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Putnam leaders project future after Georgia Power closes Plant Branch

The coal dust had not even settled before Putnam County leaders looked to what’s next after Georgia Power demolishes Plant Branch.

By the beginning of 2018, 2,000 to 2,500 acres should be available for sale and development on the county’s front door on U.S. 441 at Lake Sinclair, said Paul Van Haute, the Putnam County manager.

“Whatever happens there will be a county-changing event,” Van Haute said. “The possibilities are endless.”

Although county commissioners have been proactive in adjusting the tax rate after the company announced that the plant would close, he said, the goal is to attract another big taxpayer.

Georgia Power waited until Wednesday to decertify its plant to beat an Environmental Protection Division deadline to install tighter pollution controls, but the pending closure already pinched the county’s purse.

Once the first set of coal-fired units came down, the county began losing about $175,000 a month in revenue from sales tax on coal, Van Haute said.

The school board’s share was also cut.

During the height of power production, that coal sales tax made up about 35 percent of what was coming in, Van Haute said. The property taxes the company once paid on its 3,300 acres were one-seventh of the tax digest.

He expects only another million dollars or so before Georgia Power demolishes the plant over the next two years. He also anticipates that the company will build a switching house on part of the current site and will still have responsibility for ash ponds on the property.

What remains to be determined is what environmental impact there might be after 60 years of generating electricity.

Although Plant Branch predates the EPA and EPD by many years, Van Haute is confident Georgia Power will restore the site.

“They are a good corporate citizen,” he said. “They will do all they have to do to make sure the land is available for sale.”

Dreams abound for what could take the utility’s place.

Van Haute has heard everything from an amusement park or horse racing track to a casino.

He said it would take about a thousand homes to try to make up for Georgia Power’s property tax impact.

“It could be something we don’t even know yet,” he said.

But the man who would be charged with policing the new territory is not as confident the property will lure a tourist mecca or aesthetically pleasing attraction.

“Even if they were going to legalize gambling and put a casino somewhere, it wouldn’t be there,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said. “It’s almost comical to me some of the stuff I hear about.”

With the rail lines in place and the water resource for manufacturing, Sills believes it would be perfect for an automobile maker or other large industry.

He thinks the presence of the ash ponds will deter residential development.

“What we need more than anything else in Putnam and Baldwin counties is somewhere for people to work,” Sills said.

He cautioned against people thinking too far ahead.

A spokesman for the utility said Wednesday that demolition plans have yet to be finalized.

“Nothing’s going to happen there unless Georgia Power wants it to,” Sills said.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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