Central: More Ups And Downs

Anyone paying attention to the economic news coming out of central Georgia is at risk for whiplash. For every up there was at least one down, for every high a low, every yin a yang. There is an overall purgatorial sense of things evening themselves out across the region.

“Middle Georgia has taken a pretty good beating in this economy, but it could be a lot worse,” says Josh Fenn, president of the Eastman-Dodge County Chamber of Commerce. “We’re going to be all right. As a state, now is the time to be even more aggressive in recruitment and retention.”

Fenn had just received news that his county’s “Company of the Year” for 2008 was closing its doors and taking 250 jobs away. Standard Candy Company, which announced an expansion in 2007 that would have added 77 employees, said in January that it was closing its outdated Eastman plant and moving its operations to the company’s headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

The company is offering its entire Eastman workforce jobs in Nash-ville, but the Dodge County facility, built in the 1950s and former home of Stuckey’s (remember the pecan log?), needs extensive up-grading.

“The cost for upgrading was gonna be a tough sell. They told us there was nothing we could do about their decision,” Fenn says. “Is it gonna kill us? No way. This community has a habit of surviving.”

Several projects are helping to sustain Dodge County’s pluck. Alcoa Architectural Products announced a $1.7 million expansion of its facility in Eastman, which will create nine new jobs. Another firm, Graphic Packaging, is adding 19 jobs and a new manufacturing line as part of a $9 million expansion. Middle Georgia College is building a 140-bed dormitory to accommodate students at its aviation campus in Eastman (formerly the Georgia Avia-tion Technical College).

“We’re not a one-industry town, we’re well diversified,” says Fenn, who has prioritized looking after established industries. “You have got to treat them like good customers. Keeping them strong is going to pay off.”

Putnam County’s growth was fueled by real estate and construction, which are at the heart of the economic crisis. Several construction companies have gone bankrupt or closed, sending ripples through the community’s service industries, according to Roddie Ann Blackwell, chamber of commerce president. She also notes the opening of an arts center in Eatonton that she hopes will be a catalyst for growth downtown. “We are not doom and gloom,” she says. “We have just temporarily slowed down.”

In Milledgeville/Baldwin County, unemployment more than doubled to 11.3 percent between November 2007 and November 2008.

Rheem Manufacturing announced in February it is laying off all 1,200 employees; in January, Shaw Industries said it was closing its carpet manufacturing operations in Milledgeville, eliminating 150 jobs.

The completion of a new terminal building at Baldwin County Airport, a new county jail (now Baldwin won’t have to pay other counties to house its prisoners) and the prospect of building a forensic hospital and new prison for the state give local economic developers reason for optimism. Prisons have been good economic development for central Georgia.

“Our detention center is one of this county’s largest employers and taxpayers, and I feel pretty positive about their presence,” says Hazel McCranie, president of the Ocilla-Irwin Chamber of Commerce. “This is a business that is very involved in the community. In fact, they may win ‘Business of the Year’ for the second year in a row.”

She’s talking about the privately-managed Irwin County Detention Center, where work continued last year on a $26 million expansion that will add prisoner capacity and about 70 jobs.

In Montgomery County, a private jail management company – Michael Croft Enterprises, which operates the Irwin County jail – is proposing a new 512-bed facility that would employ 90 to 100 people, says Joe Filippone, executive director of the Montgomery County Development Authority, who estimates the capital investment at $40 million.

“That doesn’t include the ancillary businesses that will grow around us as a result,” says Filippone, a New Jersey native who moved to Montgomery County from Florida, took a job selling real estate and was offered his current post a year ago.

He’s been working to secure property for an industrial park and working with municipalities such as county seat Mount Vernon, which saw the opening last year of an East Georgia Healthcare clinic in a new building across the street from the county courthouse.

“Everybody is having tough economic times, we certainly are, but I’ve had a lot of discussions with people looking to open small businesses in our area,” Filippone says. “I got a call from a gentleman today who runs a supermarket in a town about two hours away. He competes against the bigger chains and does very well. He’s interested in opening a store here.”

Even in the worst recession in decades, this economically challenged region is seeing scattered signs of hope and progress.

Lamar County, for one, is seeing green. Piedmont Green Power broke ground on a $160 million plant that will use biomass and wood waste materials to create enough electricity to power 40,000 homes when it hits its stride in 2011. Chinese manufacturer General Protecht has expanded the design of its Barnesville plant, increasing its investment to $140 million (from its original $40 million).

In Lumber City, Telfair Forest Products is investing $6 million and creating 45 jobs at a 50-acre site where the company plans to turn pine trees into wood shavings for horse bedding.

In Peach County, bus manufacturer Blue Bird announced it was cutting jobs – and then bought a 350,000-square-foot plant (former Dan River Mills facility), where it will add 100 jobs. Fort Valley State University is continuing improvements to its campus, where enrollment has increased from 2,400 to 3,500 under President Larry Rivers.

In Dooly County, Reeves Construc-tion Company is investing $2.9 million in a new asphalt manufacturing plant on a 40-acre site, where 30 to 50 people will be employed.

Jones County received a $500,000 OneGeorgia Authority grant to work on road infrastructure at its 972-acre industrial park, slated for completion in May.

Wilkinson County only had to look inward to hit the jackpot. An established industry, Carbo Ceramics, is investing $83 million to expand its operations at its two sites in Wilkinson County, conveniently located near the company’s extensive kaolin reserves. Carbo makes ceramic pellets used to increase productivity of oil and gas wells. The expansion is expected to add 40 new jobs.

“Business is obviously good for these guys,” notes Ralph Staffins, economic development director for Wilk-inson County.

“Seeing them do so well makes me think that we might be in for a turnaround in our kaolin industry, which hasn’t been doing the best it’s ever done. This region is dependent on kaolin, it’s our lifeline.”

Georgia’s kaolin mining industry has been hit by competition from overseas. Staffins says he has a prospect – very hush-hush – that might improve the way kaolin is processed and give a jolt to the local industry.

Dublin/Laurens County has been jolted by a flurry of investment activity in the past year and has plans to energize the economy through the collective might of local banks. Highlights include a $20 million investment on the campus of the Heart of Georgia Technical College for a new health-training center, $70 million in road improvements and a new 6,000-seat arena at the Southern Pines Recreation Complex.

The Dublin Bank Consortium is an agreement among seven lending institutions to pool their resources for larger loans, geared specifically toward development in Laurens County.

West of Laurens County is Warner Robins/Houston County, proclaimed by BusinessWeek magazine as the best place to raise a family in Georgia.

Morgan Law, executive director of the Houston County Development Authority, wants to raise the area’s profile. Little League International’s decision to locate its Southeast regional headquarters and tournaments in Warner Robins will help.

So will G-RAMP (Georgia-Robins Aerospace Maintenance Partnership), a partnership between Robins Air Force Base and the local community for a proposed 400,000-plus-square-foot aero-space industrial complex on land owned by Warner Robins, and adjacent to the base.

“Right now, everybody is a little nervous anticipating what the economy might do, but that project would be a huge economic engine for the entire region,” says Chip Cherry, president/ CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

Macon/Bibb County is Central Georgia’s economic hub, and it witnessed the same kind of pogo-stick activity as the rest of the region.

For example, The Medical Center of Central Georgia (MCCG) remains a vital economic engine for the region, but last year MCCG, the county’s largest employer, slashed 208 jobs. Bibb’s 750,000-square-foot open-air retail center, The Shoppes at River Crossing, opened last spring to some fanfare, but the Circuit City building was never occupied – the company filed for bankruptcy. And Kumho Tire, which announced in January 2008 it would open a $225 million plant in 2009, said in October it was delaying the project because of the auto industry downturn. The company now plans to start construction by early 2010.

“Project activity hasn’t been what it was in the past, though we did end 2008 with some success, creating about 600 jobs and about $258 million in new investment,” reports Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission. “But Kumho was about 90 percent of that.”

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