WARNER ROBINS -- In the three months since the last 21st Century Partnership meeting, probably more progress has been made in resolving the encroachment issue than the entire time since it first came up some 20 years ago.
Bibb County voters approved a sales tax to provide $6 million in funding toward buying 250 parcels of land north of Robins Air Force Base that the Department of Defense considers incompatible with the base mission. The Houston County Commission also agreed to call for a sales tax with another $7 million in funding.
On Thursday, however, 21st Century Partnership members were encouraged not to think the problem is solved and not to take for granted that Houston County voters will approve the sales tax in March.
“In my opinion the encroachment issue is the leading issue on the sales tax,” Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker told the group. “It is not a want; it is a must. We have got to pass the SPLOST.”
The 21st Century Partnership is a group of business and community leaders from around Middle Georgia who work to support Robins.
Chairman Brad Fink said while the Bibb sales tax and federal funding is a significant move in the right direction, there is still much left to do to resolve the encroachment problem.
“We are not out of the woods,” Fink said. “This is something that has been around Robins’ neck for a long time, and the Houston SPLOST is critically important.”
Chan Layson, who works for the Central Georgia Joint Development Authority and is spearheading the buying, updated the group on the progress so far. He said 23 parcels have been purchased, and the authority is in the process of closing on 10 properties. He expects by March 60 parcels will have been purchased. Generally the priority has been to purchase the properties closest to the base.
Stalnaker said in January an effort will begin to educate the public about encroachment and other issues on the sales tax referendum.
“I would encourage you to spread the word as much as possible about the encroachment issue being on the SPLOST and encourage people to become educated,” Stalnaker said. “I believe people will understand it if they become educated. It’s a huge responsibility for all of us here to get people to understand the importance of it.”
Layson said it was in the early 1990s that the Department of Defense first became concerned about residential housing around military bases. The area just north of the Robins runway was identified as an area at risk for crashes and high noise. Officials say it’s important to resolve encroachment because the Air Force’s other two maintenance depots do not have the issue, which means Robins could lose missions, and related jobs, to those bases.
If the Houston sales tax passes, Stalnaker said he is confident the state will provide the additional funding needed to buy up the properties and that the problem will be resolved in the next two years.