Fitzgerald/Ben Hill County: Small Place, Big Thinking
Courting new businesses; cherishing history and chickens
Fitzgerald isn't your typical South Georgia town. It isn't just the brick streets, the lovingly preserved historic buildings that line the downtown, or even the wild Burmese chickens that walk Main Street that set it apart.
Locals here have a different attitude - they focus on the promise of the future rather than the constraints of the past. They see no reason why location or size should prevent the community from enjoying all the fruits of economic development.
Down here local leaders say rural Georgia is home to too many "gonna" communities.
"They come out and put a sign up that says 'Future Home of Technology Park,'" remarks Van Waters, executive vice president at East Central Technical College and an economic development leader. "They say they are 'gonna' do this and 'gonna' do that, but in the end nothing happens."
In Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County there seems to be something happening every day. Where other locations might sit back and hope that new business and industry come their way, this community is working hard to ensure that new companies - including many of the high tech variety - find their way here.
Leaders realized long ago that Fitzgerald - located some 20 miles east of I-75 - would not be an obvious choice for businesses seeking a new home and willing workforce. That understanding has helped the community aggressively pursue new business.
"We furnish jobs for three counties," says longtime Fitzgerald Mayor Gerald Thompson, who serves as chairman of the Joint Development Authority of Ben Hill and Irwin Counties. "We've located probably 50 manufacturing industries here over the years."
Fitzgerald's success led The Wall Street Journal to recognize it as one of the most successful small towns in America when it comes to securing new business and industry. In its words, the city was "the recruiting colossus from nowhere."
Today it offers more than 800 acres of industrial parks for prospects, coupled with a "can do" attitude. The latest addition is a new 218-acre technology complex designed to attract call centers, data server farms and other advanced businesses catering to the high tech age. Equipped with redundant power, miles of fiber and a ready workforce being trained by the technical college next door, it offers a unique approach to the "build it and they will come" philosophy.
"There are very few places like this in the whole country that have done what we have done," asserts John Flythe, the county's economic development director. "There is no other community this size that has done this anywhere that I know of."
Going the extra mile has been a hallmark of this unique community. Founded in 1896 by Union and Confederate veterans from across the country, Fitzgerald has always been a little bit different. With streets named for generals from both sides, the town has always seemed to have a bigger, more national view than most communities its size.
Fitzgerald has always taken a progressive attitude toward getting things done. In the 1960s, it became the first city in Georgia to offer cable television as a service to its residents. It followed with zoning regulations that helped preserve the town's numerous historic buildings for new uses rather than sacrificing them to the wrecking ball.
"Fitzgerald has a very aggressive development authority that wants industry here and wants to know what they can do to work with you," observes Allen Conger, owner of two local businesses that are in the process of expansion. "I have been around other towns and all they start saying is 'this costs this, this costs that.' Fitzgerald has the attitude of 'what can we do to help you?'"
That progressive approach is helping to attract a number of industries new not only to South Georgia, but to the economy in general. Local leaders hope to soon announce a new plant that converts wood chips into ethanol, biodiesel and even pipeline quality natural gas. When the projected facility is up and running it is likely to employ as many 150 people, Flythe says.
While many communities might see a remote location as a hindrance, Fitzgerald sees it as an asset. Although there are no interstates running through the town, it is home to the CSX Seaboard System's Atlanta to Jacksonville line, which forms a major commercial corridor through the state.
"It has been one of our longest [lasting] industries," Flythe says. "Most of the trainmasters are run out of Fitzgerald and so it is about a midpoint of their line in Georgia from Atlanta to Jacksonville."
The rail line is one of the leading attractions for a projected wood pellet manufacturing plant. The company plans to export its product to Europe and needs ready access to seaports. The location is a selling point for another projected ethanol plant that would export its product via rail. If it can cut a deal with local farmers to supply corn for the project, the firm will play a role in meeting the nation's need for alternative fuel products, Flythe says.
Local leaders also see Fitzgerald's location as a plus for the high tech businesses they want to flesh out the local economy. Data centers and similar interests in rural Georgia aren't likely to be the target of terrorists.
"We talk a good bit about security and the first level of security is our remoteness," Waters explains. "If a terrorist is going to come in and try to blow up a data center, it is probably not going to be here."
New ideas are taking root throughout Ben Hill County's business community. For example, Allen Conger, owner of the American Blanching Co., believes in finding markets where others might not be inclined to tread. His company processes more than 1 million pounds of peanuts each week and is seeking markets far beyond Georgia for an expanding variety of products.
"We are developing new peanut butters and granulation and we are going into organic peanut butter," Conger says. "We've finally got our license and [are] approved to do that, and we are the first company in the peanut butter industry that is going to be able to say we are 100 percent nongenetically modified."
He's also marketing his peanut products to European nations. This move has required meeting an entirely new set of regulatory requirements, sending staff to meet with European officials, and hosting inspectors here as well. Yet he believes the return is worth the investment.
"A lot of people don't want to do it because of the stuff you have to go through, and I reckon that is where I increase each year because I don't mind tackling the aggravation," Conger says. "They [competitors] are after the same customer all the time. I am going to go after the ones that nobody wants to mess with so they will stay out of my hair on these."
This approach has led to a recent expansion of the peanut processing business. Yet Conger says he doesn't see why he should be limited just to this agricultural staple. Along with a partner, he also opened a new business called EnviroLog, which produces fireplace logs made from salvaged corrugated cardboard boxes used to ship fresh vegetables. With product in outlets such as Home Depot, the company is now into its second year of operation.
Health And Preservation
Dominy Medical Center, a 75-bed facility, is in the design phase of an $8-million expansion that will create a new labor and delivery area and outpatient surgery center. The hospital, officials say, generates $46 million in gross revenues and has better than a $60-million impact on the community, with 350 employees and a 15-member medical staff. The hospital is part of Georgia's telemedicine network, according to CEO Bruce Shepard, so local patients can access care from physicians in Atlanta or Augusta.
Economic health is behind Fitzgerald's efforts to save its historic buildings - evident in the numerous well kept storefronts lining the quaint brick streets. Like many small towns in Georgia, its central business district suffered from highway bypasses and strip centers on the outskirts of town.
Fortunately for Fitzgerald, city funds and investments from local developers and businesspeople have figured heavily in making downtown an attraction for area shoppers.
"... We have been lucky as far as that goes because a lot of people have invested in downtown and have done a lot of things to help keep it alive," says Jack Paulk, a State Farm insurance agent who's part of a corporation that saved Hale's Drug Store from destruction and has since remodeled it to serve as a State Farm field office.
"I just hated to see the old drug store that had been around since it was built in 1897 be lost," Paulk says, reflecting the attitude of many locals.
Another project involves preserving and renovating the Grant Theatre. This 846-seat facility forms the center of what the city calls the Grand Conference Center Complex. A magnet for occasions ranging from corporate meetings to weddings and art events, the Grand Complex has expanded to include a new greenspace park and the Carnegie Library which, following renovation, will provide a new home for the local arts council.
Although major conventions aren't likely to come here, the facility has attracted a number of small events ranging from insurance company regional meetings to government conferences such as one hosted recently by the Department of Community Affairs.
The city is also renovating its turn of the century city hall, to the tune of $2 million. When the work is complete late next year, city departments will return to their original home. They currently occupy the old railroad headquarters, which is also currently home to the Blue & Gray Museum and tourism department.
"What we are going to do is to move administration and utilities back to city hall when we finish that renovation and leave the museum and expand it in the depot because it is a historical building, too," says Mayor Thompson.
The Blue & Gray Museum tells the story of the founding of the city following the Civil War through more than 1,200 objects, photographs, household items, memorabilia and rare artifacts. It's a central draw for those who make their way to Fitzgerald seeking a new kind of sightseeing experience.
"[Our visitors are] people that want to get off the beaten path and come through on their way," says Alesia Biggers, the city's tourism director. "We catch a lot of people going back and forth to Florida."
More than 5,000 people a year visit the museum and other sites such as the Fire Engine Museum. With the city located just nine miles from the Jeff Davis Historic Site, a great many people find Fitzgerald on their way back to I-75.
Oh, and about those downtown chickens. Once considered game birds, the chickens are now protected and have been informally adopted by local residents.
"Most people in town know to stop if the chicken is crossing the road," Biggers says. "You don't run over them. So they have adapted to the noise and the traffic. They come out and strut around and try to figure out what is going on themselves."
The flying birds are the inspiration for another city attraction, the Wild Chicken Festival. The March event is a primary draw for out-of-towners looking for a taste of Deep South Georgia Americana.
Here in Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County nothing is typical.
Population: Ben Hill County 17,316; Fitzgerald: 8,920 (2005)
Per capita income: 14,093 (1999)
Unemployment: County, 5.4 percent (Sept. 2006)
Leading industrial employers: Shaw Industries, 920; Delphi Automotive Systems, 330; Coachmen Industries, 292; DeepSouth, 275; Pace American, 200; Southern Veneer Products, 190; Haulmark Industries, 166; American Blanching, 150; Gilman Building Products, 126; Modern Dispersions South, Inc., 96; Fitzgerald Railcar, 80
Sources: Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau
High Tech By Design
You can't see the really exciting part of Millennium Technology Pointe. The miles of fiber, sonic rings, redundant power and
complex technological infrastructure are mostly hidden from view.
Neither can you see the brainpower at work just a short distance away at East Central Technical College. Yet what isn't readily visible is the real story about this one-of-a-kind development.
Covering more than 218 acres, the park is awaiting its first tenant, but it won't be long before buildings start rising to house call centers, data storage firms and a host of other high tech companies. The infrastructure is in place to meet their needs and the skilled workers are being trained at the nearby technical college.
"We've got a lot of kids here that wanted to get into the computer information areas, and there are no jobs here," explains Van Waters, executive vice president at East Central Tech who first conceived the idea of a business park geared to high tech companies back in 1996 during the height of the dot-com boom.
"What we were trying to do is, first of all, provide jobs for our local people. Second of all, we wanted to come back in and provide jobs that weren't in this area. They are typically higher paying jobs than what our manufacturers pay, so they are better jobs."
When the tech sector crashed a few years ago, the technology park was just coming online. That didn't stop the Joint Development Authority, which represents Ben Hill and Irwin Counties, from forging ahead and putting everything in place. Now, with the economy recovering and technology given new life, local officials believe it will soon take off.
The college is also launching a new business expansion center to help entrepreneurs turn ideas into successful, marketable companies.
"We provide a facility, infrastructure including voice and data lines, consulting services for people who are looking to start businesses in our area," says Ray Perren, president of East Central Tech. "Of course what we are hoping to do is attract people who would eventually locate in the technology park to come into this incubation center."
While East Central already provides customized training to existing industries, it's also gearing up to turn out graduates who can handle the new high tech jobs expected to occupy the park. The first of these is a new program in computer gaming that began enrolling students this fall. The curriculum is designed to teach the fundamentals of developing popular computer generated games. College officials hope students will be able to use their skills in Ben Hill County rather than have to move to other areas.
"The entertainment industry in the country is putting more dollars into developing games now than they are into developing things like motion pictures," Perren explains. "There certainly is a gaming industry that is multibillion-dollar, and it is such that game developers can live anywhere in the U.S. as long as they have the equipment to work on developing games."
The hope is that these new businesses will provide jobs for the college's graduates - with majors in computer gaming, and other technical areas - to fill.