Southeast: A Boost From The Army

Buoyed by two growing ports, fortunate decisions at the Pentagon, a sprinkling of colleges and universities and two interstates, the economy of southeast Georgia is surviving a national and global recession, with parts of the region almost assured of emerging from current economic woes into a new era of prosperity.

The arrival of a new Army brigade at Fort Stewart, which straddles Bryan, Liberty and Long counties, will bring between 12,000 and 15,000 people to the communities around the base. That includes military personnel, civilian employees and their families, as well as vendors and contractors, says Allen Burns, executive director of the Coastal Georgia Region-al Development Center (CGRDC).

“That’s going to help the housing and retail industries in a big way,” says Burns, whose RDC serves nine of the 23 counties in the coastal and inland area. “Already, the construction industry in that part of the region is going wide open.”

For Ron Tolley, CEO of the Liberty County Development Authority, the new construction at Fort Stewart is an infusion of money and jobs that strengthens a diverse local economy, and there is the promise of more to come. “In May of 2008, Congress approved $430 million for new construction projects on Fort Stewart,” he says. “So far, $201 million ... has been allotted to various brigade infrastructures.”

But Tolley says other parts of the local economy thrived last year. “In 2008, we had an increase in our industrial employment that we were very happy to see,” he says. “And Industrial Development International purchased 200 acres in our Tradeport East Business Center by I-95. They built a 502,000-square-foot spec building and prepared five building pads that can handle anywhere from 200,000 square feet to 1.2 million square feet.”

Fort Stewart’s presence was cited as one reason online magazine Realty-Times.com ranked Hinesville, Liberty’s county seat, at the top of a list of American’s 100 Most Stable Housing Markets.

In Camden County, the return-to-service ceremony for the submarine U.S.S. Georgia last March signaled the arrival of up to 1,000 new sailors, their families, support staff, civilian workers and contractors to that county’s Kings Bay Naval Base.

In another coastal county, McIn-tosh, growth that was approaching southward from Savannah and northward from Jacksonville, Fla., was slowed by economic conditions.

“And we were just beginning to see the early signs of a lot more activity in real estate and a lot more subdivisions of property,” says Brett Cook, city manager of Darien, the county seat. “Have we lost any jobs? No, because there weren’t any jobs here to begin with. Most of our workforce leaves McIntosh County to go to work in other places.”

But that’s about to change, Cook says. A $750,000 federal grant obtained last year will allow the county to expand its industrial park, and a petition has been filed by International Paper Company (IPC) asking the city of Darien to annex 2,000 acres of IPC land into the city limits for development. “That opens up possibilities for commercial and industrial growth,” Cook says. “We’re excited we are in position now for growth and we’re ready to extend our utilities.”

Meanwhile, the McIntosh community found a creative way to raise revenues without raising taxes through the use of a closed airport – leasing it as a parking area for imported vehicles coming off ships at the nearby Port of Brunswick.

McIntosh isn’t the only Georgia county that’s relying on the region’s two ports to boost economic development. The Port of Savannah and the Port of Brunswick combine to generate nearly 300,000 jobs throughout the state and produce $55.8 billion in annual sales, 8 percent of the state’s total. Even though imports and exports declined last year, the ports still have a huge effect on southeast Georgia economies.

In Glynn County last year, the local development authority and a private developer, Lincoln Property Company, signed a lease/purchase agreement that opened the door for construction at a 200-acre distribution center site near I-95 to be called Coastal Logistics Park at Tradewinds. A new 70,000-square-foot Mercedes-Benz vehicle processing center will open this summer at the Port of Brunswick’s Colonel’s Island. Brunswick donut packager Rich Products announced a $4 million expansion and the addition of 26 jobs.

2008 saw the new four-year Coastal College of Georgia (CCG) created from the local two-year college, a step regarded by some as good news for the region’s healthcare industry. “That college has always produced top-notch nurses and healthcare professionals and its new four-year status will expand that effort,” says Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce President Woody Wood-side. “And CCG will also add professors and staff and their families, and that’s good news for our retail and housing sectors.”

Some industries farther inland still have coastal connections. “One of our cluster industries in southeast Georgia is the boat industry,” says Genie Lee, director of economic development for the Southeast Georgia Regional Development Center (SEGRDC). “In Ware County, we have Carolina Skiff and they were up to 300 employees and now are about half that number. In Pierce County, we have Sundance Boats that once employed 60 to 80 people, and they’re down to half that.”

Despite reductions in production, Lee says, manufacturers remain optimistic. “What the boat companies appear to be doing is using their employees to build molds for the boats so that when the economy turns up they will be ready to build boats.”

In Sylvania, sacrifices made by some local manufacturing management teams have gone above and beyond the call of duty. “We had more than one of our smaller manufacturers where the entire management staff has taken pay cuts to keep their hourly workers employed,” says Gayle Boykin, executive director of the Screven County Economic Development Authority. “And one company’s entire management staff took a 50 percent pay cut. I felt that’s a testament on how far some of our companies are willing to go to keep their people employed.”

Other manufacturers in the region have found creative diversification and niche marketing a good way to keep employees on the job.

“One of our local industries, Douglas & Harper Manufacturing, a second-generation-owned company in the textile business, broadened its base by importing cabinets out of China in a kind of distribution operation; and we were able to put them in a vacant building we had,” says Dale Atkins, executive director of the Development Authority of Appling County in Baxley. “But they have adapted well over the years since the ‘50s, from a dress manufacturer to production of hospital gowns, and now they produce the hand, arm and knee pads for the National Football League.”

The Baxley Group – one of the re-gion’s few remaining cut-and-sew businesses – boosted employment from 25 to 65 after getting a contract from a Colorado company for the production of Western shirts.

“Also, we had a wood pellet manufacturer increase employment from 25 to 80 after tapping into European markets wanting their product for fuel,” Atkins says.

A booming housing market in Effingham County was quieted by current economic conditions, but construction of another kind has lifted spirits around Springfield, long a bedroom community for nearby Savannah. EFACEC (pronounced eff-a-sec), a Portuguese power transformer manufacturer, is building a new plant that will provide 600 jobs.

“About 200 construction jobs are going on now at the site in the Effingham County Industrial Park,” says John Henry, CEO of the Effingham County Industrial Authority. “The finance/real estate type jobs have been hurt here, otherwise we haven’t seen any major layoffs. Still, if nothing else, just seeing that EFACEC building starting to go vertical has really lifted the morale of the community and kept some optimism in the air.”

Similar optimism blossomed in Jesup last year when the Italian company Sierra Corp. began production of the kind of recycling equipment that can crush a car into a bale the size of a refrigerator. “They are making about a $3 million capital investment and creating 25 jobs,” says John Riddle, president and CEO of the Jesup-Wayne County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Authority. “But some of our jobs have been put on hold due to the economy. East Coast Ethanol signed a MOU [memorandum of understanding] and planned to invest $200 million in a production plant in Wayne County, creating 60 jobs.”

Those plans have ground to a halt, as has a possible site selection by a Pennsylvania logistics company stym-ied by the credit crunch. Riddle worked with both companies for months, and still hopes one or both will come to his community.

“It is a frustrating thing,” he says. “You put a lot into the process and the politics around it, all the details of getting everything together, then it gets put on hold because of the national economy. It just proves you can never stop selling or stop marketing. You have to have everything ready when the better times come, and they will come.”

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