Southwest: Fresh Promises, Old Resources
When an Albany job fair opened for business last January, more than 1,500 people showed up to apply for 125 jobs at the Marine Corps Logistics Base, overwhelming interviewers who canceled hundreds of appointments. The massive turnout was a reflection of the earlier an-nouncement that Albany’s Cooper Tire plant was closing in a consolidation move that would cut some 1,400 jobs. The closing was an unkind welcome for Ted Clem, who stepped in as Albany/Dougherty County Eco-nomic Development Commission just as the announcement was made.
“Business retention and expansion is our primary focus right now,” Clem says. “Now is a great time for us to focus on those relationships with the companies we already have in our backyard.”
The Cooper announcement was a bitter ending to 2008, a year in which closings, layoffs, hiring freezes and postponed projects were common across the southwest Georgia region. But many communities are finding fresh promises in the modern use of old resources: soybeans, corn, chickens and pine trees.
In Mitchell County, ethanol pioneers Murray Campbell and Tommy Hilliard convinced in-vestors to pony up $75 million in seed money for a new $170 million ethanol plant fueled by corn that went into production last October. “That investment created 300 construction jobs and 50 high-paying permanent jobs,” says Mitchell County Development Authority Executive Director Marilyn Royal. Though most of the corn now used at the plant comes from the Midwest, more and more southwest Georgia farmers are bringing their crops to the plant.
For some economic developers here, never-before-seen prosperity seems to be just a fingertip away. In tiny Clay County (pop: 3,180), a power plant designed to use cotton stalks, pine tree scraps and other natural residue to generate electricity has been stalled for months by state and federal regulators examining air quality permitting procedures. “It’s very aggravating,” says the county’s administrator, Pam Ward. “It’s bureaucracy at its best.” The plant would create 250 construction jobs during the 18 to 24 months needed to build it, and then provide 40 permanent well-paying jobs. “For this little county, that’s huge,” Ward says. “This is our first industrial site in the history of the county.”
In adjoining Early County, a salmonella outbreak traced to Peanut Corporation of America’s peanut butter and paste plant caused the facility to shut down; the company has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Construction of a $2 billion, coal-fired power plant was halted in 2008 following a successful court challenge from two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Chattahoochee River. A decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals is expected this summer on a motion to overturn that decision.
“We’re still planning on [Missouri-based] Longleaf Power to build that plant,” says Lisa Collins, project manager for Early County 2005, an economic development program funded by the Atlanta-based Charles & Catherine B. Rice Foundation.
In the meantime, the county announced the arrival of a $10 million plant to produce fuel from chicken fat and provide 100 jobs. “And those jobs will carry an average annual wage of $50,000,” says Collins, also the county’s economic developer. “We have 64 new three- and four-bedroom brick rental units to provide workforce housing.”
Economic developers in Echols County (pop. 4,300) learned in January that the county is on a short list of possible sites for a new $500 million electricity-generating plant powered by the region’s expansive forests.
“The plant would burn wood byproducts and employ about 50 in the beginning,” says Bill Holland, who represents Echols County as attorney for the seven-county South Georgia Regional Development Authority. “What it does for the wood industry in the region is somewhat greater. Obviously, it’s going to be a 24/7 operation and require a large volume of raw materials to keep it going. And that’s good news for south Georgia’s forest industry.”
The plant, proposed by Oglethorpe Power, must first meet approval from various state and federal agencies, a process that could begin this summer and take months to complete.
A biodiesel plant in Decatur County began using soybeans to produce diesel fuel, but quickly shifted gears when fuel prices dropped. “They have been doing a lot of ethanol mixing in that plant and that has kept them busy,” says Rick McCaskill, executive director of the Bainbridge-Decatur County Chamber of Commerce.
Agriculture continues to be a mainstay of the Colquitt County economy. “We have the largest ag economy in the state of Georgia,” says Darrell Moore, president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce.
“And we had a record year last year, I think around $390 million in ag revenues. We don’t get hit as hard in times like this because people are still going to buy food. We haven’t had any large layoffs or plant closing, knock on wood, and we had a 30 percent increase in sales tax collections from ’06 to ’07 and we have maintained that level, actually going up a little in ’08.”
Don Sims, president of the Thomasville-Thomas County Chamber of Commerce, is seeing an unprecedented building boom. “I’ve been here 20 years and I can’t remember a time when so much construction was going on,” he says.
“Archbold [Memorial] Hospital is in the midst of a $135 million construction program; the county is building a new $9 million courthouse and we’re in a $3 million renovation of the old courthouse; and we put a $1 million roof on the jail. We have 122 industries here, so we’re all about diversification here and we have some doing very well, some that are coping and some that are hurting.”
New construction in nearby Valdosta also is reaching historic proportions. “In the past 24 months, we’ve had the most industrial construction in the history of the county,” says Brad Lofton, director of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority. “We’ve counted over $140 million in capital investment and 1,700 new jobs during that period. Right now we have about five active industrial construction projects ongoing. All of the construction has been a boon to the construction industry.”
Even in counties that lost jobs, or created none, there was the small consolation that conditions beyond local control were contributing factors. “I’ve been in this job nine years, and this is a small town of 4,000, and every year since I’ve been here we’ve landed at least one or two new businesses,” says Shelley Zorn, president and economic developer for the Ashburn-Turner County Chamber of Commerce. “In 2008, we did not land any new industry.”
In fact, she says, the county lost 250 jobs when a repackaging plant shut down in a consolidation move.
Still, Zorn says, several local companies are adapting to the times by tinkering with their products to find new customers. “We have one industry, BioPlus, that uses peanut hulls to produce chemicals, fertilizer, fire ant repellent, kitty litter and all sorts of things, and they are still selling to their regular customers. But they are also selling that same material as biomass and shipping it overseas for use as fuel. Here’s a local company trying to diversify and find new markets to stay afloat in this economy.”
In the region’s most affluent county, Lee, a robust retail sector, continuing industrial development and an influx of retirees have combined to create a textbook environment for survival, even growth, in just about any economic climate, says Winston Oxford, executive director of the Lee County Development Authority.
“We are a Tier II community, one of the wealthiest counties in the state, with an average annual household income well above $70,000,” he says. “Our retiree population is growing by leaps and bounds, and they have a disposable income that a young family with kids doesn’t have and that really helps our retail community. In fact we have the number one Walmart, in terms of revenue, in the state of Georgia and have had for seven years running.”
A new 56,000-square-foot, Publix-anchored retail development is on the drawing boards here, and the county’s sole industrial park is attracting tenants, including several distribution centers.
“Hughston Clinic is building a new sports medicine facility in Lee County,” Oxford says. “And we have another closing pending on 15 acres in our industrial park and that could mean another 80 or 90 jobs and a $4 to $5 million capital investment.”
The slowdown in the national economy is being blamed by some of the region’s economic developers for the postponement of projects. “We had one that was ready to close in November and we were doing an $8.7 million industrial bond for them,” says Bruce Drennan, executive director of the Cordele-Crisp County Industrial Devel-opment Authority. “But when the credit crunch hit they couldn’t get a letter of credit. It had nothing to do with their financial condition; they’re solid.”
That project included a retail outlet, distribution center and manufacturing plant, and is proceeding, but in unplanned stages. “They are going to buy two buildings in town with about 176,000 square feet of space,” Drennan says, adding that a manufacturing component for the company is in the works. “They’re working with a second bank now,” he says. In southwest Georgia, it’s all about adapting to the times.