A Tale of Two Cities
City officials for Lyons and Vidalia informed citizens of the current projects within the cities at the Greater Vidalia Chamber State of the Cities event on Thursday, March 2.
This event, which is the first of three new State of the Community events which the Chamber plans to host, gave the public the chance to learn about the current happenings of their cities.
“The cities of Lyons and Vidalia are doing such important work that we felt it was fitting and right for us to start this series by asking them to come and continued from page
share what they have going on,” Chamber Chair Mike Hagan explained.
Lyons Technology Lyons City Manager Jason Hall spoke on the City’s extensive use of technology to both communicate and provide easy access to citizens through social media and the city’s website.
He encouraged citizens to sign up for the textmygov message platform, which allows the city administration to share information, such as road closures, water service interruptions, and more, throughout the week. More information on this platform can be found online at the city’s website. “Both the cities of Vidalia and Lyons use this same platform, but you will receive different information depending on which city you have subscribed to,” Hall explained.
City Council agendas, agenda packets, minutes, and summaries may also be found online at the city’s website, “I have people call me all the time for information, and I point them to this website because there is so much information on this website,” Hall remarked. “You can get anything from meeting dates for our Council and all of our boards to agendas and information packets – all of that is conveyed almost instantly. If our agenda changes, you will see that online instantly. You also can find financial audits, budgets, zoning, and what you’re allowed to do under the zoning of your property. It is a wealth of information.”
A long with those things, the website has a link to an online water usage portal, which allows individuals to monitor water utilization, pay their bills, and anticipate what the next bill may be. “One of the most useful tools in this portal, and we saw this during the freeze recently, is that you can set an alert system for when you have passed a certain amount of water usage,” he said. Hall shared his own experience with that tool, as it notified him when he left a garden spigot running, causing his water usage to increase drastically.
Lyons Mayor Willis NeSmith provided an updated on the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) projects, which are funded through a 1% Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST). “We do very well with our 1% sales tax and our TIA,” he said.
According to Ne-Smith, the roundabout at the intersection of Highway 292 and Oxley Drive has been completed, and the next TIA project will now begin. This new project is to create a parking lot, featuring between 40-50 new parking spaces behind the new Welcome Center, which recently moved into the Altamaha Heritage Museum. “This will be a good place to park for anything going on in town, especially with our Real Squeal [Barbecue and Music Festival], that will let people park and walk downtown. That’s something we’re developing in Lyons – it’s fun to walk downtown,” he emphasized.
The intersection of Bulldog and Parker Roads may also be updated with a roundabout in the future, as NeSmith said officials are studying this area to decide on the change. “There has been a lot of growth out toward our schools, and we are getting a lot of traffic and congestion when schools are in [session], so we are looking at putting a small roundabout out there,” he explained.
NeSmith said that the TIA Projects would also work to do a lot of paving in various neighborhoods of the city, including a neighborhood near the schools.
“Just to let y’all know, we have 17 counties in our TIA region. We have a good name for our region, the Heart of Georgia region, and I really believe we are a growing area here. With that, this legislation is funding 787 projects, totaling $1.90 billion – 75% of that money goes to local and regional projects, and we do have a large regional project that the Cities of Lyons and Vidalia, and Toombs County have gone together on. We are going to four-lane [Highway] 292 from the roundabout into Vidalia within this 10-year project,” NeSmith said.
Mayor NeSmith also gave an update on the Toombs County Courthouse construction, which the Cities of Vidalia and Lyons have jointly funded alongside Toombs County.
According to Ne-Smith, the courthouse is planned to be finished and occupants moved in by the end of the upcoming summer, and the demolition of the current courthouse will begin soon after in order to create a parking lot. That demolition is expected to be completed by Spring 2024.
The projects that will be funded through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, which was received during the COVID-19 pandemic, were also announced to the public.
“The City of Lyons was able to get money from ARPA, and we got some state money, too. Together, than money is totaling $3,293,321 coming to the little small city of Lyons,” NeSmith explained. He continued to tell the group that the government had restricted which projects this money could be used for, allowing it to fund only water, wastewater, and broadband improvements.
“We are pretty much depending on Georgia Power and Altamaha EMC to handle our broadband, but with our ARPA, we are looking at putting in a water storage tank, water tank, and water well. We also plan on doing a project on wastewater near Booster Stadium, where we have a bad problem with wastewater and sewer lines. Ever since I became Mayor in 2012, I have been trying to get money up for that project, and it has been turned down every time. But we finally have money to handle that neighborhood,” he continued.
Water line size will increase on the northeast quadrant of Lyons, and the northwest quadrant will have improved sewer lines. Sewer lift stations will also be upgraded.
“This is some good money we have coming in that we have not been able to get anywhere else,” Ne-Smith emphasized.
Lyons Police Chief Wesley Walker updated the public on the current public safety situation within the city.
According to Walker, several new patrol cars have been added to the department’s fleet. “When I first came here 11 years ago, I think Lyons Police Department only had 4 cars,” he told the crowd. “I went to the mayor and said that we had to do something about vehicles because everyone was using those 4 cars and they were running 24/7. So we have come a long way in those 7 years.”
This fleet upgrade became possible after Walker learned about a program through Enterprise Fleet, which is owned by the same company as the Enterprise Rental company. “It is a huge savings on our budget because the city doesn’t have to fork out that money to buy the car upfront, outfit it, and everything,” he remarked. “With Enterprise Fleet, they do that for us.”
He continued, “Also, we want to make sure that these officers who are out here protecting our communities and homes are safe as well. As these cars get a lot of miles on them, we start spending a lot of money on maintenance. A lot of issues can arise and we don’t want to put that officer out there in that situation. It is very important we keep our fleet up to date and operational.”
These vehicles include 3 patrol trucks and 2 Ford Explorers, which Walker says are versatile vehicles and were gained at a good price.
“One of the big issues nowadays that law enforcement is faced with is dealing with the mentally ill,” Chief Walker said. “Especially in rural south Georgia, we do not have a lot of resources to deal with the mentally ill, and when these people are out in our community and make disturbances at your business, what do you do? You pick up the phone and call 911.”
Walker explained that from that 911 call, law enforcement officers are challenged to deal with that individual because of the limited resources they have for dealing with mental illness. Yet, last year, while at a training in Athens, Walker learned about the police behavioral health specialist from the Gainesville Police Department. “They had hired a lady who had a master’s degree in psychology and a lot of experience in dealing with the mentally ill to basically assist police officers when they had a call involving someone with mental illness. She was able to assess the scene and determine the best course of action to handle that person, whereas before, our only option was to hold them at the emergency room, have a doctor to see them and determine if a 10-13, or mental order pickup, needed to be signed, and transport them to some facility somewhere else, where they may have stayed two days, or even sometimes beat us back to town,” he commented.
After hearing about this program, Walker pitched the idea to Mayor NeSmith and City Manager Hall, and the group approached Leeann White & Company, because they had heard that the business recently received a grant for treatment and recovery for addiction. According to Walker, part of that grant gave financial provisions to hire two behavioral health specialists to assist law enforcement in Toombs County. “That grant pays their salaries for the next four years, so that program is in place at no cost to the tax payers right now,” he added. “I hope in four years, we can show you how successful that program is going to be – I can already see benefits and success stories that we are already seeing, and the program has only been running for three months now.”
Hall also commented on the Lyons Police Department. “They do a wonderful job of community policing. They are as concerned about protecting businesses and property as they are concerned about helping the people in the community,” he remarked. “We are struggling – no one wants to be a police officer anymore. It has gone by the wayside. We always wanted to be police officers growing up, but that is not happening anymore.”
He continued, “We strive to bring in quality, talented, skilled police officers to our force, and adding these extra things, such as the mental health responder and getting equipment that is safe and reliable, is not by chance, but is planned out in 5 and 10 year plans. The wheels of government sometimes move slow, but are moving nevertheless.” Opportunities on the Horizon Lyons City Manager Hall shared that there are many opportunities that are arising for the city of Lyons, including opportunities for further development through the Downtown Development Authority and Lyons Main Street Association. He told the audience that the addition of a code enforcement officer to the city administration had been extremely beneficial to the functioning of the City. Hall also stated that some improvement is hopefully to be completed on neighborhood recreation property, as a community park will receive a facelift.
Vidalia TIA Projects Vidalia City Manager Nick Overstreet began his portion of the event by discussing the upcoming TIA project to make Highway 292 a four-lane highway, beginning at the roundabout and ending near J.D. Dickerson Primary School.
Overstreet also shared that at the end of this fourlane highway, the road will return to three lanes, as it is today, up to the intersection of Highways 292 and 297, which will have 4 right-turn turning lanes added along each direction of the roadway. “We have so much school traffic that comes through that intersection and causes so much back-up, we thought that it was important to get traffic flowing smoother in all directions,” he commented.
When discussing this topic, Overstreet shared his appreciation for the collaborative work between the Lyons, Vidalia, and Toombs County governments. “I think our community is very fortunate to have three local governments that work together like we do. I have been in other cities where that is not the case, and I personally am grateful for that relationship we have,” he remarked. Water Meters & Lines
According to Overstreet, all water meters will be replaced with state-ofthe- art meters, which will allow the public to monitor their water usage online, just as Lyons currently does. The changing out of these meters will begin Monday, March 13, and is expected to be completed by the end of July. Businesses and residents will receive a postcard about the project next week. A door hanger will be placed on location doors once the meter has been replaced.
Water lines will also be replaced as a part of the city’s brown water improvement project. A total of 3.2 miles of water lines, which are currently causing brown water to plague the city, will be completely replaced. These lines include areas near West 6th, Adams, and Durden Streets, Highway 280, and Post Street on the North side of town. McIntosh Street will also see waterline replacements.
Affected residents and businesses will be notified of the project dates, expectations, and other imperative information. The project is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
These projects, which total $6 million, are being funded completely through ARPA funding. “We got local ARPA funds which were granted to us through the federal government,” Overstreet said. “We also took part of our local ARPA funds and applied for a grant for state allocation of ARPA funds. We used $1.9 million of our local ARPA funds to apply for this grant, and received an additional $4 million. So, together, the total amount received is $6 million, so both of these projects will be completed without receiving a single penny from local tax payers.”
He said that the city of Vidalia’s grant application was determined to be awarded as the second-best grant application in the state.
Airport Layout Plan The city is about to begin working on an Airport Layout Plan, which will plan the airport for the next 10 years.
“We have not done one of these in a number of years,” Overstreet told the audience. “Public participation will be a part of this Airport Layout Plan, because we want to hear from you about what we need more of.”
The cost for this plan is $295,000 and is being funded completely through federal sources.
According to Overstreet, the ramp expansion bid will be awarded soon, so that the airport may continue growth with hangars and other things. This project will be completed from June through September of this year. The total estimated cost for the project is $3.4 million with $2.6 million coiming from the state, and $800,000 funded through local ARPA money. “Again, we are using the initial ARPA money we received ; $1.9 million went to the grant, and $1.9 million is going toward projects at the airport,” he emphasized.
Phase 2 of the runway slab replacement will begin this month. While last year’s Phase 1 of the project was completely funded through a federal grant, this phase of the project will be funded through state, local, and federal ARPA funding. The total cost of the project is $2.45 million.
Vidalia Mayor Doug Roper told the group that the lack of golf within the community had negatively impacted both the economic development of the community and the local schools, as he spoke on the “rich tradition of golf programs in our schools, which we are very proud of.”
According to Roper, when the City first began looking at bringing golf back into the community, both former golf courses within the city limits were contemplated. “One of them we simply could not afford. If you looked at how we obtained the money to be able to do this, this was an outdoor recreation grant for us. One of the courses we were around $2 million shy of the asking price, along with $1-$2 million of what it would take for us to get it back to playing level,” he explained. “The other course required us to purchase most of the land back for the course, and that would have eaten up a good portion of the funding that we had. There were also a lot of concerns about infrastructure and design.”
The new course will go on Ezra Taylor Road, near the current Vidalia Regional Sports Complex. “We never really just wanted to ‘check the box’ to get golf back in our city. We wanted to use golf as a vehicle to create economic growth and development,” he emphasized. “We already own the land – huge bonus. The U.S. Highway 1 bypass will go right through that area when it is built, and we are extremely fortunate to have a regional asset in an airport, which serves several incredible clients. This was a strategic effort to take a calculated risk to bring golf back to our area.”
This course will feature 18 holes, a teaching and practice facility, and several other amenities. Timber is beginning to be cut for the project, and the pad for the clubhouse has begun to be shaped. “We are going to be very mindful of maintenance costs and operations,” he assured.
Roper also said more details, including a name and brand, would be shared in the near future. Ezra Taylor Complex
“That facility never took off like we had planned for,” Mayor Roper explained. “The baseball and softball concept and plans for growth never really took off. It’s an asset and vital to the community, so how do we use it? Our Ed Smith Complex has never looked better from a baseball- softball viewpoint. By doing this project, we would fully eliminate baseball and softball from the Vidalia Regional Sports Complex, and put in 4 multi-purpose fields and one practice field.”
Roper said that these continued from page
fields would then be open to hosting not only recreation football and soccer, but also travel soccer and high school 7-on-7 football passing camps. The design also features plans for a playground, walking trail, and other amenities.
The project would be completed with a grant, which the city is awaiting and, which would require an additional $750,000 of Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
“This will create a draw and truly be a regional sports complex when you look at that design along with the 18-hole golf course,” he remarked.
City Hall & Tourism
City Hall recently moved into the newly-renovated space at the Vidalia Municipal Annex, and the Vidalia Municipal Building, otherwise known as the old City Hall, is awaiting renovation to house the Vidalia Onion Committee, Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Downtown Vidalia Association.
“We are utilizing space we already own and helping to bring visitors and commerce to our downtown area,” Roper said.
According to Roper, last year, a total of over 2,400 from 45 states and 10 countries visited the Vidalia Onion Museum. By moving the museum downtown, those visitors are brought into the “heart” of the city, into the retail shops and restaurants to create economic growth and development.
Public Safety & Homelessness
Mayor Roper began this portion of his address by acknowledging the difficulty of the situation involving public safety and the homeless population. “This one is a tough one,” he remarked. “It is difficult on all of us, but it is something we have to figure out and address in the best way we possibly can.”
According to Roper, the hard part of the situation is balancing compassion with discipline. “We want to show compassion where compassion is needed, but experts will tell you, a lot of these individuals [that are homeless] struggle with mental illness and drug addiction. Some of these folks want to get out of the lifestyle, some of them don’t want to get out of the lifestyle – we do not have the resources like a major metropolitan community to address the total need of that person, so how do we partner with local agencies to provide for those who want help? How do we get those out of our community who do not want help?” he shared.
He said that the cities of Vidalia and Lyons, along with another unnamed organization, that creates a database on the homeless population. “We have to know and identify who these people are to point them in the right direction and get them the help they need,” Roper explained.
The City has been meeting with members of the faith-based community to work to feed and provide services and needs for the homeless community. “Yet, at the same time, we know we have a lot of camps that exist in our town and we cannot turn a blind eye to it,” Roper added.
Currently, the city administration is traveling to the locations of these camps and speaking with the property owners. They then get written permission from the property owners to police the property, and they then give the occupants a warning that they must leave, and the occupants may then be removed and arrested for trespassing if they continue to reside on the property.
“This is just tough love,” Roper emphasized. “If we continue to pick up people who do not want to change their lifestyle, maybe they will choose to reside somewhere else. That may sound harsh, but we are all for helping people who want help, and we have people who can provide great services if you’re willing. We want to help those folks, but at a certain point, you have to draw a line and get people out of here who have no desire to bring any fruit to the community or change their lifestyle.”
The Vidalia Onion Festival, which is set for April 20-23, will be completely downtown this year, with no events being held at the airport. The Festival will feature two days of concerts, and a community worship night.