Saturday, May 25, 2024

Oconee County Commissioners Receives An Update On Retail And Manufacturing Development In County–And On Plans By The Varsity

***No Action By The Varsity Expected For 6-8 Months***

When Courtney Bernardi, who handles economic development for Oconee County, finished her very upbeat report to the county commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday night, Commissioner Amrey Harden thanked Bernardi and her staff.

Bernardi had just reported that Costco has outperformed greatly its revenue estimates in its first year, that the Oconee Walmart is the fourth most profitable in the state, that a new tenant is expected soon for the empty Bed Bath & Beyond, and that IMI Industrial Services Group will have double its staff capacity at its new site near Bogart.

Harden said he appreciated all of those things but that he wanted to know, because his constituents want to know, about The Varsity’s plans for the county.

Bernardi said she understood, because she is asked frequently about The Varsity as well.

She said that The Varsity has purchased the old Burger King site in Butler’s Crossing, that it still owns land next to Hobby Lobby on Parkway Boulevard, and that it still plans to come to Oconee County.

She said the company is preoccupied with work on its location in Atlanta and she doesn’t expect any action locally for another six to eight months.

Bernardi’s report on Tuesday followed the second and final hearing on the county's proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget, at which two citizens spoke.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell also told the Board he is proposing that the Board not follow the request of Superior Court Judge Eric Norris that Oconee County join with Athens-Clarke County to create a circuit-wide probation system or create a county probation system of its own.

Daniell said he recommends that the county continue to contract with CSRA Probation Services, a private company, for that probation service and that he would ask the Board to approve that agreement at its June 4 meeting.

Bernardi’s Report

Bernardi is president of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, with which the county contracts for economic development services.

Screen Shot Bernardi Addresses Commission 5/21/2024

Her presentation on Tuesday was her annual update to the Board on her work for the county, and she began with a review of retail in general and Costco in particular.

“I'll reiterate,” Bernardi said, “that we are the smallest community that a Costco has ever located in. And when we worked for 14 years with them to get them here, we kept saying we think this is what's going to happen.”

“What we can say now to them and to others is, everything that we said was 100 percent accurate and true,” she said.

Bernardi said Costo has “almost doubled their conservative revenue estimations that they had when they first came to our community.”

“We also have noted that with Costco landing here, we’ve been able to really see our retail growth start to flourish.”

Bernardi said “our Walmart is the fourth most profitable Walmart in the state of Georgia,” and the local Hobby Lobby and the one in Forsyth County go back and forth as the number one and two in profitability.

The Bed Bath & Beyond store in Epps Bridge Centre is vacant because the company filed for bankruptcy, but Bernardi said “we look to have that space filled very quickly.”

Party City also has filed for bankruptcy, Bernardi said, but the store in Epps Bridge Centre remains open because it remains profitable.

Explanations for Success

Bernardi said not only are the large retailers are doing well in the county, “but our small businesses (are) as well.”

“I think that says a lot about our community,” she said. “Visitors are coming in. They’re spending dollars here because it’s a great place to do that. It feels safe. It’s clean. It’s welcoming.”

Bernardi said the “medical infrastructure that’s poured into our community over the last several years” also has contributed to the retail success.

People now come to the county “for lab testing, their physician visits, their sports medicine, whatever,” she said.

“After they do those appointments they’re likely to go shopping and enjoy our restaurants and all of the retail establishments that we have,” she said.

Bernardi said there is “interest” in renovating the theater in Epps Bridge Centre and “to grow within the current footprint...what they’re doing, providing a bit more family entertainment because that works for this community.”

“That would be about a $4 million renovation to the $2 million that they spent just before the pandemic,” she said.

“We will have future development going down Parkway Boulevard,” Bernardi said. “I will tell you's sometimes it's okay to say no, and so we're vetting those folks that are looking in our community to make sure that it's a good fit for who we are, our community and our visitors alike.”


Bernardi said “we've been working for over a year” with IMI Industrial Services Group, currently in the Watkinsville Industrial Park, to facilitate a move to the Gateway Technology and Business Park on the edge of Bogart.

Bernardi said IMI has multiple facilities in the Watkinsville Industrial Park and elsewhere that will move to Gateway along with the Corporate Headquarters. Closing is expected in the middle of June, she said.

IMI also has “so graciously said that they would like to include public participation in playing on the green space that they have there or any future trails that they may have on that 52 acres that's out at Gateway Industrial Park.”

The move will allow IMI to “double their staff capacity,” she said.

“They are going to vacate the industrial park in Watkinsville over about a three year phase out period,” she said, “but they're going to hold those buildings and lease them out to others.”

“So we're excited about watching those buildings become kind of something new out there and IMI really growing out along (SR) 316 and Aiken Road,” Bernardi said.

Harden And The Varsity

“When I'm asked, invited to speak to small groups,” Harden told Bernardi, “I try to talk about the positive things.”

Screen Shot Commissioners Mark Thomas, Chuck Horton, 
Daniell, Harden (With Question), Mark Saxon (L-R)

“I figure they want to know about industry,” Harden said. “No, they want to know the update on The Varsity. So please give us an update on The Varsity so I can respond to these citizens.”

“I'll do that,” Bernardi responsed. “I should have started with that actually, because you're exactly right. Of all the questions that I get asked or the phone calls that I take about economic development, The Varsity is mentioned almost every single time.”

“So this is what's happening with The Varsity,” she said. “It is 100 percent true that they purchased the old Burger King building at Butler's Crossing. They also have the land behind Hobby Lobby. They have owned that for quite some time.”

“But currently, they are working on a large project at their home location in Atlanta, and that's taking up the vast majority of their time, energy, and effort,” she said.

“So everything else is kind of on the back burner,” according to Bernardi. “It doesn't mean they're not going to locate here. It just means it's not the top of the priority right now.”

“So we may see some shift in what their momentum is here locally within the next six to eight months,” she said. “But nothing sooner than that.”

County Tax Records show that COBB V Realty LLC of Cumming purchased the closed Burger King on Hog Mountain Road on Sept. 26 of last year for $1.9 million and that Evelyn and Frank Gordy Family LP of Cumming own 21.9 acres on Parkway Boulevard valued at $2.3 million.

Tax Hearing

County Finance Director Melissa Braswell repeated much of her presentation on the Fiscal Year 2025 budget on Tuesday from the one she made at the first public hearing on the budget on May 7.

Screen Shot Hendrix Addresses Commission 5/21/2024

The Commission will be asked to adopt the budget at its meeting on June 4.

The proposed $40.7 million General Fund Budget represents a 4.9 percent increase from the proposed current Fiscal Year Budget and is based on projected growth in property tax revenue of $1.1 million but almost no growth in sales tax revenue.

Braswell said that the estimate of $1.1 million growth in property tax revenue is based on current collections plus $600,000 added to it.

The total budget for the county, including the General Fund, is $76.6 million, or an increase of $2.2 percent over the $75.0 million current fiscal year budget.

Braswell began her presentation on Tuesday by saying that a strategic goal of the county was “smart government, smart growth, smart infrastructure, quality of life,” and the first speaker, Stephen Aleshire asked: “can someone define what smart is?”

Commission Chair Daniell said “the definition of smart growth, smart government. That’s what we are doing here.”

Revenue Estimates

Pam Hendrix followed Aleshire and focused on the projected $1.1 million in estimated property tax revenue growth in the General Fund Budget.

“How have you arrived that the property tax is going to increase by $1.1 million?” she asked.

She then turned to the overall size of the county budget, and said “government is just growing, growing, growing, and I just ask that you try to keep this under control.”

Daniell responded by saying “what we do is, we look at our expenses. All our departments come in. We figure out what it's going to take to operate the government correctly. Then we start looking at revenue.”

Daniell said the county makes an estimate of real growth, as opposed to inflationary growth, in developing its revenue projections. Braswell has said that estimate was based on revenue received from the past year.

The county does not set its millage rate until after Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle provides her calculation of real growth in the tax digest, that is, the noninflationary growth resulting from changes in the use of property for a new business or addition to an existing home or business structure.

Riddle usually makes that report in July.

“I would disagree with any statements that government is growing, is out of control.” Daniell said. “We are a growing community so our expenses will continue as long as our revenue is going up as well.”

Political Candidates

Both Aleshire and Hendrix were candidates in the Republican Party Primary held on Tuesday.

Aleshire ran unsuccessfully for the open Post 5 on the Board of Education, and Hendrix lost to Daniell in the primary for the Chair of the Board of Commissioners.

Hendrix, in her comments at the public hearing on the county budget on Tuesday night, contrasted the county’s approach to estimating revenue for the proposed budget with the approach of Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch in presenting his budget to the Board of Education.

Branch averages across five years the percentage of growth in the tax digest–both through real and inflationary change–and then uses that average growth to estimate the tax digest for the upcoming fiscal year. He then sets a millage rate to create the revenue estimate used in the tentative budget.

The tentative Oconee County Schools budget for this year is based on holding the millage rate steady at 15.0 mills. The Board sets the final millage rate once Riddle reports the actual tax digest, or the value of real property in the county.

That millage rate of 15.0 in the tentative produces revenue for expanded spending and an excess of $1.7 million, which the budget allocates to the Fund Balance, or savings.

The Board of Education did drop the millage rate from 15.5 to 15.0 last year, as Hendrix said to Daniell.

Daniell told Hendrix that the county dropped its millage rate for the unincorporated parts of the county from 5.954 to 4.824 last year.

Probation Services

Western Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Eric Norris told the Oconee County Board of Commissioners last August that he does not intend to allow the county to renew the contract it currently has with CSRA Probation Services Inc. for probation services.

Norris said he would allow Oconee County to create its own misdemeanor probation system or join with Athens-Clarke County to form a circuit wide misdemeanor probation system. Oconee and Clarke counties form the Western Judicial Circuit.

Daniell said on Tuesday night that the current contract with CSRA Probation Services Inc. of Evans, which expires on June 30, is providing misdemeanor probation services at no cost to Oconee County.

CSRA funds its services though the fees that probationers pay directly to the company.

The Athens-ClarkeCounty Probation system that Norris wants Oconee County to join currently is funded at $1.85 million, Daniell said.

Review Of Discussion

“We've had several meetings over the last year about probation--private versus public,” Daniell said in his comments to the Board at the meeting on Tuesday.

During those meetings, a number of concerns were raised about private probation services, Daniell said, “and we feel like we have addressed all the major concerns in this document that we have before you tonight.”

“After approval of this document,” Daniell said, “we will hold a kickoff meeting with all the judges to review the services and answer any additional concerns.”

“We’ll review this again on our June 4th meeting to allow additional time for review by the Superior Court Judges,” Daniell said. “All the judges have seen the drafts here. The draft you got is like the fourth version from us going back and forth and negotiating on that.”

“There's still a couple items that are open for further negotiation, so we won't have the final until our June 4th meeting,” Daniell said.

The contract is set to run for five years.


The video below is on the Oconee County YouTube channel.

The meeting begins with the budget hearing at 8:41 in the video.

Aleshire came to the podium at 31:42 in the video and was followed by Hendrix at 32:22.

The Commission meeting itself begins at 38:02 in the video.

The update from Bernardi begins at 39:04 in the video.

Harden made his comments following Bernardi’s presentation beginning at 51:24 in the video.

Daniell began his discussion of probation services at 1:02:35 in the video.

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