This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Let me welcome you to Harlem, Georgia—the birthplace of Oliver Hardy and home to the Harlem Bulldogs. Harlem is the smaller of two municipalities located in one of the fastest growing counties in Georgia—Columbia County (approximately 150,000 residents). Since the 2010 Census, Harlem has grown by 3.5 percent each year. Over the past two years, we have experienced a growth rate of 10 percent, and all indicators show this growth continuing past the 2020 Census. Many people move to Harlem to escape the urban development of other areas in the county and others choose us for our excellent school system. Today we are seeing growth related to job creation with the expansion of the Cyber Command at Fort Gordon, which is located about five miles east of us, and the building of an industrial park to our north.
We’ve seen infill development and several new subdivisions in the last few years due to the demand for housing in Harlem. While growth can be seen as scary and an invasion on the peace and tranquility of our small town, we all understand that it’s necessary to survive. As I stress to all of our citizens, Harlem is who we are—it’s not just the name of our city. We are Harlem’s heartbeat and the makeup of her characteristics. We are more than neighbors, we are extended family members. We have to share with our new neighbors what it is like to “be from Harlem.”
As stated, growth is inevitable to survive. If we do not grow, we will not be able to afford the amenities that make us unique. Without growth we would be absorbed into the county and be nothing more than an extension of the unincorporated area. Due to our population growing more than was projected since the 2010 Census, we’ve worked hard to meet financial needs despite them being greater than our sales tax allocations. We hope this growth over the next several years will result in additional money being allocated after the 2020 Census. However, until then we will be creative and do more with less and use the time to strategically map out our growth plans.
We have developed a comprehensive plan that allows our citizens to take an active role in our future development. We are preserving our downtown area from a historical perspective to ensure that new growth is unified and consistent with the existing Harlem. We have remained faithful to the idea that we want traditional homes built on larger tracts in our downtown area and have required new development to preserve green spaces and wetlands. We are always improving our zoning codes, procedures and policies to ensure our vision is portrayed and our tools are current. We strive to preserve the “small town” feeling you get when you walk down our streets.
Another way we are preparing for future growth is with infrastructure needed to meet the demands of not only the new residents but all of our existing population. We are almost finished with the design and engineering of a large expansion to our Waste Water Treatment Plant and water distribution system.
In addition, we are designing a multi-use trail system that will provide connectivity with other trails in our area. We are currently developing a growth plan to supplement our public safety departments to ensure we keep our citizens and visitors free from harm. Our Merchants Association has taken pride in serving on numerous committees we formed to revitalize the downtown and preserve the historic architecture of our past.