Haralson County: Doing It Up Right
Location, infrastructure and good timing produce results
Haralson County is primed to explode with new people and big business.
Industrial buildings are rising out of the ground and subdivisions are popping up along the sleepy corridors of the West Georgia border county like mushrooms after a spring rain.
It's hard to believe this traditionally agricultural territory (pop. 27,645) could become such an economic powerhouse, but all it requires is a little vision and some elbow grease to take best advantage of the "Middle Georgia Squeeze" - as even exurban communities are forced to attract jobs to offset Atlanta bedroom community growth, which tips the tax base and leaves coffers for services empty.
If you have to do it, you may as well do it up right. In Tallapoosa, Honda Precision Parts of Georgia just spent $100 million on a 450-acre plant that will build automatic transmissions and eventually hire 400 people. In Bremen, Honda Lock just invested $3 million for an expansion that will push its employee base to 700, in response to a jump in sales from $15.4 million in 2002 to $48 million in 2004.
SynchroNet, a telecom company, recently broke ground in the new GeorgiaWest Business Park, in the first of three phases to develop some 200 acres. In Waco, the gleaming West Central Technical College continues to grow, with 900 students and 300 more expected. "This is a significant opportunity for all of Haralson County," says Bremen City Manager Perry Hicks.
The tale of this county's success starts with location, winds through technological finesse and ends with new job announcements. Sprawl from both Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., has positioned Haralson County to make the most of two growth engines - both residential and automotive in nature.
"When you consider the location of the county, in terms of I-20 and now Highway 27 (recently widened to four lanes), and the plants assembling across the border, this area is really in for a boom in the automotive field," says West Central Tech Vice President Phil Carter. In terms of infrastructure, "I don't think Alabama can match it."
"One thing's nice about Haralson is that it's a nice place to live. It has all the positives of being in Metro Atlanta, but not in the middle of it," says Honda Lock Vice President and Plant Manager Mike Burnette.
Haralson enjoys a more laid back pace than neighboring Paulding County (only the 9th-fastest growing county in the nation), which can perhaps be attributed to the down-home, community-first ethic that has accommodated both young entrepreneurs returning home and Japanese businessmen moving in from abroad, including Honda Lock President Yutaka "Harry" Harada.
So far, so good, but other communities closer in have seen quality of life compromised by bedroom growth. And Haralson County sees it coming from both suburban Birmingham and Metro Atlanta. "I think the sentiment of the board is that we like being a bedroom community, but being next to Paulding has had residual effects," says County Commission Chairman Allen Poole. As Hicks puts it, "We don't want to be stripped out."
The county (65 percent unincorporated) has identified the corridor from Bremen to Tallapoosa as the fastest-growing, along with the portion of Highway 27 from Buchanan to Bremen, and is making zoning changes to steer growth to those areas. There are even live-work-play communities and conservation projects in the works, such as Stonebridge Crossing, a mixed-use subdivision in Bremen. But the most dramatic preparations are being made through the Haralson County Development Authority, which has made sure all the new jobs being created aren't in home construction.
Haralson's unemployment rate has been significantly higher than the state's, at six percent. It lost thousands of textile jobs to offshoring in the last 25 years and has been ready for recovery ever since. "Our hat goes off to the development authority, for helping create the infrastructure to balance our bedroom with industrial growth," Poole says.
Joan Young, development authority director, explains why Haralson is in for an economic boom. "We're right at the base of the ABC [Atlanta-Birmingham-Chattanooga] region," she says, "and we're also an hour and 20 minutes from Honda's assembly plant in Lincoln, 60 miles from Hyundai, and Mercedes is out near Tuscaloosa. That's why we see so many auto suppliers coming up, from LaGrange to Rome."
Under the leadership of Young, a former city planner and environmental studies minor, the authority has not only brought more jobs to Haralson, but has positioned it to become the nexus of the ABC region. Hundreds of companies could move into GeorgiaWest, which is being developed jointly with John McDonald of White Oak Investments; and Honda Precision Parts isn't even on the property - its own mighty campus, atop a hill in Tallapoosa overlooking the county, resembles Cloud City. Nearby, the World Children's Center will build homes for needy children, becoming a leader in child humanitarian efforts and creating an estimated economic impact of $450 million over the first 10 years.
Honda Lock isn't in GeorgiaWest either - nor is Hormel, which recently purchased Mark Lynne Foods; nor are the county's other major employers. But SynchroNet Inc., the first tenant, broke ground in October with all the fanfare of the local hero made good. "This area is a real jewel," says SynchroNet President and Bremen native Kyle Williamson. "You won't find people who work here solely for the money. The quality of life is a big part of the picture. We all know the county will grow and explode, and geographically, we have to keep the environmental integrity in place, or the growth will take advantage of us and run over us."
"Kyle's family goes back many years," says Bill Nunis, chair of the development authority board (as well as former development authority executive director and former chamber president). "There aren't many of us who didn't eat good at his grandparents' restaurant. We're glad to have him say that the reason he wanted to stay in Haralson is for the quality of life of the entire county."
The truth is that Williamson, one of the state's favorite examples of young entrepreneurs galvanizing rural economies, and Young, who shepherded Haralson through some hostile local politics in recent years, have proven a near-unbeatable team, securing some impressive grants - a $259,000 Georgia Revolving Loan, $300,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission, $95,000 from OneGeorgia and a whopping $859,000 from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Association.
"It's not just Kyle's dream," Young says. "Others have recognized the huge potential, all tied to locating SynchroNet, which had been in an old cut and sew building since 1999." She's right: The development authority recieved $2.7 million ($2.2 million from the state plus a $500,000 regional assistance grant) to establish the broadband network, which it leases back to SynchroNet. That capacity allows GeorgiaWest to recruit top-notch companies.
"We can handle large technical firms that use high data," says White Oak Assistant VP Kevin P. Leedy (formerly with the Georgia Department of Economic Development). "Fiberoptic cable normally has seven layers of light. If, say, AT&T is not using the green spectrum, you could take it and create your own fiber; but now, because of security, companies want all seven strands - no sharing. Our fiber options make us attractive to startups, DOD weapons systems, law enforcement - industries of a high level of security ... any research you want."
SynchroNet fiber will allow GeorgiaWest to accommodate more technology companies. Young says she wouldn't rule out locating technology companies throughout the park, to help balance the influx of car parts manufacturers expected to be attracted to GeorgiaWest's advantages. "Diversity is so important," she notes. "We're being selective. Currently 54 percent of our workforce commutes out. That may change with the gas prices, but we still want [competitive] jobs here."
As these developments were taking place, Honda Precision Parts of Georgia was brought in with a great degree of secrecy last year. It was a huge coup for West Georgia, setting the precedent for future industrial recruitment and giving Alabama lawmakers a hard time. "We knew Haralson had been very big in textiles, so that downfall made available a workforce with skill sets advantageous to our operations," says Honda Precision Parts VP John Spoltman. In addition, West Central Tech "bent over backwards for us," he adds.
West Central Tech is a sleek, modern campus visible from I-20 - with few equals. Former House Speaker Tom Murphy's pet project truly paid off as a critical wedge in attracting Honda. "We were involved before the announcement, for about 18 months," Carter says. "We went through a pre-hire package that brought 1,600 applicants to a job fair for about 140 employees. They're a wonderful company for Haralson County."
But hearing Spoltman's other reasons for locating in Haralson rather than Ohio (where the company also expanded) sells the county even better than West Central: "The school system's strong," he says. "Most of us have families. There was some apprehension but our kids have adapted very well. I may talk of incentives, land and infrastructure; but we feel the give and take of partnership with the community is so important to the long term success of the company, and we were looking for an area to partner with where we could make a bigger impact." The response from Haralson County, he adds, "has exceeded our expectations. Nothing against Ohio, but the hospitality is a lot more than we're used to!"
Tallapoosa City Manager Philip Eidson says the community has reason to be so receptive: The city will receive nearly $6 million in infrastructure improvements as a result of Honda's location. "I think it lifts the community up and makes other communities look and say, 'You've accomplished something we want,' " Eidson says. "We're getting a million gallons a day in water and sewer capacity down the road, not half a million. Over the next few years I see a lot of opportunity. How we capitalize on Honda is up to us."
Tallapoosa, population 3,000, has about as much character as a Southern town could: local artists, good bars and music, the courthouse, and a sense of history. It's walkable and has the kind of real neighborhoods that appeal to commuters. As the next community in line along I-20, near booming Villa Rica, Tallapoosa is feeling the heat of subdivision growth more vividly than Bremen, Buchanan and Waco. Preserving its culture is imperative, and Honda came right in time. "Now, we can have the type of quality growth you dream about," Eidson adds. "Not many communities can say they had this happen. We can pick and choose developments that balance residential, retail and industry."
Housing prices across the county have risen to the mid-$200,000 range in most new subdivisions, and the county and cities are taking steps to guard against a housing gap. "We have affordable housing in our zoning regulations - different levels of lot sizes and density, from estate level to multifamily [12.1 units an acre]," Hicks says.
There are other "quality of life" zoning initiatives under way since the county received a year's extension on its comprehensive plan deadline. "Last year we had a joint meeting of all the agencies, with no formal plan but lots of policy discussion. The board of education and the industrial authority are great economic engines for the community."
Dianne Kaseta, who is director of community investment and public relations for the World Children's Center, now in the planning stages, says Haralson's quality growth initiatives were among several key factors in the decision to locate the center's campus for disadvantaged children here. "They've done a tremendous job planning for development and growth," she says.
The center, founded by Don Whitney, CEO of Corporate Sports Unlimited, plans to expand beyond Haralson, says Kaseta. "We see the World Children's Center as an opportunity to fit within the current spectrum of services offered to Georgia children."
"There's an enormous momentum going on," says Chamber president Jennie West, credited with helping the center choose Tallapoosa as its future locale. There's also a lot of local color worth preserving in Haralson County, like Bremen's Gameboy Tournament, or the pretty farms surrounding the new Honda plant, or the Touch of Tallapoosa Tours offered by local artist Mary Tolleson.
As the county grows, it will be interesting to see how local culture is affected: Hopes are high that the Honda plant will thrive in such happy soil like its sister, Honda Lock, which just went through its fifth expansion ($9 million, 70 to 100 hires) in five years. Tanner Health Systems' recent purchase of Higgins General Hospital resulted in a $6-million-plus renovation. West Central Tech, Young says, "hasn't stopped expanding since it broke ground."
"All this has happened as the county shifted in January of this year from a sole-commissioner government to a five-person Board of County Commissioners - a dramatic change in philosophy described by Poole as shifting from a "dictator-type government to a group of individuals making decisions that best serve the county's needs."
"All five commissioners have their hearts set on one thing - improving the county - and they're passionate about it," says Joni Holcombe, county clerk. And as the county improves itself, those it attracts will have to meet similarly high standards.
"We've cornered the market," Young says. "Honda has really created an entirely new environment out here."