After eliminating the position of economic development director, the Board of Commissioners earlier this year voted to outsource that responsibility to the Oconee Chamber of Commerce at a cost of $100,000 per year.
The BOC also established a task force whose meetings are open to the public. Consultant Craig Lesser of The Pendleton Group out of Dunwoody is leading these meetings.
At the first meeting, Lesser drew attention to Oconee’s advantages and superlatives.
Oconee has the third-highest median household income in the state: $81,873. Oconee falls behind only Coweta and Fayette counties.
“That’s pretty strong,” said Lesser. “That’s a good reflection of where you are.”
About 74 percent of people 25 years or older in Oconee County have some college education.
According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the unemployment rate here is 2.9 percent, whereas the state is at 3.6 percent and the country at 3.7 percent.
“You are in a good spot,” said Lesser, “but what do you want to do with it?”
The task force was formed “to serve as a collective voice of the Oconee County business community,” said Chamber of Commerce President Courtney Bernardi.
The 10-person committee is comprised of the following people:
n Board of Commissioner Mark Saxon
n Board of Commissioner Mark Thomas
n Board of Education member Tim Burgess
n Industrial Development Authority Chairman Rick Waller
n Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman Tammy Gilland
n Planning Commissioner Brad Tucker
n Watkinsville City Councilman Brian Brodrick
n Bogart Mayor-elect Janet Jones
n Bishop resident Lisa Douglas
n Bogart resident Sharon Maxey
“I hope to see [Oconee County] still growing but in a controlled manner,” said Maxey. “I hate seeing abandoned properties in Athens.”
That’s where the Comprehensive Plan plays an important role, said Saxon.
Tucker said that while he believes the Comprehensive Plan protects and preserves agricultural land while clearly delineating corridors for development, the tastes of young entrepreneurs are different than Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers.
“I think it is unlikely that we’re going to develop Millennial- and Zoomer-tech companies on Ga. 316,” he said. “Realistically, there needs to be more of a work-play-live environment for those people. … I don’t see any place in either the Comp Plan and our Unified Development Code that allows for that.”
Tucker said the University of Georgia provides a great opportunity “to entice and retain entrepreneurial-spirited people.”
Next week, The Oconee Enterprise will report on the task force’s exploration of partnerships with the University of Georgia and the development of Ga. 316.
The group agreed that Ga. 316 shows a lot of promise due to its connectivity to UGA, proximity to Epps Bridge Centre and the cluster of medical and health-related businesses around the Oconee Connector.
For now, the task force put retail aside and focused on other areas of economic development, such as
health care, technology, bio-medical research, manufacturing and industrial services.
Chamber of Commerce President Bernardi said Oconee County is partnering with Athens-Clarke, Barrow and Gwinnett counties in promoting Ga. 316 as the “Innovation Corridor.”
“Our focus going forward is turning Ga. 316 into what it should be,” she said.
Lesser said success is about collaboration.
“It’s about everybody working together,” he said. “There are communities in our state that do it very well and communities that do it very, very poorly.”
For many years, Oconee County has been siloed, Gilland said.
“We have tried to do things by ourselves, but what happens here impacts other counties,” she said. “We have to look at economic development as regional collaboration.”
Waller said that while governments like to say they collaborate, “When it comes time to write the check, there’s a difference.”
Brodrick said he’s worked on regional partnerships that were not as fruitful as first imagined.
“I think the challenge is to try to find out how do we develop resiliency with the businesses we have,” said Douglas. “Spending a lot of resources to attract new [businesses] that just push our current ones out of business is not what we want to do.”
Douglas gave the example of local plant nurseries competing with big-box home improvement stores.
She also said that natural resources are important to Oconee County citizens.
Brodrick highlighted Watkinsville’s restaurants and retail sector, as well as its ongoing efforts to create more greenspace and pedestrian amenities. He said the retail of Oconee needs to be “Amazon proof,” meaning services and experiences that customers can’t order online.
“I want my children to get where they can have any job in the world, but [we] create a community that leads them to choose to be here,” said Brodrick.