Toombs & Montgomery Counties: The Road To Success
Local Partnerships, Florida Transplants And Busy Highways
Andy Loosberg stands before a blackboard in a conference room at his company’s plant in Vidalia; he’s lecturing to an audience of one, drawing diagrams to explain how light is refracted and diffused as it emanates from an overhead fixture.
How light does what it does is of intense interest to Loosberg and to customers of Vidalia’s U.S. Energy Sciences. The firm manufactures a simple reflector that’s growing in appeal because it takes fluorescent light and spreads it more evenly and efficiently than conventional fixtures. U.S. Energy products can be found directing light in businesses, airports and even the giant hangar that houses the gantry holding the space shuttle at Cape Canaveral.
The company’s technology produces energy cost savings that can easily exceed 50 percent, the kind of bottom line betterment that appeals to national big box chains such as Wal-Mart. Still lecturing and drawing, Loosberg quickly admits he is no scientist. He calls himself “a natural born salesman.”
It didn’t take much selling by local economic developers to convince Loosberg and partner Cindi Hicks to move their company from Palatka, Fla., to Vidalia. But theirs isn’t the typical Florida business refugee story of high taxes and high winds, the one so familiar to communities across the southern third of Georgia.
Loosberg credits his 2004 relocation to Vidalia’s excellent network of roads and an understanding local banker.
“He was not having good luck with the Florida banks he was trying to work with, and we told him if he would move to Vidalia we would help him,” says Walter Bowden, president of Darby Bank, whose Vidalia-based holding company has three banks in the region. “He has a business that is very much tied into the future of energy-efficient lighting, and we love working with entrepreneurs like U.S. Energy.”
Loosberg credits Darby Bank as the key to his company’s success. In just three years, U.S. Energy has grown from 30 employees to 60, while revenues have soared 500 percent. “We dealt with Walter Bowden at Darby Bank who shared our enthusiasm, in part, I think, because they are growing just as fast as we are,” Loosberg says.
Well, not exactly.
Darby Bank’s growth has shot the institution from $55 million in assets 12 years ago, when Bowden arrived from Savannah, to $650 million today. Darby has banks in Lyons, the Toombs County seat, and Savannah. The bank also has moved into Valdosta. “Every two or three jobs we add elsewhere adds one job here,” Bowden says. “Seventy percent of our business is in Savannah, yet 70 percent of our employees are in Toombs County.”
The banker-business partnership between Darby and U.S. Energy continues a theme that runs through the history of Toombs County and its smaller western neighbor, Mont-gomery County, which have a long history of sharing regional assets. Toombs was carved out of three other counties, including Mont-gomery, by the legislature in 1905. The Altamaha River, which forms the southern boundary of both counties, was a stream of commerce to the sea for early settlers who arrived in the area three centuries ago.
Today both counties capitalize on their easy access to a more modern shipping corridor – I-16 and its connection to the busy Port of Savannah – to lure business and industry for their region. They even share the city of Vidalia, the area’s largest city, retail center and namesake for the region’s most recognizable product, the Vidalia Onion (see story, page 95).
It was only a matter of time before the two neighbors formalized their relationship, which they did in 2000, joining forces to create the Toombs-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce. Though each maintains a separate economic development authority and markets its own unique assets to attract new businesses and industries, they also believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“For one thing, a joint chamber broadens the leadership base for both counties,” says Johnny Clifton, executive director of the Montgomery County Development Authority. “And it really helps us utilize scarce resources more effectively. When we were using two chambers, we had a lot of the same members who were doing things redundantly. By combining, we were also able to save members some [membership] money.”
The partnership also allows the two counties to secure more state grants. “When you pool your resources, your land, your buildings and other assets, you have more to show prospects, more to put on your website,” Clifton says. “Thus, the prospect has more to choose from.”
Included in those choices are three Montgomery industrial parks, including one owned jointly by both counties. That site received a OneGeorgia grant to purchase a rail site, which also is shared by the two counties. “The parks are attracting tenants,” Clifton says.
Roads Well Traveled
One of those tenants is yet another Florida transplant, JLG Forwarding, a company that both brokers and transports commodities – primarily Florida citrus products – from the Sunshine State to ports around the world. JLG relocated to the Toombs-Montgomery area from Vero Beach just over a year ago. Its principals say they were attracted by the region’s excellent road network and its proximity to the ports of Savannah and Charleston. Other draws, says owner Jeri Spence, were “wide open spaces and a real laidback style of living.”
Spence and her husband, Billy, owned some land in Southeast Georgia, another attraction the area held for them. But they set up their business in the Montgomery County Industrial Park, giving their big semis plenty of parking space, and opening up new possibilities. “Now that we’re here in Georgia, we have gotten involved with frozen chickens,” Spence says. “We’ve been so busy here that we haven’t had time to get out [to solicit new business]. But we want to talk to some of the [Vidalia] onion people.”
The company expects to add to its current 10 employees, particularly in the long-haul trucking department. “I-16 takes us right over to Savannah,” says Spence, for whom getting from point A to point B is mission critical. “You wouldn’t believe how many times my husband and I have commented about the secondary road system here.”
All this road talk among new businesses and industrial leaders isn’t lost on Bill Mitchell, president of the Toombs-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce. “The traffic that is coming out of Savannah on I-16 is increasing,” he says. “We get a lot of [cargo ship] container traffic coming south on [U.S. Highway] 280 from the Port of Savannah [through Toombs and Montgomery Counties].”
Right now, Mitchell is interested in the northward flow of traffic out of his region, especially the traffic from his Toombs Corporate Center on U.S. Highway 1 at Lyons. “U.S. 1 is on the docket to be four-laned up to I-16,” he says. “The engineering is done, the land purchased, and we’re supposed to get started on that in the next fiscal year.”
Improvements on historic U.S. 1 fit neatly into economic development plans formulated almost a decade ago, Mitchell says. “Part of the planning seven or eight years ago was to look at this U.S. 1 Park, thinking it would be fit for distribution logistics out of the Port of Savannah as the port grows. So we definitely think we are on course there.”
Toombs County Commission Chairman Charles Rustin is on the road a good bit, looking after customers across what he calls, “the largest [in area] Orkin pest control franchise in the United States,” encompassing 26 South Georgia counties. “I believe in transportation as a key to economic development,” he says, with the voice of one who should know. “Our road system, and the proximity to Savannah, makes for solid economic development. I think with our agricultural products, especially the Vidalia onions, the roads are going to play a bigger and bigger role in the economy.”
For Rustin, in his sixth year as Toombs’ commission chairman, the strength of that economy lies in the unusual partnership with its neighbor to the west. “The key ingredient in our success is the joint chamber of commerce,” he says. “We don’t have the moaning, groaning, bickering and carrying on [of years past].”
He sees results in a four-letter word – jobs. “Our unemployment in the last 90 days has probably been as low as it has been since we’ve been keeping records,” Rustin says. That statement may be closer to a truth than a boosterism. Georgia Depart-ment of Labor records show that in February 2007 both Toombs (4.8 percent) and Montgomery (4.4 percent), recorded their lowest unemployment rates since 1995, good evidence that the two counties are attracting business and industry.
Charles Truett had just left a March meeting of the Montgomery County Commission, which he chairs, where he learned another company was relocating to his community. “We were just told a manufacturer of upscale gas grills was moving into our Montgomery County Industrial Park,” he says. “The jobs will help us keep that unemployment rate dropping. And this is a company that will advertise nationally.”
Sikes Cookers, Inc., a manufacturer of stainless steel gas grills that range in price from $700 to $4,000, will be the newest tenant in the Montgomery County Industrial Park, taking advantage of a 20,000-square-foot building that was available. Sikes will employ six to 10 people at its plant next to JLG Forwarding, the citrus hauler and exporter.
Sikes is moving from Toombs County where it had outgrown its present facility, says Montgomery County Development Authority Executive Director Johnny Clifton. There was further excitement brewing in the Toombs-Montgomery economic development community last February when announcement came from another neighbor and sometime economic development partner, Treutlen County, that a $200 million-plus biofuel plant would locate near Soperton. The facility will create fuel from pine trees.
“That opens up the possibility for support industry here,” Truett says. The new plant will be less than 30 minutes from the citizens of Toombs and Montgomery Counties, and they certainly have the roads to make that an easy drive.
Montgomery County: 8,970; Mount Vernon (county seat), 2,172; Uvalda, 554; Ailey, 542; Higgston, 335; Vidalia (partial), 181; Alston, 168; Tarrytown, 105
Toombs County: 26,775; Vidalia (partial), 10,687; Lyons (county seat), 4,280; Santa Claus, 238
Per Capita Income
Montgomery County, $19,457; Toombs County, $21,984; Georgia, $29,000
4.4 percent; Toombs County, 4.8 percent; Georgia,
Top 5 Employers
Montgomery County: VNS Corp., 219; Brewton-Parker College, 150; Bestline Doors, Inc., 80; Montgomery County State Prison, 80; Georgia High Tech, 76
Toombs County: American Standard Trane, 1,000; Runners Diversified, Inc., 483; Oxford Industries, 311; DOT Foods Inc., 275; TUMI Inc., 176
U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Dept.
of Labor, Montgomery County Development Authority, Toombs
County Development Authority,
Toombs-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce, Tombs County Board of Commissioners, Montgomery County Board of Commissioners