Karen Williams: Pooler Councilwoman Has a Heart for Community Service
Karen Williams: Pooler Councilwoman Has a Heart for Community Service
On a recent morning in October, we caught up with Councilwoman Karen Williams who was doing what she does best–making connections to serve others.
On this particular day, she was chatting about volunteering to help 21 students from New Hampstead High School in Bloomingdale to work with the elderly residents who live in Pinewood Village, a 125-home senior housing community in Pooler. The volunteer group is helping the seniors go through their storage areas and haul away junk and trash that won’t fit in their trash receptacles.
The Councilwoman is gung ho. She’s got her husband’s truck and she’s raring to go. “These seniors don’t have trucks and they cannot transport the items to the dump,” she explains. “And who else is going to help them if we don’t?” she asks.
In her third year of her first term as a member of Pooler’s City Council, Williams brings that same heart for service to the city. Growing up, her dad was in the Air Force, which took the family to many cities before he retired in Tampa, Florida.
It was there in high school where she met her future husband who would join the Army. She spent more than three decades as an Army wife living all over the United States and abroad.
“I’ve lived in large cities, small cities and overseas for seven years. It was in Huntsville, Alabama, when I worked for the Planning and Zoning department at age 25 when I got the bug for municipal government,” she says.
Her husband’s career ultimately landed the family in Richmond Hill as he worked at Hunter Army Airfield and Fort Stewart Army Base. The couple moved to Pooler in 2015.
“I began attending the Planning and Zoning council meetings just to see how they do things here and I was hooked,” she says.
She attended the meetings for four years because the city had just held an election. She was elected to the City Council in 2019.
“I absolutely love what I do! I am a huge proponent of communication, so I listen because I think you can learn more by listening than talking. And I need to know what the residents feel. I may not agree with it, but I still need to hear everyone out,” she adds.
The Councilwoman also has a keen interest using sociability to accomplish regional goals, increase diversity of businesses, keep a steady eye on the environment and be a support to the future growth of schools in Pooler.
Being Social Allows Connectivity
Many Pooler residents may think City Council members only attend meetings and vote 24 times a year. That’s definitely not how Williams approaches it. Her calendar is chock full of professional activities that allows for the sociability quotient.
When asked what her most recent work days looked like, she reviews her calendar quickly and notes she had invited a council member from Port Wentworth on a tour of a Pooler business, she had supported Tanger Outlet at their Dogtober Fest, went to Tanger’s Turning of the Fountain to pink in support of Breast Cancer Awareness month, attended a military function at Fort Stewart as part of Hispanic Heritage Celebration Month, attended a Lions Club meeting, Business After Hours Chamber events, Garden Club meeting and attended a YMCA board meeting.
“The YMCA is in the middle of a renovation project and they happened to find multiple boxes of hand sanitizers,” she explains. Councilwoman Williams loaded them in the truck and delivered them to schools, businesses, senior living facilities for two days.
She views each entry on her calendar as a distinct opportunity to connect people’s needs to other organizations in the community, both in Pooler and regionally.
Just recently, she was selected as a member of the National League of Cities’ Military Communities Council. In this unique position, Williams will offer a distinct voice for Pooler and will help build and sustain action-oriented relationships between civilian municipal leaders, military installation commanders all along the chain of command and the associated organizations that support the military communities.
“As an Army wife for 31 years, my love for our country and our service members runs deep in me,” she says.
Emphasis on Business Development and Diversity
As she makes her rounds through community events, residents of Pooler now share a common sentiment with Williams: they want diversity of businesses.
“What I’m hearing from people and I tend to agree is that we have the same type of businesses. I love nail salons and I get my nails done like everybody else, but when communities have strip mall after strip mall with the same type of businesses going in there, we need to make sure that different businesses and services are added as well,” she says.
She notes that the City Council does not select the businesses that come. The land is owned by a developer or an individual, and it’s zoned a certain way, whether it’s residential, commercial or industrial. It is the owner’s responsibility to find individual leases for what goes in the developments.
Williams believes the mom and pop shops really have a great opportunity in Pooler. “There’s a woman who recently turned her home hair braiding business for the African-American community into a brick and mortar business,” she notes. “This is what’s needed. And it’s something different. I love that there are opportunities, but we just need to reach out and say to the public, to those companies, we want you here,” she adds.
Williams notes with enthusiasm her support of the new Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce. “The Chamber’s on fire and really working hard working on business development as well,” she says.
The Passionate Tree Lady
Councilwoman Williams and other council members may not have the final say on what businesses choose to set up shop, but she can have an impact on the appearance of the development and the environment.
Often referenced as “the Tree Lady,” Williams got this title during her first year on City Council. She coordinated and implemented the first annual “Plant a Tree for Free” for residents in honor of Georgia Arbor Day, which is now a yearly event with support of the full council.
Additionally, she takes great pride in the aesthetics of Pooler. Williams worked with the Savannah Tree Foundation and the City Planner to update each section of the Tree Ordinance.
“We have a Tree Fund and over the years we’ve worked hard on the tree ordinance to assure developers are not just paying into the Tree Fund. We want them to plant the trees. We have changed the type of trees that are on our approved list as well,” she adds. She will ask developers in meetings why more trees aren’t being planted on the property. Williams asks them to squeeze more trees in and they usually can.
Currently, the tree ordinance specifies that 15 trees per acre are planted. “Most businesses want their establishments to look nice. They plant the trees required by the city and then they add shrubbery, small ponds or add flowering plants to enhance the property,” she adds.
Then there’s some businesses that will plant only trees and nothing else. “In my opinion, this is wrong. Because they are clear cutting the property, it’s going to take years for those new trees to provide shade, to provide habitat for wildlife and birds. That’s not what I want for our city. I don’t want just bare minimum standards for Pooler. We can do better,” she adds.
An Eye on the Future
Williams is also passionate about the school system and the educational resources that Pooler will need in the future. With a census hovering at around 26,000, Pooler’s expected capacity is around 50,000 residents.
“We need to be proactive and think about where our children will be educated. Elementary schools require 12 acres; middle schools require 15 acres and high schools need 18 acres,” she notes. “If the School Board does not buy the land now using a bond for instance, pay it off slowly and be ready for this growth, there’s not going to be any land in Pooler to build these schools that will be needed,” she adds.
The Councilwoman has a vested interest with four generations of her family now living in Pooler, including two grandchildren.
“Infrastructure is key. We can look at what other cities have done and use that information to make the best decisions for the future. Again, that goes back to gathering information and communication. I believe if we continue to work as a region, we can shape Pooler to become the most desired place to live in Chatham County,” she says.