Brunswick/Golden Isles: Full Speed Ahead
Mainland Growth, Port Power And Tourism
An air of anticipation has mingled with the fresh sea breezes coming off the Atlantic to promise Brunswick and the Golden Isles a new era of growth.
Anchored by the vibrant Port of Brunswick, and buoyed by a consistently growing tourism sector, Glynn County seems almost certain to improve its position as having the seventh highest per capita income in the state. It’s been long noted for the concentration of wealth on its playgrounds for the rich – Sea Island and St. Simons Island – now the mainland will begin to enjoy its own wave of prosperity, say those who watch coastal trends.
“They’ve been doing roughly 950 [residential] building permits a year for the last four years; we’re showing [Glynn County] going up to 1,200 to 1,300 [in each of] the next four years,” says Bill Lattimore, who charts real estate trends for residential lenders as president of the Lattimore Company, and also serves on the board of the Jekyll Island Foundation. “Most of the growth is taking place on the mainland. It’s not only the pre-retirees and retirees, but the strong job growth in that market coupled with the strong economy has produced a serious influx of working families, a totally different – and important – housing dynamic. They are coming; there is no question about that. The issue is whether or not we’re going to have the capacity to absorb them. Do they have the utilities? Do they have the roads?”
Yes, says County Commission Chairman Tony Thaw.
“We’re now looking at water line expansion to the west side of the county where all the growth is going to be, including possibly a new wastewater treatment plant,” Thaw says. “We’ve got the money in the current SPLOST [Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax], $40 million for water and sewer, and most of that is for expansion.” In addition, the county has embarked on a $10 million road resurfacing project to improve some 30 miles of existing thoroughfares.
Thaw’s municipal counterpart, Brunswick Mayor Bryan Thompson, does his own brand of accounting, ticking off the economic effects of the arrival of Liberty Harbor. Though the proposed giant mixed-use community has encountered a few bumps along the way, work has begun on a site that the developers say will add 1,500 residences to the city’s rosters within the next two decades.
“When you have 1,500 new homes, both single-family and condo residential, that’s at least 1,500 new refrigerators, that’s at least 1,500 new air conditioning units, and it goes on and on,” Thompson says.
One reason for the downtown’s rebirth, Thompson says, is Blueprint Brunswick, Inc., both a master plan for growth, and a citizen-controlled 501(c)3 organization. So fiercely does the city follow the master plan, that when a developer proposed a $100 million waterfront project, the idea was rejected in a unanimous vote by the city commission. “We know what we want and we know it when we see it,” Thompson says.
The Power Of The Ports
A wave of new jobs will be washing ashore on the mainland with the addition of two new industrial and logistics parks, one with 8,000 feet of frontage on I-95. “We had one existing industrial park, a site that had been there since the late ’70s or early ’80s,” says Nathan Sparks, executive director of the Brunswick and Glynn County Development Authority (BGCDA). “And that has only about 70 acres remaining, with the only remaining lot sizes in the seven- to 12-acre range, fine for small manufacturers and distributors; but we were limited. We weren’t able to compete for a lot of the bigger, marquee-type economic development projects.”
When Sparks heard of a land owner who might be willing to sell a large tract adjacent to I-95, and less than a mile from an interchange, he joined community leaders in pursuing its purchase. But first, a test drive. With permission, but without a purchase option from the owner, Australia-based ILUKA Resources, Sparks marketed the 687-acre property, offering readily available utilities, easy access to I-95 and a beautifully forested landscape that includes a fish-filled lake. “The elevations on this site are close to being 35 feet, which in coastal Georgia is practically a mountain,” Sparks says. He got plenty of calls and site visits.
“We were finalists on more than one occasion,” he says. “We were looking at deals from 400,000 square feet to 4 million square feet in a six-month period. We made it through our test drive period and saw all these great deals and heard all this positive feedback; so, we said, ‘Let’s pull the trigger.’”
Last October, the BGCDA bought the property for a little under $15 million and immediately began marketing the site, under the provisional name Pinecrest Logistics Park. “The development authority is actively pursuing partnership agreements with development companies who may have interest in developing all or part of the property,” Sparks says. ILUKA, the previous owner, had originally purchased the land to mine for titanium. “Now it will be mined for industrial prospects,” Sparks says.
To some, it may seem a little odd that Mercedes automobiles manufactured in Vance, Ala., travel by rail to Brunswick’s port, located on Colonel’s Island, to be transported by ship to Germany. But for Golden Isles resident and former U.S Senator Mack Mattingly, chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA), it’s business as usual. “We’re the port of choice,” he says. “There was competition with other ports and the rail travel time from Vance, Alabama, to here is faster than it was to other ports. And we’re talking about a lot of cars.”
Last year, 72,519 Mercedes left Brunswick for Europe, compared to 21,379 shipped out of the port in FY 04-05, according to data supplied by the GPA. In the first eight months of the current Ports Authority fiscal year, Mercedes has sent some 60,000 autos to Europe, more than doubling the numbers for the same period two years ago.
In fact, total tonnage of all commodities flowing through Brunswick’s port continues to climb, with FY06 numbers up more than 11 percent over the previous year; and the port is girding for even greater demands for its services. “The deepening of the channel [to the port] from 30 to 36 feet [is] completed, and the harbor deepening will be completed by the end of the summer,” Mattingly says. “And that opens up the Port of Brunswick to a new class of bulk and vehicle vessels and it means ships can come in and out hauling heavier loads.” At the same time, he adds, the deeper port “will be available to 100 percent of the roll-on, roll-off vehicles worldwide. Business will continue to grow.”
Experts believe Brunswick will soon be the leading Atlantic port in grain shipments. The steadily increasing demand for such shipments has already led the GPA to build a new 10,000-ton grain storage bin. And the total auto and machinery traffic at Brunswick, which is called throughput, increased by 171 percent from 1997 to 2006, with more dramatic growth in that category almost guaranteed. “Business will come not only because the channel has been deepened, but also because of the expansion of the railroad,” Mattingly says.
A $4.5 million investment in rail improvements at the port is now under way, complementing a new overpass at Colonel’s Island that provides unencumbered access to the north and south sides of the island. The overpass is a connection to the future, Mattingly says. “This will give us access to 900 acres for expansion,” he says. “And we have [trade] prospects now waiting [on the expansion]. It all means more business, more jobs.”
If a recent report is correct, a little expansion that is miles from Brunswick will land even more jobs at the port.
A study commissioned by the Brunswick-based Southeast Georgia Joint Development Authority (SGDA) – which includes Glynn, Brantley, Camden, Charlton, McIntosh and Wayne counties – and released in February, states that rail improvements at a site more than 40 miles northeast of Brunswick would generate even more port business.
According to the study, requested by the authority’s five member counties, a $4.7 million investment in a 12,000-foot rail siding (known as the Colonel’s Island Connector) in Wayne County (Jesup) along a Norfolk Southern route connecting Macon and Brunswick could allow grain shipments to more than double from just over 200,000 tons to 500,000 tons, creating 27 new jobs and adding $1.8 million to the Gross State Product. “The economic development this siding would bring all along the route is exponential,” says SGDA executive director Phil Overton.
The connector would allow trains to bypass the crowded Brunswick rail yard, proceed directly to CSX tracks and eventually connect with the Golden Isles Terminal Railroad, a shortline track that accesses the Colonel’s Island Terminal at the Port of Brunswick. The project will allow much longer trains, perhaps a mile in length, to make the trip as they will no longer have to be disassembled, switched and reassembled in Brunswick.
Not only could these trains cut the shipping time for autos and agricultural products, they also could carry new cargo. “An ethanol facility has already been announced for Jesup, one that would place greater demands on the rail to carry its product to the Port of Brunswick,” Overton says. “And there is also the potential for sending pelletized wood to Europe for use as fuel for power plants.” Overton predicts funding from several sources for the project, including the state and the U.S Department of Agriculture, to be in place by summer’s end.
A New Twist
With a face carved and hued by the sun, the wind and the sea and a firm jaw framed by a graying beard, Larry Credle seems sent from central casting for his real life role as a sea captain. After fishing and shrimping for more than 40 years, Credle has turned his aging shrimp boat, the Lady Jane, into a pleasure craft and christened a new career as a charter captain.
On an overcast spring morning, Captain Credle is standing aboard the 60-foot Lady Jane, which lies moored next to a dock on Jointer Creek, a scenic little stream that meanders off the eastern edge of Glynn County and into the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Credle speaks of the Lady Jane with humor and affection. “She’s had extensive surgery,” he says, smiling. “She’s 21 tons, been through three gulf hurricanes and she’s ready.”
What Credle’s refurbished Lady Jane is ready to do is haul tourists, corporate execs and any others who thirst for an authentic coastal experience trawling for shrimp, cocktail in hand. Captain and ship have become a metaphorical commentary on the state of a Georgia coastal fishing industry beset by what Credle says are depleted fishing grounds and a ruinous overhead. Credle and his brother, H.L., have launched Credle’s Adventures, ecological tours and shrimping excursions aboard the cosmetically improved Lady Jane.
Credle and his Lady Jane are part of a growing fleet of ex-shrimpers now netting tourists’ dollars. “I got a call just recently from another man getting out of shrimping and going into the charter-excursion business,” says Bill Tipton, executive director of Brunswick and the Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Dolphin tours, sunset cruises, ecotourism in the marshes and just venturing out into the ocean, all that is growing in popularity and the addition of Larry and the Lady Jane is beginning to give us more water-oriented adventures; and that is one of our big marketing pushes. It is such a cool experience learning how a shrimp boat works and it’s something you can’t get everywhere on the coast.”
For Tipton, the Lady Jane is one tiny piece of a tourism mosaic that has an annual $264.3 million impact on the local economy, thanks to the more than 2 million tourists who visit Glynn County each year. The income from tourism here seems immune to downturns in the state or national economy, or even when the grand old Cloister was rebuilt and mostly closed for more than two years.
“We’ve been adding 3 to 5 percent in bed tax revenues for just about each of the last 11 years,” Tipton says. “And we’re happy to do that.”
Brunswick, county seat; 15,956
Per Capita Income (2004)
$32,049; Georgia, $29,782
Unemployment (March 2007)
Glynn County, 3.2 percent; Georgia, 4.0 percent
Top 10 Employers (non-government)
Sea Island Company, 2,100; Southeast Georgia Health System, 1,682; Koch Cellulose, LLC, 790; Rich Corp., 600; King and Prince Seafood, 570; Wal-Mart, 550; Hercules-Pinova, 356; Gulfstream Aerospace, 350; International Auto Processing, 200; The Waggoners Trucking, 187
Brunswick and Glynn County Development Authority, U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Dept. of Labor, Glynn County Commission