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2013 Economic Yearbook: Southwest

A Widespread Optimism

 

“We’re sure not booming, but we’re getting there.”

Lee County’s Winston Oxford is talking about his coun-ty, but he could be speaking for the entire South-west Georgia region. After several years of struggling with an ailing economy, the region’s economic developers are ready for some good economic times and most agree they may be starting, admittedly at a modest pace.

The optimism is widespread, although some areas are seeing more actual signs of growth than others. Leading the upward trend: retail, existing industry expansion and agriculture, long the region’s economic mainstay and about the only consistent bright spot in recent years. 

 Oxford, executive director of the Lee County Chamber and Development Au-thority, is among those seeing both potential and real signs of a growing economy.

“We started the year with a new Chick-fil-A and a new GM dealership under construction and a John Deere dealership due to break ground later this year,” he says. “Our retail business has helped us weather the economic downturn a little better than many others. Our tax base has remained consistent and even grown a little, but it’s been a struggle.”

Oxford sees better days ahead. “Last year was better than 2011, and we expect 2013 will be even better,” he says. “I’m elated about how many potential prospects we have. I’ve got a double handful of prospects really interested, so it looks very promising.” 

A number of communities have used the downtimes to prepare for future growth. “In 2010, we came up with a three-year strategic plan,” says Bruce Drennan, executive director of the Cordele-Crisp County Industrial Development Council. “In 2011, we began preparing for the upturn. In 2012 we started instituting the ideas, and now we think this will be our year.”

It looks like he’s right. A manufacturer of railroad crossties opened in February, a wood pellet manufacturer has plans for a facility nearby, and Owens Corning announced that, after a four-year delay, it would get under way this year on a fiberglass insulation plant.

Drennan credits the community’s inland port, the Cordele Intermodal Center, for helping attract the crosstie and wood pellet manufacturers, which will be shipping internationally. Cor-dele’s center, a staging area for container cargo to and from the Port of Savannah, began operation in fall 2011.

“We’re now shipping about two trains a week, and interest is picking up as people find out how much time and money it saves,” Drennan says.

Like Drennan, Ted Clem, president of the Albany-Dougherty County Eco-nomic Development Commission, is looking at better years ahead with the help of a new strategic plan and a new incentive package.

“I’m excited about 2013 because we’ll begin implementing our new strategic plan,” he says. “We call it the ‘three R’s’ plan for recruitment, retention and renewal. It’s a back-to-basics approach to growing our local economy.”

Clem says there is also “a new tool in our toolbox” to attract business to Albany, a $20-million incentive package approved by the city “to help us close deals.

“In 2012, we added some new retail, some new restaurants and saw some of our local manufacturers expand,” Clem says. “There are still a lot of unknowns causing uncertainty about the economy, but we’re anticipating 2013 will be a good year.”

One of the region’s most enthusiastic reports comes from Brian Marlowe, president and CEO of the Tifton-Tift County Chamber of Commerce and the Development Authority. “We had a great 2012 and expect even better this year,” he says. “In 2012, we announced about 1,000 new jobs and $28 million in investment. We’re filling up our empty space and now need to get some more facilities.”

For 2013, Marlowe says, “We’ve got several new manufacturing projects we’re working on and a lot of interest in retail, especially restaurants. Almost all of our local industries expanded last year or are looking to expand this year. I’m really positive about what the future holds.”

Increased economic activity has An-drea Schruijer, executive director of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority, excited about 2013. “We saw a lot of activity in the fall, and that’s continued this year,” she says. “Last year was great for our retail sector and expansion of existing industries, and we’re seeing more activity in both areas this year. We’re also starting to see more inquiries from new prospects.”

Valdosta-Lowndes has been busy preparing for future growth. “Our community has invested $13 million in two new industrial parks,” Schruijer says. “We now have three industrial parks certified as Georgia Ready for Accel-erated Development (GRAD) sites.”

 Even during the recent years, agriculture has been a steady economic force for much of Southwest Georgia, and it looks like that will continue.

“We’re primarily an agriculture area,” says Robert McDaniel, executive director of the Camilla-based Southwest Georgia Regional Commission, which covers 14 mostly rural counties. “Our farmers have been very successful, and when they’re doing well that means they have dollars to spend, and that helps everyone else.”

Agriculture has been the saving grace for Moultrie-Colquitt County’s economy, says Darrell Moore, president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Cham-ber of Commerce and the Development Authority. “Agriculture had a great year in 2012, and it looks like another strong year this year,” he says. “Our retail and commercial business is stable and our existing industry is steady, so hopefully business will now start moving ahead.”

Paige Gilchrist, executive director of the Mitchell County Development Authority, says she feels “very positive” about 2013. “We had several good expansions last year, and this year is looking even better,” she says. “We celebrated the grand opening of a new Super Walmart in January, and one of our larger companies, Okinus Credit Solutions, is scheduled to add 50 to 60 more jobs this year.”

Don Sims, president of the Thomas-ville-Thomas County Chamber of Commerce, says his community has been able to hold its own fairly well in recent years, primarily because of a growing hospital system and strong local companies, like baked goods giant Flowers Foods, which has its corporate headquarters in Thomasville.

“We have 122 industries that seem to have weathered the economic storm, and many are now looking at expansions,” Sims says. “2012 was a quiet year, but we did see some retail growth near the end of the year. We’re now seeing more prospects.”

Shelley Zorn, president of the Ash-burn-Turner County Chamber of Com-merce, says that after “several tough years,” her community “saw improvement in 2012 and I’m optimistic for this year. We have a new restaurant and some new shops downtown, and our main exit off I-75 is starting to draw more attention for businesses after Carroll’s Sausage & Country Store opened last fall,” she says. “Carroll’s has become a real tourist destination, and now others are looking at locating nearby.”

Tina Herring, director of the Brooks County Development Authority, is cautiously optimistic about economic growth in 2013.

“It’s still slow, but if things work out it could be a good year for us,” she says. “Last year was not great, but it could have been worse. Fortunately, agriculture has been good and has really helped us.”

Karen Rackley, president/executive director of the Sylvester-Worth County Chamber of Commerce, says farming and healthy existing businesses have kept her community “moving ahead” in recent tough years. “We actually are doing really well and are starting to see more activity,” she says.

“We’re blessed that we have a lot of farmers, and they’ve been having some great years. We want to take care of our existing businesses, but we would love to see new companies moving here. We’re developing a new industrial park, so we will be ready.”

Lisa Collins, director of economic development for Early County 2055, has been planning for 2013 – and beyond. “We began the second phase of our 50-year revitalization plan in January, and this time we’ve set the bar a little higher – an eight-year plan called Vision 2020,” Collins says.

“We accomplished every goal in our first phase. People in the community have proven it can be done. We’re already working with three business prospects that are looking really good for this year.”

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