Editor's note: Five decades ago, when most of Columbia County's roads were dirt and the 9,525 residents called places such as Winfield, Leah and Berzelia home, a sense of community wasn't hard to find. Now, as the county's population edges toward 100,000, it's up to the people who live there to shape and develop an identity that is beyond being just a suburb.
In the coming weeks, The Augusta Chronicle will look at the opportunities, problems and challenges facing Columbia County as it moves from being a bedroom community to an area with its own unique personality.
When Ellen Hill moved to Columbia County 30 years ago from Augusta, she wanted a nice home in a quiet environment.
"When I first moved to Columbia County it was definitely a bedroom community," Mrs. Hill said. "Our friends would say why would we move so far."
Today, her Camelot subdivision home is not far from the four-lane Washington Road and the hub of the developing Evans Town Center. And each year her home gets closer and closer to the feeling of living in an urban area.
While the town center has faced some vocal opposition lately because of building restrictions that would be placed on commercial properties, the concept is a way residents such as Mrs. Hill say Columbia County can carve out an identity all its own and curb the urban sprawl that molds so many suburban counties.
Columbia County still has its well-established families - the Blanchards, the Pollards, the Tankersleys and the Polattys. But gone are the days when life revolved around the county seat of Appling and its historic courthouse was the site of daily lunchtime barbecues.
Now most people just got here - about 30,000 have moved into the county since 1990.
"There are people who live in areas around Harlem and Grovetown who have more of a sense of place because those are well-established cities," Columbia County Planning Director Kendal Jones said. "The rest of Columbia County doesn't have that."
But many, including Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Hill, say Columbia County's sense of community becomes stronger every year, and as growth continues farther west, the county has the potential to create a more cohesive community and become more than just a suburb.
"I think we still have an opportunity to make a difference in this area," Mrs. Jones said.
And more people are choosing to stay in Columbia County long-term or retire here, she said.
DAVID TITUS CAME to Columbia County in 1981 with the Army and later served on the Columbia County Commission from 1993 to 1996.
Mr. Titus now works as executive director of the Columbia County Community Collaborative - a group formed about two years ago to offer assistance to families and children in the county. The group, with the Harlem Development Neighborhood Corp., has started a home across from Harlem City Hall, where it offers an after-school program for middle school-aged children.
The former elected official said he has seen a lot of changes over the years.
"I think it's a growing sense of community that we've seen manifest itself through a number of different things," Mr. Titus said. "In our area particular we have two active communities - Harlem and Grovetown."
Columbia County broke away from Richmond County in 1790. It has since developed from a rural county to a bedroom community of Augusta. Today, the lines between the two counties are so blurred in places that someone passing through might never know the difference. The county's seat of Appling sits 10 to 15 miles from the Martinez-Evans area, where most of Columbia County's population lives.
The county is attractive to those who work in the Augusta-metro area but want to live in a more laid-back setting known for a quality school system and lower property taxes. And county residents have been active in recent years, pushing for improved parks and recreation facilities and paved roads throughout the county.
Mike and Terri Hilley chose to move to Columbia County from Conyers, Ga., more than two years ago - selecting the county over three other communities because of the school system. While Mr. Hilley said there is a closeness among the congregation at Westside Christian Church on Columbia Road, where he is pastor, he doesn't feel the strong community ties he had in Conyers.
"We didn't really know much about this area," Mr. Hilley said. "I think the initial reaction I had was this was going to be a quiet place to live."
COLUMBIA COUNTY HAS SEEN dramatic growth over the years. Between 1930 and 1950, the county's population was less than 10,000, according to The Georgia County Guide, published by the University of Georgia. In the 1970s and '80s, Columbia County saw its biggest growth, with the population at 66,031 by 1990. In 1998, population was at 91,118, with the county expected to top 100,000 by 2003.
With subdivisions dotting the county, the developing town center is an area many look to as a defining project. It will be home to a courthouse annex and possibly a new 50,000-square-foot library - two major draws for the area.
Jeff Hardin, chairman of the Columbia County Library Board of Trustees, has worked for more than four years to get community support for a new library to replace the overcrowded Gibbs Library on Belair Road.
The retiree practically eats, breathes and sleeps the cause - meeting with government officials and civic groups and passing out fliers and reports in support of the library at every turn. And public support for the project has erupted during the past year, as a new round of sales tax dollars becomes available.
Dr. Hardin said he thinks a library and the town center project will contribute to a stronger sense of community for Columbia County. The $8 million library project, he said, would even incorporate an arts center for performances. And because the town center is focused in a growing area closer to the majority of population, it makes sense for the library to be located in the area.
"The growth in Columbia County has not been focused around the county seat," he said. "It has in fact been a product of the expansion of the city of Augusta."
But the county and the two cities within it work together on issues affecting the county, especially infrastructure.
"The county itself is in its growing pains right now," said Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau. "I don't think it's reached it's final destination yet. We're still growing leaps and bounds. We're trying to grow in a measure that we're ahead of the game as far as infrastructure and things like that. But we're still really a bedroom community of Augusta."
WHILE THE COUNTY has tried to attract new industries, only 28.8 percent of the county's population actually work and live in Columbia County, while nearly 67 percent work in surrounding counties. The school system is the county's largest employer.
But if Columbia County is intertwined with Augusta, Mr. Trudeau said, Harlem and Grovetown are just as dependent on the rest of Columbia County.
"We are so close here that if the city of Harlem has a headache we in Grovetown take aspirin," he said.
But getting community support for projects or causes is not always easy.
Mr. Titus of the Collaborative said the group had trouble getting support in some areas of the county when it formed.
"When we did the initial meetings for the collaborative, for example, we had a meeting over in the Martinez-Evans area, and I think there were maybe two or three people who came out," Mr. Titus said. "So either they didn't perceive there's a problem over there or there's not a sense of community or both. But when we got to the Harlem-Grovetown area, there was a significant turnout of the community."
In contrast, meetings in the Martinez-Evans area involving the new library have drawn dozens of people.
Those who are actively involved in the community said they think Columbia County's identity is still developing.
"I would say that it is a growing sense of community," Dr. Hardin said. "I feel that a lot of good things are happening in Columbia County."
Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112.
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