Wilkinson County: Looking Beyond Kaolin
Economic diversity and road building
Economic Lifeblood: Ralph Staffins heads the development authority and chamber of commerce in Wilkinson County, where kaolin has dominated the economy for decades
The story of economic development in Wilkinson County may start with kaolin, the white mineral that comes out of the ground along the fall line and makes it way into everything from toothpaste to tires, but area leaders are determined that the story not end there. Located about 35 miles east of Macon and just north of Interstate 16, Wilkinson County and its 10,220 residents – spread across seven municipalities – are taking advantage of several factors during this economic downturn to diversify business and industry once recovery begins.
But, the story of the county can’t be told without looking at kaolin, which has been the lifeblood of the economy for decades. Carbo Ceramics is Wilkinson County’s biggest success story, says Ralph Staffins, economic development director for the Development Authority of Wilkinson County and president of the Wilkinson County Chamber of Commerce.
Carbo, with two plants in the county, manufactures ceramic proppants (tiny pellets) from kaolin, which are used by the oil and gas industry to increase the productivity of new and existing natural gas and oil wells. Carbo, a publicly traded company headquartered in Texas, opened its first plant in McIntyre, in central Wilkinson County, in 1998, to process not just the local kaolin, but also bauxite, which Carbo imports. In 2004 Carbo broke ground on its facility in neighboring Toomsboro, which was designed specifically to process local Georgia clays, plant manager Tim Stafford says.
Now Carbo is expanding again from two production lines running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to three lines, with the capacity to go to four. The new lines, which are awaiting air permitting from the state Environmental Protection Division, will enable Carbo to hire 40 new employees, in addition to the 147 employees at the two plants now. Capacity at the Toomsboro plant will increase from 500 million pounds of product processed per year to 750 million with the addition of the third line and 1 billion pounds with the fourth line.
“Our philosophy is to expand during all economic conditions,” Stafford says, “and be ready when the oil and gas industry sees an uptick in activity.” He adds that demand for Carbo’s proppants is currently high.
Stafford estimates the total capital expenditure for line three at $70 million. But that’s not the only economic advantage for the area. Carbo will put 60 to 70 people to work on construction of the line each day during the year-long construction period and offers top pay for the area.
Carbo took advantage of the area’s Quick Start program to train employees when the plants first opened and continues to use the Work Ready program to screen new employees and to aid in the promotion process for existing employees. Stafford credits the Wilkinson County Board of Commissioners, the development authority and state and federal elected officials for Carbo’s success in the county.
On a recent visit to the Toomsboro plant, success smelled remarkably like steak and shrimp as Carbo employees lined up for a company-sponsored lunch celebrating a safety achievement of one year with no recordable accident or lost time due to an accident.
The processing of kaolin depends on the mining of the mineral. Carbo contracts with local company Arcilla Mining, which mines the substance from Carbo’s own mines and also from mines where Carbo owns mineral rights. All are located within two miles of the Toomsboro facility, Stafford says.
Other kaolin-dependent businesses, such as Springhill Services, Inc., which offers transportation and warehousing services for the local kaolin industry, are prominent in the county. Springhill’s president, Frank G. Wall, also is the chairman of the Fall Line Regional Development Authority (FLRDA) and is on the board of the Wilkinson County Development Authority (WCDA).
The FLRDA is a joint development authority between Baldwin (just north of Wilkinson County) and Wilkinson Counties. The Fall Line Freeway, which will ultimately run from Augusta to Columbus, will cross Highway 441 in northern Wilkinson County near the Baldwin line. The state legislature has agreed to sell the property (577 acres) in all four quadrants where those two four-lanes will intersect to the FLRDA as soon as the highway is complete. Plans for the property include a possible mega-site; and a long-range goal is a regional airport, Wall says.
The WCDA also is taking advantage of the Fall Line Freeway with the purchase of industrial sites along the route. “We purchased where the infrastructure was,” Staffins says. The WCDA owns a total of 222 acres, all close together in the northern part of the county, but not contiguous. The largest site is 100 acres, and all have rail access, water, sewer, gas and power. Initially the target industry is kaolin-related, but Staffins says county leaders plan to diversify. The development authority has met with several industrial prospects recently along with commercial and retail prospects – prospects he deals with as president of the chamber.
Space for commercial and retail businesses exists along Highway 441, which runs north and south through the county and sees 10,000 people per day in auto traffic, Staffins says, including hunters who travel to the county from all over to enjoy the hunting land.
The county is designated an Entrepreneur Friendly Community. Plans for the grant money include signage along the four-lane Highway 441, which is a main artery through the county, but doesn’t pass directly through any of the seven cities. The signage will direct people to businesses in the cities, which sit just off the highway. Staffins says additional plans include a business directory and Web site and marketing seminars.
At the north end of 441 sit the cities of Gordon and Ivey, where community officials are working together to increase opportunities in their towns.
The Fall Line Freeway will run directly in front of City Hall in Ivey, says Ann L. Evans, Ivey’s mayor. She’s looking forward to the industrial opportunities this new highway will bring to a community that’s been a recreation destination up until now, with Lake Tchoucolako, its beach, and a golf course in the city.
As the Fall Line Freeway crosses the lake from Ivey it heads west toward Gordon, and becomes the state’s largest federal stimulus project. The nine-mile stretch of highway known as the North Gordon Bypass received a $51 million allotment from the federal government, says Dennis Holder, chairman of the Wilkinson County Board of Commissioners, but the bid for the job came in less than $30 million. “Because of this economy, people want to work,” he says of the lower-than-expected bid.
The project has had quite an impact on the area already, though the work is just beginning. The city of Ivey has seen infrastructure improvements including upgraded water lines and the addition of sidewalks because of the project, says Evans.
The contract went to a company out of Florida, but part of the contract states that people from the Wilkinson County area must be hired to work the project and 20,000 hours of training for new hires is included. The project is “giving many workers skills they didn’t have before,” says Gordon’s mayor, Kenneth Turner.
The city of Gordon acted as the initial personnel office, Turner says. They found 40 to 45 contacts and the contractors will look at them first. Initially the company will hire 20 to 25 local employees.
While the new stimulus road project has generated a lot of excitement in Gordon and Ivey, kaolin is still king. BASF, the German-based chemical company, paid $550 million for Engelhardt’s two Wilkinson County plants five years ago, Turner says. Initially, employees were let go, but BASF is hiring again, and the company, he says, has brought the employees back up to full time after cutting down to three days a week. In Wilkinson, BASF processes kaolin primarily for paper.
The kaolin industry has been good for Wilkinson County for years, Turner says. The companies are good neighbors and good employers. “For a long time we were oblivious to the outside world. We had kaolin. Then when the kaolin industry was being eroded, we didn’t react. In my opinion, we didn’t know how.”
About eight years ago, Turner says, the county and cities began to react. “We had a series of meetings to talk about economic development.” Out of those meetings, leaders came to realize that the area’s strengths are land, water and infrastructure, which are available in abundance. Next they had to set priorities. They developed marketing plans, planned to hire an economic development director (since accomplished) and determined that community development – the quality of life component – was vital to economic development.
Turner believes the way to bring residents along when government has to spend money on economic development is to simultaneously improve the quality of life, so that people see the benefit of their tax money. “Now, when we want to spend money, people get behind it,” he says.
Community development events in the county include the Fall Line Festival, a 4th of July children’s parade and, in Irwinton, the county seat, a read-through-the-Bible project at the antebellum Union Church, which General Sherman used as his hospital when he tore through the area.
The largest community development project in the county is the Ball’s Ferry Historic State Park, in the southeastern part of the state, along the Oconee River. The history of Ball’s Ferry goes back to the days when Indians lived along the Oconee’s shores. The site is named for Revolutionary War veteran John Ball, who built the ferry, which was operational until 1939 when a bridge was constructed. The site also saw Civil War skirmishes as Gen. Sherman crossed the river there.
The state park project was started in 1999 as a five-county (Baldwin, Johnson, Laurens, Washington and Wilkinson) regional development initiative, says Holder, chairman of the Ball’s Ferry Historical Park Association. With the support of heavy-hitters from five counties, the group was able to get funding from the state for a feasibility study and master plan. Congressman Jim Marshall got the group federal funds to the tune of $2 million for land acquisition (500-plus acres) and development, Holder says. The project is now in the development and planning stage.
The committee believes the opportunity to see the robust redhorse sucker fish in its natural habitat will draw naturalists to the park. The fish was believed extinct until its discovery in the Oconee in 1991. The park will also appeal to people who want to enjoy a day on the river or soak up the centuries of history surrounding the area.
“We’ve accomplished all of this with teamwork,” Holder says. “We want a better quality of life and with a better quality of life comes a better quality of place. We’re proud of it.”
He has every right to be proud. The project won the 2007 Georgia County Excellence Award from the Association County Commissioners and Georgia Trend.
The state park isn’t the only thing the county’s doing right. Wilkinson has been recognized with two other County Excellence Awards. The 2006 award was for cleanup of the Tremon Street Project, which had been listed on the Hazardous Site Index and had a $2.6 million lien against it by the state Environmental Protection Division. That site is now home to Alterra Bioenergy of Middle Georgia.
In 2008 the county won again, this time for the renovation of its courthouse, which was a relic of a much darker technological age. As power needs grew, the electricity would go out on a regular basis, due to the strain on the old wiring. Additional office space and storage space also was needed — meetings would often be held in an old vault, which was filled with boxes of documents, Holder says. It wasn’t just the county commission and county employees who saw the need for renovation to the 1924 building. The estimated $4 million project was funded by a countywide SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). Once the work was complete, the total project cost came in under the estimate, by half a million dollars. “Department heads should be set for space and record retention for the next 20 years,” Holder says of the upgrades to the historic building.
Other projects in the county include a new emergency services building. Services had been housed in an old, abandoned prison building, which required asbestos abatement in its demolition, says David Franks, county manager. The new 3,600-square-foot, three-bay building was constructed with grant money, for a total of $298,000, on six acres. A workforce development center is planned for the rest of the property.
Improvements are under way in the city of Irwinton as well, says Mayor Darrell Burns. In fact, that was his goal when he decided to run for mayor, “This is where we live,” he said to his wife, a life-long Irwinton resident. “I want to make it better.”
One of his goals for the city is better streets. “We have a community of one-lane roads,” he says, with more traffic than one lane allows. The engineering and surveying work have been completed for Pine Street. Now the city is seeking grant money to widen the street and put in sidewalks. “It will be our poster child for new streets.”
He is also seeking grant funds to repair one of the city’s two wells, which has broken down. And in the distant future, he’d like to see sewer come to Irwinton. “Businesses won’t come here without sewerage,” he says.
But he hasn’t spent two years in office just making plans. Burns, who seems not to have to sleep (he also works fulltime at Carbo, is a pastor at a local church and has four children), is proudest of the fact that the water department, which was overdrawn when he took office, now has money in the bank, thanks to new, more efficient water meters and a rate increase that brought local water rates in line with those in surrounding communities, he says.
Growth and diversification of the economy in the county is important, Burns says, but presents a challenge. “It’s a balancing act to keep it [Irwinton] nice and small. People want a small-town feel, but people want modern conveniences.”
It’s a balancing act that the leaders of Wilkinson County face every day.
Economic Development Director, Development Authority of Wilkinson County, and
President, Wilkinson County
Chamber of Commerce
Wilkinson County Board of Commissioners
478.946.4300, ext. 202
Kenneth L. Turner
City of Gordon
Wilkinson County, 10,500
Wilkinson County, 10.9 percent
Georgia, 10.1 percent
Median Household Income
Wilkinson County, $32,723
Top Private employers
BASF, Carbo Ceramics, Springhill Services, Unimin Corp., B-H Transfer
Development Authority of Wilkinson County, Georgia Department of Labor