In the wake of Richmond County’s failure to renew its Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), Columbia County is presenting its 2017-2022 SPLOST project list to the public in a series of public meetings scheduled for July.
The list, representing $144 million worth of projects, features $30 million earmarked for the well-publicized hospital project, $9 million for a cultural arts center and just over $19 million for renovations and a garage for the Justice Center.
“We think this is one that looks to be really attractive to the people, not just for the hospital, but for the other things,” Chairman Ron Cross said. “Plus, it’s a renewal, which is always better than a new tax, as evidenced by the TSPLOST.”
Though the $30 million for the hospital is included on the list, it’s not entirely clear if that money will need to be used. Of the three hospitals to apply to build a hospital in Columbia County, Georgia Regents Medical Center would not require 20 percent financing by the county. Should they be chosen to build the hospital, they likely would not take the money and, according to Cross, if the money is included in the SPLOST list and it’s not needed, the county would not be able to apply it to another use without a referendum.
Therefore, the list also includes $30 million of contingency projects, including an $18 million regional park at the Gateway section of Grovetown and just over $2 million in public safety upgrades, most of which would be used to replace tankers and rescue trucks.
According to Community and Leisure Services Director Barry Smith, the 100-acre Gateway Park would contain several baseball/softball fields aimed at attracting regional and national tournaments similar to what’s already happening with the soccer fields at Blanchard Woods.
Other recreational projects included on the contingency list include renovations to Blanchard Park, $2.5 million in improvements for Patriots Park and a little over $2.5 million for the Euchee Creek Greenway Extension.
Perhaps the most surprising addition to the main list is inclusion of the cultural arts center, not because of its $9 million price tag, but because of its location at the 26 acres of county owned property across from Evans Towne Center Park.
“I had a change in philosophy and I talked it over with a good many people and they seem to agree that with the success of Evans Towne Center Park and the other growth in the surrounding areas, we don’t need to push a heavy commercial center there on that property,” Cross said, pointing out that the addition of the roughly 300 senior rentals nearby has pushed up the density in the area. “We thought it would be good to change the approach and say rather than a big box or some other anchor tenant, let’s let the cultural center be the focal point and have some more green space that you could use for parking.”
Cross said he envisioned the cultural arts center as having a 2,000-2,500 seat theater, display space, concessions and the possibility of expanding for teaching opportunities.
What it won’t have, at least not in its current proposal, is a paved parking lot.
Why? “Because the grass at Evans Towne Center Park has been run over by tractor trailers, military vehicles and everything in the world and it’s held up,” Cross said. “Plus, it helps with your retention requirements. We could incorporate some walkways. I just want to avoid an asphalt jungle out there that is strictly for parking.”
The Justice Center renovations and the parking garage were actually part of the 2011-2016 SPLOST package, but as Tier Three projects, collections didn’t fund the projects, so they carried over.
“You always want to have a list greater than what you anticipate to receive because you don’t want to run out of projects and stop when maybe you have a year left on the program,” Cross said.
The renovations would include adding three courtrooms, additional space for the district attorney and more space for the clerk of court. The 200-space parking deck would serve judges via a secured area, public court use and event parking for both amphitheaters.
“We need to conserve some of the overall real estate and go vertical with the way the county’s growing and what’s in the area,” Cross said.
Cross said that the list was compiled without considering the anticipated growth at Fort Gordon, primarily because so much of that growth depends on outside departments like the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army and the Federal Highway Administration taking the lead, something Cross says they have not done.
Specifically, he’s talking about the possibility of a new gate at Fort Gordon and an I-20 exit at Louisville Road.
“We can help, but we’re the tail wagging the dog on something like this,” he said. “This is a national security and a national defense issue. It’s going to take higher powers, and you know as well as I do that nothing’s going to be done until after the election.”
Public input during the meetings could change the list slightly, and voters will have a chance to vote on the final list in November. Should it fail to pass, the county could try again with a special election next year or wait until the presidential election in 2016.
Passing it in November would allow them to bond a portion of the projects, which would make it easier to retain staff.
“Our problem is that, as we get through 2015, we’re going to be pretty much out of projects to work on, and that involves a fair number of county staff,” he said.
Unlike Richmond County, which employs consultants from Heery International to manage SPLOST projects, Columbia County uses its own staff.