Columbus: Gearing Up
New Industry And Military Expansions Bring Change
There’s a rumble in Columbus of the most welcome kind: the rumble of progress, growth and investment. Change is visible in the sights of the city and audible in the noisy air – nearby construction is a foregone conclusion. It’s an especially good thing to hear in advance of what promises to be the most dynamic and busy time of the city’s history.
“There are some gigantic engines getting into gear,” says Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Michael Gaymon. “We’ll be swiftly going through the gears now to get to full speed.”
Over the last two years, the state’s biggest economic news has been made in, or near, Columbus. Insurance giant Aflac announced it would expand to the tune of 2,000 new jobs. In nearby West Point, automaker Kia is building a manufacturing plant and plans to hire 2,500 people and invest $1.2 billion.
Just outside the city, Fort Benning is expanding. Plans call for the creation of a new Maneuver Center of Excellence that will result from consolidating the Army’s Infantry and Armor Schools, a change that will bring some 35,000 soldiers to town. That alone will create 11,000 jobs and $2.9 billion in investment. The impact is staggering, and Columbus is doing its best to make the most of it.
Optimism pervades here. Officials are scrambling to absorb Fort Ben-ning’s growth, even though it is a few years off – the Armor School is scheduled to begin its two-year move in October 2009. The Kia plant at the moment has Columbus leaders the most excited. It has been estimated that 11 to 18 tier one suppliers will locate in the region, and what’s good for the region is good for Muscogee County.
“It’s great to have a diverse portfolio of [locations for the Kia suppliers],” says Becca Hardin, executive vice president of economic development for the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce. She’s also executive vice president of the Valley Partnership, which encompasses six counties and three cities in the region. Members include Chattahoochee, Harris, Muskogee, Talbot, Taylor and Marion counties and the cities of Manchester and West Point, along with Phenix City, which lies across the river in Alabama.
“Ironically, some suppliers don’t want to be too close [to Kia], and Columbus is 45 minutes away,” Hardin says. “Labor is a key topic of discussion. They don’t want to compete with the main Kia facility for the workforce.” Suppliers are looking in a 60-mile radius, Hardin says, including Alabama, and the region’s largest city is also its most handsome target. With so much opportunity, there is plenty of room to share.
“For the next six months to a year, we will be working diligently to place [the suppliers],” Hardin says. “We’ve got prospects coming in weekly.” That alone will cause peripheral commercial and residential development, “but from a residential standpoint, Columbus is beginning to run out of developable property. We’ll see more residential growth go to surrounding counties.”
To offset burgeoning suburbanization issues, the Valley Partnership markets the region, and consequently, “People are stepping up to the plate, to get past turf issues and stay on goal – there’s no time to mess around,” Hardin says. If handled optimally, the job gain could top 5,000: 3,000 from Kia and 2,000 to 2,500 in the supplier network.
The ramifications of Fort Benning’s growth have helped the Valley Partnership organize. “We’re drinking from the hydrant. It’s all coming so fast. But we all appreciate the magnitude of this project,” Hardin says. “We have received half a million dollars from the federal government to support a Regional Joint Land Use Study (RJLUS) to guide growth.”
Leaders emphasize how the announcements have dramatically changed the region’s status in the eyes of potential developers. “The region is being discovered by folks who never thought of it as a place for economic success,” Gaymon says. “We’re used to seeing developers bring in 700 to 800 homes collectively a year – now they want to bring 1,000 unit developments in at once. It’s forever changed how we do business.”
Growth prospects also have helped spawn a network for regional planning, he adds. “It’s bringing entities together that typically don’t talk to one another – some counties don’t even have zoning. The RJLUS will provide a framework to implement the program while lessening the politics.”
Is that possible? “It’s forcing us all to back up and regroup,” Gaymon says. Muscogee County, for instance, just finished a regional transportation plan that already needs revision. Concerns over Interstate 185, where traffic could one day back up to Macon Road from the cloverleaf intersections leading into Columbus, and the lack of water and sewer service to several counties make up the bulk of the region’s infrastructure challenges.
“There’s no regional water and sewer system, though we have the capacity [here in Columbus] to expand to around 30 million gallons a day,” Gaymon says. “There are some who think the city will take over. But we’re taking baby steps – it’s not we versus you.”
“We believe we need more than $200 million to support our roads with widenings and intersection improvements,” says Columbus City Manager Isaiah Hugley. “We don’t have those dollars in hand locally, so we’ve written to our delegation to support us however they can with federal funding. If not, we have to determine how we fund those transportation projects locally.”
To help the region prepare for the influx of personnel and investment engendered by the new Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, the Valley Partnership is receiving a $540,000 grant from the Office of Economic Adjustment – a field agency of the Department of Defense. It and the Valley Partnership are supporting the RJLUS with actual and matching funds. The project will examine encroachment issues relative to the new BRAC-related base activities and surrounding jurisdictions, Hugley says.
Gary Jones, senior vice president of military affairs for the Columbus Chamber and Valley Partnership, says interest in the RJLUS success runs high; and the community, county and region will be involved from top to bottom. “We want to develop the RJLUS throughout the region through cooperation, coordination and inclusion,” he says. The Regional Growth Management Plan (RGMP), a follow-up to the RJLUS, will cover an even larger, 10-county area, he adds, with grant support again being supported by the Office of Economic Adjustment and the Valley Partnership.
“Some bases, posts and installations in the United States have had uncontrolled growth around them – and it compromises the installation’s capability to accomplish its assigned military missions. The end result could be the post population is reduced or, worse yet, the post be closed. If that extreme occurs you can imagine the impact on that community or regions,” Jones says.
To help avoid some of those pitfalls, Jones says, local leaders are reviewing lessons learned by other Georgia communities that have experienced a boon following previous BRAC activities. He points to The Coastal Georgia Regional Development Center in Savannah and Warner Robins’ 21st Century Partnership as groups that have done a good job managing such change.
Meanwhile, the RJLUS will get under way. The eight-month process will be followed by a 90- to 120-day follow-up report identifying which recommendations were implemented by the counties and municipalities affected (each governmental entity will decide what to incorporate in its area).
“We’ll be working next on follow-up grants to implement the study findings,” Hardin says. “We’ll be creating a Regional Growth Management Plan specific to communities.”
Civilian Sector Success
As far as the impact on its tax base, Columbus is taking no chances, angling to grow other industries – such as aerospace and defense contractors – that complement the maneuver and armor schools as well as the Kia plant. “There will be some manufacturing, mechanical maintenance, research and development and technology,” Hardin says. “We’re working on a recruitment strategy just for defense with Gary.”
Industrially, the county has some attractive offerings that are being snapped up by the minute. In March, FedEx Ground announced it would locate its Regional Distribution Center – and create 170 jobs – at Muscogee Technology Park, a 1,300-acre spread that’s already home to Lithochrome. Nearby, the Fall Line Business Center has 200 acres available.
Meanwhile, growth at Aflac has been gangbusters: an expansion is under way to increase the size of its headquarters by 90,000 square feet – to a total of 340,000 square feet; an $80,000 investment reflecting in increase of 2,000 jobs.
“They’re working on three different facilities,” Hardin says. The first was expected to be occupied this month. The second, an IT facility, will begin construction when the first is complete. Construction on the third building is expected to begin in about three years.
“They’re already ramping up their hiring as the facility is being built, and that’s created more intown housing.”
“We see a lot of upper story living accommodations coming online,” says Richard Bishop, UPtown Columbus president and CEO. “We have 100 condos overlooking the river opening in a year and a half at the old Eagle and Phenix Mill, and eight more units under construction that should be completed in a few months right on Broadway. We also have a short section of the Riverwalk opening this summer, and the city is in the process of bidding another section connecting all the way to the 14th Street Bridge.”
Also in the Uptown district, Columbus State University, landlocked on its campus at the city’s border, has moved its renowned Schools of Music, Art, Theater and Dance, comprising around 650 students and faculty, to a new Riverpark campus. Around 350 students are living full time in upper-story accommodations, and all disciplines have room to grow, Bishop says.
In short, Columbus’ streetlife is vibrant, and the best seems yet to come. This means the city can count tourism dollars in its diverse economy. And the quality of life it creates will attract more residents: Hugley believes 65 to 75 percent of the Fort Benning growth is coming to Columbus – as many as 25,000 people.
“We’re always looking for infill opportunities, but when we looked at demand for housing based on [Fort Benning’s growth], we found that we have sufficient property zoned and ready for development,” he says. “Once we do it, we’ll be close to built out.”
Uptown’s bustle reflects some of that change, though some of the funky old stores are thankfully thriving, along with the city’s history and sense of identity. In the last two years, some $45 million worth of construction has been completed in the Uptown district, with 13 new businesses opening to create more than 60 jobs, Bishop says. Visitors have also increased their town visits in frequency: The Rivercenter Bill Heard Theater and Springer Opera House combined to sell more than 130,000 tickets a year.
“We have the best environment in town for entertainment,” Bishop says. With the Liberty Theater and the new CSU facility, he hopes there eventually will be entertainment on the street three or four nights a week.
This fall, plans call for further accentuating Uptown’s creative element with a Sculpture Walk. “We’re trying to get artists from throughout the Southeast to lend us some pieces to display on Broadway,” says Bishop, who says he got the idea from Sioux Falls, SD. “It could be tremendous draw.”
A symbolic event took place recently when Uptown’s first full service supermarket opened for business. “Before, you had to go out of the area just to get household items. This will have a positive effect on both the students and the people living here,” Bishop says.
A grocery store uptown was unheard of years ago. “I’d never imagined back 15 years ago that we would need three parking garages,” Hugley says, “but we find ourselves today with parking garages in three consecutive blocks. That points to the kind of growth and demand that we have Uptown, and we’re excited about it.”
Make that very excited – building on the success of the new Rivercenter Bill Heard Theater complex, the city has invested $35 million in expanding its convention center across from the Marriott Hotel, which may draw another hotel to the area. Currently, most hotels in Columbus are clustered near the CSU campus. “We have bond money set aside to build another parking garage, and hopefully we can use it as an incentive to bring another hotel Uptown, so we can go after conventions that demand more rooms on site,” Hugley says.
Construction is the indicator of what’s to come. “We’re bringing a higher level of technology,” Gaymon says. Those job skills are demanding a higher wage. We’ll be seeing purchases of higher level ticket items such as homes and cars. As the expendable income gap goes up the more you tend to spend.”
Hugley agrees that Uptown is the most visible sign of the change that is to come to Columbus once the rumbling subsides. The Eagle and Phenix property, which mixes 100 condos with commercial use in a former textile mill, is “a great addition to Uptown,” he says.
“But what intrigues me is happening over the bridge, right across from the TSYS campus, in Phenix City,” says Hugley, “a new high rise of apartment units. The growth here in Columbus and at Fort Benning is also causing a lot of activity across the bridge.
“There is absolutely enough for everybody, and I can see it in the excitement of surrounding counties as we work together. They, too, believe that there is plenty of growth for them as well.”
Population (Columbus/Muscogee County consolidated)
Unemployment (March 2007)
5.1 percent, Georgia,
Per Capita Income (2004)
Top Five Nonpublic Employers
TSYS, 4,300; AFLAC, 4,100; Columbus Regional Healthcare, 2,700; Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, 1,540; Pezold Management, 1,500; Synovus, 1,021
Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Dept. of Labor