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2013 Economic Yearbook: West Central

Enjoying A Resurgence

 

The first thing people like to talk about in Georgia’s west central region is the “Kia juggernaut.” In a down economy, the Korean automaker has become a central focus of economic activity with a bustling plant near West Point in Troup County and a recent commitment to spend a cool billion to keep the lines humming.

While not so obvious or dramatic, there is also a resurgence on town squares and industrial parks throughout the region.

From auto suppliers and call centers to small bookstores, local entrepreneurs are once again stepping up in the face of an uncertain economic climate.

“In the west central part of Georgia, there are projects that continue to help our economy grow and give the region some great successes,” says Becca Hardin, executive vice president of The Valley Partnership in Columbus.

One of the biggest boosts to development came in the form of a yes vote on the one-cent T-SPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). The region was one of just three in the state that passed it. Over the next 10 years, the tax is expected to produce about $600 million to fund transportation improvements. About half of that amount will go to 11 projects in Columbus and Harris County.

“We’re going to be creating construction jobs, and it’s going to open up parts of our county for economic growth that have been struggling,” says Hardin, who is also executive vice president of economic development for the chamber.

In Columbus, the funds will enable interchange improvements on I-85 near Fort Benning. This roadwork will open up access to the new Benning Technology Park for military contractors. When it’s up and running, the park is expected to add almost 2,000 new jobs to the area.

 “Fort Benning is a huge economic engine,” says Gary Jones, the chamber’s executive vice president for economic development and military affairs. “That $4.3 billion [economic impact] is just based on salary and contracts. There’s no rollover factor. That’s the current impact that they’re having out there.”

The entire region cheered recent news that Kia Motors has pledged to invest $1.6 billion over the next 16 years to retool and expand its production capability. To make it possible, the Troup County Development Authority agreed to issue $1 billion in bonds coupled with a $600-million issue by the West Point Development Authority for the improvements.

In return for increased public safety and infrastructure improvements, Kia will pay West Point $6 million over 16 years and an additional $3 million to the county earmarked for a new career academy.

This long-term commitment not only means that Kia will be staying put, but its many suppliers will also continue churning out parts as well.

“They continue to be that catalyst for growth and economic development, providing the opportunity for their Tier One support industries to continue to grow and the opportunity to bring more vendors into Harris County and this region,” says Jayson Johnston, president of the Harris County Cham-ber of Commerce.

Several of those suppliers have located near Kia in Harris County’s Northwest Business Park, including Johnson Controls and Daehan Solu-tions. They and other Tier One suppliers have brought almost 11,000 additional jobs to the region.

These include companies such as Korean auto supplier Mando Corp., which built first one and then a second plant in Meriwether County’s newest industrial park near Luthersville. After investing $200 million in a facility that created more than 400 jobs, the company added a new casting operation. This $80-million facility will build electric power steering gears and electronic stability control modules.

Together the two plants will employ around 1,000 workers when fully operational and become the county’s largest employer.

“That gives us great geographic positioning for the attraction of additional industry,” says Carolyn McKinley, executive director of the Meriwether Cham-ber of Commerce.

Although West Central Georgia is made up of 16 different counties, local economic developers realize that they all benefit – at least indirectly – when a company arrives in the region. That doesn’t mean they won’t fight to land the company in their hometown, but losing out to a neighbor is not necessarily a bad thing, either.

When Mando chose Meriwether over Troup, it was still a victory. Since the park is located on the county line, it buys utilities from Hogansville and employs county residents, according to Page Estes, president of the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce.

“When our region gets a new company, we all win because people are looking for good jobs,” says Estes. “We realize that from a workforce development standpoint, we don’t necessarily have all the right people to be able to move into the jobs that are out there, especially in advanced manufacturing. We’ve had to rethink what we’re doing and rely on our contiguous counties to be able to provide the workforce for these companies.”

Kia and other companies have allowed this region to grow its manufacturing base – a sector that once seemed lost to America. In the past, manufacturing meant textiles that were eventually shipped to low-wage na-tions overseas. These days, the talk is of advanced manufacturing where technology can help erase the wage differences through greater efficiency.

Troup County, for example, boasts one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the region, with 66 different companies employing almost 16,000 workers.

Even counties that haven’t won a Kia supplier are seeing an upsurge in manufacturing. Americus in Sumter County is now home to an expanded group of companies that includes Sak Marine Company, Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co., Container Market-ing Inc., PharmaCentra and PetCareRx.

“About 10 years ago, we were heavily employed in manufacturing – probably over 25 percent,” explains David Gar-riga, executive director of the Americus-Sumter County Payroll Development Authority. “In recent years we lost a substantial amount of the sector, but now we’re seeing a lot of growth. We have an abundance of empty buildings, and that has created a market of its own because we have facilities that people can move into fairly quickly.”

During the economic downturn, those hit hardest tended to be the most rural counties. Many had already suffered losses with the flight of textiles and other manufacturers overseas. In recent years, the “Kia effect” has benefited some, but not others who are a little too far from the main plant.

Pike County is one of those areas outside the zone where suppliers want to locate. As a result “we’re just really concentrating on [the industries] we have existing right now,” says Christy Hammons, executive director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce.

While the county’s largest employer, truck bed fabricator Supreme Corp., announced that it is adding back additional production lines and rehiring laid off workers, the focus here is on small businesses.

In the county seat of Zebulon, you see a trend that has taken shape in small towns throughout the region. Spruced up downtowns are working to attract unique businesses that can bring customers from other counties and maybe even bigger cities such as Columbus, Macon and Atlanta.

Here, one of the most successful small businesses is a bookstore. A Novel Experience opened downtown four years ago and quickly built up a loyal clientele that thinks nothing of driving many miles to check out its offerings.

“We’ve got a plan for recruiting niche businesses,” says Hammons. “We’ve been trying to get the spaces around the square filled.”

Zebulon hired a retail consultant to identify what businesses were best suited to fill out the downtown area. The top priority was one-of-a-kind stores that could become attractions in their own right. In this case, the bookstore was Exhibit A, as the overwhelming majority of its customers were from out of the county.

Throughout West Central Georgia, there is a palpable sense of optimism that times are getting better. There are still concerns about big events far beyond county borders, but there is also a quiet resolve that no matter what happens they will keep moving forward. 

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