County leaders speak during annual community address

ABBIGAIL LENNON



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Board of Education chairman David Dekle delivers a state of education in Columbia County address during the annual address.

 

Topics of improvements, growth and more upcoming changes were front and center for a panel of county leaders addressing their own areas of expertise in the annual State of the Community Address.

Panelists reported on the state of the county's education, business, impacts at Fort Gordon, roadwork, and updates from the mayors of the cities of Harlem and Grovetown.

Board of Education Chairman David Dekle kicked off the event and shared the school continues to maintain its distinction of being a leader in Advanced Placement, ACT and SAT scores state and nationwide, in addition to successfully maintaining a $220 million budget.

In discussing student enrollment, Dekle explained the school district saw an increase of less than 200 students this year, which is a decline from the 500-600 new students the district has seen for the past five years.

"Over the past year, we grew by 191 students, that's slightly below our average," Dekle said, adding it was attributed to the opening of a new charter school, School for Arts Infused Learning.

But that's not stopping the district from growing as Dekle alluded to the vision for construction of a new high school in the near future.

Dekle said the district was continuing its path of innovation, with Lakeside Middle School joining a list of 13 other schools that are STEM certified in the state and the beginning of the first Columbia County international baccalaureate program at Lakeside High School. Dekle also reminded the group of the more than $2 million grant awarded to the district to expand its Career Readiness Program through the National Math and Science Institute.

Overall, Dekle said the state of education in Columbia County's schools district "is very, very good."

"While we have many things to be proud of, we also face many, many challenges," Dekle said. "Our greatest challenge for the next five years in all likelihood needs to continue to be accommodating our county's growth."

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State of Grovetown: In the city of Grovetown, Mayor Gary Jones touted the changes underway within the city limits and improvements in customer service.

"We are influencing our leaders to change the mind set of our employees. We want them to realize that our people, our employees, are our most valuable assets," Jones said. "In doing that, we are leading by example, exhibiting positive attitudes, rewarding good performance, empowering our employees to satisfy our customers and we are open to feedback. In implementing that, we have seen a tremendous difference in our customer service levels and in our delivery services throughout the city."

Jones spoke about the external improvements including the addition of a new city manager, leisure and services director, and new director of finances.

Jones also addressed recently completed renovations to centralize the city's police force at the old Grovetown jail and the opening of a new dog park, among others.

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State of Harlem: Outgoing Mayor Bobby Culpepper delivered his last state of the community address.

He spoke to the continued improvements and upgrades to the city's downtown area, including the new public safety and fire department, and new Harlem library. Culpepper also shared the next big project for Harlem will be renovation of the old Columbia Movie Theater.

"These things have created an enthusiasm and optimism in our city like we haven't had for many, many years," Culpepper said of the ongoing improvements. "Our occupancy rate downtown is 99 percent. We have a new merchant's association that is young and vibrant, they are organized and they are promoting our businesses in the downtown. For the first time in years, we have a parking problem in Harlem because of all of the businesses downtown."

Culpepper touted the staff and elected officials in addition to the city's new manager Brett Cook, who began work with the city eight months ago.

Culpepper will step down as Harlem's Mayor in December, when former longtime board of education member Roxanne Whitaker will take over.

"Our city staff and employees are very competent, very capable. We have very good, committed elected officials and now this year as I go out, we have a new mayor coming in who is experienced and knowledgeable. She is willing to commit her time and effort to her city that she grew up in, just as I did. So the future for Harlem is very, very bright," Culpepper said.

Culpepper introduced Cook as another "bright spot" in Harlem and allowed him to address the audience.

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State of the County: Columbia County Commission chairman Ron Cross addressed the state of the county, stating there was "way too much going on," Cross said.
Cross was referring to the distribution of funds for the 2017-2022 SPLOST projects started in January which was followed closely by a voter-approved general obligation bond totalling more than $72 million.

"That $72 million came in lump sum and we can't spend it fast enough," Cross said. "But we do have numerous parks in design, we've got buildings under design and we are reaching the end of design for the new performing arts center."

Cross said the plans for a new 2,000-seat performing arts center should be before the commission for a vote in December.

Cross also spoke about a new interchange at Louisville Road which would allow another access point to Fort Gordon from I-20 and the completion of the new River Watch Parkway project, which Cross said crews should also complete by the end of the year.

Cross also touted the county's AAA bond rating and the designation of a Class I ISO rating for fire services.

"The people have just responded so well," Cross said, quoting a phrase he said he pulled from an article he said he recently read. "People vote with their feet. If people are coming to your county, something is going great. Our growth continues to be sustained year after year."

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Fort Gordon: On Fort Gordon, Garrison Commander Col. Todd Turner shared the base would undergo 17 new construction projects in 2018, including a new access control checkpoint area which is expected to be completed in 2020.

Turner explained among the cuts in defense spending, Fort Gordon is one of two military installations experiencing a phenomenal growth rate as the fort continues its transformation into the Army's new cyber campus.

"The vice chief of staff of the Army this past year signed a letter that has essentially committed the U.S. Army to building a new cyber campus on Fort Gordon from between now and 2028," Turner said. "That construction has started and is worth over $900 million."

In addition, Turner said staff is expecting to relocate the electronic warfare school from Oklahoma in the next four to five years that would bring an average of 5,000 students to Fort Gordon for training.

Turner said 6,500 family members with 2,100 school-aged children have come to Fort Gordon in the past five years and another 1,000 employees are expected by 2021. Turner added those additional employees will bring another 1,300 family members with 400 school-aged children.

Overall, Turner said he was proud of the progress made in the past year alone and is looking forward to continuing their relationship with the community.