Oconee County is in a really strong position as it plans for the future, Craig Lesser, managing partner of the Pendleton Group, told the Oconee County Task Force on Economic Development on Tuesday morning.
The county has the third highest median household income among the state’s 159 counties, Lesser said.
The unemployment rate for June of this year was 2.9 percent, Lesser said.
The 10-person Task Force, meeting for the first time on Tuesday, has been asked by the Board of Commissioners to create an economic development strategy for the county for the future.
To that end, Lesser asked the members of the Task Force, assembled at the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce meeting room in Watkinsville, what they wanted for the county for the future.
The answers were varied and complex, but a concern about the future of housing in the county dominated much of the discussion.
Task Force Assignment
Courtney Bernardi, president of the Chamber of Commerce, called the meeting to order at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.
The Board of Commissioners has signed an agreement with the Chamber to provide economic development services to the county. The county is paying the Chamber $100,000 per year for the services.
The Board of Commissioners appointed the Task Force to develop the strategic plan that the Chamber is to execute.
Justin Kirouac, county administrator, said the Task Force should establish “the goals for economic development for the business community.
“What are the goals? What are our gaps? What are our needs that are keeping us for achieving those things? And what are the tactics to achieve those?” Kirouac asked.
Kirouac then turned the program over to Lesser, who has been hired by the Chamber as a consultant. His development advising organization is based in Dunwoody.
In addition to the Task Force members, Bernardi, Kirouac and Lesser, the others in attendance were Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell, Watkinsville Council Member Christine Tucker, Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, and I.
Only Bernardi, Kirouac and Lesser from the group not on the Task Force spoke.
The meeting ran for two hours.
The Task Force is scheduled to meet from 9 a.m. to noon on Sept. 23 and then again during that same time period on Oct. 7.
Those two meetings also will be at the Chamber of Commerce, 55 Nancy Drive in Watkinsville, and are open to the public.
Basic Components Of Plan
“What are the important components in the steps toward a successful economic development plan?” Lesser, serving as a discussion leader, asked during his introductory comments.
“First of all, leadership,” he said in answering his question. “That’s the bottom line.”
“It’s about that leadership developing a strategy,” he added.
“It’s about community development. What do I mean by community development?” he asked. “By my definition, that’s infrastructure, creating the infrastructure. Making sure the infrastructure is in place.”
“Leadership, strategy, community development and marketing,” Lesser said. “The four basic components.”
Statistics On County
Oconee County’s median household income of $81,873 for 2019 compares with $56,000 for the state of Georgia, Lesser told the group.
“You’re the third highest, after Cowetta and Fayette County,” Lesser said. “Out of 159 counties, you guys are third in the state. That’s pretty strong. That’s a good reflection of where you are.”
“You have an incredibly well-educated population,” Lesser continued. “You may take that for granted. But look around this state. Look around the southeast. This is unbelievably strong. This is a strength. A major strength. A major resource.”
Lesser was drawing on data provided by Georgia Power and made available to him by Bernardi.
Oconee County’s unemployment rate was 2.9 percent as of June, Lesser said. That statistic come from the Georgia Depart of Labor.
“What’s wrong? Nothing’s wrong,” Lesser said. “This is great. Everything’s terrific.”
Caterpillar is the county’s largest employer, with 1,500 employees, Lesser said, based on data provided by Bernardi. The school system is the second largest employer with 1,036 full-time equivalent employees.
What Does This Mean?
“What does all that mean? Lesser said. “It means you’re in a good spot. You’re not in a ditch. You’re in a good spot.
“But what do you want to do with it?” Lesser continued. “What does it mean for the future? Do you want to just let it go? And just let things happen without any direction? Or do you want to plan for the future?”
“What do you want to look like 5, 10, 15 years from now?” Lesser asked. “How do you want this community to be?
“Do you want your children to be here?" Lesser continued. “Who’s going to buy your house some day? Those are things to think about. And what is your legacy as leaders of this community? Why do you do what you do?”
Lesser ended his comments by asking each of the Task Force members to respond to his question: “What’s this community look like 5, 10 years from now?”
“I hope to see it still growing but in a controlled manner,” Sharon Maxey, one of two citizen representative on the Task Force, said. She said she was concerned that the county might continue to grow and then have have abandoned commercial areas in the future.
“We’ve got to manage that growth,” Mark Saxon said in response. Saxon is one of two members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on the Task Force. The county needs to follow the Comprehensive Plan to manage growth, Saxon said.
Janet Jones, representing Bogart, said the city is investing in change but “We want a nice, little town. It’s going to be that.”
Jones is a member of the Bogart Council and will assume the position of mayor in January.
Education and Wealth
Tim Burgess, a member of and Task Force representative of the Board of Education, told Lesser he “hoped we continue to maintain a focus on being a highly educated and reasonably wealthy community because of that education strength that you mentioned earlier.
“And that we develop in a way that’s attractive for people of education and wealth that they want to live there,” Burgess added.
Brad Tucker, one of two representatives of the Chamber on the Task Force, said he has been satisfied with how the county has managed growth through the Comprehensive Plan.
“I also recognize that my children don’t want to live in the same kind of house that I live in, and that many of our children and their generation don’t think about housing and their work-play-live lives the way that we do,” Tucker added.
“And I am concerned that we’re creating--we have a beautiful place in Oconee County today that may not be attractive to people 20 years from now because they don’t want to live in a million dollar home,” Tucker said.
“I think we need to recognize that there are a number of people in those generations, the millennials and zoomers, that feel differently about a suburban life style than we do,” Tucker said.
“I think it is unlikely that we’re going to develop millennial and zoomer tech companies on (SR) 316. Realistically there needs to be more of a work-play-live environment for those people and I don’t see any place in either the Comp Plan and our Unified Development Code that allows for that.”
Challenges For County
“I think some of our points of pride can also be challenges if you look at it,” Tammy Gilland said. Gilland is Chamber president and a chamber representative on the Task Force.
|Douglas And Gilland|
“Yes, we are a very highly educated community and we do have a very high median income,” Gilland said. “But I have a 25-year-old daughter that can’t buy a house in this community. Cannot afford it.”
“We want to educate our children,” Gilland continued. “We want our children to come back and live in this community.
“But we’re setting it up in such a way right now that they can’t,” Gilland said, “and that concerns me as a parent but also as a person who is invested in this community and wanting to see it develop."
Need For Regional Approach
Gilland said another problem is that “We’ve been siloed and we’ve tried to do things by ourselves.
“What happens here in this community impacts Athens-Clarke. Impacts Jackson. Impacts Barrow,” she said. “We have got to start looking at economic development in a regional collaboration for all of us to be successful. Because what benefits them will benefit us and vice versa.”
“I think the challenge is to try to find out how do we develop resiliency with the businesses we have,” Lisa Douglas said. Douglas is the second citizen representative on the Task Force.
“Spending a lot of resources to attract new that just push our current ones out of business is not what we want to do,” she said.
People Are Happy
“The statistics that you mentioned are a hindrance to us,” Rick Waller said. “For the most part, everybody’s pretty happy with the way it is now. So that’s been a very big challenge to get over.”
Waller is chair of the county’s Industrial Development Authority and represents that group on the Task Force.
“We’ve got some pretty big issues to overcome because we like to think that we work together,” Waller continued.
“Everybody will tell you that we work together very closely,” Waller said. “But when it comes time to write the check, then there’s a difference."
“And when it comes time to pony up together, whether that’s Clarke County and Oconee County, or whether that’s Oconee County and our school system, or whoever it might be, any of these combinations, when it comes time to share the load, as far as writing the check, it’s not going to happen,” Waller said. “Or its very hard to happen.”
Watkinsville Is Answer
“Brad, you mentioned that there’s not anywhere in the Unified Development Code that there is that live-work opportunity,” Brian Brodrick said. “There is, and its going to be in Watkinsville.”
Brodrick is a Watkinsville City Council member, and he represents the city on the Task Force.
“We’re acting to put that in place. We have codes that accommodate that,” Brodrick said. “We have a very healthy dining scene, reasonably healthy retail scene.
“We have a zoning code that allows for mixed use,” Brodrick said. “We have a bike pedestrian plan we’re putting in place.”
Lesser On Housing
At that point in the meeting, only one Task Force member, County Commissioner Mark Thomas, had not been given a chance to speak.
Lesser said he wanted to raise a question first.
“Are you as a group comfortable that you have the vehicle to discuss, anticipate, and come to agreement about overall housing issues in Oconee County?” he asked.
“That’s a really complex issue,” Maxey said. “I don’t feel like it can be solved in a few meetings.”
“Housing is a very, very important component of this entire future planning, particularly as it relates to economic development,” Lesser pushed again.
When no one offered an answer, Lesser said “I just want to make sure that you feel you have a process to put these issues on the table and resolve these,” he said.
“I’m going to be frank,” Brodrick said. “I’d be frustrated if we spend a majority of our time on that.”
“At some point you have to deal with it and have to come to some conclusions,” Lesser said.
Part Of History
“Our family has been on the same farm for over eight generations,” Thomas said when he was given a chance to talk. “We have a lot of history here.”
“One of the things I like about Oconee is that we are a smart community,” he said, “And we have a lot of people that are willing to work together in a lot of different facets.
“And I think if we build on what we have in our community, and that being the smart, diverse group of people that we have,” he said, “we can come up with some answers to these questions.
“Some of them are not going to be popular,” Thomas continued. “And it’s going to be difficult. The housing side of it always been an issue. It’s not new.”
“Schools are one of the main attractions for people to come to this community,” Thomas said. “So how do you address the issue of housing and not affect the schools? That’s a big question.”
The video below is of the entire two-hour meeting.
Lesser used most of the early part of the meeting talking about his experience with development in the state and the conclusions he had reached through that experience.
He posed his question on the future of the county to the Task Force at the end of those comments.
Maxey began the first response at 45:50, and the comments of the other Task Force members followed.