Forsyth | Monroe County

Location, schools and downtown development

An Encouraging Climate: Monroe County Commission Chair Mike Bilderback

An Encouraging Climate: Monroe County Commission Chair Mike Bilderback

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To officials in the city of Forsyth and Monroe County, the opening of a Tractor Supply retail center this summer means more than just having a place to buy lawn equipment, pet products, tools and more. The project, announced in October of last year, has provided local leaders with a strong dose of optimism about the prospects for further economic development in the area.

“I think Tractor Supply will be the spark that we need to ignite a flame,” says Forsyth Mayor John Howard, who took office in January 2012. “If nothing else, it’ll put us on the map. You need something like that because it will let the other prospects know where you are and who you are. It may give them an incentive to see if [Forsyth] may benefit them as well.”

Forsyth and Monroe County offer several features that are coveted by corporations looking for potential sites for manufacturing plants, distribution centers and other industrial development facilities. Nestled between Atlanta and Macon, the county is easily accessible by car via I-75 or rail. City and county officials can also point to a strong public school system in their pitches to prospective companies. Monroe County schools ranked ahead of every other public school system in Middle Georgia and outpaced some prestigious metro Atlanta systems such as Cobb County in the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), an accountability assessment of public schools across the state that was released in late April.

 “As far as the climate for business in Monroe County – it’s very good,” says Mike Bilderback, chairman of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners. “We’ve got more infrastructure now than we’ve ever had by far. In the last five years, we’ve expanded our water system, and we’ve gotten more commercial customers. We’re looking to do another industrial park in the county so we can have more land available. We’re trying to make things affordable for people to bring their business here.”

Nurturing Small Business

Although the county has struggled to land major capital investments from larger companies, small business development has thrived, particularly in downtown Forsyth. Since the start of last year, 12 new businesses have opened in the city’s historic downtown and two other businesses have relocated or expanded their operations.

Collectively, these moves have resulted in a net of 56 new jobs and more than $1 million in public and private investments. City officials hope to continue the trend of small business development and foster an environment where both local businesses and regional and national companies can thrive.

With a population that has increased by 3 percent since April 2010, Monroe County faces the challenge of attracting larger companies while ensuring that local small businesses remain profitable and part of the fabric of the community.

“Tractor Supply is a very close, sensitive topic for many people in our community because it is the first regional retailer that we’ve had here since Walmart,” says Tiffany Andrews, CEO of the Forsyth-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Development Authority of Monroe County. “How do you have planned growth? How do you meet the needs of your community and not muzzle out at the same time your local small businesses?”

In order to ease the concerns of longtime local residents, Andrews believes it is necessary to emphasize the need for small businesses to survive by standing out through unparalleled customer service and personal relationships.

“What we’ve tried to educate people on is competition is always good,” Andrews explains. “It’s going to happen whether we’re out attracting it or it just happens naturally. The thing is [to work] with those small businesses that are here to find their niche, because that small mom-and-pop is going to give a customer service base that Tractor Supply will never do. It’s our job trying to help educate those small businesses. You can survive. You can maintain. You just have to be creative.”

Community Partnership

The community landscape was transformed on Nov. 12, 2010, when the Department of Corrections (DOC) moved its headquarters from Atlanta to Monroe County. Today, the DOC occupies the former campus of Tift College, which closed in 1987, and is an integral part of the county’s identity.

In the three and a half years since relocating to Forsyth, the DOC has made positive contributions to the county’s economy, school system and quality of life. With 434 full-time and 41 part-time employees as of April, the DOC is the second-largest employer in the county, trailing only the Monroe County Board of Education. Its headquarters campus is also used throughout the year by other state entities for various training activities – and those participants travel from other parts of the state, dine in local restaurants and stay in local hotels.

“It really has become a multi-purpose campus,” says Brian Owens, DOC commissioner. “We’re just stewards trying to make it work for Middle Georgia.”

The DOC directs inmates on numerous work projects designed to improve the county’s appearance and quality of life. Most of these projects consist of cleaning debris and performing basic landscaping along the county’s stretch of I-75 or in downtown Forsyth. However, other tasks, such as building press boxes for local school stadiums, have also been performed by DOC inmates, according to Owens.

Another source of pride for the county and the DOC is the 12 for Life program, a joint venture between the DOC and the board of education that provides part-time employment for at-risk students. Modeled after a similar program created by Southwire Co. and the Carroll County school system in 2007, students spend half of each day in school and half a day working at the DOC. Through the program, they earn course credit, life skills and a half day’s pay. Since the program launched three years ago, 24 of the 28 participants have either graduated from high school or are currently on pace to graduate, Owens says.

“We were looking for a way to give back to the community,” says Owens, who enjoys attending the program participants’ graduations. “It’s really neat to see kids who are in difficult situations blossom.”     

Smart Thinking

Outside of an advantageous location with convenient access via interstate and rail, it is possible that Monroe County’s most impressive asset is its public school system. Although the latest CCRPI scores are perhaps the strongest validation of the overall quality of the school system, Monroe County schools are thriving in other areas as well.

In 2009, the county consolidated its middle schools into one, which has resulted in increased community and parental support since every family is considered a stakeholder in the school, according to Dr. Mike Hickman, assistant superintendent for personnel, teaching and learning in middle and high school.

The school system’s reputation for strong academics has resulted in a surge of applications for faculty positions. As the 2013-14 academic year drew to a close, the county received more than 200 applications for each available full-time position in the county’s three elementary schools. Consequently, principals and administrators can choose from a talented applicant pool that often features candidates from across the state and around the Southeast.

Additionally, the fine arts programs will get a boost with the addition of a 1,200-seat fine arts center. Construction of the facility is expected to cost approximately $7.5 million, which will be drawn from a $22-million Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (E-SPLOST) initiative. The county expects to break ground on the fine arts facility by the end of the 2014-15 school year, according to Jackson Daniel, assistant superintendent for support services.

Of course, board of education officials and other county leaders were pleased with the CCRPI results, in which Monroe County’s overall score was 82.2. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the results was the fact that Monroe County’s score was higher than all of the neighboring counties in Middle Georgia, including Houston, Jones, Lamar and Butts. This information will be used as an additional selling point when county officials like Andrews make their pitches to companies looking at prospective sites to open or relocate offices, warehouses or retail stores.

Healthcare is another area where Monroe County stands out among its neighbors. Since three contiguous counties to Monroe (Jones, Lamar and Crawford) lack a hospital, Monroe County Hospital effectively provides healthcare to four counties. As a critical access facility with a license for 25 beds, Monroe County Hospital is certified to receive cost-based reimbursement from Medicare, a benefit to reduce the risk of closures among rural hospitals.

The hospital is in the midst of a transition as it adjusts to the new federal healthcare policies from the Affordable Care Act, according to Kay Floyd, the hospital’s CEO. Since Monroe County Hospital is a clinical affiliate with two hospitals in Macon, patients can be sent to the larger hospitals if they can be better served by a full-service facility. Conversely, patients can also be sent from Macon to Monroe County depending on their medical needs.

“Merger and acquisition activity is abounding right now in the hospital world, including a lot of physicians, too,” Floyd says. “A lot of physicians are nervous about the future with the healthcare reform and what the reimbursement systems are going to look like.”

Downtown Draw

As small business development continues in Forsyth, the city is also enticing tourists by marketing the historic downtown area. Founded in 1821, Forsyth features a picturesque town square complete with a 19th-century courthouse and a variety of local shops and restaurants.

“Forsyth has this historic feel to it,” says Loraine Khoury, executive director of Forsyth Better Hometown and Downtown Development Authority. “It has character, and the tourists are looking for an authentic experience. They’re tired of going to Disneyland and seeing a pop-up of what some other town looks like in some other part of the world. They want to see where I live [and] what’s the history. They’re making that stop here, and we have to cash in on it.”

Recently, the chamber received the results from a yearlong commissioned evaluation to find out how the area can attract more tourists. The results indicated that upgrading hotel and lodging facilities is a necessity for the area to become a regular stop for tourists traveling through the state on their way to or from Florida.

“At one point, the location of Monroe County had a very booming, thriving hotel industry,” says Andrews. “We were kind of that mid-point to Florida. Those hotels now are getting dilapidated. They’re getting aged. How do you transition from that market to the next generation of what people are looking at? How do you have the infrastructure that’s in place and maybe redevelop it, put a new face on it, and hit the baby boomer market that’s looking for a unique travel opportunity that that higher-end hotel can’t do?

“I think that you’re going to see a transition here in Monroe County,” she adds. “How do we embrace that? How do we help them with that transition? A lot of those hotels are owned by individuals who don’t have that capital again or the cash flow, but there’s been a very strong outcry from travelers that that’s got to get addressed. I think it’s a challenge but also an opportunity.”

Future Opportunties

As the population of Forsyth-Monroe County continues to grow at a gradual pace, city and county officials continue to refine plans to lure tourists and small businesses to the area by emphasizing the same advantages that made the area an essential stop years ago: a historic community and a convenient location between two cities right on the way to Florida.

However, convincing larger companies to come to the county remains a work in progress. Will the addition of Tractor Supply cause other regional and national retail companies to take note of Forsyth-Monroe County as a potential destination for larger economic development projects?

Mayor Howard believes that larger companies can be attracted to the area if city and county governments can agree on sharing resources.

“I think there is a huge opportunity for economic development and growth,” Howard says, “if we will come together and learn to share our resources and get our resources working together.”

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