Harlem Mayor Roxanne Whitaker has seen Columbia County grow and drastically change over the past several years.
For more than two decades, this Harlem native served on the Columbia County Board of Education. She watched the enormous influx of residents moving into Columbia County and the strain it put on both the school system and the area’s roadways.
As the town’s newly elected mayor, she is extremely protective of her hometown and its residents.
But she also realizes growth is coming, and it’s headed her way.
“I have lived in Harlem all of my life,” Whitaker said, adding that her mother, Shirley Tankersley, was also the city’s mayor from 1993 to 2000. “And while some people say that the small town is a dying breed, we want to preserve ours. We want (it) to be a home instead of just someplace to live. For us, Harlem is just a big family.”
Like many close-knit families, the town’s residents are very loyal to their community and dedicated to the success of their historic town.
“Here in Harlem, everybody knows everybody. A lot of times, people know your business before you know it,” Whitaker added, chuckling. “That’s the good part about Harlem.”
It’s the kind of town where residents often walk to local events held at Red Oak Manor on North Louisville Street.
It’s the kind of community that closes off certain streets during holidays like Halloween and invites hundreds of people from the three-county region to come celebrate in their neighborhoods.
And it’s the kind of town where people aren’t surprised to be offered both Italian and Mexican menus at the popular downtown restaurant, Armando’s Grill & Pizzeria.
The friendly owners simply want to make sure that there’s something on their menu to meet everyone’s tastes.
“There was a little sign that used to say, ‘If you lived in Harlem, you’d be home now,’” Whitaker said. “And that’s just the overall feeling of the whole town. It is a hometown.”
But as Columbia County’s population continues to skyrocket, jumping from about 110,000 people in 2008 to an estimated 153,200 people just 10 years later, many people are wondering whether communities like Harlem, Appling and Grovetown will be able to preserve their small-town charm.
“Here in Harlem, people take care of each other’s children and they celebrate with you on your good days and they really lift you up when the unthinkable hits your family,” Whitaker said. “I think you miss that in the larger areas. A lot of times in bigger towns, people move in and move out and, really, their neighbors never even notice.”
That kind of passive living and lack of interaction is unthinkable in Harlem, Whitaker said.
“If you change a shrubbery in Harlem, people know. It may even be the talk at Sunday lunch,” Whitaker said, laughing. “You just always know that people look out for you and they care enough about you to be concerned. No matter how big or how small.”
But Harlem is experiencing a great deal of growth of its own with the construction of about 700 new homes in the surrounding area, the addition of two new schools serving the community and the revitalization of the downtown district, Whitaker said.
“Our business association is very active, but if you want to join, I’m just going to forewarn you,” Whitaker said, laughing, “you better take your vitamins, because they will work you.”
There is also tremendous growth occurring on the outskirts of town, especially along the interstate, Whitaker said.
Just last month, the Development Authority of Columbia County announced Club Car, the golf car and utility vehicle manufacturer, will occupy a 500,000-plus-square-foot warehouse in the county’s future industrial park to be located at Exit 183 on Interstate 20 between Appling and Harlem.
This economic growth along with the Army’s Cyber Command being relocated to Fort Gordon by 2020 is bringing thousands of new residents to the area every year.
“There’s a lot of excitement about the opportunities that come with growth, and it’s becoming more and more frequent now that there is some more growth coming to Harlem,” Whitaker said. “But we still want to maintain our small-town atmosphere, and we just want quality over quantity. After all, we are about the only small town there is left in Columbia County. I mean, Grovetown has become a metropolitan area.”
While Grovetown City Councilwoman Deborah Fisher agrees that her city has experienced an economic boom over the past several years, she insists that Grovetown is still a small town at heart.
“Of course we are facing significant growth, but most of our growth is around the peripheral edges of the city, so historic Grovetown manages to still maintain its friendly, little-city charm,” Fisher said. “Because, honestly, most of our charm comes from the people who live in our city. Our citizens value the character and diversity of our city, and we seem to have a very strong sense of community that stands the test of time.”
Fisher, who is originally from Washington, D.C., says she still remembers the first day she ever set foot in Grovetown looking for a home more than 20 years ago.
“When I drove into the city, I was driving around and looking for places, and I saw this little sign that says ‘Welcome to Grovetown, A Friendly Little City,’ and it just struck me. I kept coming back to it,” Fisher said. “My husband and I visited Augusta, we visited other places in the region, but I said, ‘We’ve got to go back to that little city.’ So what’s here now is what brought me here 20 years ago. It’s still the same type of charm when you come into the city, and the people really take care of the communities that they live in. People truly care.”
Ever since recently being elected to the City Council, Fisher said she knows her community cares about the future of Grovetown.
“If something goes wrong, they call and we hear it,” Fisher said, chuckling. “If there is a big piece of trash in the street, they’ll call. So people really take care of their communities and each other, and that’s what I love about Grovetown.”
While campaigning this past political season, Fisher said the most common complaint or concern she heard from residents of Grovetown is the heavy traffic surrounding the city, especially along the interstate.
“I must have knocked on almost 900 doors while campaigning, and the thing I heard over and over again was the traffic,” Fisher said. “Naturally, people want to be able to get around and navigate in their own city. They want to be able to get to work and get home in a reasonable amount of time, so that’s been the biggest concern. But the entire county and GDOT are all working on it. So I think most people feel comfortable knowing that we are trying to address that issue.”
The only way cities like Grovetown can try to prepare for growth is to have a comprehensive plan in place and stick to it, Fisher said.
“Our former leaders, being forward thinkers and planners, they invited input from the entire city back in 2012 and 2013, and they delivered what is called our city comprehensive plan, which provides both long- and short-term community goals and aspirations,” Fisher said. “What this plan does is, it established policy as it relates to transportation and growth and land-use and housing. It guides elected officials as they navigate and implement policies and guidelines in the future. And one of the main goals in the comprehensive plan is, it takes into consideration the character and charm that our citizens cherish.”
That plan, along with Columbia County’s own growth management plan called Vision 2035, has helped the entire region prepare for the future, but also protect the past, Fisher said.
“And now we have all these new residents coming into Columbia County from all over the country for Fort Gordon’s Cyber Command, and I love that they are choosing to live in Grovetown,” Fisher said. “I know they are having the same experience that I had when I came here 20 years ago. They are saying, ‘Ah-ha! Grovetown. This is home.’”
But Grovetown and Harlem aren’t the only areas in Columbia County seeing new development.
Just last week, dozens of Appling residents filled a meeting of Columbia County’s Planning Commission to express their concerns over a proposed 170-home subdivision planned for about 200 acres along Appling-Harlem Road.
After many longtime Appling residents objected to the massive development and insisted that that it would hurt the rural atmosphere of the area, the developer — Blanchard and Calhoun — withdrew its request.
Thomas Blanchard Jr. of Blanchard and Calhoun told the planning commission that the company needed “more time to study the project” and work with neighbors in the area to see if the development could move forward in the future.
Whitaker said it’s important for local leaders to listen to the wishes of longtime residents of Columbia County.
“Appling was at one time the county seat. It has great history,” Whitaker said. “It is kind of disappointing that history has been kind of pushed to the back because Appling was the county seat. It played an important role in this county.”
For Harlem Mayor Pro Tem John Thigpen, growth can simply be described as a “double-edged sword,” especially for small towns.
“Growth is good for cities and counties, but it can also be a real drain on resources, and a lot of times being able to pay for growth on the front end is very difficult,” he said. “That’s where we have to really try to plan and do what we can do to lessen the effects on our existing citizens, but also be able to provide services for new citizens and new businesses.”
It is truly a balancing act for small local governments like Harlem, Thigpen said.
“Harlem right now is on the doorstep of a lot of growth coming to the southwestern end of the county,” he said. “We are seeing more homes being built in our area, not only in the city of Harlem, but outside the present city limits of Harlem. These folks need police protection, they need fire protection, they need water, they need sewer and trying to meet those needs are discussions that most elected officials have, if not on a daily basis, a weekly basis with each other and the city manager. It can be taxing.”
Ever since he began serving on the Harlem City Council in 2003, Thigpen said city leaders have tried to prepare for future growth.
“Even in 2002, Harlem was talking growth, but it just seemed to always never quite get to us,” Thigpen said. “Well, over the last five or six years, Grovetown has just exploded, and all of that growth now is pushing its way into Harlem.”
With the addition of new schools being built just outside of Harlem, Thigpen said the population will continue to grow.
“Anywhere you build these schools, naturally there are new residences to follow,” he said. “And they’re coming.”
But deciding when to invest taxpayer money on expanding the city’s infrastructure is an extremely difficult decision, Thigpen said.
“You don’t want to invest all of this taxpayer money into services, and they just sit there,” he said. “For instance, we saw that in the downturn in 2007 and 2008 with the housing industry. A lot of infrastructure was put into place in certain areas, and then it sat there for several years.”
However, the city of Harlem has realized it is time to invest in its infrastructure, specifically expanding its water treatment plant to have it competed by 2020.
“We are trying to stay ahead of the curve, but that’s where it gets really tricky,” he said. “We know we need to manage this growth because, if we don’t manage it, it is going to manage itself. And we want to protect what we have right now.”
Thigpen moved to Harlem in the mid-1980s after having grown up in south Augusta, he said.
Now, more than 30 years later, he can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“Both of my children have married and bought houses in Harlem. My grandkids go to school in Harlem, and we have some of the best schools in the state,” Thigpen said. “Harlem is home. Other places people may be born, and grow up and move away. In Harlem, they are born, they grow up and they stay. I love it here.”
Even though it’s clear that you can’t prevent change from coming to Harlem, Thigpen and the rest of Harlem’s city leaders are determined to protect its small-town community.
“Everyone knows that most of the growth and focus has been more on the north side of the county. But it is coming our way,” Thigpen said. “I see it all the time. I go to basketball games at Stallings Island for my grandson and at Greenbrier and when he plays at these different places, I’ll tell you, it is amazing how things have change in just a year’s time from one season to the next. The number of rooftops that have sprung up are incredible. So, it is very challenging to try to keep up with these things. But we have to. It’s important for the future of Harlem.”
After all, the small-town charm of Harlem can’t be recreated or manufactured, Thigpen said.
“You know, when our girl’s softball team won the state championship, they came home at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning and the streets were lined with people welcoming them back to Harlem,” Thigpen said. “They actually stopped the bus at the intersection and let the girls get off the bus as the crowd cheered. It was just a really special moment. Those are things that you truly treasure living in a small town.”