Jackson County Opinions...

NOVEMBER 26, 2003



Column
By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
November 26, 2003

Development Just Isn’t Quite That Easy
You noticed that the announcement that “Project Lincoln” was not published in this newspaper last week. That’s because none of us in the newspaper business knew that Walgreens had told Commerce officials of its decision to locate in South Carolina – Thursday of last week – until it was announced at the intergovernmental “roundtable” Tuesday night. That was after The Commerce News was put together.
Either they didn’t want that news out or they regarded the loss of a $150-$300 million industry as such an insignificant item as to not warrant mention during conversations with moí between Thursday and Tuesday.
Public officials are under no obligation to inform the press of such events, but heretofore I’ve felt that my relationship with the city was sufficient that someone would let me know this had happened. City officials have never been hesitant to alert me to stories that seemed less significant, though more likely to reflect positively upon City Hall.
“Project Lincoln” was to be the answer to all of the city’s tax digest problems. In addition to the huge warehouse, the theory was that it would “put Commerce on the economic development map,” by opening up property on yet-to-be built Bana Road for other industries.
Jilted at the altar, Commerce is left with its tax base unbalanced on the residential end and the “prime” development site lacking not only tenants, but also the water and sewer infrastructure that might make it attractive to industry.
Where does Commerce go from here?
Until Project Lincoln, city officials did little to promote industrial development. Instead of running sewer lines out the Maysville Road to open that interchange for development, city officials blamed the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce and its president Pepe Cummings for not promoting Commerce sites and alleged that Cummings directed prospects away from Commerce. Instead of sitting at the table with the chamber’s Economic Development Committee or the Industrial Development Authority, Commerce officials imagined a conspiracy against this city.
Last week, City Manager Clarence Bryant reported that the city and the developer will look at means by which infrastructure can be provided because the developer has expressed an interest in a big spec building. Don’t expect prompt action, however, unless the developer puts up the money. The city isn’t likely to spend a lot of money in the hope of a payback. (That’s how Jefferson built its enviable industrial tax base, and it was heavily criticized at the time.)
When Walgreens chose to locate elsewhere, Commerce’s hope for a free infrastructure ride shriveled up like a salted slug. Now we’re back to facing the fact that rapid residential growth without industrial and commercial support portends much higher school taxes. At the same time, city officials probably realize that Jackson County isn’t likely to be as free with the tax abatements next time.
Walgreens seemed too good to be true; turned out it was too good to be true. Economic development just isn’t that easy – or that cheap.


Editorial
The Commerce News
November 26, 2003

We’re Even More Blessed Than We Think
Most Americans have no idea how lucky they are just to live in a country with so much freedom, opportunity and wealth. Even the poor in this country would be considered wealthy by much of the world. So there is much to be thankful for as we celebrate Thanksgiving Thursday.
For all that is wrong in America – and there is plenty – it is still by far the best place to live, work and raise a family. It is the country offering the greatest amount of freedom and security under which hard-working, law-abiding and innovative people can prosper. It is a country in which the law protects citizens’ rights to speak, act, live, travel and worship as they please.
It is true that not every citizen enjoys every freedom. Some individuals and groups may not have access to their full rights due to poverty, ignorance, ill health or other factors, but this country makes an effort to protect the rights of all individuals. Likewise, though America is by far the richest nation in the world, few citizens consider themselves wealthy, though they are by worldly standards. As we struggle with the inequities that do exist, we should never lose sight of the larger picture of our collective freedoms and rights and of our prosperity relative to the rest of the world.
Sometimes other factors prevent us from feeling grateful or even realizing the extent of our blessings. The loss of loved ones, ill health, any number of personal stresses or traumas can push from our minds the bounty with which we live.
Most people who take stock of things for which they are thankful will focus on those close at hand, such as family, friends and prosperity, all of which are deserving of thankfulness. Just remember that so much of what we accept as due course in life is largely a result of the fact that we’re Americans. Don’t lose site of that as you get that second helping of turkey and mashed potatoes.

Habersham Suit ResultsBode Ill For Jackson Co.
If a federal judge’s decision in a Ten Command-ments suit in Habersham is any indication, Jackson County stands to lose if its display of “historic documents” is challenged.
U.S. Judge William O’Kelley stated that the other historic documents displayed with the Ten Commandments in the Habersham County Courthouse did not change the reasons for which the Ten Commandments were posted – which were religious.
O’Kelley’s reasoning is valid for Jackson County too as the display of the Mayflower Compact, the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution in the Administrative Building is merely cover for the Ten Commandments.
The board of commissioners knows this. It knows it is likely to lose a suit, should one be filed. The commissioners are setting the stage for a costly legal battle they’re unlikely to win over something that has no effect on the quality of life of their constituents but which will dominate public debate and distract voters from more important issues. The use by the county commissioners of religion for political advantage does not speak well of our county government or of the commissioners who made it happen.

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Column
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
November 26, 2003

Local school systems eye growth needs
Both the Jackson County and Jefferson City School Systems are studying major building projects for the coming years. A lot is at stake in this planning; indeed, the path of the county’s education services for the next decade will be shaped by these important decisions.
While building for growth is the underlying issue in both systems, the dynamics of growth are affecting the systems in different ways.
Part of that is due to the different backgrounds of the school systems. The Jefferson City School System is steeped in tradition. Decades of athletic success and a history of multi-generational family ties has created a complex dynamic that drives the system.
The county school system is younger, at least in terms of educational success. But in the last decade, the county school system has grown in ways that transcend numbers. The system has, in a very short time, made a huge impression in the county with its stellar fine arts programs, ROTC programs and vocational education offerings.
But perhaps the most important factor in public education locally in the last decade has been the fact that the Jefferson and Jackson County School Systems laid aside years of bitter political controversy and began to work together.
But now the two systems are at a crossroads and the paths they choose will affect not only their individual patrons, but also each other. It’s important that those decisions be weighed carefully so as not to undo these years of relative calm in the local educational waters.
The Jefferson School System has allowed its elementary school to grow to the point where that school needs to be split into two buildings. But that presents a political challenge to system leaders. Much of that growth has been fueled by out-of-district kids. Some voters inside the city are reluctant to pay for new buildings to accommodate out-of-district children.
The county school system does not have an elementary school in the central part of Jackson County, making Jefferson elementary the closest school for many children. County leaders have been reluctant to build a central Jackson elementary school because of the negative impact that would have on Jefferson and because of the cost involved. Jefferson wants those kids for future growth in its high school; the county is happy for Jefferson to provide facilities and programs for those kids. It has been a mutually-beneficial relationship for the last decade.
Jefferson leaders also want to remodel the high school facility and perhaps add a large auditorium. But critics of that plan say the system should first build a real fine arts program before it spends money on facilities.
Therein lies a huge problem for Jefferson. Because its high school is so small, it cannot offer the same number of programs that are offered across town in the much larger county high school. Yet it cannot afford to stagnate and allow its high school to wither.
Jefferson’s biggest strength is also its weakness — small schools are an attraction for some, but small schools cannot offer the educational menu found in larger schools. Jefferson High School needs to grow so it can offer programs, but it cannot grow without programs as a draw — a classic “chicken and egg” problem.
In the county school system, the challenges of growth are different. That system now needs to build a second high school because of growth in its higher grades. But for its patrons, there is a question of how well the system will be able to maintain its quality offerings in two different school buildings. There is the potential for some ugly political infighting with one side of the county complaining that its high school was shortchanged in programs. Getting beyond those kind of suspicions will be the first hurdle in getting a bond referendum passed to fund county system growth.
Over the last 25 years, the citizens in both Jefferson and Jackson County school districts have supported bond referendums to fund new facilities. But with this year’s budget problems and higher taxes, it is not the best time to face voters with a bond referendum.
The coming weeks and months will be interesting to watch as both systems began to lay out their facility needs for the future. How they do that will be important not only in the relationship with the patrons of those systems, but also in the relationship between the systems themselves.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


Editorials
The Jackson Herald
November 26, 2003

We can’t afford to Balkanize on economic development efforts
News that a site near Commerce won’t be the home of a $150 million Walgreens distribution center may be disappointing, but that lack of success opens the door for some much needed soul-searching among Jackson County leaders.
Most taxpayers will remember that in an effort to lure the distribution center, county leaders offered $14 million in tax abatements and incentives. We opposed that huge incentives package and we will continue to oppose efforts to use taxpayer money to “buy” industrial development projects for Jackson County.
But the underlying problems go much deeper than just an ill-conceived incentives package — the effort to lure Walgreens showed some deep fractures in Jackson County’s economic development efforts. Behind the scenes, several local public agencies and officials were at war with each other over the deal. That isn’t good for the citizens of Jackson County.
Here’s what happened on the Walgreens deal:
The firm looking at sites for Walgreens toured several locations in Jackson County. Last spring, the firm narrowed the sites down to one in Braselton.
But that didn’t set well with county commissioner Sammy Thomason, who hails from Commerce. Thomason and Commerce city leaders have long been jealous of Braselton’s and Jefferson’s success at attracting industrial development. The general feeling among Commerce leaders is that their town isn’t getting its fair share of the economic development projects coming to the county.
Thomason decided to intercede in the Walgreens project. He and chairman Harold Fletcher, without any word to those involved in the talks, went to Atlanta to meet with the search firm in an effort to convince it to take another look at the site near Commerce.
When word of that meeting surfaced, other leaders across Jackson County were livid. Braselton leaders felt they had been undercut by their own county leaders. County school system leaders were furious that Thomason and Fletcher were attempting to move a project out of the county school district and into the City of Commerce school district. County water authority leaders were angry that Thomason and Fletcher were apparently willing to give away their service territory near Commerce to the city for this project. And the county’s business leadership was angry that Thomason and Fletcher had done an end-run around the standard economic development protocol.
But from that point on, Thomason took over the negotiating for the Walgreens project. It was at his insistence that the county agreed to the $14 million tax giveaway offer.
But Thomason’s performance was painful to watch. It was obvious that he was in way over his head on the deal, having no background in economic development. Left out of the game by Thomason was chamber of commerce executive director Pepe Cummings and industrial development authority chairman Scott Martin. Martin was brought into the deal at the last second, but only because the IDA had to sign off on the $14 million offer.
The only winner in the Thomason plan was the City of Commerce, his hometown. Since Commerce levies only a small property tax for city services, it was having to give up very little to do the deal. In addition, the town stood to annex the property and have infrastructure put in place at little cost to the city.
It was a sweetheart deal for Commerce. But more experienced development officials believed Thomason was being played by Walgreens reps as leverage for the deal. With Thomason eagerly willing to give away $14 million, it only made the company’s negotiating stand with South Carolina stronger. Not only that, by agreeing to a $14 million giveaway, Thomason had overnight made all future deals looking at Jackson County much more difficult.
In the end, the $14 million didn’t win the day. It should be obvious that attempts to “buy” economic development with a huge incentives giveaway is a fool’s game and should never be done again.

That is the background to this issue and is outlined here only to set the stage for what we believe is more important — that is for county leaders to resolve these internal differences BEFORE the next big deal looms.
That’s especially true for sites near Commerce. One could make a reasonable argument that it would benefit all of Jackson County for us to “stretch” the industrial development corridor further up I-85 to Commerce. And one could make a reasonable argument that industrial development sites along I-85 near Commerce are indeed within that town’s “sphere of influence” and should be annexed into the city.
But to do that will require a huge amount of trust and cooperation between the various economic development players in the county. Currently, that trust and cooperation is lacking.
So what can be done about that? We believe it will take a multi-step process to get all the key players on the same page. Here’s our thoughts on how that could be accomplished:
1. Commerce leaders will have to overcome their belief that everyone is against them. They do not trust Cummings or the chamber of commerce, although we see no real basis for that feeling. Fences between Commerce leaders and chamber leaders need to be mended and trust restored.
2. County BOC leaders need to mediate some kind of reasonable solution to the service territory issue of water and sewerage services along I-85 near Commerce. Understandably, the county water authority is reluctant to give up some of its prime industrial water service area to Commerce. County leaders need to help create a deal that would be good for both Commerce and the county water authority.
3. County school system leaders need to engage Commerce city and school officials in a dialogue over future annexations along the I-85 industrial areas near Commerce. We do not want to see the old annexation wars start again and believe that some reasonable accommodation, perhaps through an expansion of shared tax districts, needs to be explored.
4. Commerce city officials need to be willing to commit some of the city’s resources for industrial development along I-85. Unlike Jefferson and Braselton, Commerce leaders have not been willing to put the infrastructure in place in advance of potential projects. If Commerce wants a quid pro quo on industrial development, then it needs to put its money where its mouth has been and pay its fair share of the development cost. It should not expect the rest of Jackson County to pay for its economic development growth efforts.
5. County BOC officials, along with members of the IDA and chamber of commerce, need to formalize a process for how industrial prospects are to be handled in the future. We believe it is a terrible idea for individual county commissioners to engage directly in economic development negotiations, such as Thomason did earlier this year. We have a strong chamber of commerce which is tasked with doing economic development for Jackson County. The BOC needs to get behind that effort and not allow politics or individual politicians to intrude on that process.

Clearly, Jackson County is in a prime location for future economic expansion and growth. Indeed, we will grow whether we like it or not.
But to maintain our position of attracting quality growth, Jackson County leaders have to resolve some of their internal jealousies and political conflicts. We cannot afford to Balkanize over economic development, with various areas each pursuing its own selfish agenda. There are too many other good growth locations in the Southeast for us to spend time and energy fighting among ourselves. If we do that, we will lose the “cream of the crop” projects and get only the leftovers that nobody else wants.
Commerce wants, and needs to be brought closer into the economic development circle. But there is a right way and a wrong way to pursue that goal.
With the Walgreens project, we saw an example of how that should NOT be done.
Hopefully, city and county leaders will learn from those mistakes and now join hands to work out their differences before the next big project comes along.


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