East Central: Working Harder

Augusta and Richmond County saw new investment and new jobs created in 2009, and other parts of the East Central region are anticipating construction of new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle or new biomass facilities. But many communities are looking to the arts and tourism to help them pull through some tough times.

“We are very mindful that a lot of the counties that surround us contribute to our economy,” says Walter Sprouse, director of the Development Authority of Richmond County. “2009 was bad for a lot of people and it did affect us, but not as much as a lot of other places. We did about $76 million in new investment and created 1,025 new jobs in Augusta-Richmond County.”

He attributes Augusta’s ability to survive recessions to its diversity. In addition to the huge medical establishment, military, Plant Vogtle and Savannah River Site, the Augusta area has a good variety of manufacturers. The city was 23rd on Business Week’s list of the 40 strongest municipal economies in the United States last year, and No. 5 on Forbes’ “Best Bang for the Buck” cities, where the cost of living and doing business is low.

But, Sprouse says, the December unemployment rate of 9.2 was far too high. “If one person loses their job, that’s one too many. We know we have a responsibility to work hard for our region. Any time a county in our region locates a new company, we are very excited for them. We know it will help them and the entire region. One thing you’ll see about the spirit of the people in this region is that a downturn just makes us work harder.”

The East Central Georgia Consor-tium, an 11-county alliance funded by the Department of Labor to do job training, is creating a training center to certify workers to help construct the reactors at Plant Vogtle. Director Joyce Blevins anticipates training up to 2,000 workers.

In an effort to bring business to Swainsboro, city and Emanuel County leaders put together a Creative Market-place contest, opening with the question: What would it take to put your new store, restaurant or entertainment venue downtown? The winner received a year’s rent, water, newspaper and radio ads, plus up to $5,000 in start-up capital.

Anthony Faris, director of the Swainsboro Downtown Development Authority, says he got calls from places as far away as New York wanting to know how it worked. The winner was a men’s retail store, Fashion Unlimited Downtown, which opened last year. All entrants worked with the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center, and Faris believes many others will still open a business as they learn methods from the experts.

Emanuel County is working to bring in more traditional industrial development and tourism to the area as well. “We are developing a 500-acre industrial park a mile off I-16,” says Bill Rogers, executive director of the Swainsboro-Emanuel County Chamber of Com-merce. This summer, construction will begin on a 200-bed housing unit for East Georgia College. The county is also marketing the George L. Smith State Park, Flat Creek Lodge and Ohoopee Dunes.

Taliaferro County is promoting its A. H. Stephens State Park. “It is one of the few state parks open to horseback riding,” says Jackie Butts, president of the Taliaferro Chamber of Commerce. Various equestrian clubs have drawn people to the park and the area. The Taliaferro County Historical Society is doing its part by promoting the area as a site for movie making.

“We’ve had 13 different Hollywood movies filmed in Crawfordville over the years,” says Butts.

“They advertise for extras and people from all over want to be in them.” Get Low, starring Sissy Spacek and Robert Duvall, finished filming there last year.

Washington, in Wilkes County, is promoting its shops and restaurants using a method borrowed from Disney’s Celebration community in Florida.

“Last December we introduced Snowing on the Square,” says Ashley Barnette, chamber of commerce tourism director. The promotion, which created a snowfall every Friday and Saturday night in December to coincide with the downtown’s Candlelight Shopping, was so successful the chamber and merchants are talking about doing it again – in July.

All of the county’s available industrial buildings are spoken for, says David Jenkins, economic development director of the Washington-Wilkes County Pay-roll Development Authority. The authority is anticipating a 72-room hotel and working on several projects, as well as looking at where to put future growth.

Candler County wants to convince people traveling along I-16 to “stop, shop and dine.”

Last year, a few more restaurants and antiques stores opened.

The runway at the Metter Municipal Airport was extended to 5,000 feet last year. Chuck Clark, executive director of the Candler County Industrial Author-ity, reports that there have been a couple of site inspections by prospective businesses; and Allied Metal Recycling, an automotive shredding company, is up to 50 employees.

Downtown arts, retail and agri-tour-ism have been a focus for Bulloch County. “One of the best things that has happened downtown is we started a farmers’ market,” says Peggy Chapman, Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Com-merce president. “Last year, we were very fortunate that we were able to maintain a good retail growth here, even in a down economy.” The Averitt Center for the Arts continues to thrive, bringing people into Statesboro with its studios, gallery and theater.

Retail and the arts are working in Jefferson County, too. The Bartow Schoolhouse Players have five or six shows every season, and the local visual arts guild in Louisville holds several shows a year. The county is also working with the Central Savannah River Uni-fied Development Authority (CSRA) on a regional industrial park. It has a 20,000-square-foot spec building with water ready and sewer in the design stage.

“We’ve got some prospect activity, biotech, bioenergy, timber-related agribusiness – none that are ready to sign,” says Tom Jordan, director of the development authority of Jefferson.

Warren County has some positives in its manufacturing and industry. Oglethorpe Power Company will start construction in the next couple of years on its $400 million biomass plant. Old Castle Materials, an aggregate company, just started construction on a quarry, which should be in production by 2011, says development authority executive Director O. B. McCorkle.

In Hancock County, Jesse Mitchell, development authority chair, reports interest in rock quarries, but the economy must be stronger before mining can begin. The authority has an 1,800-square-foot building available.

Many economic developers in this part of the state are happy enough that they haven't had losses to report. Glas-cock County has land for a business park and some projects in the works. In Johnson County, Willis Wombles, development authority chairman, reports talking with a couple of prospects and maintaining a focus on helping existing businesses. Lincoln County has one industry getting ready to expand, but hasn't seen any substantial growth, says Ashley Banks, executive director of the development authority. Jenkins County also has hopes for the coming year.

Layoffs in the kaolin industry have resulted in the highest unemployment rate in 11 years in Washington County, says Theo McDonald, executive director of the county’s development authority. He believes it has stabilized, however, and is excited about the new Shared Services Center for the University System of Georgia, due to open this month. It will process payroll for the state university system employees. In addition, Lampson Pipe System moved from Tennille to Sandersville, increasing employment by 40-50.

The county has recently formed an arts council. “We have a lot of artists here and believe that to be an untapped resource,” says Ree Garrett, Washington County Chamber of Commerce president. The community is on the March to the Sea Trail and just received new markers to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial, coming up next year.

In Burke County, chamber president Ashley Roberts reports that there are not a lot of new projects, but the One Care Facility expanded to 120,000 square feet and added 50 jobs.

McDuffie County had an increase in jobs due to Thompson Plastics’ consolidation, says Riley Stamey, chairman of McDuffie County Development. Florida Reliant Medical Systems, a company that refurbishes and sells MRI ma-chines, built a 22,000-square-foot facility in Mt. Pleasant Industrial Park and created 20 new jobs.

Range Fuels’ ethanol plant will begin production by late April or May in Treutlen County. John Lee, president of the development authority, adds that Middle Georgia Diversified Industries, which makes shirts for the military, just signed four new contracts, meaning production will increase by 25 percent.

Columbia County has applied to create an Opportunity Zone near Grove-town. Troy Post, development authority executive director, says that the area has a valuable talent pool due to the various industries here, and he’s working on initiatives to keep the industries, even if the jobs move on. He’d like to create an “angel fund” and start an Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club, which would be helpful to people starting a business.

Post is also the chair of the Central Savannah River Unified Development Authority, which is working on rural broadband development through the OneGeorgia Bridge Grant. He’d like to see a regional brand developed for the area.

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