Moultrie/Colquitt County: A Unique Partnership

Local leaders and UGA experts team up to guide growth

A statistical snapshot of life in Moultrie and Colquitt County taken in 2001 would not be something locals would want to carry in their wallets or place on the mantel.

Between September 2000 and August 2001, the county lost more than 500 jobs as plants closed faster than a bad play. Unemployment then hovered around 6 percent, and the high school dropout rate topped 35 percent, much higher than Georgia’s already dismal 21 percent.

A snoozing new home construction industry threatened to go into a coma as the county issued as few as nine, sometimes 10, building permits annually. “I can remember well when South Georgia wasn’t doing too hot,” says Darrell Moore, president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce. “We had several years when we experienced closures, when the unemployment was high. But 2001 was also the year that began to turn around.”

The turning point was the 2001 opening of National Beef, a meat processor that brought a modest 120 jobs to Moultrie. “Since then, it has gotten better and better,” says Moore, with an understatement unique among Georgia economic developers and chamber of commerce boosters.

A portrait of life in the Colquitt County of 2007 might be blurred by a historic growth pattern moving toward warp speed. More than 2,000 new jobs have landed here in the past three years, helping drop the unemployment rate to 4 percent, lower than Georgia’s average of 4.1 percent (as of May 2007). Colquitt County’s state graduation test scores are steadily rising and dropout rates are declining, sometimes in a most dramatic fashion.

But it’s new single-family home construction – planned and begun – that is stunning the region. By the end of May 2007, 47 new subdivisions containing 900 lots had been approved, with 366 building permits issued by the county, most of them for new homes. “This will probably be a record year for us in homebuilding,” says county administrator J.D. Byrd, his dry humor apparent.



Expert Assistance


Such an explosion of economic growth – and its implied population growth – could overwhelm a county that grew by less than 3,000 people during the entire last half of Georgia’s booming ’90s. Fortunately, thanks to an earlier series of positive events, Colquitt’s leaders had expert assistance handling their community’s growth.

Back in 2005, poultry processor Sanderson Farms announced plans to open a plant in Colquitt, bringing nearly 1,500 jobs – and the possibility of overloading local infrastructure. In addition, Colquitt County’s Hispanic population – long attracted by farm jobs – was set to swell with the lure of better paying industrial employment.

That’s when locals decided they needed some help. “In 2005 Sanderson Farms was under construction,” Moore recalls. “We knew there would be those 1,400 or so jobs; National Beef was expanding rapidly, as were other local industries and businesses. We knew that new people would be moving into the community and we were looking to have managed growth. That’s when UGA [the University of Georgia] was invited down.”

While Moultrie was wrestling with the dramatic effects of a rapidly changing culture and economy, leaders at UGA were looking for a laboratory of sorts in which to further fulfill its mission as a land grant university. And so it was that in early 2005 a team of UGA economic development experts came to Moultrie to begin a series of conversations with their hosts.

“It happened to be one of those situations where the community’s needs and the university’s interests all converged,” says Dennis Epps, a UGA public service faculty member and the coordinator for the Archway Project, a first-of-its-kind product of that happy convergence.

Officially begun July 1, 2005, Archway has brought to Moultrie and Colquitt County an array of economic development talent and resources rarely if ever offered to a Georgia community. Archway’s goal, according to its mission statement, “is to deliver a full range of University of Georgia resources to counties facing significant issues related to economic development.” Set for a two-year run, Archway had an immediate impact on this community.

First on Archway’s to-do list was replacing Moultrie’s wastewater treatment facility. “The community had been growing at a fairly slow pace over many, many years,” Epps says. “Then all of a sudden it began to grow quickly. The wastewater treatment capacity was ample one day and then, almost overnight, became a perceived threat to further development.”

A team of UGA experts came to the city’s aid and helped secure the required approval of the state’s Environmental Protection Division for a badly needed and long delayed permit for construction of a new wastewater treatment plant. Colquitt County’s citizens joined the Archway Project team by voting overwhelmingly for a $30 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) on last November’s ballot, with part of the money going to help build the new treatment plant. The county’s aging roads and bridges were further impediments to continued growth; $12 million generated the latest SPLOST will bankroll their refurbishment over the next few years.



The Next Phase

In order to more carefully manage growth – not only are there 47 new subdivisions, there’s also a rapidly expanding retail sector – local leaders passed countywide land use ordinances last January. “We wanted to make sure we got the proper residential housing,” says John B. “Benny” Alderman, who chairs the county commission. “And we wanted to make sure we got the proper industries in the proper places, and Archway has been a tremendous help in keeping us on track there.”

Colquitt County’s industrial au-thority continued the managed-growth trend as plans for a new combination office and light industry park unfolded. Planners of the 120-acre Citizens Business Park brought a team of faculty, staff and students from UGA’s Archway Project to assist with planning and development. Citizen’s Business Park will have, says the development authority’s Moore, “covenants as stringent as you will see outside of Metro Atlanta.”

UGA students from Archway are designing signs at the entrance to the park and helping the chamber of commerce with promotional materials. “We are looking to attract some higher paying industries and some larger investments to Moultrie and Colquitt County that would separate us from other communities in South Georgia,” Moore says.

Citizens Business Park straddles Georgia Highway 133, a route that directly connects Moultrie to South Georgia’s two nearby metropolitan cities (Albany and Valdosta), and provides a southward connection to Interstate 75.

That quick geography lesson may explain why Alderman is anxious for the completion of plans to widen the state road to four lanes. “That gives us a four-lane road to metro cities of 100,000 population each,” he says. “And it gives us a four-lane connection to I-75 south. That is a nice addition to our four-lane connection [U.S. Highway 319] to I-10 in Florida. We’re going to have growth coming to us from all directions.” The Highway 133 rights-of-way acquisitions have been accelerated, with work set to begin in 2010.



Education Is Key


With higher paying jobs falling into place, and plans under way to attract even more, leaders here are working to make sure the workforce is ready to take those jobs and do them well. The first target is the dropout rate, which may explain intense local interest in the success of a dual enrollment collaboration between Moultrie Technical College and one local and three regional high schools.

The program, which allows high school students to attend classes offered by Moultrie Tech, has succeeded over the past three years in producing graduation rates for its participants of between 95 percent and 100 percent, an amazing accomplishment in a state where the workforce average is less than 79 percent. For dual enrollment students, the key to success can lie in a discovery.

“They often find careers they might not have considered or thought they could enter,” says Tina Anderson, president of Moultrie Tech. “There is also a confidence factor, an ‘I can do this’ attitude.”

Moultrie Tech’s 314 dual enrollment student population currently is Georgia’s second largest. Anderson sees the sparkling graduation rates among dual enrollment students as a perfect fit for Moultrie’s growth plans. “Industries looking to come here see that and know they have a more trainable workforce and that’s certainly an attraction,” she says.

For years, Colquitt County’s schools were “absolutely exhausted, not worn out, not tired, but absolutely exhausted,” says Leonard McCoy, the county’s superintendent of schools. “The infrastructure of Colquitt County schools, with only a few exceptions, was in need of extreme attention.”

Thanks to a bit of serendipity, help arrived with cash in hand. The school system is at the end of seven-year, $57 million renovation program to upgrade its facilities. The renovations were started just in time for Moultrie’s present boom period.

Though student population growth here has been manageable, classroom demographics were changing dramatically as more and more Hispanics arrived to take the new and better paying jobs in poultry and meat processing plants. In 2000, Hispanics made up 24 percent of the county’s population, according to the Census Bureau. That figure has grown significantly in the last seven years.

To meet the challenges of language and culture, McCoy turned to the now familiar faces at Archway. “We have had great support from Archway in [dealing with] the tremendous increase in our Hispanic [student] population,” he says. “And I have given them some … information on future construction and they have given me their interpretation of which way to go that would best serve the students. We feel like through Archway, doors have opened for us so that we can access resources at UGA that just a few short years ago we could not have considered.”

The Archway Project is a two-way street: McCoy is now on an advisory committee to the UGA College of Education.

Targeting Tourists


The most tantalizing Archway effort in Moultrie might be a tourism project that blends the latest in technology with ancient assets.

Last May, Colquitt County leaders quickly accepted an Archway offer to become the first community in Georgia to use a range of technology that includes iPods, computers, Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) and CDs to entice tourists interested in visiting historical sites. “Not only is it exciting to be part of such a groundbreaking project, but this is a real and rare opportunity to boost our tourism bottom line,” says Amanda Statom, executive director of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce.

Under the Archway plan, teams of chamber volunteers will fan out over the county, plot the coordinates of historic sites and other points of interest, then make them available and downloadable worldwide to users of Google Earth. At the same time, UGA’s Archway Project will help the chamber with its Web-based tourism.

“I can imagine a person in Pennsylvania interested in 19th and early 20th century architecture connecting with Moultrie online,” Statom says. “Through GPS, we can guide them right off the interstate and right to the homes and buildings they’re interested in.”

The Moultrie chamber is already handing out CDs to help tourists navigate the town’s historic Westview Cemetery while listening to a continuous narrative. The Archway Project also is helping the community target historical tourists with the production of a CD documentary, a pictorial history and local history workshops, all Georgia firsts.

“We are looking at ourselves under a microscope,” says Moultrie Mayor William McIntosh of the Archway and UGA impact on his city. “And we are finding new perspectives on old problems, like downtown parking.”

Parking in Moultrie might not yet be a serious problem, but it could be when the town square becomes a campus with 700 students arriving and departing throughout the day. That picture will be a reality, says the mayor, as Tifton’s Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC) continues to expand its Moultrie campus by adding another building to the present 10,000-square-foot facility.

“There are 400 students attending ABAC on the square in downtown Moultrie right now,” McIntosh says. “And we think that number will reach 600 or 700. Where do they park and what about parking for merchants and their shoppers?”

To alleviate any potential problems, the community and a private company, using a mix of funding, have purchased another building to handle the growth, and right behind it torn down an old eyesore for construction of a parking lot. “Archway was definitely involved,” McIntosh says. “In so many ways, Archway has been like the urban version of a county agent in the way it finds solutions to problems.”

In late May, Archway coordinator Dennis Epps came to the office of county commission chairman John B. Alderman to make an announcement. “We have breaking news,” Epps says. “The Board of Regents has announced an additional $500,000 to extend the Archway program in Moultrie and Colquitt County.”

Alderman had his own announcement. “And we have $10,000 each from our Archway partners, the city of Moultrie, the Colquitt County Board of Education, the Colquitt County Board of Commissioners and Colquitt Regional Medical Center.” The funds will support Archway projects

And, says Epps, funding has come for the expansion of Archway. “We are going to roll it out to serve a larger area in Southwest Georgia,” Epps says.



Moultrie/Colquitt County At-A-Glance



Population


(2005)


County, 43,915; Moultrie

(county seat), 14,913; Norman Park, 859; Doerun, 848; Berlin, 613; Funston, 426; Ellenton, 353; Riverside, 60



Per Capita Income


(2004)


Colquitt County, $20,611; Georgia, $29,782



Unemployment


(May 2007)


Colquitt County, 4 percent; Georgia, 4.1 percent



Top 10 employers


Colquitt County School Board, 1,569; Sanderson Farms, 1,500; Riverside Manufacturing, 1,000; Colquitt Regional Medical Center, 750; National Beef, 550; Wal-Mart, 400; Colquitt

County Government, 360;

City of Moultrie, 276;

Destiny Enterprises, 240; Moultrie Post Form, 240



Sources


Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority, Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce, Colquitt County Board of Commissioners, Georgia Dept. of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau







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