Northwest: Challenging Times

Jason Winters’ first task as the new (and probably youngest ever) Chattooga County Commissioner had nothing to do with economic development, the campaign platform that got him elected. That’s because the county’s animal control director resigned the minute Winters assumed his new office in January.

“So my first official act was to find someplace that would charge the county for some dog food, then I had to go down to the shelter and feed the dogs,” says Winters, 29, the top elected official in one of the few counties operating under a sole commissioner form of government.

“I expected my first action would be signing the Freeport tax exemption, or redirecting some of our development authority boards. But I found out that as the head of a government with no county administrator, you have to simultaneously focus on all kinds of fires, large and small.”

Or, as Clarence Brown, the longtime sole commissioner of nearby Bartow County told Winters, “be-ing a sole commissioner is drinking out of a firehose.”

Brown also told him that he could not have picked a more challenging time to enter office because the northwest Georgia economy, like Winters, has all but gone to the dogs, thanks to a national residential construction industry maelstrom that has dragged down the region’s titanic carpet industry, resulting in multiple plant closings and thousands of job losses.

Yet, while the carpet industry’s struggles and the economy in general have cast a shadow over the state’s hardest-hit region in terms of overall unemployment rates, local leaders, especially those in economic development, are keeping a stiff upper lip as they prepare for a more positive ripple effect on the horizon.

“There’s no doubt that northwest Georgia is facing some challenges with the downturn in the construction industry directly impacting the carpet industry,” notes William Steiner, Coosa Valley Regional Development Center (CVRDC) executive director. “But there are a couple of positive visions.”

State Senator Jeff Mullis, who also is executive director of the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority (Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties), says, “even in these trying times we can see a silver lining in the dark clouds of the economy.”

That’s because the region is eagerly anticipating the arrival of a $1 billion Volkswagen plant a few miles over the state line, in Chattanooga. The 1.9 million-square-foot facility will bring 2,000 direct jobs when it opens, probably in early 2011, and is expected to create another 10,000 jobs in support industries.

So, as businesses and governments continue to slog hip deep in fiscal misery, economic developers across the region are scrambling for every opportunity, looking to the health of existing industries while focusing on new possibilities for commercial growth.

“This is certainly the year to do more with less, that’s our theme,” says Melinda Lemmon, executive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Depart-ment of Economic Development. “We can tighten our belts now and be ready to respond to opportunities as they come along. This economy presents us with chance to prepare for when things do turn around.”

Cartersville and Bartow County have invested $25 million in a new 700-plus acre corporate/industrial park, High-land 75, located on Interstate 75 – convenient to Atlanta and Chattanooga. Another business park, Highwoods River Point, is under construction and already has a tenant.

Bartow’s biggest catch was right there in the pan all along. Toyo Tire North America announced a $270 million expansion of its existing plant, adding 400 jobs to bring total employment to 850 at its Bartow County plant.

Cartersville also expanded its tour-ism footprint in 2008 with the opening of Tellus: Northwest Georgia Science Museum, a 120,000-square-foot facility expected to draw about 150,000 visitors a year to its fossil and mineral exhibits, planetarium, observatory and nature trail. Also, the Booth Western Art Museum added 40,000 square feet to its popular downtown space.

Tourism remains viable in northwest Georgia, where a number of new developments have taken place recently.

Adam and Paige Plemons have stretched the borders of Georgia Wine Country to include Murray County. Their sixth-generation family farm has been transformed into Cohutta Springs Vineyards & Winery and will feature a banquet area and farmers’ market as well as a tasting room.

In Gordon County, a short sprint from I-75, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources broke ground on the Resaca Battlefield State Historic Site, which will open in 2010 and include interactive displays, artifacts, gift shop and theater.

On the same October day in Gordon County, Bentley Dye Services broke ground in the first phase of a $40 million project that will create 75 jobs at a Calhoun extrusion plant – a welcome addition for a county that lost several hundred jobs in the carpet industry’s bloodletting.

The damage was widespread. Calhoun-based Mohawk eliminated more than 1,000 jobs in Georgia last year, with northwest Georgia feeling most of the pinch. Shaw, based in Dalton, shed hundreds of jobs and promised to cut its North Georgia workforce by 3 percent.

Those troubles, in addition to other closings and layoffs across business sectors, sent northwest Georgia jobless figures skyrocketing. Four counties in the region posted unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher in December. Chattooga County posted a state high of 14.7 percent in March after Mount Vernon Mills cut almost 300 jobs and nearby Mohawk plants downsized.

The metro Dalton area (which includes Whitfield and Murray counties) was hit particularly hard, losing 4,100 jobs between December 2007 and December 2008, many of those in the floor-covering industry.

The area’s unemployment rate was 11.2 percent in December, highest among the state’s metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs).

“The good news in Dalton is we can actually announce one expansion [in the floor-covering industry],” says Melanie Suggs, executive director of the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority.

USFloors, the leading manufacturer of cork and bamboo flooring, is investing $10 million to $15 million in a new facility bound for LEED certification.

“Their focus on renewable resources for flooring is key to their success,” says Suggs, who adds that the development authority is targeting other industries beyond carpets and floors. “As a community we’ve needed to diversify.

“We need to continue leveraging our location as an asset as relates to a number of manufacturers, not the least of which is the new Volkswagen plant,” she says.

“We’re also targeting distribution and logistics. Our location right on I-75 is a major selling point, obviously. And we took important steps when our community voted in a Freeport Tax exemption (last year).”

This inventory tax exemption, which has been on the books in Georgia for more than 30 years, can be a valuable tool in recruiting or retaining businesses. Most counties in northwest Georgia have approved the measure. Among the last to do so were Whitfield and Chattooga counties.

Actually, Chattooga’s voters ap-proved the Freeport exemption about five years ago, but previous commissioners refused to sign off on the deal. After he fed the dogs, Commissioner Winters made the exemption official.

“We have to play catch-up with the counties around us,” Winters says.

The entire region, it seems, is playing catch-up, and seeing pockets of success across a diverse landscape.

In January, Gilmer County saw the opening of a Dalton State College satellite campus in Ellijay, where 400 students from five surrounding counties are working toward associate degrees, and spending money in local establishments.

In Polk County, Japanese firm Miura Manufacturing America (which makes boilers) purchased the 100,000-square-foot spec building in Rockmart’s 101 Industrial Park, investing some $11 million and creating 50 new jobs.

Dade County, in the remote northwest corner of the state, is working with the CVRDC on an industrial park to take advantage of auto supply opportunities that VW will present.

Rome/Floyd County was pounded by job losses in 2008. Mohawk phased out more than 230 jobs at two locations, and Temple Inland closed a box plant, eliminating 91 jobs. But Al Hodge, president/CEO of the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce, had some good news in October when Pirelli Tire North America announced a $15 million expansion that will create about 20 new jobs for humans and add 20 percent production capacity for its robotic production line.

“R” definitely stands for “robot” in Rome, where the new Floyd County College and Career Academy is using $3.2 million in grant money to build a 16,000-square-foot building that will house automated manufacturing and industrial systems robotics labs and classrooms.

Farther north at the state line, Catoosa County has been hammered by job losses in the carpet industry and the so-called recession-proof healthcare industry – Hutcheson Medical Center cut 89 jobs last year.

But then, the medical center also embarked on a $47 million renovation project. And Catoosa, adjacent to Chattanooga, has invested in the potential of its prime location, purchasing land on I-75, just minutes from Chattanooga, for an industrial/business park.

Like nearly every place else in the region, Catoosa is prepping itself for Volkswagen. The race is on and even in dark times the thrill of it is breeding an almost unreasonable sense of optimism.

Mullis is reminded of the cartoon of a frog clutching the throat of the crane that is trying to swallow it.

“We may be two years out from a full recovery,” Mullis says. “But we’re nowhere near giving up.”

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