Originally created 08/28/00

Chamber group lists area needs



Community leaders from throughout the Augusta-Aiken area will make an all-day lobbying trip to Atlanta on Tuesday to fight for everything from highway funding to continued autonomy for Medical College of Georgia.

The Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce-assembled group, composed of everyone from bankers to business owners to politicians, plans to bring a laundry list of concerns and requests to Gov. Roy Barnes and other top state officials.

"The biggest thing the group wants to get across is that Augusta is here, that it's a big part of the state - they may have forgotten that in Atlanta," said Scott MacGregor, the chamber's vice president of community development and chief government liaison.

"A lot of other cities in the state have done a better job (of lobbying). Augusta has been somewhat satisfied to sit on the sidelines."

Local officials say the junket is a scaled-down version of the chamber's annual lobbying trip to Washington. The delegation, known as the CSRA Leadership Group, plans a similar series of meetings with South Carolina leaders in Columbia this fall.

"I don't know a group that has the dynamics of three chambers, five counties and two states," said Jeff Spears, group member and chairman of the Aiken Chamber of Commerce. "It says to the government agencies and the legislators that if another state is interested to the point that they will travel to my state (capital), then obviously (their issues) should be important to me."

In addition to Mr. Barnes, the group will meet Tuesday with University System of Georgia Chancellor Stephen Portch; David Word, assistant director of the Environmental Protection Division; Lonice Barrett, Department of Natural Resources commissioner; and all five members of the Public Service Commission.

Among the issues are:

Transportation projects:

Area officials want funding expedited for regional highway projects such as the four-lane Savannah River Parkway and Fall Line Freeway initiatives.

The group also will ask Mr. Barnes to exert influence on South Carolina leaders to begin work on its section of Interstate 520, the 30-year-old freeway loop project linking Richmond and Aiken counties.

"If we can get the governor to see it as a priority for Georgia, then maybe he will help make that a higher priority with some of his counterparts in South Carolina," Mr. MacGregor said.

MCG independence:

The group's meeting with Dr. Portch will address speculation that the state plans to merge MCG into the University of Georgia.

Currently, the Augusta institution is subservient to no other. But recent cooperative efforts between MCG and the University of Georgia, coupled with the state's long delay in appointing a search committee for retiring MCG President Dr. Francis Tedesco, have fueled rumors of a merger.

"We just want to reinforce the concern we had about the possibility of some of the missions being moved from Augusta to Athens," said Julian Osbon, group member and president of Augusta Tomorrow, a public-private downtown revitalization group.

Local calling area:

Officials want calls between Augusta and Aiken to be exempt from long-distance service charges. Members of the group will raise the issue during the PSC portion of the trip.

The topic will be revisited with South Carolina's Public Service Commission this fall.

"It doesn't make sense that the area is fragmented," Mr. Spears said.

Transportation of radioactive materials:

Pending legislation, House Bill 998, would expand the PSC's role in regulating the transportation of nuclear materials, including radioactive waste and fuel rods, through the state.

Locals contend the legislation is a step toward an outright ban on nuclear-materials transportation in Georgia, a move that would hurt the operations of the region's largest employer, the Savannah River Site.

Air/water quality issues:

Officials want the state to continue funding a three-year air-quality study designed to pinpoint the source of Augusta's pollution problems.

Augusta leaders commissioned the $3 million Georgia Institute of Technology study because the city could be in violation of the federal Clean Air Act.

"The assumption in Augusta is that (pollution) comes from the industrial plants. That may be true, but no one really knows," Mr. MacGregor said. "We need to make sure we're not going after the wrong source."

Local leaders are also expected to address new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on mercury levels in wastewater discharges.

Officials contend the new regulations on the "total maximum daily loads" of mercury are so strict that incidental accumulations of mercury in the Savannah River would be enough to suspend discharge permits of area industrial plants, including those not using mercury in their processes.

Airline service:

Although technically not a governmental issue, city leaders will speak to Mr. Barnes on the lackluster service at Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field in the hopes of raising awareness statewide.

"I'm not sure what the state can do, but (Mr. Barnes) needs to have it on his mind," Mr. MacGregor said.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.