Northeast: High Hopes

In the middle of January, right after a heavy winter storm, 400 hopeful people from across Northeast Georgia slid into Gainesville on slick roads for a job fair. They must have liked their odds.

ZF Wind Power LLC was looking to build a workforce of some 225 to make gearboxes for wind energy turbines at its new $100-million, 250,000-square-foot facility in Gainesville Business Park.

“Turnout was incredible on a day when a lot of people couldn’t even get out of their driveways,” says Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Cham-ber of Commerce.

The company plans to start producing gearboxes by the end of this year or early next in Hall County, where the wheels of industrial development are moving at ridiculous speed, considering the economic sludge most of the country is stuck in.

“It would not be an overstatement to say that 2010 might have been the best year we’ve had in a decade in terms of business expansion and recruitment,” Evans says. “I think we’ve got such a diversified economic base, and that buffers us from the worst part of an economic recession.

“We’ve got a very diverse economy growing in Hall County, and in Northeast Georgia in general.”

Plus, fate and politics seem to favor the region – the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house are all from Northeast Georgia.

But unemployment remains higher than the average in some places (over 14 percent in Elbert County, for example). According to David Sargent, economic development director for the Georgia Mountains Regional Commis-sion (GMRC), 956 jobs were lost last year in his coverage area, which in-cludes 12 counties.

Nonetheless, commissions such as the GMRC and the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission (NEGRC) were busy chasing (often acquiring) grants and loans to serve projects throughout the region, such as the $8.6-million grant for a sewer project in Lula, $1 million to assist Hall County in purchasing land for ZF Wind Power, and the millions the NEGRC is trying to secure for streetscape projects and other economic programs in places like Bogart, Greensboro, Jefferson and Elbert County.

On a regional scale, though, unemployment in Northeast Georgia was about a percentage point lower than the state average (10.4 percent in December). Most of the regions’ economic development crowd had just enough success and has just enough potential to feel confident about 2011 and beyond.

Six companies brought 800 new jobs to Jackson County, including concrete products manufacturer Dayton Super-ior, a Safelite AutoGlass (distribution center), TranSouth Logistics, Lion Apparel and electronics retailer Sys-temax, which hired 400 people for its distribution and retail center.

“Our lifeline is Interstate 85,” explains Courtney Bernardi, director of economic development for the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “We’re very lucky to have six exits off the interstate. It makes us very attractive.”

Hall County got $217 million in new capital investment last year, which meant 16 new or expanded industries, 870 new jobs and the retention of 115 existing ones.

Newcomers include King’s Hawaiian (a bakery/distribution center in a 110,000-square-foot facility where roughly 120 new employees will start work in the fall) and American Yazaki, which makes fuel tanks that reduce greenhouse gases. The company is bringing 40 jobs to the new North American headquarters at Gainesville Industrial Park West.

Then there’s ZF Wind Power, a division of the Germany-based ZF Group, whose ZF Industries has been manufacturing transmissions for commercial vehicles in Hall County for about 20 years. ZF Wind Power is the more lucrative of two large renewable-energy related projects in Northeast Georgia.

The other one is in Blairsville/Union County, where a five-acre solar farm commissioned by ESA Renewables of Lake Mary, Fla., will produce 1.3 kilowatts of clean energy annually for purchase by the Tennessee Valley Au-thority (TVA). The farm will use solar modules developed by Norcross-based Suniva.

“This project could be the great differentiator for Northeast Georgia,” says Erik Brinke, director of economic development for Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, the local electrical membership corporation and TVA distributor. “It certainly put us on the renewable energy map.”

Blue Ridge Mountain EMC and the TVA also assisted the Union County Development Authority in designing and building a pair of new spec buildings at Blairsville’s Airport Industrial Park. The two open-sided 8,000-square-foot buildings (separated by 4,000-square-feet of open space) can easily be adapted into one large building.

But the big news for Union County and the upper part of the region continues to be development of the North Georgia Network, the $33.5-million federal stimulus initiative (announced in 2009) to develop a fiber-optic broadband network in the region.

The deadline for completion is November 2012. The North Georgia Network Cooperative recently hired a full-time president/CEO: Bruce Abra-ham, former executive director of the Lumpkin County authority. The current plan is to extend the network across 13 Northeast Georgia counties.

“Now we have to build a world-class fiber-optic network,” says Abraham, who spends much of his time based at co-op member North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega. “We’re talking about unlimited capability. We haven’t found the outward limits of what this fiber can carry.”

According to some, business pros-pects are or soon will be circling Northeast Georgia in anticipation of the network. Sean Brady, executive director of the Development Authority of Rabun County, says the network will emerge where he needs it most – at the Rabun Business Park, an adaptive reuse project at the old Levi’s plant (dormant since closing shop five years ago).

“This broadband network will open doors we haven’t been able to crack before,” Brady says.

The business park already has attracted one tenant. Gap Partners, which fabricates sheet metal, had outgrown its old facility and was planning to leave Rabun County. Instead, it moved to the new business park, saving 50 local jobs and creating 40 more. The company is considering an expansion of another 100,000 square feet.

Brady says the local quality of life in a picturesque rural mountain community, with several lakes, high-speed broadband, plus 300,000 square feet of new manufacturing space and 20,000 square feet of office space (and only 90 minutes from Atlanta) mean Rabun is positioned well for future business growth.

Athens-Clarke County saw the beginning of classes last fall at the new Medical Partnership Campus, a merger of the University of Georgia and Georgia Health Sciences University (formerly Medical College of Georgia). Last year, Reinicke Athens expanded, breaking ground on an $8-million, 200,000-square-foot steel manufacturing plant, creating about 50 jobs in the process. Another existing firm, Ever-green Packaging, which produces juice cartons, was being considered for a $26-million expansion by its parent company.

In Dawson County, AmeriVap Systems, which manufactures dry steam sanitizing equipment, is bringing 25 new jobs, and hotel interior designer Monolith Hospitality located its corporate headquarters in the county. Meanwhile, vacancy at the North Georgia Outlet Mall is close to zero. “Retail is back,” says Charlie Auver-mann, executive director of the development authority.

German company Moeller Tech, which manufactures plastic parts for the auto industry, invested $9.75 million on a plant in Elbert County. Canadian firm Zeroloft, maker of “Aerogel,” state-of-the-art clothing insulation, created 30 jobs and spent about $3 million upgrading an old silk mill.

Richard B. Russell State Park, one of Georgia’s most visited, will finally get broadband connectivity, which should enhance the tourist experience there.

Habersham County has Hollywood on the brain – Universal Studios filmed Wanderlust there, and Habersham has been named a Camera Ready Com-munity. (The state program promotes counties to the movie industry and helps facilitate access to area resources.)

The city of Crawford underwent a $7.6-million sewer system project, bringing service for the first time to Lexington (which recently established a Downtown Development Authority) and other parts of Oglethorpe County.

Two new companies – G-M Wood Products of Michigan and Crown Resources of South Carolina – brought a few jobs and the hope of more to Stephens County; Fannin County has developed a fully loaded, ready to go 42,500-square-foot spec building on five acres; the $24-million Jennings Mill Parkway extension road project is nearing completion in Oconee County, where a 450,000-square-foot retail project is on tap; and the new Ty Cobb Memorial Hospital broke ground in Franklin County.

The northern part of the region is wine country, and there was some expansion there also – Frogtown Cellars, based in Lumpkin, is opening tasting rooms in Helen (White County) and Dawsonville, and the second annual White County Cork & Keg beer and wine festival will take shape in May at the Helen Festhalle.

Cleveland also is home base for one of the region’s most important business partners – ACE (Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs), which made $1.2 million in loans to 68 small businesses employing 345 people. In January, ACE announced a new loan pool of $630,000 ($605,000 from USDA Rural Develop-ment and the rest from the Bank of America).

“In this economy, it’s hard for an entrepreneur to get money from the bank,” says White County Chamber of Commerce President Judy Walker. “ACE has been a tremendous help for small businesses, which is huge because traditionally, small businesses create the most new jobs.”

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