Like It Like It Is
No one should have come away from the Oconee County Town Hall meeting on June 10 believing that the proposed economic development partnership between Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County is anything but dead, at least in the near term.
The first question–really a statement–at the meeting came from Tammy Gilland, who is running for Post 3 commissioner against incumbent Margaret Hale in the July 20 Republican primary.
Gilland said she favors regional economic development, but before she would support joining with Athens-Clarke County on such an initiative she wants three conditions to have been met.
She said the two counties will have to contribute equally to the partnership, Oconee County will have to wait to see who is elected mayor of Athens-Clarke County and to the commission in November, and the counties will have to give Matt Forshee, the new head of the Athens-Clarke Economic Development Foundation, a year or two to get settled in.
Gilland said she had talked with representatives of the chambers of commerce in both counties and they supported these three conditions. She said she wanted to know how the four commissioners present felt about her approach.
Commissioner John Daniell, who was chairing the meeting because Commission Chairman Melvin Davis was on vacation, said the purpose of the meeting was to talk about economic development in Oconee County not regionally, but he also said he favored a regional approach.
Commissioner Jim Luke said he was confused by the question. “The proposal that was on the table for a while called for exactly that, an equal partnership financially between the two counties. That was what a lot of the objection I heard was.”
“I think it is pretty much a dead issue,” he added. “I don’t think there has been any discussion of it in several months.”
“I was not in favor and I’m not in favor of it now,” Commissioner Chuck Horton said. He said he didn’t see that the proposal would produce a positive outcome for Oconee County.
“In this proposal, we would lose our economic office,” Commissioner Hale said. “The proposal planned for us to close our door, form a new board and move to the chamber in Athens-Clarke County.” That, she said, was unacceptable.
Hale and Horton said they were open to discussion of collaboration of some sort with Athens-Clarke County in the future.
Only about 25 people were in attendance at the meeting, and several of those were county department heads and other employees.
Following Gilland's comment and the responses of the commissioners, no one spoke up in favor of the joint economic development plan. Kenneth Mann, chairman of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, and Chuck Williams, a member of the chamber’s board of directors, were in the audience.
Williams even was a member of the Oconee Athens-Clarke Regional Economic Development Task Force that released the report in May of 2008 calling for the joint development initiative for the two counties. He has spoken publicly in the past in favor of the proposal.
The two-hour-long meeting covered a variety of development issues, from the expressed need for additional industrial sites in the county, to the future of the big box retail outlets on Epps Bridge parkway, to the role of the state in helping the county land large industry, to the fairness of the county’s decision to concentrate development in the north and to protect the rural nature of the south.
All four of the commissioners advocated development, at least in the north, and said that the county should be aggressive in pursuing it.
This caused Franklin Shumake to offer a warning near the end of the meeting.
“The vast majority of the people who are here tonight are here to promote economic growth,” he said. “But my own observations in Oconee County are that 80 percent of the people in this county, 80 percent of the voters in this county, are not obsessed with economic growth.
“They came into this county because it is a good place to live. They came into this county because it has good schools. They came into this county because it is beautiful,” Shumake said.
Shumake, who is a member of the Chamber of Commerce, told the commissioners to make sure they involve different types of people before they made decisions so they don’t hear only from those who want more development.
“Most of us like this place like it is,” he said.