Sylvania/Screven County: Spinning A Successful Yarn

Ready for growth and a road boom

In 1994, rumors of a plant closing in Screven County began to surface, generating deep concern among locals in and around Sylvania, the county seat.

The rumors turned to fact when it became known that the local BASF carpet yarn factory was going to be put up for sale. And if no buyers could be found, it would close. Two hundred and fifty jobs could be lost, including Don Aaron’s senior executive post as logistics manager.

The then-25-year-old plant was losing money and BASF was going to unload it. Aaron had already watched as BASF tried to sell a Tennessee plant and then closed it when no buyers were found, leaving 2,800 workers without jobs. “We knew they were serious when they said they would either sell the plant or shut it down,” Aaron says. “We had to do something.”

What Aaron did, with the help of plant manager Patrick Smith, was purchase the yarn factory, save the jobs and continue producing carpet yarn.

Working with the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), Aaron and his partner put together a plan to buy the factory. Aaron, a Screven County native, says, “There were thoughts of helping the community, sure. But, as a business decision, it had to work.” The jobs-conscious IDA gladly provided a helping hand to save so many positions. “I had been chairman of the IDA before,” Aaron says. “And that helped.”

When official word finally hit the streets in 1995, a collective sigh of relief came from the plant’s workers, their families and community leaders. The plant, now known as Sylvania Yarn Systems, Inc., celebrated its 10th anniversary of homegrown ownership last August and now has 300 employees, almost 90 percent of whom live in the county. With Don Aaron at the helm as president, SYS has an annual payroll of $8 million and spends $2.5 million annually on locally provided goods and services, making it a valued corporate citizen.

The yarn plant’s 1994 troubles caught the ear of then-city council member Margaret Evans. “I was aware of what was going on pretty early on,” recalls Evans, now Sylvania’s mayor. “It was frightening when we thought of the jobs – well-paying jobs – that we could lose. But it was not only the jobs; BASF was a big user of electricity.”

Evans refers to an important revenue source for the city, the sale of power to homes and industry. The city sells $22 million worth of electricity annually to residents and businesses in the county, and to industries locally and in nearby counties. Sylvania is the third-largest purchaser of megawatts from the Municipal Electric Association of Georgia (MEAG), and the city’s contract with the energy supplier runs through 2025.

“In fact, we have excess electricity which we sell on the open market,” says City Manager H. Carter Crawford. “So we are ready for the growth.” That growth he anticipates will be stimulated by the arrival of a “road boom” leaders here are happily wrestling with.

Halfway Point

For most of its 212-year life, Screven County and its seat of Sylvania (founded in 1848) have been most noted for being exactly halfway between two urban centers, Savannah to the south and Augusta to the north – a good mid-trip stop for travelers between the two big cities.

The county also abuts South Carolina; its rural nature has changed little in modern times. Penned in by the state line and served by poor roads, the county lost population during most of the decades of the 20th century. Progress was slow to arrive in Sylvania where the downtown streets were not fully paved until the 1940s, says local historian Alex Lee, Jr.

“This town depended on farming for most of its life,” Lee says. “But the garment industry came here just after World War II and then, in about 1947, U.S. Highway 301 came through town and that became the life’s blood of Screven County’s early tourism business brought by those tourists going to Florida.”

Today, farmers are still an important part of the economy, harvesting about $65 million worth of crops yearly, but the new economy here has become more diverse with nearly one-third of the county’s employment in manufacturing.

The outflow of citizens has been stemmed, and prospects for the county’s most dramatic growth period are predicted over the next several decades, thanks to a new four-lane highway that will connect Augusta and Savannah and the widening of the old tourist artery, U.S. Highway 301, which still connects the Northeast to Florida and passes through Screven County.

To add to those bright prospects, the first formal steps have been taken to examine the possibilities of constructing an Interstate highway, I-3, that would also link Augusta and Savannah as it passes through Screven County. “The Savannah Parkway alone will bring things folks are not anticipating,” says Screven County Manager Rick Jordan. “We have residents now that live in this county and commute to Augusta and Savannah; so when the new highway is completed it’s going to bring change to this county.”

A study conducted by Atlanta engineering firm Integrated Science & Engineering (ISE) predicts a steady population growth rate of 11 percent in each of the next three decades in this county of 15,407. To sustain that growth, according to the ISE report, at least 209 new homes will need to be built each year for the next 45 years – this in a county where annual new home construction limped along in single digits during the latter part of the ’90s and the early years of the new century.

But suddenly, in 2002, new home construction permits jumped to 45 and last year 51 permits were issued. The city of Sylvania issued no new home construction permits for 2004, but that could change if the efforts by city leaders to annex land along the Savannah Parkway prove successful. Still, for the first time in recent memory, inquiries have been coming in from out-of-county developers and homebuilders. And the county’s location can just about guarantee future growth.

Though a part of neither, Screven County joins the metro areas of both Augusta and Savannah and the osmosis effect of spreading growth in those urban areas will bring new residents, say Sylvanians on the lookout for such trends. And too, the price of land will be an enticement to developers, trend watchers say.

“Our land values are just skyrocketing all the time,” says Screven County Planning and Zoning Administrator Tommy O’Barr. “But we’re only catching up. Two years ago, you could have bought land in the county for around $1,200 [an acre]. I saw a tract of land recently that sold for $2,300 [an acre]. But that was a large tract, maybe 600 acres. That’s a pretty good jump in the last few years. But we’re still undervalued when you look at the counties that join us.”

O’Barr says the combination of improved roads and cheap land will draw interest from developers and homebuyers. “It’s just a matter of time before [developers] realize they can go to Screven County and put in a subdivision for a third of the cost in some of these urban counties and still have as good an access to the two cities, plus live in the country where people want to live.”

So new is the prospect of growth that Screven County has only had zoning since the late ’90s and just began building inspections in 2002.

Back In Time

In Sylvania, the clocks seemed to have stopped somewhere around the late 1940s, perhaps at a time when there were telephone party lines shared by neighbors and certainly before the arrival of the dial phone.

It isn’t uncommon here to find residents – usually older folks – who call the local bank or the chamber of commerce to find out the phone number of a business or the hours of a restaurant. Call the office of a city official and you might be told he is getting a haircut and would you like that number. Even when you call the wrong number, the person answering will ask you who you’re trying to reach and then tell you how to reach them, followed by, “But she’s out right now. I saw her going in Moats’ just a minute ago.”

That’s Moats IGA Supermarket, a store that had its beginnings downtown in 1924. James Moats owned the store and worked there for more than 50 years before turning it over to his sons, William and Harold. The elder Moats still comes by four times a week to stock goods. If you need groceries but can?t leave the house, just phone your order in and they’ll deliver it.

The Soda Shop, a popular teen gathering spot in the ’40s and ’50s is still there, but is now the Soda Shop Art Gallery where 88-year-old Violet Cail hangs her paintings but will not put a price tag on them. It’s said that some local artists don’t like to price their work; they consider that a bit showy. Nonetheless, the Gallery brought in more than $1,500 in sales its first three weeks, and that was considered a big success.

There’s a charm to this town that speaks to an era when boys and girls addressed their elders as “sir” and “ma’am.” The big news downtown early in August surrounded Macay McBride, a local youngster with a white-hot fastball who had just been called up by the Atlanta Braves and had already posted a couple of impressive performances before being sent back to the minors. He’ll be back on a major league roster soon, everyone says.

“We understand that the values we hold dear – the values that let you make a deal with only a handshake – are things that people don’t think exist anymore,” says the industrial development authority’s Gayle Boykin, a Sylvania native. “But those values still exist here. Yet at the same time, those of us who are charged with helping our community grow have to operate on another plane that is not common to our community. We have to pull ourselves – sometimes kicking and screaming – into the 21st century. We are working hard to maintain the things that make us so happy with our quality of life while understanding that if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

So dear are small town values to economic developers here that they have incorporated them into their pursuit of industry. “We are targeting industries headquartered in small towns,” Boykin says. “We feel if they like that small town atmosphere, they’ll like us.”

Thirsty For Growth

Screven’s thirst for growth can be satisfied – if there is enough water to serve the commercial and residential buildings coming to the county in the rosy forecast.

Having enough water to spur growth has not always been a given in these parts. Moratoriums on water withdrawals, particularly those from the Floridan aquifer, have hit counties like neighboring Effingham, as well as a score of coastal communities. The central issue in this region is the intrusion of salt water into the aquifer. There have been no moratoriums in Screven but county leaders are taking nothing for granted.

“I have been talking water since I walked in the door,” says County Manager Rick Jordan, who walked in the door six years ago from Effingham County, where he was assistant county administrator, a post that led him to watch growth slow dramatically due to water issues.

“I saw what happened in Effingham County. I know it’s hard to envision growth when you don’t think it is coming anytime soon. I’m not a water guru, I’m just very concerned that if we become complacent we will lose control of our water resources.”

To help the county evaluate future well drilling needs, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia four years ago brought Screven’s leaders together with ISE researchers. A 2004 study found that many wells in Screven County had gone dry during recent droughts; the fact that such occurrences are widespread when Georgia has been hit by dry spells was no consolation here.

Interestingly, the areas hardest hit by the droughts also happen to be high poverty rural communities, which lend themselves to the kind of federal grants the county is pursuing. The grants are needed to study alternative water supply systems such as “cluster wells,” water sources shared by as many as five households.

County commissioners have also taken other steps toward preparing their infrastructure for the anticipated growth spurt. “I’ve been authorized to go out and interview with engineering firms to help us determine just what we need to deal with that growth,” Jordan says. “I don’t want a bunch of developers coming in here and sticking straws in the ground and the state telling us we can’t furnish governmentally delivered water.”