West Central: Right Time, Right Place

As expected, the nearly $1 billion Kia plant in West Point has gone a long way toward helping insulate west central Georgia from the national economic nastiness. The plant is not only set to open on schedule this fall, but plans to go ahead with making Sorento SUVs at a time when most car companies are scaling back their sports utility lines.

Kia could create as many as 2,800 jobs. Meanwhile, the Army is moving its armor school to nearby Fort Benning, along with a big hunk of defense industry.

“As a region, we’re one of the lucky ones,” says Becca Hardin, executive vice president with The Valley Partnership. “Because of the growth in the military and Kia and its suppliers, and also Aflac, and our other existing companies that are still growing, we’ve had a very successful year.”

In Muscogee Technology Park, Aflac has entered the second phase of a massive expansion it began in 2005, with a new state of the art IT facility. “We will be holding the ribbon cutting April 15,” Hardin says. “Aflac expects to hire around 500 to 600 for the whole project.”

Also in Columbus, Cessna Aircraft has built a brand new 150,000-square-foot facility and will hire 150 people, Hardin says.

As for Fort Benning, “we’re seeing the calm before the storm,” Hardin says. “Everything, by federal law, has to be complete by September 2011. So, as you can imagine, we’re excited, but trying to be prepared for 30,000 new people. We still have 16 new schools that need to be built to accommodate the growth – that’s not getting addressed. But Fort Benning is putting a brand new hospital on base to replace the army hospital, which was one of the oldest in the army; that will help take some load off local and regional hospitals.”

Many new residents will move to surrounding counties, Hardin says, and Kia supplier companies could hire an additional 2,000 people, making the regional initiative imperative. The Valley Partnership, in its 15th year, includes Columbus-Muscogee, Cusseta-Chatta-hoochee, Harris County, Manchester, Marion County, Talbot County, Taylor County, West Point and – in Alabama – Phenix City-Russell.

“They say at Kia they will be in production this fall, so the suppliers have to be ready,” says Harris County Chamber of Commerce President Lynda Dawson. “It’s exciting.”

The city of West Point has annexed 400 acres just five miles from Kia for the Northwest Harris Business Park. The site, which has water and power, will be home to Daehan Solution, Johnson Controls and Express Mater-ials. Dawson expects 700 hires as a result of developments there.

Daehan Solution, a Korean company, won regional project of the year from the Georgia Economic Develop-ment Association.

“We’ll begin the study to develop the Hamilton Business Park next,” Dawson says, adding that the county owns 100 acres for this park, which will target smaller businesses than those in Northwest Harris Park.

Pike County also is bullish on industrial land, having purchased 64 acres on Highway 41, which is a four lane highway. “We still have 16 sites available in our Pike County Business Park,” says Karen Brown, Pike County Chamber/ Development Authority president. “We feel there may be the opportunity for a third-tier Kia supplier to be interested in our location.”

One local business is planning an expansion, she says, and in September, Pike County Middle School opened.

“We’re seeing more residents from the Clayton and Henry County area, pushing rural people farther our way. We have also had a few new retail businesses open in the county. Overall, the county continues to position itself for growth.”

Marion County is experiencing economic growth with some conflict. Neighbors are fighting a security training facility proposed by the Graal Group Limited, which is part of the incubator at Columbus State Univer-sity’s Cunningham Center.

“Graal wants to build a multimillion dollar range complex and hire 250 people,” says Marion County Zoning Administrator Steve White, adding that local contractors and other businesses would provide labor for the construction project.

The company has asked for no incentives or tax breaks from the county, White says, noting that the 1,700 acre site will experience minimal environmental impact. “This type of project is exactly what we need,” he says.

The company will be investing in high-tech soundproofing, but a handful of citizens still are worried about the noise. (At press time, White expected a ruling in favor of the county in the zoning issue.)

Other counties are investing in startups. Industrially, “we’re at a standstill right now,” says Patty Brunson, executive director of the Taylor County Department of Economic Development. “But we do have some companies starting up in biodiesel and biofuels. One is Georgia Biodiesel, and the other one, Biofuel Innovations, is building a machine that will extract juice from sorghum; they are working with the Fort Valley State Experimental Station, and have partnered with a company to make aviation fuel. There’s a big market for that, and they’re working on the science of it – sweet sorghum has about four times more sugar than corn, so that makes it a much more viable project for our area,” Brunson says.

“We’ve also been gifted a building in Reynolds that was the GRESCO building, which is 90,211 square feet. We also have a spec building in Butler’s Taylor County Industrial Park that is 50,000 square feet, expandable to 100,000. We’re halfway between Warner Robins Air Force Base and Fort Benning, so we’re hunting something to supply both bases.”

Quitman County has announced that D&J Plastics Inc., a fishing lure manufacturer, will invest some $250,000 in a $500,000-plus expansion (the state is supplying funds as well) that will create around 20 new jobs. “For us that’s a pretty good expansion,” says Richard Morris, Georgetown-Quitman Consolidated Government Chairman, “especially in an economic downturn. We’ve leased about 600 acres of waterfront property for a park and marina with a walking trail, and have a new doctor and dentist’s facility.”

Quitman is home to some 2,400 people but expects to grow with Fort Benning’s expansion. “We hope it will bring a lot more people into the area and the region,” Morris says. “We want to create more recreational opportunities so that people will find us and want to stay here.” The county is also building a new high school that should be finished by year’s end and will get ambulance service in June.

Beyond the Valley Region, the area’s second biggest city, LaGrange, has announced new Kia suppliers that will set up shop to serve the automaker: ITW; DaeLim USA, which hired 75 and is already delivering parts to Alabama’s Hyundai plant and will supply Kia as well; Sejong Georgia LLC, which manufactures exhaust parts and will hire 250; and Sewon America Inc, which is investing $170 million and hiring 700. “We’ve had a lot of activities this year. Sewon is the largest Kia supplier in the area,” says Development Authority of LaGrange Chairman Diethard Lindner.

In addition, Duracel is expanding and upgrading its process equipment over the next three years and has already hired additional workers. Caterpillar will hire 75 additional people in two phases, the first of which has already been accomplished.

“We continue to support existing industry, as well as recruiting tier two and three suppliers,” Lindner says. “In fact we initiated a brand new industrial park last year – Callaway South – with 1,200 acres available (100 acres for Sewon). GDOT just put in major bridgework and an interchange with I-85.”

In Webster County, Tolleson Lumber Company is ending its second shift, laying off 98 people, which will have a “tremendous effect” on the county, says Unified Government of Webster County Chairman George Moore. “Surviving is the word for what we’re going through,” he says, adding that the county did receive a half-million dollar grant from the state to complete a subdivision road.

But for the most part, the intense activity at Fort Benning and West Point has western counties percolating, if in sometimes unrelated ways. Thomaston-Upson County has three firms ready to expand. Inoware makes plastic food service products; Cellu Tissue makes commercial paper products, and Triumph makes and prints folding cartons.

The county is putting a rail spur at its Central Georgia Business and Technology Park, which has a spec building. The 240-acre park includes a tract of 190 contiguous acres. Thomaston Upson County Industrial Park, the older of the two parks, has 120 acres available and is served by rail.

Upson County also is hoping for more economic activity to accompany the development of an east-west corridor connecting Macon to LaGrange and Savannah to the Alabama state line.

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