 80 percent of the shoppers there on a given day are not Lee County residents.

"Our Wal-Mart store was in the top seven in sales in the nation in 2007, and it was No. 1 in Georgia. All the tax dollars spent by persons who live outside the county go into our SPLOST funds."

Looking to future development in the county, especially given the flurry of interest being shown, the county's leaders say they will continue to seek businesses that fit with Lee County's emphasis on quality of life.

"We've turned down a number of entities before that just were not a good fit," Duffy said. "We're cognizant of what works best in this community."

Or, as Oxford succinctly puts it, "We want appropriate businesses. We're going to continue not to shoot everything that flies so that we can claim everything that dies."