Building the future of Columbia County

The Means Report

The Means Report welcomes the man in charge of Columbia County, Georgia. Doug Duncan, the brand new chair of the Columbia County Commission, is a familiar face to the county, but is new to the chairman’s seat. He talks to The Means Report about what we will see in the future and the changes going on in the municipalities, with a special focus on how Columbia County can keep pace and continue to be recognized as a real gem in the great state of Georgia.

Brad Means: Doug Duncan, as I mentioned, the chair of the commission, so kind to join us today. Doug, congratulations on your win, thanks for being here.

Doug Duncan: Thanks Brad, thanks for the opportunity to talk about the area.

Brad Means: So you’ve had one meeting so far as chair, right?

Doug Duncan: Two, two meetings–

Brad Means: Two?

Doug Duncan: Yes, today’s Thursday, so–

Brad Means: Yeah, we tape on Thursday, airs on Monday so–

Doug Duncan: Right, well Tuesday night was the second meeting, so…

Brad Means: How’s it going so far?

Doug Duncan: Really well, really well. The new folks coming in spent time in advance learning processes and how things work within the county. Connie and Dewey. The first two meetings have gone off without a hitch, so–

Brad Means: What about all your campaign signs? People always get stressed out when those stay out, are they all collected from the region?

Doug Duncan: To the best of my knowledge, every one of them was up within a week of the campaign or out, so, you know.

Brad Means: Well I do wanna spend some time today taking a look at what the future holds for Columbia County, but I’ll say this off the top, y’all have a ton of traffic.

Doug Duncan: Exactly.

Brad Means: I mean, I love going there, I do, but you have so much traffic, is that at the top of the list of things to address going forward or are y’all okay with the way things are going?

Doug Duncan: Actually, traffic is the number one concern but it comes as part of a blessing, Brad. We have all the growth from the US Cyber and folks are moving to Columbia County in droves as they come here to work at the fort. It is the number one challenge but we do have a plan and we’re executing on that plan, it’s just somethin’ that has not happened fast. You just can’t build roads fast.

Brad Means: No, you can’t, and you have a great traffic engineer, Steve Castle.

Doug Duncan: Absolutely.

Brad Means: And his team. What about the way you’re approaching your job here in the early days. Your predecessor Ron Cross was commission chair for 16 years. The place seems to be on autopilot, is it?

Doug Duncan: To a certain degree, it’s run like a business. We have a county administrator who’s a CEO, he has two assistant administrators, so the commission does not run the county. I know there’s a misconception about that, we don’t run the department heads.

Brad Means: I wanted to get you to clarify better.

Doug Duncan: Sure.

Brad Means: Should we view you as a mayor?

Doug Duncan: Positionally, it could be the same, it’s Hardy and Augusta, but operationally it’s not. Because Scott runs the county, we set policy, we set tone, and read the conscience of the county. If there’s a code that just does not seem right and then we work to adjust it. We’re always working to change the laws and the codes to make Columbia County a better place to live.

Brad Means: When somebody has to bring something before the commission when you have to make decisions, your colleagues on that board have to, what type of issues are we talking about?

Doug Duncan: Well primarily zoning and rezoning because a county is just a subset of the state. The authority that counties have come from the state. Rezoning really is the number one issue that, or authority, that the county has other than providing services. Not unlike the city does, because I believe we’re the largest, populated, unincorporated area, a county, excuse me, and the state, so we provide services like a city. Water, sewer, and such.

Brad Means: What about the new development that we’re seeing in Columbia County? Would you like to see that continue or would you like to put a cap on that so that you preserve some of the parts of the county that people love? I’m talking about, will we see new neighborhoods? Will we see new apartment complexes? Just start with the residential side.

Doug Duncan: Right, you will see new neighborhoods. Again, as part of the constitution, if you’re a landowner, then you have a right to profit from your property so we want the growth, we want the folks to come in to the county, we want folks to profit from their property. But then also the sad issue of that is the traffic and people come in with that, again, I mention that there’s a plan to deal with that, but we want the growth. We want to be able to deal with it, it’s just a balance between traffic and economic development. ‘Cause really that’s what you’re talkin’ about. Do we squash private sector economic development?

Brad Means: Um hmm.

Doug Duncan: Or do we let the private sector flow? So if we step in, if we put moratoriums on house building, in essence, we’re squashing the private sector. I believe Thomas Jefferson said that government is best that governs the least, and I’m a proponent of that.

Brad Means: Also, from a planning standpoint, and from a traffic, especially, planning standpoint.

Doug Duncan: Right, right.

Brad Means: Do you wait for the developer to come to you and say “this is what I might do here” and then y’all get to work on roads and other things or do you anticipate where things might go and try to get ahead of the curve with your construction?

Doug Duncan: Well there is a vision, 20-35 vision plan, that is a blueprint for how the county would like grow on areas with nodes of commercial vs residential and the different types of residential. But reality is the landowner has to be willing to sell their land for development, it stars at that point. And then a developer has to be willing to step up and develop that. Can you control that? No you can’t, because the private sector robs it. The challenge with roads, if you’re gonna use federal money, for example, well take a step back, you have to use state or federal money to do major road projects. If you’re gonna use federal money, you have to prove that the traffic is there before they give you the money. It’s almost the cart before the horse. People say “widen the roads first.” Well, you can’t widen the roads first because you can’t get the money to do the work until the traffic is there, welcome to the federal government.

Brad Means: Yeah, absolutely, a lot of red tape there for sure. I guess what I’m trying to get at is there’s the fear of over development. Columbia County is booming, other parts of this area are booming as well, and one of the appeals of your county are the rural parts of it.

Doug Duncan: Right, right.

Brad Means: And the beautiful, pristine parts of it. We’re not gonna lose that, are we?

Doug Duncan: No, absolutely not. There’s a gracious amount of greenspace in Columbia County, especially out, and we’re doing to best we can to, again, you have to balance between a property owner’s rights and how it impacts services, how it impacts– You add a new subdivision, does that mean you add another police car?

Brad Means: Right.

Doug Duncan: So you have to plan through those processes and make sure that you do the best you can. There is no magic person or magic bullet, but I am a private sector guy who supports the constitution and supports growth, so we’re gonna grow. We’re gonna do the best we can, though, to grow smartly.

Brad Means: Go back to Cyber, for a second, we just cut the ribbon here in Augusta, on the brand new second building at the Cyber Center in downtown Augusta. Are you just seeing homeowners out your way and enrollees in your school system or is Cyber business showing up in Columbia County?

Doug Duncan: It’s primarily the employees coming to work at the fort. There’s a little bit of Cyber business but, frankly, it’s the missions that are transferring here. The last meeting I attended, they said the growth had not peaked.

Brad Means: Right.

Doug Duncan: And so it’s a little mind-boggling but frankly it’s a good problem to have and I’ve learned you’re either growin’ or you’re dyin’. So we’re blessed with growth, it’s just, how do we maintain quality of life?

Brad Means: Yeah, and it is as if we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know it’s coming.

Doug Duncan: Um hmm.

Brad Means: We just wanna see how it plays out with that influx of folks that are comin’. How long does it take from the time a business owner or a landowner comes to the commission and says “I’d like to do this, I’d like to bring my company here” or “I would like to build a brand new residential neighborhood.” From inception to the final phases of development, how long does that typically take?

Doug Duncan: That’s gonna depend. There is no total answer to your question. It depends on soup to nuts.

Brad Means: Sure.

Doug Duncan: A subdivision could be ten years.

Brad Means: Ten years.

Doug Duncan: ‘Till it’s build out.

Brad Means: Um hmm.

Doug Duncan: So, we could vote on a project, I’m tryin’ to think specifically the last one, I voted one a couple years ago. It takes an enormous amount of time to clear the land, to put the infrastructure in, to start building houses, so it’s years. One particularly, I asked a developer how long a project would take and they said “ten years, it’d be built out.”

Brad Means: Yeah, a lot of times people complain about the folks behind the scenes in county government, not yours necessarily, but others.

Doug Duncan: Could be hours.

Brad Means: But about the red tape.

Doug Duncan: Um hmm.

Brad Means: And about the delays, but for the uninitiated watching this broadcast right now, it could be a decade for a neighborhood, it could be years and years for a business.

Doug Duncan: Shouldn’t be that long to open a business, really it depends on what kind of a business you’re opening, but the red tape to get it open is really tied to standards.

Brad Means: Um hmm.

Doug Duncan: You wanna have a certain, a road be built a certain way, you don’t want the road built so that during the construction, it gets crushed. This happened years ago in Columbia County.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Doug Duncan: Brand new subdivision’s roads were failing because the road standards were not high enough. Things like that change and people can see that as red tape but frankly it’s quality of life issues.

Brad Means: Well when The Means Report continues, we’re gonna continue our conversation with commission chair Doug Duncan outta Columbia County, Georgia. Find out how Downtown Evans is taking shape. Remember when the folks from Mabom were on The Means Report all those years ago to tell us this was coming? Or really, it was probably less than two years ago and now it is just quite a site to see. Also what kind of companies might be coming to Columbia County, how’s that taking shape? As we get into–

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report. Talking to Doug Duncan, the commission chair in Columbia County. Brand new to that job, extremely familiar when it comes to all things Columbia County, he’s been working for that community for a long time now. Mr. Duncan, next question has to do with Downtown Evans, the plaza that is just coming out of the ground–

Doug Duncan: Right, it’s exciting.

Brad Means: How’s that gonna change and what do you foresee in the future for that part of Columbia County, it’s just gonna be the heart of it, right?

Doug Duncan: Exactly. Well, you know the intent, obviously, is that there more buildings to be built with commercial and residential within the area.

Brad Means: Um hmm.

Doug Duncan: The performing arts center, we’re probably two years out. Actually, at my first commission meeting I wanted to pass a resolution that it couldn’t rain for two weeks.

Brad Means: I know, we need it to stop, yeah.

Doug Duncan: It’s killin’ us. But that’s comin’ out of the ground, it’s gonna be state of the art 2,000 seat auditorium build in such a way, I don’t know, there’s no acoustically perfect, but if you could get there, it’s gonna be this.

Brad Means: It is.

Doug Duncan: We’re real excited about bringing that energy that comes with what we already have in the park. I mean we have concerts with 10,000 people. So it’s just gonna be a hub of downtown activity. Not like downtown Augusta.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Doug Duncan: Make no bones, we’re not tryin’ to duplicate downtown Augusta, but just a small community downtown feel.

Brad Means: I keep hitting on traffic, and I know that I do, but I pictured this Downtown Evans, I picture getting a carload of Augustans and going to the performing arts center. Do you need to make any adjustments on the roads right now accessing that part of Evans so that it’ll be easier to go to and fro?

Doug Duncan: No I don’t believe so.

Brad Means: It’s good now?

Doug Duncan: A lot of infrastructures there. There will be parking decks, at least two parking decks for folks, so there’ll be a gracious amount of ground parking once you’re in the facilities. As of right now, no, there’s good infrastructure to get into the facility. Matter of fact, I talked to the sheriff’s office and with the large concerts, and we have the rhythm system within our traffic system in Columbia County. And they control the flow of lights and empty the lights almost like the Augusta national does.

Brad Means: It’s fascinating.

Doug Duncan: Steve Castle.

Brad Means: Steve Castle can press a button, and as he calls it, “flush” an intersection until it’s manageable and he’s doing that while you’re in the middle of rush hour.

Doug Duncan: Right.

Brad Means: What kind of companies do you want to come to Columbia County? What kind of entities can we picture setting up shop there? Big or small.

Doug Duncan: Um hmm, well our focus is obviously to support the citizens and what they want. Frankly, they would like restaurants which is interesting.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Doug Duncan: But from a pure business standpoint, we’d really like to have industry that comes in with the fort with Cyber, the high tech business, and really well paying jobs, good clean industry jobs, that hopefully will fit the image of the county.

Brad Means: And is that just a matter of knocking on doors and making the trips to those companies and saying “hey, here’s what we got, please come here”?

Doug Duncan: That, plus they have to want to move here.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Doug Duncan: We have a great development authority with Robbie Bennett as the head and Robbie does travel and meet with companies and push the point so they have to want to come here. It has to be a mission for them, locally, to make ’em wanna come.

Brad Means: Are you a bedroom community of Augusta?

Doug Duncan: Absolutely.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Doug Duncan: Um hmm, a very large bedroom, the master bedroom.

Brad Means: That’s not a bad thing, is it?

Doug Duncan: No, no, no.

Brad Means: What kind of benefits do you get from, or I guess a better way to ask the question is, what kind of partnerships with Augusta, with Aiken for that matter, with other towns, Winesburg, do you try to cultivate so that there is this regional thing here?

Doug Duncan: Well I did go to Mayor Davis’ swearing in–

Brad Means: Right, that counts.

Doug Duncan: That was first.

Brad Means: But you saw it in your four years on the commission as well.

Doug Duncan: Right, right, right. With only certain things you can do because, frankly, tax money that’s generated in Columbia County, it’s illegal to spend it in another county, it’s controlled. We have to have inner governmental agreements. I know that we’ve, at least Columbia County, we’ve worked to pass a small developmental authority, regional developmental authority, so that we can focus more on Cyber. Outside of that, I guess I’ve been on the job two weeks. I’ve been with the mayor and said we just need to get together and find ways that we can work together and support the region from job growth to infrastructure. Another TSPLOST will come up in three-four-five years.

Brad Means: Where’s that money gonna go? Roads and bridges?

Doug Duncan: Well the way it worked, yes, the transportations special purpose tax so the voters would have to vote on a list and it would have to be approved by voters.

Brad Means: Um hmm.

Doug Duncan: That’s where, for us, that’s where the river watch parkway extension came from, that’s Furys Ferry Road, which we’re buying right away now for that, Lewiston Road widening. All these road projects came from that tax. We’ll go before the voters in probably two years, I’m guessing. But you have to go to them with a list and say will you approve this list?

Brad Means: Has anything surprised you at your new job yet? Anything that was maybe more difficult that you didn’t see comin’?

Doug Duncan: I wouldn’t say it was a surprise. When I was first elected, and I’m gonna assume that this is common with folks runnin’ for office, I assumed that I had to get in and fix everything that was broken.

Brad Means: Right.

Doug Duncan: When I got in, it was exactly opposite of that. Now again, there is no perfect, actually they crucify perfect people, so there is no perfect, but it’s run very well. It’s run like a business. I thought I had to fix 90 and ten would be okay, it was exactly the opposite. Ten percent needed tweaking and 90 percent was running very well, so that was the biggest surprise to me. But you don’t know ’till you get there. It’s hard to explain until you sit in the seat.

Brad Means: You know, I gotta go to bat for my Augusta commission friends and say that a lot of times, we in the media show the negative side of what’s going on in local government. The fighting, the disagreements. Do y’all fight or disagree behind the scenes?

Doug Duncan: We don’t fight, we disagree, we disagree. If I have a particular issue that’s important to me, I will call individually the other commissioners and just gauge where they stand on the issue. We let our vote speak for where we stand. Some votes will be five-o, some will be four-one, some will be three to two, so it just depends on the issue. Do we fight? No, not at all. We get along very well. Everybody on the board is a business person who has to involve in making a payroll so they understand that life is not easy and business is a challenge. And running the government is a challenge to, so no, we don’t fight.

Brad Means: You know, Ron Cross during his time as chair said that one thing that surprised him or caught him somewhat off guard, and I’m paraphrasing, is the animosity between the municipalities. Do you see the municipalities being able to get along? If not, what are some of the challenges when it comes to Harlem and Grovetown and making sure that people there are happy and that it’s not just all about the heart of Evans, Georgia.

Doug Duncan: You know, I’ve actually engaged both the mayors of Grovetown and Harlem and we have great relationships, specifically with Harlem askin’ “how can we help, what can we do” and we’re workin’ with Harlem so I don’t see that animosity right now. It may be there and it had not reared its ugly head, but I have not experienced it.

Brad Means: What can you do to make them feel included.

Doug Duncan: Listen. You have to engage and listen and talk to folks. Make sure you understand what their issues are and then find a way, can I help? How can the county help, as potentially a big brother.

Brad Means: Probably one or two more questions. What would you say to somebody out there who has a concern, maybe it’s a concern that we’ve discussed right here on The Means Report or maybe it’s something that they want to see done in the county or changed, how do they get your attention?

Doug Duncan: One of two ways. We have a 3-1-1 system, you call the 3-1-1 and they will patch you into whoever you need, it’s actually very efficient. Or you call the commission office and say can you please have Doug call me? They’ll send me an email and say “Brad called, please call Brad”.

Brad Means: Yeah, and you are good at returning calls. What about if somebody has a concern that they need to take before the commission, is that a difficult process? Is there red tape there?

Doug Duncan: Well it depends on the concern.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Doug Duncan: It’s open.

Brad Means: People are speeding in my neighborhood and I’m sick of it.

Doug Duncan: Well it depends on the neighborhood and what the rules–

Brad Means: Oh my gosh, no, no! I want you to make the people stop speeding through my neighborhood, is that something I need to go to a meeting and address y’all or is that a 3-1-1 call?

Doug Duncan: No you’d probably call me and say “they’re speeding in my neighborhood” and I’d say “where do you live” and I politely call the sheriff, who is a constitutionally elected officer, and say “would you graciously please put a car here and get people’s attention?”

Brad Means: Well that’s a good topic for my final question which is law enforcement. With growth comes headaches, growing pains, and y’all are booming out there. You have to keep a handle on crime. Good relationship with the sheriff and law enforcement in your county?

Doug Duncan: Absolutely, if you look at the statistics, our crime is going down.

Brad Means: Um hmm.

Doug Duncan: We’re really blessed, have the top rated sheriff’s department and top rated fire department. Columbia County is truly blessed. When I first decided to run all those years ago, a good friend said “just don’t mess it up.”

Brad Means: Yeah.

Doug Duncan: My goal is not to mess it up but to continue to push us forward.

Brad Means: Well I’m sure that you will. You have a wonderful county.

Doug Duncan: Thank you very much.

Brad Means: We love it and we appreciate the hard work you’re puttin’ in.

Doug Duncan: Thank you Brad, I really appreciate it.

Brad Means: Absolutely. That is commission chair Doug Duncan, our special guest today on The Means Report.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.