Rome/Floyd County: Championship Strategy
Capitalizing on sports success to recruit company headquarters
What do the much-celebrated rookies of the 2005 Atlanta Braves season have to do with economic development in Rome/Floyd County? Mike Pennington hopes the answer is, “A lot.”
Pennington is director of economic development for the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce. In July, after the rookies caught the attention of Braves fans and Major League Baseball, he ran an ad in the business section of the Atlanta newspaper.
The ad asked what rookies Jeff Francoeur, Kyle Davies, Blaine Boyer and Brian McCann had in common. The answer, as written in the ad, was that they all started their careers with the Rome Braves then went on to the big stage of the majors.
“And then,” Pennington says, “we listed five companies that had started very small – almost as start-ups in Rome – and then had grown to be huge companies and are doing very well.
“The big tag line was, ‘Take your business from the minors to the majors in Rome, Georgia.'”
Pennington didn’t stop there: “We took tear sheets of that half-page ad and mailed it to targeted companies in Atlanta and brokers and site selection consultants and statewide project managers to promote what we’re looking for.”
And that, he says, leads to the next part of the strategy. “We’re very interested in getting headquarters here – corporate, regional, divisional, small, medium, large, all of the above.
We’re looking for headquarters’ facilities. We have several. We’d love more.”
And so began Rome’s and Floyd County’s push toward recruiting headquarters.”I’m not saying we’re looking for Microsoft to move here,” Pennington explains. “We don’t expect that, but there are scores and scores of companies in Atlanta that may be able to do business in Rome just as well if not better, and they just don’t know it yet so we’re trying to get the word out.”
Employees of such a company would find in Rome not only one of the minor league teams of the Atlanta Braves, they also would find professional basketball, professional football and college football.
The Rome Gladiators, part of the World Basketball Association (WBA), won the WBA championship this year. And the Rome Renegades of the National Indoor Football League played in its league’s version of the Super Bowl, but lost the championship.
The Rome Braves played their first season in 2003 after the community passed a Special Local Option Sales Tax or SPLOST to build the stadium, which was paid for when the gates opened for game one.
“I’ve brought a lot of groups in from Atlanta,” Pennington says, “and they love going to the games. They’re faster in terms of pace of play. And you pay one tenth as much as you pay to go to an Atlanta Braves game and sit right on the screen. Our seats are four rows behind home plate, and they’re $10 a ticket. We’re so much closer to the action; it’s a lot more exciting.”
As if that’s not enough sports for one town of 35,000, Rome’s first college football team kicked off this fall when the Shorter Hawks took to the gridiron. Playing in the Mid-South Conference of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the Hawks were fielded by Shorter College, which was ranked by U.S. News & World Report for the fifth consecutive year as one of the best Southern colleges.
Shorter – ranked 14th among the South’s top comprehensive colleges focusing on bachelor’s degrees – joins three other colleges in calling Rome home. The others are Berry College, Georgia Highlands College (formerly Floyd College) and Coosa Valley Technical College.
Of course, there’s more to Rome than sports. And if a proposed downtown development known as the West Third Redevelopment comes to fruition, there will be even more. The $120 million project would be, says City Manager John Bennett, “a huge expansion of our downtown, a mixed-used development-type thing on the order of what they’ve done in Alpharetta and Smyrna where they’ve had these major redevelopments in the downtown.
“Our downtown is very compact. It’s surrounded by the river on one side and churches and a large residential area on the other side.”
The West Third Redevelopment would be right across the Oostanaula River from downtown, says Ron Sitterding, director of community development for the city. “The Etowah River comes in from Cartersville and Lake Allatoona and over that way. It meets with the Oostanaula River, which comes in from Calhoun and Dalton up that way, and they meet in Rome, right downtown, and create the Coosa River, which flows west into Alabama and then down to Mobile Bay.
“Downtown kind of parallels the Oostanaula, and so it’s just like one block to the river. Right across the river, there’s a levee, and beyond that is what used to be called Fourth Ward. Now, West Third is the first street you come to that parallels the levee. That is what is being looked at for redevelopment. Right now, it’s a combination of commercial and public facilities.”
And two of those public facilities are two big reasons that City Manager Bennett is taking a long, hard look at possible redevelopment. It would involve moving a sizable tennis center and the high school football stadium.
“There are several issues,” Bennett says. “The city is looking for assurances that what the developers say they’re going to do actually happens. And they – the developers – want flexibility. We want more detail on exactly what they’re going to do because it’s major for us to move our football stadium and tennis facilities out of the downtown area.”
The possible redevelopment is one of two huge projects on Bennett’s agenda. The other is a $35-million upgrade and expansion of Rome’s wastewater treatment plant that began about a year ago. “That’s the biggest project we’ve ever had, by far,” Bennett says. “It serves the majority of the city and a large part of the unincorporated area.”
The reason for the upgrade is not capacity. It’s that when Rome’s rivers flooded, raw sewage bypassed the water treatment plant and went straight to the river.
“It was only during wet weather,” Bennett says. “During heavy rains, we get a lot of flooding in low-lying areas,” and the bypass occurred. “It didn’t happen a lot. Sometimes it didn’t happen more than once a year. Sometimes it didn’t happen at all. We never had any fish kills or any major problem that was significant because of the dilution factor. When we had that much rain, the river was up and there was so much water, it just wasn’t a problem. But the Environmental Protection Division didn’t like it, and in order to accommodate the standards that now exist, we had to upgrade.”
The complicating factor is that the city has to continue to operate the plant while the construction is going on, so, Bennett says, “It’s a nightmare for our operators.”
Rome spent $8 million of SPLOST money for the upgrade, and it sold bonds. The project, which includes an expanded laboratory and additional treatment, should be complete in 2007. The fact that Bennett is at the head of a city fixing its wastewater treatment plant to protect the river is in sharp contrast to what he found when he moved to Rome in 1969 right out of college in North Carolina.
“That’s one thing that has really changed since I moved here,” the city manager says.
“When I moved here, the rivers were our sewers. We didn’t have a sewer system that was completed. It was just a dump, and we had no buildings or trails or anything that faced the river. Now we have trails. We’re doing more and more of that. If we were to do this West Third Street development, it would really put the river in the middle of downtown.”
As it is now, a stranger driving into downtown Rome might be in town a while before even noticing the rivers. Broad Street, Rome’s wide downtown thoroughfare is lined with shops and historic buildings that block any view of the river. When one turns off of Broad down to the area of the proposed redevelopment, what appears is a lackluster area of ordinary businesses, the stadium and the tennis center. It isn’t ugly exactly. It is, rather, plain and uninteresting.
But with the river right there and a proposed pedestrian bridge that would connect downtown Rome, the Forum, a downtown arena, and the Civic Center to the other side of the river and the trails on that far side of the river, it’s easy to imagine a bustling area that would be a magnet for citizens and visitors, who could stay, conveniently, at a hotel proposed for the redevelopment.
Sitterding says there are about seven miles of river trails, but he adds, “We need to do a lot better job on improving some of what’s been done, like on the urban waterfront. The big thing is that we need to have a better job of signage and connections, letting people know what’s what and how to get here and there – that sort of thing. Some of the trails are heavily used, but I think as we get improved connections and better signage, it will be even better. The long-range plan is to connect to the Silver Comet Trail, and there’s a statewide trail plan that is trying to connect through Rome to the Appalachian Trail.”
One project close to downtown that’s been keeping Sitterding busy is the nine-block Wilson Avenue Redevelopment that is, he says, maybe halfway done.
Driving down Broad Street and across the Etowah River takes a driver into South Rome, with a high concentration of poverty, Sitterding says. A right-hand turn on Myrtle Street reveals the Wilson Avenue neighborhood, where signs point out that it is a redevelopment area. Though the poverty is evident, so is the effort to rehabilitate this section of town. There are new houses, signs of roadwork and a general sense that the area has been cleaned up.
“We put in a storm drain system, and we’re widening the road, putting in sidewalks, curb and guttering – that sort of thing – and we’re also buying a lot of dilapidated houses. We’re tearing them down and will use the lots to build more affordable housing.”
Sitterding’s staff of three – that’s including Sitterding himself – writes and administers grants, hires architects and contractors, oversees construction, helps find residents for new homes and assists them with funding for down payments or closing costs.
His staff has hired an engineering and planning firm on a master plan for a new urban waterfront downtown. They’re working on a new community center that will be housed in an historic African-American high school that’s been closed since desegregation. His agency even used to operate a tour boat on which Sitterding served as a captain.
“We have an extremely active community development program compared to some other communities,” he says. “I think that has a lot to do with the management here. Assistant City Manager Jim Dixon came from a planning background, and he was hired back when this program was created in the mid-1970s.”
As for downtown proper, that’s the territory of Ann Arnold, director of the city of Rome’s Office of Downtown Development. Arnold uses low-interest loans to help downtown projects get off the ground. Her office, she says, injected $750,000 into three different projects to assist with Rome’s new Hawthorn Suites Hotel.
Her biggest project at the moment is the West Lofts, a $3-million project that will build 18 apartments on the upper floors and commercial space on the first floor of two downtown buildings right on Broad Street.
With 125 housing units downtown, Rome provides a contrast to so many Georgia cities that wish for downtown housing. “There have been apartments here since, probably, the early 1990s,” Arnold says, “and we’ve had quite a few come on in the past couple of years. The old Forest Hotel, now known as Forest Place, was just renovated, and it has 27 apartments. There are 72 units in an old apartment building and there are a number of owner-occupied apartments downtown.
Arnold’s office launched a Green Market this year – every Saturday morning. It sponsors concerts and a brown bag lunchtime concert series primarily focused on the 2,700 employees who work downtown.
Of course, there’s more to Rome than downtown, which brings the story back to Pennington, whose office has seen expansions this year by Profile Extrusion, which plans to add 60,000 square feet to its facility, creating more than 20 new jobs.
“Profile is getting a lot of competition from China,” Pennington explains, “and to combat that they needed to become more efficient. This expansion is one major piece of equipment that will increase their efficiency by about 50 percent overnight. It’s great news for them to help them put themselves back in front of their industry.”
F&P Manufacturing is transferring welding and assembly equipment from a Canadian facility and investing $5.5 million for the equipment and installation in Rome. “That’s their third or fourth expansion since they opened here. Every manufacturer, when they locate, says they’re going to expand. F&P not only has expanded, it has actually surpassed those promises.”
Two more recent Rome successes involve the sale of land for two projects in the Northwest Regional Industrial Park owned by the Gordon-Floyd County Development Authority. Peach State Labs will purchase 33 acres for a plant that will produce biodiesel fuel and for an acid-replacement plant that will create safer and more environmentally sound replacements for sulfuric and hydrochloric acids.
Nidaco Foods, manufacturer of value-added meat products for the restaurant industry, will build a 65,000-square-foot operations and corporate headquarters. “Nidaco,” Pennington says, “is a local entrepreneurial start-up, which we love. We love, love, love local entrepreneurs.”
Prior to these two announcements, the industrial park was empty, and then, Pennington says, “All of a sudden, in one day, we sold three-quarters of it.” What a day that must have been.