Southwest: Confidence Growing

After several years of just trying To “hold on,” Southwest Georgia’s economic development executives are seeing hope on the horizon. They don’t expect the economy to get better in a hurry, but their confidence is growing as they see projects getting under way and prospects coming out of hibernation.

“The phones are ringing again, and the prospect pipeline is filling up,” says Brad Lofton, executive director of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority. “It looks like 2011 is going to be a good year, definitely a whole lot better than the last 18 months.”

There is good reason for optimism: The county’s biggest taxpayer, Packaging Corpor-ation of America, announced it was planning a $225-million expansion and renovation of its paper mill. “This is a major deal,” says Lofton, who is leaving his post this month to take a job in South Carolina. “It’s the largest single investment ever made in Lown-des County, and not only does it save 350 permanent jobs, it’ll create some 300 construction jobs.”

Also likely to get started is a private prison planned by Cor-rections Corporation of America. “They picked Valdosta after looking at some 40 sites,” Lofton says, adding that the $150-million project will create 400 to 600 jobs, along with several hundred construction jobs.

Valdosta-Lowndes was the region’s growth leader when the economy went off the cliff. “We were told we were the only recession-proof community in Georgia, but I can tell you we have felt the pain,” Lofton says. “It has been tough, but I do think, just like we were one of the last ones in the recession, we’ll be one of the first ones out.”

Cordele-Crisp County’s Bruce Dren-nan shares Lofton’s optimism. His county will be the center of attention this spring when the trains start rolling from the Cordele Intermodal Center, the community’s inland port that was an eight-years-in-the-making project.

“The inland port will definitely be the tide that lifts all boats for our entire area,” says Drennan, executive director of the Cordele-Crisp Industrial Devel-opment Council. “We expect to see 2,500 to 3,000 jobs created over the next three to five years.”

The inland distribution facility will provide companies a faster and cheaper way to ship goods to and from Georgia’s deepwater port in Savannah, Drennan says. Cargo will come in and out of Cordele by truck and to and from the Savannah port by rail.

The facility’s first phase is opening on 40 acres of what will eventually encompass much of an 800-acre site assembled by the development council. Drennan says the huge tract of land is needed for warehousing, distribution centers and other businesses the inland port is expected to attract.

He says several other projects that were on hold because of the economy are now expected to be completed this year.

Don Sims, president of the Thom-asville-Thomas County Chamber of Commerce, also sees 2011 “shaping up to be a very good year. We were holding our own in 2010, but we’re now seeing more confidence in the economy and expect to see some real increases this year.”

Several big projects will be completed in 2011. Thomasville-based Senior Life Insurance Company is opening a new headquarters building, and boiler manufacturer Cleaver-Brooks Inc. is expanding its existing manufacturing plant and moving its corporate headquarters to Thomas-ville. Together, the two are expected to bring some 300 new jobs to Thomas-ville.

The county’s biggest private em-ployer, Archbold Medical Center, continues what Sims says is “the largest construction project in the history of the area,” a $100-million-plus expansion and renovation project several years in the planning.

For Albany-Dougherty County, 2010 was mostly a “holding steady” year, but 2011 is looking better, says Ted Clem, president of the Albany-Dougherty County Economic Develop-ment Commission.

“Our unemployment rate has been constant, and we’ve had some expansions and small companies opening up shop,” Clem says. “In 2010 we had companies exploring but were waiting for the economy to improve. We fully expect 2011 will see more companies bringing projects to fruition.”

Albany’s biggest non-government employer, the Phoebe Putney Health System, announced in December a $195-million deal to buy its competitor, the HCA-owned Palmyra Medical Center, which will become Phoebe North.

“I’m optimistic for 2011 and forward,” says Brian Marlowe, president and CEO of the Tifton-Tift County Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Development Authority. “I feel there is a lot of opportunity for us, especially as a transportation hub attracting companies needing access to I-75.”

Tift started the year with one such business, American Textile Company, which is locating a 218,000-square-foot manufacturing and distribution facility in Tifton. “It is a really good catch and may end up adding up to 200 jobs over time,” says Marlowe.

Lee County is one of the few communities that has seen its retail sector grow in recent years. That’s because Lee is one of the fastest growing and most affluent counties in the region, says Winston Oxford, executive director of the Lee County Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce.

“We have the customers commercial enterprises are looking for, and our Highway 19 corridor continues to be hot,” Oxford says. “A number of other things that have been in the works are expected to come this year, including a new retirement complex. All in all, I think we are going to have a pretty decent year.”

For Early County, 2010 was a year to save jobs. This looks like the year to start adding them. “We hope to have two big announcements soon,” says Lisa Collins, director of economic development for Early County 2055. “If we get both, and I think we will, they’ll bring in 70 to 100 jobs and represent a $17-million investment. For a small, rural community like ours, getting 75 jobs is tremendous.”

Collins says last year’s “big story was the saving of our community hospital,” one of the top employers in the county. After Thomasville’s Archbold Memorial Hospital announced last spring it would not renew the contract to manage the Early Memorial Hos-pital and Nursing Home, the local hospital authority hustled and found a new management partner, Mississippi-based Pioneer Health Services.

For the future, Early 2055 has targeted 26 specific companies identified as “best fits for our community,” says Collins. “Knowing we offer what these companies are looking for should really improve our success rate.”

Dan Bollinger Sr., executive director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission in Camilla, says he expects “more of the same” this year for the 14 mostly rural counties in his region. But that’s not all bad news. “We’re an agricultural region, and the agriculture business has not done too poorly,” Bollinger says. “Yields have been above average and prices have been good and we’re hoping – and expecting – that to continue to be the case this year. A good sign is that our job situation is holding its own.”

Moultrie-Colquitt County is benefiting from a strong agricultural presence. “Compared to many areas of the state, we’re actually doing well because we’re blessed with a strong agriculture economy,” says Darrell Moore, president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Cham-ber of Commerce and the Development Authority. “Our farmers and food-based industries are doing fairly well, we’ve had no plant closings and jobs are holding steady.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t need and want more jobs, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Things seem to be picking up, and there are projects that may see the light of day this year.”

Shelley Zorn, president of the Ashburn-Turner County Chamber of Commerce and the county’s economic developer, is another who has renewed enthusiasm for 2011.

“It’s not gangbusters, but I’m encouraged,” she says. “During the past six months, we’ve had more positive signs we might have a slow turn toward recovery.”

A major plus, Zorn says, was finding a tenant for a spec building started five years ago.

In Worth County, “we’ve been holding our own,” says Greg Sellars, executive director of the county’s economic development authority.

“Many of our businesses are still hurting, but we had no major closings last year. You hear things are picking up in the larger metro areas, but it takes a while for it to trickle down to us.”

Paige Shiver, executive director of the Mitchell County Development Authority, is also looking for that trickle-down growth. “We’ve had some closings, but we did start the year with good news,” she says. “Case IH has taken over one of our empty buildings for a tractor dealership/distribution center and is expanding the building and adding jobs.”

Rick McCaskill, executive director of the Development Authority of Bain-bridge and Decatur County, says he expects 2011 to be better than 2010.

“We had several companies tied to the construction industry that closed last year, but our inquiries are up and I think some of those companies who have been thinking about moving or expanding will do so this year,” he says.

“Things are starting to roll,” McCaskill says. “I can’t say we’re completely over the bad economy, but maybe we’re in a pre-boom year.”

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