Jesup/Wayne County: Possibilities And Potential
Riding south from Jesup along U.S. Highway 301 with Harry Yeomans behind the wheel of his Mercedes, one is struck by a landscape of long stretches of huge pine forests, interrupted only occasionally by the crumbling motels that lured Florida-bound tourists to Southeast Georgia during the 1940s and '50s.
There is a misting rain, and a Norah Jones CD offers soothing music backed by the slow rhythm of the windshield wipers. With a big Rotary Club country buffet packed away just an hour before, a passenger on such an afternoon could become drowsy, except that Harry Yeomans is driving and talking at autobahn speeds.
Yeomans, executive director of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce, is taking his visitor to see a landfill - not exactly a showplace in most communities, but this landfill, Yeomans says, is filled with potential.
"This landfill is giving off 4 million cubic feet of methane gas every day," Yeomans says. "The gas comes from the anaerobic digestion of refuse in a pile, just like a compost pile of leaves. The gas, CH4, is a greenhouse gas and it has to be burned off to meet EPD [Environmental Protection Division] standards. I think an industry could locate here near this landfill and have a good source of energy at about 15 percent of the normal cost. Isn't that intriguing, with oil at $60 a barrel?"
The entrance to the landfill at Broadhurst, a tiny Wayne County community on U.S. 301, some 10 miles south of Jesup, looks more like the gateway to an office park, with its wall of pines and manicured lawns. Carefully set back away from the highway, the landfill itself rises, on this day, 210 feet toward the sky, the highest land point in Southeast Georgia, Yeomans says.
A gas torch near the pinnacle sends a 20-foot flame skyward. If it can be said of a landfill, this one is lovely and the view from its summit offers an alpine vista of mist-covered lakes surrounded by pine trees. "Harry and I think we could build a chateau here and get a snow-making machine and go in the skiing business," jokes John Simmons, general manager of Broadhurst Environmental, a division of Republic Services, Inc., the landfill's private operators.
Problem is, this would-be ski slope rises about a foot a day every day, as a steady stream of tractor-trailer trucks roll in and deposit 22 tons of garbage and trash every 24 hours, the community flotsam of the 13 counties that pay to use the landfill. The landfill earns the county about $1 million in annual rental fees paid by Broadhurst Environmental.
There is a bit of etiquette to be followed when viewing this landfill with its enthusiastic promoters. When general manager Simmons hears a visitor remark that, after all, it's "just a landfill," he bristles visibly. "This is not 'just a landfill,'" he says. "This is a solid waste disposal facility and we take a lot of pride in what we do and how we do it. The grounds are constantly manicured, and the waste hauled in is covered each day using dirt we excavated from the site leaving big holes, which are now lakes. There is no hazardous waste."
In the decade since the privatization of the 1,420-acre landfill, only a small portion of the site has been put to use and, with an additional 340 acres owned by Republic, Simmons estimates there is 60 years or more of usable space available. But there's more than garbage and dirt in and on Mount Detritus. Both Yeomans and Simmons believe the 4 million cubic feet of methane created by the decaying matter burned off here each day to comply with state and federal regulations could be converted to energy for industrial use.
It's not a new idea, either. "California has been doing that since the '70s," Simmons says. And the two men point out that there are more than 70 sites around the nation turning garbage into energy, including half a dozen in Georgia. "I think the potential as an energy source is endless," he adds.
Because the Broadhurst landfill is in a remote location far from existing infrastructure, the best plan, Yeomans says, is to put industry near the source of the gas. "The way to do this is to bring Mohammed to the mountain," he says. "Oriented strand board (OSB), for instance, is made from pine chips and glue and needs heat to finish the product and that would be just right. You know, this is the fourth largest landfill in Georgia and the largest south of Macon. It is a shame to see this much usable energy being thrown away every day."
While Simmons and Yeomans talk trash to anyone who will listen, 10 miles north of the landfill, John Swingle is standing before what at first glance appears to be a 10,000-gallon vanilla milkshake churning in a huge vat. Swingle, a retired engineer from Jesup pulp maker Rayonier Performance Fabrics, is talking about animals - rodents mainly.
"Mice, Guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and even snakes like to burrow, and the people who have them as pets and keep them in a cage like to give them something to burrow in," Swingle says. And that creamy white liquid in the vat he's peering into is on its way to becoming just what those pet owners want for their little friends. After it leaves the vat, the white stuff will be spread on a conveyer belt and heat dried as it moves toward becoming a final product called CareFresh, an animal litter produced in Jesup by Absorption Corp. and sold in several parts of the world. Swingle is Absorption Corp.'s Jesup Facility general manager, called out of retirement by a fresh challenge.
There's no doubt why Absorption chose Jesup as a location for its $7 million plant, Swingle says, as he ticks off a list of pulpwood processing plants located nearby. "There is no question about it," he says. "Absorption chose Jesup as a production site because it is somewhat of a central point of all the pulp mills in South Georgia. And those mills are where they are to be near the forestlands that grow pine trees. While those mills are producing whatever it is they produce, such as paper or chemical cellulose or fluff pulp, they also end up producing some waste, and we live off that waste."
The byproducts and waste from the pulp mills form the basis for those highly absorbent pet products Swingle's plant manufactures.
Jesup is one of several U.S. sites where Vancouver-based Absorption Corp. has production facilities, but it's the only one on the East Coast. The Jesup operation started up in 2004 with one shift operating five days a week and now has three shifts of 48 employees working a five-day week. Swingle forecasts continued growth for his site. "Pet products seem to be recession-proof," he says. "I don't think pet owners are going to get rid of their pets because of a change in the economy."
The thick forests around Jesup have been a valuable part of the local economy since Wayne County was carved out of Creek Indian lands in 1805. In the early years, pine logs were tied together to make rafts and floated down the Altamaha River to the Georgia coast where they were sawed into lumber that was shipped all over the world. The lumber was later carried on steamboats and by rail.
By 1934, the steamboats had disappeared from the Altamaha but more than 40 trains a day still pass through downtown Jesup, and the town remains one of only five Amtrak stops in Georgia. Train enthusiasts regularly stop at the Jesup Railfan Platform in a downtown gazebo and listen to conversations between train engineers and their routers. But trees remain the foundation of the local economy.
In The Pines
With 200,000 acres of pines spread among its 649 square miles, Wayne is Georgia's fifth most forested county. About half the wages earned in the county come from manufacturing and a goodly portion of those jobs are directly related to the forest industry.
The woods of Wayne County also offer a serene setting for new home development, providing more profits from pines. Larry Williams began investing in pine trees shortly after arriving in Jesup more than 30 years ago. "I have always believed in real estate as an investment," he says.
Today, Williams owns more than 2,500 acres of pines, most of it a part of his investment portfolio. But some of his trees have earning power without being harvested for timber or pulp. Williams is building a subdivision on the small portion of his land that lies around Pine Forest Country Club in south Wayne County. The community, called The Village at Pine Forest, is designed to snare Florida retirees fleeing hurricanes and the high cost of living in the Sunshine State.
Williams, who neither talks nor moves in a hurry, has a sales pitch that can wander off before reaching a point. "I have a little cement block house just below Daytona Beach," he says. "The taxes on that house are about $12,000 a year. The taxes on that same house here in Jesup would be about $1,200 a year. For about $125 a month you can own a golf cart and play unlimited golf here. That's a pretty decent deal, don't you think?"
Williams' development features homes from 1,200 square feet to 2,200 square feet ranging in price from $115,000 to $220,000, with utilities and cable television included in a basic monthly maintenance fee. The homes are pressure-washed once a year and painted every five years as part of the maintenance package. Williams doesn't have an ad campaign for his development. "I guess I need to get on that," he says.
But the word is out, though growth at The Village has moved as slowly as cane syrup coming from a jar. "We have built eight houses and sold four of them," Williams says. "I have a judge from Fort Lauderdale and a lady from St. Petersburg coming to see me next week. It seems people are leaving the state of Florida for Georgia."
Williams is reacting by instinct to a phenomenon carefully studied by economic developers in the southern third of the state. Demographers are beginning to track these older, wealthier new South Georgia residents who are finding welcoming arms spread wide in the region's chambers of commerce.
"I am seeing more and more of them come into our office," Yeomans says. "I had two ladies from Florida in the office not long ago. One of them was considering moving here and the other one had just bought a home here. The new resident told the other one that she had bought a house at half of what it would cost in Fort Pierce."
For Yeomans, retirees bring more than wealth into Jesup. "Sure, these are people of independent means," he says. "But they also bring intellectual capital into their new community. And the diversity they bring gives our little community a cosmopolitan flavor. Our community is laid back - heck, I bet the highest speed limit through town is about 40 miles an hour. Our temperate climate, easy 40-minute access to the coast and our low cost of living is attractive to these people. The only requirement they have of our community is that we provide access to good health care and facilities."
And that's the cue for the groundbreaking of the new Wayne Memorial Hospital to be held early this summer to launch the largest civic project in the county's history.
"We had a central energy plant in the center of the building that was 50 years old; we had boilers that were 50 years old and cast iron pipes that were rusting," says Wayne Memorial Administrator Charles Morgan.
"When I went for an MRI, I had to leave the building and walk through a storage area to get to the MRI which was in a modular trailer," says Wayne County Administrator Nancy Jones.
Creating space for evolving medical technology had made a hospital "as long as three football fields," Jones says. "When you're landlocked in surgery and you're landlocked in radiology, it's hard," Morgan adds.
The patchwork hospital did not reflect the reverence for health care held by Jesup's leaders, who discovered renovation would cost more than replacing the 50-year-old complex. Still, the project carried a $47 million price tag, an amount that could be raised only if the city, the county and the Hospital Authority of Wayne County pooled all the money they could raise.
In 2004, city and county elected officials joined forces to ask city and county voters to raise taxes on themselves by going to the polls and approving a general obligation bond issue and a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
"SPLOST issues are usually on the ballot by themselves, but this one was connected to another issue that required the voters to tax themselves twice," Jones says. "In South Georgia, voters are hesitant to tax themselves once."
Jones and other Jesup and Wayne County leaders held their breath on election night in September 2004 when the special referendum was held. They could finally exhale, but only after the issue passed by a not-so-comfortable margin.
Construction of the new $47 million, 64-bed hospital will begin in May, with occupancy to come 18 months later. The new four-story Wayne Memorial Hospital will occupy a site owned by the hospital authority and located just behind the present facility, which will be demolished.
"This new hospital will not only help the community draw additional business and retirees, but it will also help us recruit and draw additional physicians," says Wayne Memorial's Morgan. "People do judge you on how your health care facility appears. There was no way the hospital had the borrowing power to repay the debt needed to build the hospital. The key part of all this was the ability of the city and county to come together."