Effingham County: The Wheels Of Progress
Port proximity and available land push growth
Riding the back roads of Effingham County on a pleasant spring afternoon, a motorist notes the burst of color from the wisteria, azaleas and dogwoods that dot the 237,000 forested acres (mostly pines and oaks) in this still largely rural coastal area in the Savannah suburbs.
But anyone wishing to preserve such bucolic scenes better get the camera out and snap away, for there is another burst of color popping up in the meadows of Effingham, the orange and yellow surveyor’s flags marking residential land lots and commercial sites. The building pace for new homes has been brisk here for years – the value of new privately owned annual residential construction more than doubled to $121.5 million from 2002-2005 – and 15,000 residential lots have been approved and are awaiting construction, according to the county’s zoning office. Meanwhile, commercial development has recently accelerated to Mach speed, giving this area much in common with many of the suburban Atlanta communities of the 1980s and ’90s.
Effingham’s growth, like that of Atlanta’s suburbs, comes from that most demanding of demographic species – the commuter.
“Approximately 70 percent of our workforce leaves Effingham County every day,” says John A. Henry, CEO of both the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority and the Effing-ham County Chamber of Commerce. “And they are driving to Chatham County or some other surrounding community. Now, all 70 percent don’t have to go to Chatham County, but they do have to go through it to get to their jobs.”
And therein lies a problem as sticky as freshly poured asphalt. It seems there are three main routes connecting Effingham to Chatham’s Savannah, but the connection is not a fast one. “Those three roads are at capacity now,” Henry says. “And probably have been at capacity for several years. It is imperative that we do not create a parking lot that is going to disincentivize future development in our community.”
Making The Drive
Effingham’s residents have been commuting to Savannah for more than 200 years. In the 18th century, farmers took produce, eggs and butter to the city’s busy markets, rumbling along in their wagons down rutted roads that parallel the modern highways. Later, lumbermen felled oak and pine in the county’s thick forests, transporting their products from the mills to booming Savannah.
The sawmills are all but gone today, and modern residents have far different reasons for wanting to be within commuting distance of the historic city.
“Three years ago, [Georgia Ports Authority executive director] Doug Marchand said there would be a deficit of about 30 to 40 million square feet of warehouse distribution space,” Henry says. “And I think that announcement was printed in just about every paper throughout the country. So, we had all the national guys come into the market in a land grab; they were grabbing all the land they could, as close to the ports as they could, with the best infrastructure they could find. The market followed suit and the price of an acre of well-suited industrial land in Chatham Country now will cost $85,000 to $100,000 and is being sold very quickly for that price.”
Henry says there has been a “tremendous demand for warehousing and distribution centers” due to Effingham County’s proximity to the Port of Savannah. Some requests for industrial sites had to be refused because they just couldn’t be accommodated. “The high market demand is the impetus for us trying to bring the LogistiCenter along as soon as possible,” he says, referring to a 1,750-acre planned industrial park development straddling I-16 in a rural part of the county.
The LogistiCenter at Savannah is being developed with D.P. Partners, a private Nevada-based industrial park developer. The development authority and DP planned to formalize the partnership last May and begin moving dirt soon thereafter. With only one small tract of land for industrial use left in the county’s only industrial park, LogistiCenter is expected to handle the pressing demand for more industrial buildings.
But wait, there’s more. The EDA owns another 2,600 acres known as the Research Forest adjacent to the city of Rincon, on which more industrial sites are expected to unfold, though over a longer period of time. The Rincon site is planned to hold “business parks, research and development [facilities], recreational areas and commercial [establishments], as well as light and heavy industries,” Henry says. The first phase of the Research Forest is set to begin within three to five years.
Henry points out that land in his industrial parks right now can be had for about $35,000; that figure and the proximity to the Port of Savannah have already brought distribution centers and warehouses to Effingham. And businesses like that generate the kind of tax revenues and jobs that new residences can’t touch.
“Industrial land, regardless of the price per acre, returns about $9 for every dollar in government services spent on it,” Henry says. “Whereas, on residential property, typically, the cost of government services return is about 80 to 90 cents on the dollar.”
It’s easy to see why Henry is excited about the 4,500 acres in Effingham County being planned for economic development, including new industrial lands, office parks and other sites that might generate jobs and the taxes critical to providing water, sewer and roads needed to support growth.
“We’re at a critical mass point now where in order to provide the infrastructure that is required to meet our current demands, we have already levied every tax that we can without going that further step and pricing ourselves out of the market,” Henry says.
The Road Ahead
Effingham County Commission chair Verna Phillips says help is on the drawing boards, but is still years away from taking concrete shape. “The desperate need for traffic relief is not only in Effingham County but in Chatham County (Savannah) as well,” she says.
Phillips and other leaders believe relief will come with Effingham Parkway, a 14-mile four-lane stretch of road linking the two counties. “The feasibility study has been done, funded by the Department of Transportation,” she says. “We are now ready to go to the engineering phase.” Still, completion would take years. “I’m sure that road will come in phases. The relief is probably 25 years past due.”
It seems even the climate conspires against economic development here. Periods of drought – and an order from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division – have forced the county seat of Springfield to stop putting treated water into Ebenezer Creek, a stream that flows into the Savannah River. The treatment water comes from a city treatment plant on high-demand land in the Effingham County Industrial Park.
“We are now using valuable industrial park land as a spray field to dispose of treated water, and that’s hardly the best use of that land,” says Springfield’s mayor, Barton Alderman.
And there was the problem of Chatham County’s leaders’ lack of enthusiasm for placing their end of the Effingham Parkway high up on their budgetary to-do list. “We look at this as, hey, [the parkway] helps get our people down there,” says Effingham County Administrator Ed Williams. “Why wouldn’t they want to get our people down there to shop? That adds to their economy but that is just not as big in their minds as it is in ours.”
And Williams is a realist when it comes to state funding. “I was up in Atlanta recently and I thought, ‘Gosh, you’re competing [for state funds] with people who have similar problems,” he says. “The state doesn’t have all the money it needs to fund all these projects, and so these projects have been pushed back years because of the lack of funding.”
And all those home sites approved for construction? “We have 15,000 residential lots on the books right now,” Williams says. “And some of them are sitting there waiting on sewer and water.”
That’s another Effingham dilemma. Getting water and sewer to approved subdivisions is an expensive prospect. “When you look at county [water and sewer] systems, you can’t take a line and [go] out there to everybody,” he says. “You can do that in the cities because you have houses on every block – density. In the county, you can go miles before hitting a housing development and getting 100 or 200 customers and then go another mile to get 50 customers. That is expensive.”
Solution: Put the infrastructure in and let the subdivisions come to it. “We talked about that and the [county] commissioners said we should build the infrastructure and let the subdivisions come to us,” Williams says.
Norma Jean Morgan has been working to keep up with Effingham County’s double-digit population growth by trying to add a few newcomers of her own: Physicians.
“We are at about 50,000 people right now,” says Morgan, the administrator of Effingham Hospital, a 38-year-old, 25-bed facility with a 105-bed extended care unit. “And we have been advised that very soon we can expect 80,000 people in our county.”
To better manage pressures on the healthcare system, Morgan and the Effingham hospital authority have embarked on a five-year strategic plan that calls for expansion of the present hospital’s ambulatory surgery and outpatient service areas. A Certificate of Need application is pending with the state for construction of an imaging center in Rincon.
“We also need a new emergency room, and that is in the making,” Morgan says. “And we are building a medical village that will include primary care physicians, a pharmacy, the imaging center and other health care facilities.” Funding for these projects will come from operational revenues and the use of the hospital authority’s AAA bond rating.
The health care expansion plan also calls for the recruitment of more doctors to handle the widening patient loads Morgan expects. “We now have visiting physicians here a few days a week,” she says. “Surgeons come and do an entire day of cataract and orthopedic surgery, and we take advantage of those specialties because we can’t support them because of the population [limitations]. But as the population grows we think they will be interested in a more permanent arrangement.”
However, Morgan says, “a vigorous physician recruiting program is also under way. We are growing doctors and we are recruiting doctors.”
Meanwhile, back at the Effingham Industrial Park, expansion announcements are coming from distribution centers and warehouses located there. With four building permits for warehouses issued last year, and another approved in the early part of this year, the Port of Savannah’s influence grows greater each day.
“Two other industries recently announced expansions and the addition of employees,” Henry says. Major retailers are filling the cleared commercial lots along busy Georgia Highway 21, and longtime residences on the busy road are being bought and bulldozed – in preparation for new building.
“We are one of the fastest growing communities in the nation in terms of economic development,” Henry says, and then repeats himself. “But we are at critical mass on transportation.”
Effingham County, 46,924; Springfield (county seat), 2,034; Rincon, 6,349; Guyton, 1,707
Per capita income
Effingham County, $24,648; Georgia, $29,782
Effingham County, 2.8 percent; Georgia, 4.1 percent
Top 10 employers
Georgia-Pacific, 1,500; Savannah Electric, 593; Wal-Mart, 350; Effingham Hospital, 224; Doncasters, 135; Flint River Services, Inc., 150; International Paper, 125; Hanson, 100; TEMCOR, 95; Savannah Yacht, 48
Effingham County Commission, Effingham County Industrial Development Authority, Georgia
Dept. of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau