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2013 Economic Yearbook: Northwest

Staging A Comeback

 

New technology and a housing thaw have accelerated a comeback in the hard-hit northwest Georgia region, which depends mostly on a cluster of big flooring companies, resulting in better-paying positions and more opportunity for advancement for industry employees.

Green initiatives are producing dollars: Flooring company Mohawk, which is based in Gordon Coun-ty’s Calhoun, announced it would create 500 jobs at its Summer-ville plant in Chattooga County to improve its ability to manufacture recycled products.

“Mohawk is huge for us,” says Jimmy Phillips, president of the Gordon County Chamber of Commerce. “They are hiring to im-plement a new process of extrusion using a new technology from Ger-many as part of their green effort to expand their line of EverStrand carpet fiber, which is made from plastic bottles.”

The jobs will be phased in over five years and will require an unprecedented workforce training effort, using an on-site campus to train workers in conjunction with Technical College System of Georgia’s Quick Start program. Once the workers are trained, they will be in a position to earn $16 to $25 an hour, up from the usual $8 to $10 range typical for flooring manufacturing. “We hope it will raise our per capita income,” says Phillips.

“We’ve also had more mid-level commercial activity in 2012 than we’ve had in the last five years,” he adds. “A four-story Mar-riott is coming in at Calhoun Prem-ium Outlets at Interstate 75 exit 312, and our new Union Grove interchange at I-75 is under construction.”

Many counties in the region are banking on the arts. Murray County has created a new arts council, Go Murray Arts, directed by community arts veteran John Christian. “We hope it will bring in some new retailers and add some life to the city,” says Dinah Rowe, president and CEO of the Chatsworth-Murray County Chamber of Commerce. Some $445,000 in grants from ArtPlace, a national nonprofit, are helping clean up the late folk artist Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden near Summerville, a marvel of offbeat sculpture and painting.

Haralson County, at the southern end of the region, has also incorporated the arts into its Grow Haralson initiative. The Smithsonian traveling exhibit New Harmonies will come to Bremen this year. April is Buy Local & Buy Chamber month, and the chamber’s Tourism Team is working with the Highway 27 Association to draw tourism to the counties traversed by the corridor. Haralson is both Work Ready and Camera Ready, designations that put it at the front of the line for Georgia economic development prospects.

The entire region will benefit from a $21-million grant to install fiber-optic cable along U.S. 27, which runs parallel to I-75; it’s the latest in the Appalachian Valley Fiber Network initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Walker County has seen several expansions – $3 million in upgrades and 60 hires for United Synthetics, an industrial fiber maker in LaFayette; another $2.5 million and 60 jobs at LaFayette carpet maker Syntech Industries; and 100 jobs at the GE Roper stove and oven plant – attributed to the fiber upgrades. Additionally, Phillips Ma-chine Co. will invest $3 million to move into the former Blue Bird plant, adding 40 to 50 jobs.

Businesses are eyeing industrial parks along U.S. 27, which has been widened to four lanes over the last decade to give trucks an alternative route to I-75. “In cooperation with the [UGA] Fanning Institute, we’re constructing a $100,000 speculative building in Cedartown North Industrial Park, and we’ve submitted a 220-acre site for Georgia Ready for Accel-erated Development certification,” says Eric McDonald, president of the Polk County Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority.

Southern Company will hire 1,000 construction workers to implement $700 million in improvements in Geor-gia Power’s Plant Bowen in Bartow County. While the project will run out in three years, that is a big employment number for Bartow. 

“In addition, Voestalpine, an auto supplier, will be the first tenant in our industrial park,” says Melinda Lemmon, executive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Devel-opment. “They will supply BMW and Mercedes with parts, and we are honored they chose our community to invest $62 million and create 220 jobs.”

Lemmon is also thrilled that Bass Pro Shops will open a location in the county’s LakePoint Development, an investment of $25 million that will create 200 jobs.

“We’ve been working on that since 2009,” says Lemmon. “When it opens in 2014, LakePoint will be a big draw, including a wakeboard park and other attractions.”

Additionally, Cartersville Medical Center is building a $30-million expansion to double the emergency department, add a patient floor and fix up the building façade; the project is expected to bring 100 temporary jobs and 45 permanent ones to the community.

Collectively, Lemmon sees 692 jobs coming to Bartow in addition to the construction work.

Lowe’s is bringing a distribution center to Rome, creating 600 jobs over the next three years for the $125-million, 1.4-million-square-foot facility, in what was named a Deal of the Year by the Georgia Economic Developers Association. Accessibility to corridors like U.S. 27 and I-75 was listed as a big factor in the North Carolina home im-provement retailer’s decision.

Foss Manufacturing Company will add a new manufacturing plant in Rome, creating 150 jobs and investing $15 million, rehabbing a building once occupied by Mohawk. F&P Georgia expanded its machinery operation in 2012, creating an additional 100 jobs; its fifth expansion was driven by the region’s workforce skills.

Northwest Georgia seeks to benefit from a tri-state regional initiative to make the most of Chattanooga’s Volks-wagen plant, says Brian Anderson, president and CEO of the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce. That massive project has employed 3,500 as of the end of 2012 and is likely to increase. “We’re trying to get ahead of infrastructure needs and the impact of such a large economic investment, so we’ve pulled 16 counties together from Georgia, Ten-nessee and Alabama,” he says. “We have five counties in Georgia, and we seek to create a 40-year timeline of response efforts from the end of our three years of planning.”

VW has been good for the beleaguered carpet capital of the world; Mohawk’s greening effort and a national housing thaw has also been good for business.

“Our ties to the regional initiative have created a significant uptick in project inquiries, in terms of number and diversity – all kinds of advanced manufacturing, food processing and defense contracts,” says Anderson.

“We see a robust transformation and reinvestment in technologies in the flooring industry, so when housing picks up they will be ready,” he says. “Our commercial sector is already doing well, and now forecasters are calling for 15 to 20 percent in single and multifamily home construction over the next three years – that’s a lot of volume, and 60 percent of the flooring business is new construction.”

Anderson says the region is transitioning into a 24-7 workforce and higher-quality jobs. He notes that the county has topped the unemployment rate charts for a long time. “It wears on the community psyche. So to have some good news is nice. Our return to growth will remain slow, but I expect some big announcements in 2013.”

In terms of workforce, he says, “So much of it is so high-tech, such as programmable logic controllers. In fact 300 to 500 of the new jobs coming to the region will pay $40,000 to $60,000 annually. Part of the retooling requires re-training, and our government and technical college system has to fast-track individuals that are pre-screened and identified to have a mechanical or electrician type background, to see if they have accelerated skills development.

“I wish we could have had those programs and jobs yesterday. But with VW, high-tech manufacturing and the carpet industry retooling, the training pace and pipeline fill hasn’t caught up with those three high-demand positions. Once we get those 300 to 500 trained, there will be an ongoing need for 50 to 150 people a year in those positions – such as an extruder operator making $20 to $30 an hour,” Anderson says. “This not only maximizes productivity with technology, but allows employees to move up and benefit along with the company.” 

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