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Statesboro/Bulloch County: Brisk Business

Manufacturing, research, retail

Brand-New Facility: The Development Authority of Bulloch County’s Benjy Thompson, left, and Kevin Black, Great Dane plant manager

Brand-New Facility: The Development Authority of Bulloch County’s Benjy Thompson, left, and Kevin Black, Great Dane plant manager

www.herbpilcher.com

It is mid-morning at the Great Dane trailers plant in Statesboro’s Gateway Regional Industrial Park. A workman is monitoring a programmable plasma cutter as it slices through steel. Nearby, aluminum sheets are being bent as another refrigerated semi-truck trailer takes shape. The place is noisy, with lots of sparks and flames. In this respect, it’s probably much like it was when the first Great Dane trailers were made more than a century ago – without the robotic technology, of course.

Only 200 workers are at the plant on this day, not long after ribbon cutting and public tour groups came through the facility. When the plant hits full-stride production by the fall, employment at Great Dane could reach 550, a real boost to the local community in the days of layoffs, furloughs, plant closings and the resultant high unemployment rates.

Plant manager Kevin Black is taking a small group through the plant and describing how these workers came to their jobs. “Back in December, Ogeechee Technical College hosted a job fair for us,” Black says. “We expected about 900 to 1,000 people to show up but printed 1,800 application forms just in case. Then 4,000 people showed up.” Ogeechee Tech staffers scrambled and quickly printed additional forms so that all who came got a crack at a job.

The new Great Dane Statesboro plant replaces an aging Great Dane plant in Savannah, which in turn is making way for the company’s new research and development campus. Some of the workers in the Statesboro plant came over from Savannah, a 45-minute drive east from Bulloch County along Interstate 16. They are not the only ones following Great Dane to Statesboro.

 “There are a couple of vendors for Great Dane now in the process of locating here and are in various stages of construction,” says Benjy Thompson, CEO of the Development Authority of Bulloch County and Statesboro-Bull-och Chamber of Commerce. Employ-ment at those two companies will vary depending on orders from their customer, Great Dane.

Business has been brisk out at the Gateway Regional Industrial Park, squeezing available space to the limit, says Thompson. “We’ve brought in other new companies, like [roofing and insulation manufacturer] GAF,” he says. “They’re the largest privately owned roofing manufacturer in North America. We’re starting to run out of space at Gateway, and that’s a good thing. We’ve got about 180 acres left in that park, but we own about 200 acres out at the intersection of I-16 and [U.S.] Highway 301, with the possibility of more acreage adjacent to that property for future development. So Statesboro and Bulloch County are finally planting their flag out on the interstate, and that’s exciting for me.”

The 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly moved more of Sav-annah to Statesboro, at least figuratively, when it transferred management of the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center near Savannah’s port from the Department of Economic Development to Georgia Southern University (GSU) in Statesboro.

 “That facility gives us the opportunity, as we bring engineering degrees to the university, for a different type of engagement in the realm of engineering,” says Dr. Charles Patterson, GSU’s vice president for research and economic development. “It gives us the opportunity to utilize both our Ph.D. expertise in engineering as well as the facility of an applied engineering group in Savannah to do perhaps validation testing of materials and to work with companies in the entrepreneurial realm.”

Expanded Mission

That goes to the heart of an expanded mission for Georgia Southern Uni-versity, where 20,000 students and an army of Ph.D.s have traditionally been viewed as Bulloch County’s consumer base for retail and residential purchases. For regional economic developers, the university is simply too large to be missed. With a $487-million annual economic impact on the immediate region, GSU is the provider of nearly 7,000 jobs. The school’s value to the communities it serves is notable. The university has placed its imprimatur on another mission: producer of entrepreneurs.

“If you look at the demographics of today’s students, we have students coming out of high school and into college that have this very entrepreneurial nature to them,” Patterson says. “They are involved in small business startups, and these startups are mostly successful. So a lot of our entrepreneurship is starting with our students.” Research done at GSU has created products that have been patented and generate revenues for the university.

 “We hold the patent [for NCR] for general point-of-sale technology that we license to NCR and they license out to their clients,” Patterson says. “The income from royalties licenses comes back to the university to be invested in economic development efforts. That’s just one example of how a university can contribute to economic development.” Another can be found in the merger of the university’s engineering degrees with information technology for the creation of the Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering Information Technology, named for the late founder of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., a generous benefactor of GSU.

“We’re expecting to be a site for advanced manufacturing for companies that need the Port of Savannah in order to be successful, but don’t have to be sitting next door to the port,” says Thompson. “The Herty Center is a big step in that direction. What that brings to me as an economic developer in Statesboro is the promise of bringing in prospects who are interested in that kind of research and activity that is going on at Georgia Southern.”            

Retail Activity

Riding through one of Statesboro’s retail districts and on to nearby apartment complexes with Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce Presi-dent Phyllis Thompson – no relation to Benjy – requires close attention and a tape recorder to keep track of a running narrative that seems to cover every building passed on a one-hour tour. Stopping at Hackers, a golf park with putt-putt and a driving range, Thompson says Hackers opened in 1998 and the clubhouse came in 2010, “offering a much broader family venue with bowling, video games, laser tag and food,” she says. “Hackers has become a noted example of local entrepreneurship.”

Thirty seconds later, Thompson stops at a freshly built multi-story building near the hospital. “We have a couple of Georgia Southern graduates who are opening a pharmacy here, and CVS is coming as well,” Thompson says. “One of the features of economic development I’m enjoying here is the fact that we have both representation from the larger chains and the mom-and-pop stores in our retail sector.”

Thompson, formerly an executive involved in recruiting physicians, makes the case that a doctor’s office is a small business. In this community, there are fewer hospital- employed physicians than you would find in other communities of this size, she says, pointing to a hospital campus nearby. “That is East Georgia Regional Medical Center. It opened here in 2000, and the hospital became a for-profit facility at the same time. It has about 85 physicians, and look at all the retail that has sprung up around it.”

Thompson says the period 2011-2012 saw East Georgia College open its Statesboro campus and a groundbreaking for an Ogeechee Area Hospice expansion. “And this year we had a groundbreaking for a Willow Pond Assisted Living addition,” she says.

“Among new retail chain presences we added Cracker Barrel and Tractor Supply Company and saw construction begin on a Steak ‘n Shake. Three new independent re-tailers opened: Ellianos, a coffee shop; Sweet Cheeks, a bakery; and Southern Pharmacy. A lot of this is driven by Geor-gia Southern’s growing student populations, but we also are seeing new residents coming in with the local jobs creation.”

Transportation

Georgia Highway 67 is the main corridor linking I-16 to the heart of Statesboro, and the important road is lined with retail outlets, restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores, with motels and hotels on side roads. This part of Bulloch County is the wellspring of retail sales that top $1 billion annually, with most of the purchases being made by people who do not live in the county –  the motorists passing through on I-16. But Highway 67 is an unfinished road, lacking the four lanes that could bring even more traffic and consumers into the community.

Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil says his community has been waiting long enough for the Georgia Department of Transportation to widen 67. “The T-SPLOST could get that done a lot faster,” Nevil says, referring to the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that could be levied, with voter approval in 10 counties in the Statesboro region on the 31st of this month. The tax is projected to bring as much as $282 million for Bulloch’s road projects, including improvements on the southern lap of the Statesboro bypass and completion of the northern arc of that road. Perhaps even more important: If the T-SPLOST passes, more than 43,000 jobs would be created, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration supplied by the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce. “Those payrolls go into housing, food, gas, clothing, and money is circulated in the community,” says Nevil.

Bulloch County was created by the legislature in 1796 and remained sparsely populated until after the Civil War. In the 19th century, agriculture was the chief cash enterprise, with many people living off the land, according to one writer of the day. “Many [locals] rely, in great degree, upon game, with which the county abounds, and the production of their orchards,” wrote George White in 1849, with an added salute to the skills of local farmers. “The Bulloch County farmer would get rich, while others would starve.”

Farming in the county remains an industry of about $100 million in annual receipts. The county had a population of just 3,000 in 1860, and that number grew during the Indus-trial Age, then tripled by 1880. Modern population growth saw the county gain 13,000 people in the 2000s to reach 70,000, with the State Office of Planning and Budget projecting a population of 88,000 by 2020 and 109,000 by 2030, pleasing figures for local economic developers.

When Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch wanted to begin collecting such numbers and facts and set up the process of interpreting them for planning purposes, he had to look outside the state for a model. “Urban planning was my initial trade, and I am a wonk. We wanted to set up something like The Conference Board,” Couch says, referring to the New York-based global business research association that tracks economic and trade trends for its members. 

The Bulloch County Index of Economic Indicators became a work in progress, with hopes it will be put in use no later than 2014. “We feel we’re getting close, and it will be a useful tool,” Couch says. It appears no such local economic development and planning tool is being used at present. “Having all those tools will help us in looking at what local revenues are going to look like from three to five years out at the county government level,” he says. By measuring data such as trends in building permits, business licenses, traffic flows and related information, the index could be an aid in forecasting future needs and could also be used in economic development efforts by documenting growth patterns, he says. 

“What you’re seeing here is the type of community that’s not just rural anymore,” says Benjy Thomp-son of the development authority.  “It’s not just a college town anymore; we have all the diversity a community our size doesn’t al-ways have, and those assets are starting to harmonize. This is just a cool place to be.”      

Community Snapshot

Local Leaders
Benjy Thompson
CEO
Development Authority of Bulloch County and Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce
912.489.9115
benjy.thompson@statesborochamber.org

Phyllis Thompson
President
Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce
912.489.9120
phyllis.thompson@statesborochamber.org

Garrett Nevil
Chairman
Bulloch County Commission
912.764.6245
gnevil@bullochcounty.net

Population (2009 estimates)
County, 69,213
Statesboro (county seat), 26,909

Per Capita Income (2008)
County, $24,173
Georgia, $34,849

Unemployment (February, preliminary)
County, 9.9 percent
Georgia, 9.3 percent

Top Employers
Georgia Southern University, Bulloch County Board of Education, East Georgia Regional Medical Center, Briggs and Stratton, Walmart Distribution Center

Sources
Development Authority of Bulloch County, Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau

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