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2013 Economic Yearbook: East Central

Energized By Biofuel

 

With several biofuel projects kicking into gear this year in East Central Georgia, pine is starting to smell like money.

“The European continent is under mandate to decrease the amount of fossil fuels – i.e., coal – they use to manufacture electricity over there,” says Charles Lee, executive director of the Development Authority of Washington County. “To offset that, they are ramping up the use of wood pellets to generate the power.”

Known as the “wood basket,” this region of the state is seeing growth in an industry that didn’t even exist a few years ago.

    In Washington County, the $60-million General Biofuels plant will manufacture about 440,000 tons of wood pellets each year, bringing 35 jobs to the county.

Over in Warren County, Enova Energy Group will also be building a wood pellet manufacturing facility. The $115-million investment will include 65 direct jobs, with upwards of 300 indirect jobs created within a 60- to 80-mile radius, along with 400 construction jobs.

“Right now it’s a big trend because of the ports mainly, and because we have the raw material – we’re in the middle of the wood basket,” says O.B. McCorkle, president of the Warren County Chamber of Commerce and the Warren County Development Authority. “There’s a lot of pine, so they come here not only for the wood, but also [because] there’s great transportation to the ports that’s direct to Europe.”

While biofuel plants continue to crop up, another form of green energy is beginning to see the light in Washing-ton County. Smart Energy is partnering with Jacoby Development outside Dav-isboro on the 80-acre Azalea Solar Farm, a $50-$100 million investment that will generate 75 jobs.

The passage of last year’s controversial T-SPLOST will have a big impact on the area, too – most of the counties are part of the Central Savannah River Area or Heart of Georgia – Altamaha regions, two of the three districts that passed the T-SPLOST in the state.

“Anytime you can improve your road network infrastructure, you improve economic development,” says Jack Bareford, president of the Emanuel County Development Authority. “It will give us an edge, because we’re willing to invest extra money to making our road systems better.”

“We’re excited about it,” says Washington County’s Lee. “With us being located between I-16 and I-20 – we’re about halfway between them – there’s not a good four-lane route connecting those two interstates north-south bound. So this will be a good step in that process of developing a good north-south corridor for transportation purposes.”

 “It’s going to be a major improvement,” says Walter Sprouse, executive director of the Development Authority of Richmond County. “It’s going to be a big plus, because we’re already telling companies we passed the T-SPLOST, so that means there’s going to be additional funds for area [road] projects.”

The region is also seeing big changes in the education sector. Augusta State College and Georgia Health Sciences University merged to form Georgia Reg-ents University Augusta.

East Georgia State College in Swainsboro made the switch from a two-year college to become a four-year institution. This fall, it will launch its first degree program in biology.

A new career center was just completed in Warren County as well, through a partnership between the Warren County Board of Education and the Oconee Fall Line Technical College. A $3-million grant will help restore the county’s former high school as the career academy’s new home.

A Career Center opened in Wilkes County in conjunction with Athens Technical College.

“That’s an exciting step for us, because we can start educating our workforce so that we can keep the industry we have and get new industry in,” says David Jenkins, executive director of the Washington/Wilkes County Payroll Authority. 

Georgia Southern has become more involved with economic development, not just in Statesboro, but across the state. The state of Georgia transferred ownership to the university of the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center, which will remain in Savannah.

“It can help everybody in the region,” says Benjy Thompson, CEO of the Bulloch County Development Authority. “It gives Georgia Southern another opportunity to research in applicable areas to try to help business and industry be more successful, based on the works being done on campus, and hopefully create more jobs across the state.”

In Lincolnton, a new art incubator project opened to encourage local artists and bring more tourism into the downtown.

“We feel like we do have a strong art community and a lot of local artists,” says Ashley Swain, executive director of the Lincoln County Development Au-thority. “We have a pretty prominent folk artist here, and there’s also a lot of musicians from Lincolnton. We think it would be a good way to bring tourism downtown.”

In Warrenton, the Fox Institute awarded a $20,000 grant to rehabilitate the 1930 Knox Theatre. The nonprofit will also help with marketing and PR to promote the theater once it reopens. 

Metter just recently completed phase two of its streetscape project, with new pavers, benches and light posts. Phase three will begin in 2013. The downtown area has seen several new businesses open.

“We’ve been really receptive in our downtown area for the past year to younger and newer entrepreneurs. They’re coming in, and they’re taking advantage of all the things you can get with small business development now,” says Jaime Riggs, executive director of the Candler County Chamber of Commerce and Better Hometown.

Several counties saw new industry come to the region, while others had existing industries expand. 

In Bulloch County, Virocon temporarily closed its facility and underwent a $6.2-million refurbishment this past summer. “They made a significant investment in the original facility, then asked all the employees who were furloughed to come back,” Thompson says. “About 85 percent of the employees came back to work at the plant.”

In Burke County, construction on Plant Vogtle continues.

Nordson Corp. in Emanuel County celebrated its ribbon cutting on a larger facility at the beginning of 2012 and has since added 200 employees. R&F Mark-eting added 50 jobs over the course of 2012.

In Augusta, Starbucks broke ground on its first plant in the state, representing an investment of $172 million. The coffee retailer expects to create more than 140 jobs. The LEED-certified facility will produce soluble products for Starbucks’ ready-to-drink products. Medac expanded in Augusta as well, adding 60 to 70 jobs.

Cannon Supply Co. moved into a 25,000-square-foot space in Columbia County with four employees.

This past year, McDuffie Regional Medical Center transferred ownership to the University Health Care System, which is building a new $25-million University Hospital McDuffie to replace existing facilities.

PyraMax Ceramics opened a 200,000-square-foot, $120-million facility near Wrens in Jefferson County, creating 70 jobs.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” says Lil Easterlin, executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Com-merce. “It’s a pretty large investment for Jefferson County, an anchor tenant in a new industrial park that we’re just developing, so it’s exciting to get somebody in the park.”

Jenkins County welcomed a new prison, owned by private firm Correc-tions Corporation of America, and hired 200 people.

In Lincoln County, Adrenaline Powerboats is expanding, moving into a 14,000-square-foot facility in the Lin-coln County Industrial Park and adding five to 10 jobs.

Many credit a determination to work together for the region’s newfound prosperity.

Counties along the I-16 corridor from Macon to Savannah – including Bulloch, Candler, Emanuel and Treutlen – have joined together to promote themselves to potential industrial prospects as the I-16 Corridor Alliance.

“We’re trying to develop a more regional approach to economic development. Everyone who’s along I-16 – Dublin, Macon, Savannah, the port has really backed us on all this,” says Candler County’s Riggs. “We understand that we’re a lot of little fish in a big pond and would like to take a more regional approach, because whatever we get here in the region is going to affect and help all of us.” 

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