Thomson/McDuffie County: Taking The Initiative
Cooperation, diversification and revitalization are key ingredients
Leaders of Thomson and McDuffie County have taken their model for success - cooperation between governments - to the next level by forming a new five county partnership aimed at encouraging economic development in East Georgia.
Thomson Mayor Bob Knox is chairing the Clarks Hill Partnership of Georgia, which includes representatives from five counties - Columbia, Lincoln, Warren and Wilkes, as well as McDuffie.
The group that gathered around a large conference table in the upscale new terminal at the Thomson-McDuffie Regional Airport recently shared a meal of salad, pork roast, green beans, au gratin potatoes and chocolate pecan pie supplied by Grits and Greens Catering Company and chewed over development initiatives that will benefit the entire region.
The first presentation to the group was a plan for nearly $4 million worth of improvements to the airport: a runway extension, repaving and new corporate aircraft hangars. Next on the agenda: a regional business retention and expansion program which, as described by Columbia County Development Authority Executive Director Zack Daffin, will be the first of its kind in the state.
"We know that the majority of our expansion comes from our existing industry - more like 90 percent," Daffin tells the group. "We plan to call on our businesses and survey them to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of our communities and how we can help them. We're told it will be the first regional economic development program in Georgia."
This type of initiative has become a trademark in Thomson and McDuffie County. "We've done a lot of good things in this community because we've worked together," says Knox, an attorney who has been Thomson's mayor for 27 years. He notes that while the city and county have separate governments, most of their services are combined, including the airport, the water and sewer system, tax assessment and collection, management information systems and industrial development.
Both Knox and McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton are natives who went away to college and returned to Thomson to live. People like them are the reason some others have relocated to the area, says Riley Stamey, chairman of the Development Authority of McDuffie County and president of SunTrust Bank of Thomson, who moved there 20 years ago.
Thomson's proximity to Interstate 20 and Augusta - 25 miles away - was appealing. But the town's character made an impression, too. "Part of what attracted us was the fact that so many young people were coming back from college to live and work and raise their families," Stamey says.
Thomson and McDuffie County haven't posted record breaking figures for growth, but they've kept a respectable range of 2 to 6 percent annually. "Some would like our growth rate to be higher," Stamey says. "But it has been steady."
Thomson is a town that knows how to count its blessings. The community lost its major employer in the 1970s when the Uniroyal plant shut down, leaving 1,200 people out of work. Unemployment soared to 25 percent. A huge building sat empty.
"It was terrible," recalls Don Powers, a Thomson native who's now director of the economic development effort called Forward McDuffie.
And so the community learned from hard experience the danger of benefiting from one dominant employer. Leaders went to work to build new water and sewer infrastructure, assemble industrial sites, attract new business, take care of the existing companies and create a diversified economy. They are proud of what they've achieved.
"We're fully diverse now," Powers says. Unemployment is now in a more reasonable 6 to 7 percent range.
The old Uniroyal building no longer provides 1,200 jobs, but it is by no means empty. Shaw Industries, the Dalton-based global giant carpet manufacturer, put a plastic extrusion plant there and employs 500 workers. Shaw is now the area's largest industrial employer, second in number only to McDuffie County schools, which provide 652 jobs, according to the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce.
The county has a dozen different employers which account for more than 100 jobs each, covering distribution, retailing and manufacturing. McDuffie County Hospital employs 170 people. And the county has two of the country's biggest greenhouses - McCorkle Nurseries, with 235 workers, and Dudley Nurseries, with 111. McCorkle is spread out around the county, while Dudley is concentrated on one site off Highway 78 near I-20, where acres of shrubs and trees for landscaping come into view.
The concentration of activity around the interstate - where hotels, restaurants and stores form a commercial strip - has been both a blessing and a curse over the four decades since the freeway was built. "It's taken 40 years to suck the economic life out of downtown," Powers says. "It happened slowly over time."
Downtown Thomson now has many buildings empty and many in need of repair. But it also has some interesting historic storefronts and areas of activity around the historic Thomson Depot. The chamber offices and visitors center are housed in the depot, which also offers a large meeting room where the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs convene. Landscaping and flowers have been added to a plaza in front.
But the big news is that downtown is about to get a major infusion of investment. The city and county together are planning a sweeping streetscape improvement project along with a new government complex. The plan is for public investment to pave the way for more private development down the road.
The project is still in the design phase, says City Administrator Bob Flanders, to be funded mostly with Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax collections, combined with state and federal grants. But government agencies have gone on record in support and expect to build the new offices within the next couple of years.
"The bottom line on what kills a small town is the activity moved," Flanders says, referring to development around the interstate. The goal is to create new life in the historic center of town.
The new city hall and courthouse will actually be a few blocks off Main Street, where they are now located. Because Main Street is in better shape, with more successful businesses and even an old movie theater still operating, the idea is to put the government center in a more blighted area two blocks away. One of the connectors between the government center and the main highway is Journal Street, the last remaining brick-paved road in the city.
"This won't be the center of town, but it'll be the employment center," Powers says. "We hope the stores will follow."
As he speaks, he and Flanders point to red marks on a large aerial map of downtown that they have spread out on a conference table. In addition to the government complex, they have marked a number of places for new sidewalks, streetscapes and lighting improvements. They plan to use state and federal funds to help get the project under way, as well as every resource they have available.
"Any time a community wants to build a project like this, it is one heck of an undertaking," Flanders says.
Downtown redevelopment is a cause close to the community's heart, Powers says. "Whether I'm in economic development or not, I'm gonna live here, so I don't want these empty buildings."
Chamber Director Carolyn Gilbert says the downtown redevelopment plan has sparked excitement among residents countywide - particularly those who, like Gilbert, live downtown - many in historic old homes near Main Street. Her Milledge Street home is walking distance from her office in the old railroad depot.
"I'm a big believer that if you build it, they will come," Gilbert says. "If we make it pretty, people will come downtown."
Indeed, providing a place for people to gather is a major point of the project. The city's federal transportation grant application states: "The central component of the long-range plan is the development of a new town center. The city of Thomson grew along transportation routes - State Route 17 and the railroad - rather than along a traditional grid. Because of this pattern, the city has no town square or common area that functions as the community's hub of economic and social activity. Establishment of a town center is seen as key to reestablishing vitality and prosperity to downtown Thomson."
The railroad is so important in the town's history that the city was named for the civil engineer, J. Edgar Thomson, who was responsible for surveying and constructing the Georgia Railroad from Augusta to Atlanta. Thomson was designated the county seat in 1879. Dearing, the only other city in the county, which was incorporated in 1910, was named for William Dearing, once president of the Georgia Railroad Banking Company.
The grant application goes on to say that the proposed government complex will anchor the new town center. Pedestrian safety and streetscape improvements throughout downtown also are key to the project.
Creating a gathering place with more pedestrian friendly streets would complement a number of annual events that already take place in Thomson. One is the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival, which celebrates area art and artists, including the famed jazz musician. Another event that draws visitors from as far away as Europe is the Belle Meade Fox Hunt, noted for not killing the fox but chasing it for the sport.
The success of Thomson's downtown redevelopment will depend on the trademark cooperation of different governments. "The business leaders are real proud of the fact that our county and our city officials work closely together for the benefit of the area as a whole," says Steve Chalker, chamber chairman and marketing representative for Jefferson Energy Cooperative.
In keeping with the economy as a whole, the power company has found that diversification is the key to success. "We offer more than just electric service now. We do home and business security systems, dial-up Internet service, surge protection and security lighting," Chalker says. "As far as Thomson-McDuffie County is concerned, we feel like we're in a great area for growth because Augusta seems to be moving west. We're west of Augusta. We feel like we're in an enviable position."
As the community experiences the inevitable change from rural to suburban, longstanding businesses have to learn to adapt. One of those is McDuffie Feed and Seed, a family operation run by the father of County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton. "We are moving away from an agricultural economy," Newton says. "We've had to diversify."
Newton, now 38, recalls working in the family business as a boy delivering bulk feed to farms raising chickens, hogs and cows. There were more farms than he could count that were big enough to buy bulk feed. Now, there are only a few. "People now have maybe eight or 10 cows instead of 300," he says.
So the business has survived by providing feed for small family farms and supplies for landscaping, keeping its 20 employees on the payroll by changing with the times. "If you'd have told me 20 years ago we'd be selling pine straw, I'd have had you locked up in a mental facility," Newton says. "But we sell it." He expects the business to continue to evolve as the county becomes more urban.
Still the rural land around Thomson suggests that it will remain a small town for a while, maintaining a slower paced life than its big city neighbors in Augusta.
"We have a slogan - country living, city style. We do have a good blend of rural environment but a very progressive community," says Tommy Phelps, the senior vice president of First Citizens Bank in Thomson who has chaired the chamber of commerce as well as the McDuffie County School Board and the United Way. "Our community is a very good place to work and to live and to rear your children and have your family located."