Southwest Georgia: Pooling Resources

A region comes together to promote tourism

It was a rainy Wednesday morning in South Georgia, the kind of day that makes you dread a 50-, 60- or 90-mile trip for a business meeting.





But as the members of the Southwest Georgia Tourism Association came to order, every seat at the conference table in the Albany Chamber of Commerce was full. Tifton and Thomasville were represented; so were Moultrie, Valdosta and Bainbridge. Albany had three people in the room and the state of Georgia had a voice there, too.





They were there, not just protecting their turf, but standing on middle ground in a spirit of cooperation. It's a group on a mission and a group with just one agenda: to promote tourism as an economic engine in rural Georgia.





The collaboration among municipalities chasing the tourist's dollar was a little startling. In less than five minutes, the members had picked shifts to man the group's booth at the Sun Belt Agriculture Expo in Moultrie in October.





Amanda Statom, executive director of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce, actually volunteered to be treasurer for the association before it was decided to keep the post in Albany. The group agreed to buy advertising in a travel guide and send the money to the treasurer. No one was worried about getting stuck with the bill.





The group's idea is simple. Economic development in South Georgia does not have to mean smokestacks and industrial office parks. It can mean tourism, too, and capturing the endless stream of traffic that runs by their counties on I-75.





"Everybody wants to attract manufacturing jobs, but it is harder and harder to get those big plants," says Sara Underdown, a vice president of the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau. "There is economic development in tourism and we have a story to tell down here. We all need to pool our resources and get things done for the region."







A Booming Market





Tourism generated $46 million in revenue in Georgia in 2004, which made it the state's second biggest moneymaker behind agriculture. The biggest wad of tourism dollars flies into Atlanta, drives north to the mountains, or flows east to the beaches. In South Georgia, however, too many tourists keep right on motoring down I-75 to Florida.





Jeff Stubbs, regional tourism representative for the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD, says the group doesn't want to see brake lights on cars moving through Georgia. It wants to see turn signals of cars moving off I-75 and into the heart of the state.





"We need to think about ways for people not to use South Georgia as just a quick stop for gas on I-75," Stubbs says. "We need overnights and we need people to realize we have attractions 45 minutes to an hour off the Interstate on easy access roads."





Indeed, this part of Georgia has more to offer than just acres of cotton and peanut fields, and most of those attractions are not down bumpy, dusty country roads, but on four-lane byways.





The Flint RiverQuarium in Albany, which opened in the late summer of 2004, welcomed 100,000 visitors before its one-year anniversary. Thomasville features historic mansions open for tours. Bainbridge offers a stately downtown, and Colquitt stages the theater presentation of "Swamp Gravy" in the fall and spring and "A Southern Christmas Carol" during the holidays.





The quail hunting in South Georgia is among the best in the nation, and the Flint River is a haven for fisherman. The list of places to stay and things to do goes on and on, from one of the nation's best antique car museums in Cairo to historic McRee Hall in Camilla, which is currently doing double duty as both a bed and breakfast and conference center.







Filling Calendars





Already, the region has some serious traction in scheduling events for its counties and increasing the flow of tourist and business dollars. The Georgia Special Olympics was held in Albany in October, the first time in 20 years the event was in the region. The Governor's Conference on Tourism, which attracted 400 people, took place in Valdosta in September. The conference comes to Tifton in 2007 and Albany in 2008.





"It does my heart good to see people from Atlanta have to drive south of Macon for something down here," Stubbs says with a smile.





If the Southwest Georgia Tourism Association has its way, the front ends of cars will continue pointing south for events. But Stubbs says the only way for that to happen is for the region to collectively mine for tourism business.





That's why members have been pushed to upgrade Web sites and to keep the GDEcD up to date on events. There is a bank of marketers with the state office in Atlanta that solicits business from tour bus operators around the country, but Stubbs says South Georgia has to be on their minds, so he reminds members to routinely send him e-mails of their events so he can forward them to the state's marketing arm.





"Everybody used to be focused on 'This is my attraction and everybody is coming to see mine,' " Stubbs says. "It was very proprietary. None of us is really big enough to be the main attraction, but if we market ourselves as a region, yes, we are more than big enough."





The association went to the American Automobile Association show in Cincinnati in late November to spread the word with handshakes and brochures. Suddenly, instead of trying to roll a rock uphill, the group is on a roll.





The Hilton Garden Inn - considered top-of-the-line among mid-priced hotels - has opened in downtown Albany, providing another boost for tourism in the region. Visitors who want their high-speed Internet and want it now, can have it in the calmer-paced environment of South Georgia.





"We need to keep going with this momentum we have built," Underdown says. "We're on our way."







Eye On Manufacturing





Just because the leadership in Southwest Georgia is focusing on tourism, they certainly haven't forgotten about chasing manufacturing and industry. Their constituents, after all, won't let them forget.





Rick McCaskill, executive director of the Cairo-Grady County Chamber of Commerce, pulls up to the railroad tracks in Cairo one morning and points to an overpass. He shakes his head from side to side when recalling the dismay people felt crossing that bridge and looking over at the abandoned Roddenberry Food plant.





"They would think about what we once had inside that plant and what we lost and what they used to be as a town," McCaskill says. "So we thought, when the property became available, we needed to buy it. It was important for the town to have that property and get jobs in there."





The county's development authority bought the Roddenberry property for $1 million in March and painted it and fixed the roof. There are already three tenants in the plant, which used to produce pickles and other foods and employ 600 people.





At first there was worry about whether the development authority could make the monthly $5,000 loan payment. But by September, the building was generating $11,000 through leases.





"It's a good thing for all of us," McCaskill says of the plant's re-emergence. "We'll renovate some of it, tear some of it down, and add on. I think people feel good that there is something inside it again."





Cairo and Grady County then started working on other development in parts of the county that weren't so visible to the public. Higdon Furniture Company of Quincy, Fla., bought 43 acres of property south of downtown Cairo and built a 112,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. There are already 100 new jobs in the plant with a second phase of expansion on the drawing board, which means even more positions.





"Florida makes it hard to do things, such as [getting through] the permitting process, so companies that want to expand run into a lot of red tape across the state line," says McCaskill, who used to do economic development in Quincy. "We tell companies, 'You can do it in Cairo and you can do it easily.' "





Higdon wasn't the only furniture company to grow. MacTavish Furniture is adding 150,000 square feet and 150 jobs with its expansion. Not far away, Seminole Marine recently doubled the size of its facility for building Sailfish boats, adding 28,500 square feet and 71 new jobs in the last year. Over the last three years, the company has added more than 100 new jobs throughout several expansions.







Lofty Plans





In downtown Albany, a different kind of expansion is going on.





Peter Studl, a Chicago native, has made ambitious real estate moves, snapping up 300,000 square feet of property and 28 building sites. He has plans for upscale restaurants and lofts and trendy retail. He scooped up one property because a tattoo parlor wanted to move in. Once he had the property, there was no tattoo parlor.





"The challenge is filling these properties with creative businesses, not another pawn shop," says Studl, whose development company is called The Albany Fund. "The idea is how can we make this place great." Studl believes Albany can be made great without chasing every manufacturer that sends out feelers looking for expansion space.





But don't the textbooks insist manufacturing jobs blow away tourism when it comes to propping up a local economy? "I know, the textbooks say chase manufacturing, but the textbooks are being rewritten," Studl says. "The things to promote are the arts and quality of life."





He says it is fantasy to expect manufacturing concerns to establish roots in a community where it may be hard to attract quality labor. "You know what a company is going to do, it is going to go to its managers and ask them if they want to live in a particular town and the managers could say, 'No, this isn't where my family is going to be happy,' " Studl says. "It is the quality of life that is going to help pull jobs into the market, not an extra year of tax abatement."





Studl says the growth market for Southwest Georgia is not major companies, but start-ups with a solid business plan. The secret then is finding an economic development pro who believes in all the above - blending manufacturing jobs and tourism dollars, and chasing both with equal zeal.





That person would be Marilyn Royal, executive director of the Mitchell County Development Authority. In the same conversation, she talks about the county's pride in getting a letter of intent from a company to build a new ethanol plant that could employ hundreds, and then discusses the push to develop industry already in place - the heritage of Southwest Georgia.





The irony someday may be tourists flocking to Camilla, the Mitchell County seat, in ethanol-powered automobiles and staying at McRee Hall. However they come to Southwest Georgia,





Royal feels they'll get their money's worth. "People want an experience, they want to touch something, not just look at it in a brochure," she says. "Maybe they will stop and pick some cotton, maybe see how peanuts are processed. Travelers want to pull the car over and not just ride the interstate."





Royal says the region has applied to the Georgia Department of Transportation to create a Scenic Byway along Route 37, which goes to the Flint River. Her goal is to see Route 37 get its own shade of purple on the state map as an official state Scenic By-Way.





"We have plenty of reasons here for people to stop and get out of their cars," Royal says. "All of us have been challenged to make sure we develop our product so we can market Southwest Georgia. Together, I think, we show people all of our strengths."

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