Bryan County: Signs Of The Times

New investment, new housing, new optimism

Three years ago when it appeared automaker Daimler-Chrysler was coming to the neighborhood with a new plant and bringing thousands of jobs, real estate developers began poking around in northwest Bryan County looking for building sites.

Street talk among the locals in those heady days had new shopping centers, motels and subdivisions by the score landing in a largely rural section of Bryan County. Grocery store bagboys had dreams of $18 an hour jobs and hairdressers saw themselves earning $50,000 a year, enough to buy a house in one of those hoped-for new subdivisions. Such plans and dreams evaporated when the deal between the German car manufacturer and Georgia economic developers fell apart.

So no Daimler-Chrysler plant is coming, but the developers are. And they’re filling in the fields around Bryan’s seat, Pembroke, with new subdivisions at a pace that seemed unimaginable not long ago.

On a September morn, Peter Merz is sitting at a table in his temporary office housed in a trailer on the land along I-16 where a new factory is rising. Dump trucks full of dirt rumble by outside and occasionally a construction foreman pops in with a quick question. Merz wears a perpetual smile, as do two others sitting beside him. Bryan County Development Authority executive director Jean Bacon is beaming and county administrator Phil Jones holds a grin as wide as the Interstate just beyond the office trailer windows.

Around Pembroke, these are happy times, and past disappointment is given only a glancing thought. “I have to be honest and say that we weren’t really relying on [Daimler-Chrysler],” Bacon says. “It would have been wonderful and we probably would have filled our park up quicker. But we just took all that in stride and kept on moving forward.”

The park Bacon speaks of is Interstate Centre, a 272-acre industrial park located 600 yards from an I-16 interchange. Significantly, the industrial park is just 18.5 miles from the loading area of the Port of Savannah, and such ready access to the world’s shipping lanes is the source of happiness for Merz, the executive vice president of ORAFOL, a German manufacturer of self-adhesive signs based near Berlin. ORAFOL will be Interstate Centre’s first tenant when the company opens for business in the spring.

“It was important for us to be on the coast because we had to have a harbor,” Merz says. “Our company already had a sales and distribution facility in Jacksonville, just down the road. And too, 25 percent of our sales are here in the United States and it was important to produce our products here for the United States.”

And well before ORAFOL opens its doors, the company is planning to expand its production and add to its employment rolls of an initial 50 employees, most of them high tech machinists. “We are already focusing on expansion to South America as well as Australia,” Merz says.

Expansion seems to be in the air throughout Bryan County, a relatively new experience for locals, especially in the northwestern corridor where growth has been so slow to arrive. Interstate Centre is the first industrial park to be built in Pembroke in more than 40 years. A read of the county’s history finds development in the region moves as slowly as the waters of the Ogeechee River, Bryan’s eastern border.

Early Inhabitants

Archaeological discoveries show the Bryan County area was inhabited before the time of Christ. Spanish explorers and monks visited Bryan County in the 1500s and established a mission there. Eighteenth century English visionaries planned several towns in what is now Bryan County but they were never built and the area became part of the county of Savannah. During the first half of the 19th century, plantations worked by slaves grew rice and cotton.

After Gen. Sherman ended his March to the Sea in Bryan County, what was left of the area’s economic life centered on poor white sharecroppers. The little farming village of Pembroke became the county seat in 1935. Ten years earlier, new wealth had arrived in the form of industrial giant Henry Ford who bought 75,000 acres of land at a place called Ways Station for a plantation he named Richmond Hill.

Today Ford’s plantation land is occupied by upscale subdivisions, and Richmond Hill is a town surrounded by considerable wealth, most of it belonging to the highly paid professionals who commute to jobs in Savannah, and the owners of second and third homes who live at Ford Plantation, a gated community with dwellings priced up to $4 million. The great preponderance of commercial development in the county also lies in and around Richmond Hill.

Recent history seemed to decree that Pembroke was to remain poor. And it isn’t only economics separating the two towns. The county is split down the middle by Fort Stewart, an Army base carved from the piney woods in 1940 and now occupying 280,000 acres. To make the 40-minute drive from Pembroke, the county seat, to Richmond Hill, the money center, one has to leave the county. But as recent census reports show, far more people are coming to Bryan County than are leaving it.

A once sparsely populated farming region is becoming flush with growth, and for the first time Pembroke is sharing in the wealth. In just five years, from 1997 to 2002, Bryan County farmland acreage declined by 42 percent as a newly arriving population rushed into subdivision homes built on land where livestock once grazed and crops were planted, according to the Georgia County Guide, compiled by the University of Georgia.

Urban populations in Bryan County more than doubled in the 1990s, and from the end of that decade to 2003 bank deposits grew by 48.3 percent. By 2003, Bryan Countians had an effective buying income of $43,727, making it the regional leader in that category. Yet the greatest portion of that wealth was flowing into the Richmond Hill area along the southeastern borders with Chatham County (Savannah) and the Atlantic Ocean.

Back in 1999, Pembroke was celebrating the arrival of its first subdivision in recent memory. So novel was that development, locals referred to the houses in colonial terms, calling them a “settlement.”

But in the last five years, residents of the county seat have seen 10 subdivisions come off the drawing boards and onto the earth. In Bryan County, building permits for new single-family homes have jumped from 172 in 2001 to 304 in 2004, and 253 permit applications were filed by August of this year. “When the final [subdivision] plats are filed and recorded at the courthouse, all the lots are already sold,” says Phil Jones, Bryan County administrator. “Builders are buying them and building speculative houses on them.”

The hottest home market around Pembroke now is for those designed to house young working families shopping for residences in the $125,000 to $300,000 range, says Jones, whose Bryan County family lines trace back almost 200 years.

Growing Rooftops

Over on the other end of the county, real estate developer Johnny Murphy has historical records that show his family to be only the 611th to settle in Richmond Hill since 1962, the year the town was incorporated.

Murphy founded a real estate development company in 1984, a time when Richmond Hill didn’t even have a red light. There were occasions when he felt he was supplying a product for which there was no demand. “I was starving back then,” says Murphy, president of the Richmond Hill Land Company. “Nobody was moving to Richmond Hill. Developers around here call that time the Pioneer Era.”

But then 4,000 acres of Henry Ford’s plantation land hit the market and Murphy bought two small tracts. “Still, it took two years to sell out 47 lots,” he says. But suddenly in the 1990s, Savannah professionals began to migrate to Richmond Hill. “They came to take advantage of an excellent school system and low property taxes,” Murphy says.

The flood of new arrivals from Savannah spawned a red-hot real estate development industry and a wave of commercial development. Today Murphy says he has about $30 million tied up in construction costs for new home and mixed-use developments that will produce $600 million in sales when built out.

“Young families are buying homes in the $175,000 to $200,000 range,” he says. “Empty-nesters are looking at waterfront properties around and along the rivers and marshes at $500,000 to $750,000.”

For the first time, developers like Murphy are casting their eyes toward the county’s northern end for more investment possibilities. “I think Pembroke is going to be the next big boom area,” Murphy says. “I think new job growth around Savannah and Statesboro will come together near Pembroke.”

County Administrator Jones agrees. “We used to grow crops and cows here,” he says. “Now we’re growing rooftops.”

Water Woes

Last year, when a real estate developer wanted to purchase a 2,200-acre tract of land in Bryan County for a residential development, he learned the county did not have the capacity to provide the water the new homes would require.

“We were capped [on water withdrawals],” Jones says. “The only way we could get water was to go to Savannah and ask them to provide water to us. Savannah had the excess capacity and we didn’t.”

The end result was a contractual agreement between Bryan County and Savannah in which the city of Savannah agrees to drill a well in Bryan County from which Bryan County is allowed to withdraw 1.5 million gallons of water per day, for which Bryan County pays the city of Savannah. Bryan, like its neighbor Effingham County, is paying for water that lies within its borders but can only be provided by the city of Savannah because of state regulations regarding county and municipal water withdrawal limits.

Last year, the city of Richmond Hill received a permit to withdraw 1.73 million gallons of water per day from an underground source after threatening a lawsuit against the Georgia Environmental Protection Division following years of back-and-forth negotiations between the two. The court victory allows Richmond Hill to drill into the lower level of the Floridan aquifer to withdraw water, a practice that has never before been allowed in Georgia. EPD had capped withdrawals from the upper Floridan aquifer due to concerns about saltwater intrusion into the freshwater source.

“We had to meet 23 special conditions to make the withdrawals, the most I’ve ever seen attached to a permit,” said Richmond Hill’s City Administrator, Mike Melton. “We met those conditions at great expense. We had to open up the lower Floridan for an alternate source of water. Our geologist was able to show that capping water [withdrawals] in Bryan County has no effect on salt water intrusion.”

There is growing hope among coastal counties that EPD will relax regulations on water withdrawals in the region, thanks to Richmond Hill’s success in acquiring a permit to drill into the lower Floridan and reduce their dependence on Savannah to meet future growth needs.

“Water is going to be one of the economic engines in the next 10 years in all the coastal counties,” Jones says. “And for one person or one group or one county to control all the water makes it a very difficult task for the small counties to grow.”

Categories: Southeast