By Walter L. Johnson II
“Life works well here.”
That’s the slogan for Lee County these days, as its population has quadrupled over the last 40-plus years. Contributing to that growth is the recent openings of the new Publix shopping complex and the Albany Bank & Trust branch on U.S. Highway 19 South.
Winston Oxford, president of the Lee County Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Lee County Development Authority, says two factors have contributed to the growth of one of Georgia’s fastest-growing counties.
“Beginning in the (19)70’s and 80’s,” explained Oxford, “as Dougherty County outgrew their boundaries, they started (growing) north into Lee County. That’s where the existing residential developers developed their new residential subdivisions.
“Consequently, just by default, just kind of by accident, Lee County started growing,” Oxford added. “We had another growth spell after the 1994 flood that wiped out a number of housing units within Dougherty County. Again, new subdivisions were developed in Lee County, and that’s where a lot of the people settled.”
“In addition, Lee County has been known since the 1980s for an excellent school system,” continued Oxford. “So, a lot of the people in the southwest Georgia area that would re-locate, and had children, they would locate to Lee County because of the school system.
“So, those two factors, that Dougherty County outgrew their boundaries, and the fact that Lee County schools are schools of excellence, and have been for some 30 years.”
Albany insurance agent Rick Muggridge, who represents the Century District as a member of the Lee County Commission, doesn’t see many distinctions, if any, between Dougherty and Lee counties.
“It never occurs to me that I’m crossing some imaginary boundary every morning when I get up, and come into work” said Muggridge, who owns the DWB Insurance Agency on Dawson Road in Albany. “It’s all one community as far as I’m concerned.”
An Albany native who moved his family to Lee County in 1995, Muggridge said that what happens in Dougherty County is important to him.
“What happens in Albany matters to us,” Muggridge added. “There’s no wall that separates us, there’s just an imaginary boundary on a map. The reality is we’re all in life together.”
As far as what he likes best about living in Lee County, Oxford replied: “Lee County still has a rural atmosphere to it, not an urban. We meet the definition of a bedroom community to Albany/Dougherty County.
“I like the little bit of the slower pace in Lee County. But yet, we have all of the amenities within a five to 10 minute drive anything that anyone ever wanted, to include shopping, higher education, the arts, all kind of entertainment, recreation. It’s all available within a 10-15 minute drive of Leesburg.”
Another Lee County native, Meghan Duke — who is the event planning and outreach coordinator for the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce — loves the convenience and fast pace of living in Lee as well.
“It’s a great community, small town,” Duke said. “My parents are very active in the school system, and athletic programs, and theatre programs, and enjoy the social aspect of seeing neighbors, and seeing people growing up with, and familiar faces for being a Lee County resident.”
Duke added: “I do work in Dougherty County, and am familiar with lots of community leaders in Dougherty County, as well. I think it’s a great privilege that Lee County and Dougherty County work together on regional issues, and regional projects.”
Challenges facing Lee County
Like many counties throughout Georgia, as well as the nation, Lee County faces numerous challenges in a recovering economy.
One of those challenges, Oxford said, is dealing with the issues that come with rapid growth, such as providing vital services to county residents.
“The challenges for Lee County over the last 20 years,” explained Oxford, “most especially, is to supply the services that are demanded by new residents of Lee County.
“Generally speaking, as long as you have a water and sewer infrastructure in place, commercial investment and industrial investment does not demand much in the way of local government services, unlike the residential community does.
“So, the biggest challenge Lee County has had for the last 20 years, and will probably continue to have for another five to 10 years to come, is to be able to increase the tax base, so that we don’t have to tax the local residents on their homes or the homeowners, in order to supply those government services.”
Opportunities and strengths
While it faces the challenges that many communities across the country face, Lee County also has numerous strengths, according to Oxford.
“The cost of living is very reasonable, compared to the rest of the state, compared to actually, the Southeast, ” Oxford said. “You have all of the amenities that most people look for that would rate quality of life in the community.
“Another strength that Lee County has that I applaud to potential commercial investors is the fact that the Albany Metropolitan Statistical Area has, year in and year out, over the last 15 years, has been rated No. 2 in the entire state of Georgia as far as retail pull factor. What that means is more people come to this area to spend their retail dollar, than local people leave this area, to spend their retail dollar somewhere else. That means that commercial investment should see good returns on their investment if they decide to locate here.”
All in this together
In recent years, there have been efforts to strengthen the relationship between chambers of commerce in the southwest Georgia region. Despite population changes affecting both counties, the focus on building a rapport with local businesses hasn’t changed, said Duke.
“Our populations have shifted, but the business community really is still the same,” she said, “and it’s still the focus for both chambers.
“For our region, our population and business climate is good, and it’s steady, and great to collaborate as interregional aspect with not only Lee County, but other chambers in the southwest (Georgia) region.”
As part of up to a 23-county coalition of chambers of commerce in southwest Georgia, Oxford believes that regional cooperation is more important than ever, especially with it likely to lose representation not only in the U.S. Congress, but also in the Georgia General Assembly.
“We work together regionally, to try to attract additional population, as well as industrial, as well as commercial investment,” Oxford said. “We’re competitors, from county line to county line, but on the other hand, we do realize that it behooves us all to work together, because we’re all in this together.”
In spite of the economic downturn, Muggridge says that Lee County hasn’t had to lay off one employee.
“Things are very good,” Muggridge said. “Yes, we have experienced the worst economic conditions that we’ve ever experienced, in our lifetimes. But the reality is we’re still here, we’re still standing.”
“I’m proud to say,” Muggridge added, “the Lee County (board of commissioners) has managed to meet our budget for the last three years in a row. We have grown the fund balance, we’ve done it all without raising taxes at all, the last three years in a row, the board of commissioners has been able to give the employees of Lee County cost of living raises. We haven’t had a single furlough day, we haven’t laid off a single employee due to the economic conditions, and we’ve done it all without raising the millage rate.”
As for Oxford, a former automobile dealer, he feels that’s he found his calling.
“If you had your choice of anything else in the world that you could do, or want to do, what would that be? My response was very sincerely, that, I think I’ve found my dream job in my dream community,” Oxford said.
“I love economic development work, I love chamber work,” added Oxford. “Chamber work to me is like doing civic work that I’ve enjoyed doing all of my life, and getting paid a stipend to do it.”
On the web: Lee County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority, www.leechamber.net.