Dalton/Whitfield County: A Changing Community
Embracing new industry and new culture
There’s no doubt about it. Dalton/Whitfield County is still the carpet capital of the world. In fact, with more than 80 percent of the county’s carpet made within a 25-mile radius, the industry continues to be the vital heart of the local economy. It has given the region a stability that business and developers find reassuring.
Yet this is a region beginning to undergo change. While Shaw and Mohawk still are the biggest and the most important kids on the industrial block, new business is taking hold, even as the carpet industry itself has become leaner, consolidating from more than 200 producers to about 15 today.
“We always were a little spoiled by having the large tax digest and the dollars coming in to support our local government and school system and we knew that we needed to discuss and get serious about diversification; but some of the changes within the industry really helped to push that diversification move,” says Dalton City Manager Butch Sanders.
The industry has changed significantly, expanding to encompass all kinds of floor coverings, as well as carpet. Shaw and Mohawk produce much of their own raw materials that once were purchased from other companies. While still the area’s major employer, carpet no longer experiences the rate of growth it once did in the 1980s and ’90s when Whitfield County gained more than 12,000 new manufacturing jobs.
That slowdown has prompted local officials to work more closely with existing industries to ensure they have a steady supply of workers with just the right skills they will need both now and in the future.
“In order for us to be able to ratchet up the skills of the people who are here, we want to know what their jobs look like in the future so we can better prepare them,” says George Woodward, president of the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce. “Secondly, we want to know what their jobs will look like in the future so that we can better plan as a community to continue to be competitive and meet their needs.”
A Fresh Look
The county recently hired an outside consultant to gather data on the area, look at existing industry and determine what kinds of new businesses the county is best able to attract.
Questions that were asked included “What assets do we have that match what that industry is looking for and what gaps do we need to work on in order to attract companies that we’re most interested in getting,” explains Melanie Suggs, director of the Dalton-Whitfield Economic Development Authority.
Consultants also talked to local businesses to get a sense of where the county was coming up short. One of the biggest complaints voiced by employers was the education of new workers.
“There’s a disconnect between the educational curriculum and the kind of skills that the business and industry was looking for,” Woodward says.
Employers want workers who understand basic math and science, can solve problems and have the soft skills needed for teamwork – an emphasis that has taken a back seat in school curriculums in favor of test taking. Perhaps most important, the dropout rate needs to be reduced – possibly, Woodward says, by showing students there’s a real connection between what they’re doing in the classroom and their ability to get a job.
Dalton has many assets that are proving attractive to new industry – particularly those in a growth mode that are attracted to the quality of life the area offers, along with broadband technology capabilities.
“A lot of our existing industry is really connected to technology through their customer service centers,” the chamber’s Woodward says. “We have WindStream Communica-tions that used to be Alltel that has expanded their operation here because of their success with their call center and their operations. So they’re bringing more folks.”
The city also is getting attention from international firms. In fact, nearly 40 percent of the companies currently making inquiries about relocation or expansion are from overseas, Suggs says.
Another powerful driver for economic development is the 4,500-student Dalton State College. As one of the few colleges in Georgia that operates both a traditional academic program along with a vocational technical program, the school has helped train many local workers.
“It gives us a much broader array of programs and services under a single umbrella then would normally be expected,” explains Dalton State President Jim Burran.
Over the last 10 years, the college has developed a series of bachelor’s degrees targeted toward meeting the area’s occupational needs. These include several business related majors and a social work major requiring three years of Spanish. The college also has started a teacher education program.
To keep up with the need for new programs and a steadily rising enrollment, Dalton State College recently launched a $20 million capital campaign – the first in its history. Funds will be used to purchase land for campus expansion, create a performing arts program and establish schools of business, education and human and health services.
Rooftops And Rails
Walton Avenue has long been Dalton’s business artery. Strip shopping centers, fast food joints and auto dealers crowd the street from I-75 into the heart of the city. With space at a premium here, developers are beginning to look north – toward the Dalton Bypass.
“What the area has needed for a long time is a new growth corridor, which is what seems to be the pattern on the north end of the county,” says Jerome Hollis, a partner with real estate developer Hollis & Hollis. “As we see retailers come into town looking, they’re more and more open to the north end versus the south end because that’s where the residential growth is taking place.”
Hollis’ company is in the early stages of negotiation on what local officials say will be a major retail development on the north side. While most retail now consists of strip centers and mom and pop operations, the next wave is likely to include major retailers.
Though housing starts have slowed here as they have across the county, it remains a strong growth area with several new developments under way.
“The low end affordable housing, workforce housing is going strong,” says Kim Woods, whose company is now building condos in downtown Dalton. “The larger custom homes are still slow. Hopefully it’s picking up some, but it’s still not where it was three or four years ago.”
Several large developments such as Hollis & Hollis’ Hammond Creek have opened. One of the county’s first mixed use developments, the community features retail plus condos and single family homes catering to a wide variety of buyers.
“Dalton is still a small town compared to an Atlanta or Chattanooga, and you can’t just target active adult or young professionals,” Hollis says. “You have to target everyone on a large project such as Hammond Creek.”
Dalton’s downtown has benefited from a recently completed $6 million streetscape project. New retail and restaurants are opening and helping to drive the vacancy rate to about 6 percent.
Downtown merchants are targeting a regional market – people within a day’s drive. As a hub for financial, legal and other services, people are drawn to the city and often stay to shop and dine while taking care of other business.
“We have a lot of new businesses coming in and it just seems as if we are entering a new era of being more lively,” says Sarah Harrison, executive director of the Downtown Dalton Development Authority. “We’ve spent the last six years in streetscape development, and so I think we’re going into our fun phase.”
At least some of that fun revolves around the two rail lines that converge here. The daily procession of trains has made Dalton a destination point for “trainspotters,” rail enthusiasts who gather at the town’s two historic depots to watch and photograph the engines as they roll by.
To accommodate these visitors, the city plans to build a viewing platform at the 1914 Norfolk-Southern depot. A committee is also exploring the possibility of opening a historical museum in the old structure. The other depot is home to a popular local eatery, the Trackside Café.
New Faces And Places
Over the years, the face of Dalton has changed as an ever-increasing number of Latino immigrants have surged into North Georgia seeking jobs. They were welcomed into the carpet, construction and poultry processing industries, often filling positions disdained by locals. Now the community is well established, with a growing number of Latino-owned businesses and the first inklings of upward mobility.
“The community is quickly developing, but it is still in its infant stage,” says Carlos Calderin, a Dalton immigration attorney. “The low skilled workers are multicultural but now Dalton is getting to a point where its professional class is also becoming multicultural.”
Even as the Hispanic population is becoming more settled, its growth is beginning to slow. National figures show that migration from Mexico to the United States slowed beginning in mid 2006 compared to previous years. Construction found fewer foreign-born Hispanics seeking jobs this year; and the overall growth of Hispanic employment increased by 10.9 percent – down from 17.4 percent 2004 to 2006.
The Hispanic community is well established, but no one can escape the reality that a sizable number of its members are illegal. While they may be highly prized for their industry and willingness to take on the manual labor that keeps the economy humming, their position is sometimes shaky.
Recently, police cars swept into a Hispanic neighborhood to arrest two illegals on felony warrants. Fear gripped the community as rumors of a general crackdown circulated and many went into hiding. Tensions have eased since then because there haven’t been any mass arrests in Dalton.
However, the large population of undocumented workers – which some say may be as high as 50 percent of the local Hispanic population – has been scared, and that makes local employers nervous as well.
“Some employers are well aware of what they are doing in that they know they are probably, most likely, employing folks that are not authorized to work,” Calderin explains. “The small businesses, especially agriculture, a lot of employers know it is either break the law or go out of business.”
Dalton will continue to live with these contradictions just as many other communities are doing. It’s not something everyone cares to discuss – at least not as long as the economy continues to hum along.
And there is perhaps no better example of this vibrant economy than the new landmark that will soon rise on a hill overlooking the city. Work will get under way shortly on the area’s first four-star hotel. Attached to the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center, the $40 million facility is being built by Springfield, Mo.-based John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts and will accompany an estimated $12 million renovation of the meeting facility.
The new lodgings will not only be a showpiece for the city, but also will allow the trade center to attract a great many conventions and meetings that passed it by for lack of a convention hotel.
“We sit way up on a hill and hotels are down at the bottom nearly a half mile away without a sidewalk,” says Rick Tanner, the trade center’s executive director. “We cannot bid on 95 percent of the business that we were originally built for. So the difference is literally day and night.”
The multi-story hotel will overlook Interstate 75, forming a new “visual landmark between Chattanooga and Atlanta on 75,” Tanner says.
In many ways the new tower represents Dalton’s rising expectations of a future filled with new growth and new opportunity – one leaders hope the rest of the world will notice.
Dalton/Whitfield County At-A-Glance
Whitfield County, 92,999 (2006 estimate);
City of Dalton, 32,140
Dalton, 4.3 percent; Whitfield County, 4.6 percent Georgia, 4.7 percent
Per Capita Income
Top 10 Employers
Shaw Industries, Inc., 10,493; Mohawk, 6,015;
Beaulieu Group, 2,605; Whitfield County Schools, 1,500; Hamilton Health Care System, 1,075; Tandus, 914; Dalton Public Schools, 800; J&J Industries, 738; Wal-Mart Stores, 700
Dalton-Whitfield Economic Development Authority, Georgia Dept. of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau