Columbia County: Supply And Demand

A county works to keep more retail dollars at home

It’s late afternoon and the John Deere Commercial Products factory in Columbia County’s Horizon South Industrial Park is quiet.

Factory manager Rich Czarnecki and his leadership team are proudly showing a few visitors a gleaming new green and yellow tractor, known in the trade as a 3520. By Georgia farming standards this 33-horsepower tractor is small, but by John Deere marketing standards, the modest size is big for business.

The 3520s built at the Columbia County plant first hit the showrooms in October 2005 to fill a hot worldwide demand for such small to medium-sized tractors – and the lion’s share of such products, Czarnecki explains, are produced in Georgia by just three companies. “John Deere, Kubota and Case-New Holland [brands] combine to make Georgia the compact tractor capital of the world. Between the three of us we have over 80 percent of the market share.”

John Deere is the undisputed leader of those three manufacturers. “This is the epicenter of our sales,” says Czarnecki, nodding toward a small section of the approximately 650,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space John Deere occupies in Columbia County. The tractor maker employs 460 fulltime workers; the addition of seasonal workers can push the total up to 750. The 2004 payroll was $25 million.

The demand for the small- to medium-sized tractors comes from a booming housing and commercial construction market in the Southeast United States, as well as an expanding class of wealthy Americans who find the sturdy smaller tractors handy on horse ranches and small farms. The tractors are also popular items in construction equipment rental yards and among municipalities.

“There is a portion of the market we call the sweet spot,” Czarnecki says. “That is the 20- to 30-horsepower tractors that cost from the $10,000s to the mid- and upper-$20,000s. They are easily adapted to perform a variety of jobs.”

Columbia County’s John Deere plant also produces a line of tractor-loader backhoes geared toward heavier excavation. Products like these have sent production volume soaring, Czarnecki says, from $100 million in 1991 to more than $1 billion in 2005. On Oct. 31, 2005, the plant celebrated assembly of its 500,000th tractor. The plant has operated in Columbia County for 15 years.

While John Deere has been enjoying rising sales around the world, thanks in part to the products produced at its Columbia County facility, local retail dollars have been flying out of the county, a trend leaders here are working to reverse. Truth is, those funds were sucked out of the county leaving a vacuum behind.

Blame it on Columbia’s breathtaking growth in population and wealth. It took the county until the first half of the 20th century to reach the 10,000 mark in population, but from 1980 till 2000 the number of residents more than doubled to 90,000. Now the newly arriving populace is bringing higher incomes into a county that once depended on cotton and timber for jobs and payrolls.

According to the University of Georgia’s statistical abstract, the Georgia County Guide, Columbia’s current residents have average effective buying income (EBI) of $48,196, making it a regional leader in the category and putting it in the Cobb ($50,568) and Gwinnett ($51,598) class. Those are the after-tax dollars so coveted by retailers.

But the UGA figures show Columbia residents didn’t shop at home; their retail purchases were being made in nearby counties. Other governments, principally Richmond County, and more specifically the city of Augusta, were collecting taxes on those retail sales, an important source of revenue for any growing community.

“Columbia County has been more of a bedroom community,” says Gordon Renshaw, executive director of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, “a place where people came to enjoy the low taxes, strong government and especially the strong school systems. However, the retail establishments have not been created fast enough to keep up with the growth. You don’t want to rely just on property taxes; there must be a diverse and robust tax base that includes industry and retail sales.”

Good Neighbors

In many respects, the people of Columbia County have always been linked to their neighbor, Richmond County. In fact the county was carved out of a part of Richmond in 1790, and locals have been traveling to Augusta for goods and entertainment ever since.

Even as Augusta grew to become Georgia’s second largest city, the villagers of Columbia seemed content with their lot. Around the turn of the 20th century, when it occurred to someone that Appling, home to the county courthouse then and now, should be incorporated and made a town, locals didn’t exactly jump at that chance.

“The General Assembly twice passed the legislation necessary to get a [town] charter,” says 73-year-old Jake Pollard, a former county clerk and state senator from Appling, “provided the local citizens meet and elect a governing body. But nobody wanted to meet, so they didn’t, and Appling was not chartered [as a town].” Appling remains the seat of government and Columbia is one of only two counties in Georgia with an unincorporated county seat (Echols is the other).

Meanwhile, the community of Evans has become a kind of ex-officio seat of government and commerce, thanks to the a continuing population migration from Richmond County and the relocation of many government offices to that unincorporated part of Columbia County.

In fact, all the county’s judicial functions are housed in a new Columbia County Justice Center in Evans, though state law requires the courthouse in Appling to be used twice a year. A new 650-seat amphitheater is up and running in Evans just behind a library and performing arts center set to be completed this spring, all part of a $13 million public works project that fits nicely into what Columbia County Commission chairman Ron Cross calls a “community mosaic.”

Speaking at his office in Evans’ Town Center, a complex of mostly government buildings, Cross can point out the window to the fruits of his labors. The building he’s in and those around it are part of an overlay district he helped design as a member of a study committee. Overlay districts within a government subdivision are those with more stringent ordinances addressing landscaping, architecture, building use and myriad other facets of development.

“Everything built in the overlay must come through planning and zoning and an engineering process before it can be built,” says Cross, who was a construction company owner before retiring and has a practical outlook. “I can see this from both sides. The builder is looking at extra expense but it has been proven throughout the country that dressing up [an urban area] early on will result in more business later on, and that benefits the property owner, the developer and the local government.”

The Town Center area saw the grand opening of two large retailers, Target and Kohl’s, and a 480,000-square-foot shopping center, Mullins Crossing, is expected to be full by this spring. These developments will help keep shopping dollars – and taxes – closer to home.

With a population projected to top 114,000 by 2010, it appears Columbia is ready to break from its orbit around Richmond and develop a gravity all its own. “The reality is that Columbia County is still irretrievably joined at the hip to Augusta,” says Ron Thigpen, a banker and chairman of the Development Authority of Columbia County. “It may be that the center of the region is moving away from Augusta and toward Columbia County in a lot of respects: the growth of wealth and buying income, that sort of thing.”

Thigpen is a part of a leadership consensus that is aggressively seeking more retail sales taxes to support growing demands for infrastructure. “Now that we have the rooftops built, retail development is coming on almost like turning on a fire hose,” he says.

“Now that we have some significant activity in the retail sector and on the commercial side, we are positioning ourselves to get even stronger,” says Zack Daffin, executive director of the Development Authority of Columbia County.

Part of that positioning involves continued infrastructure improvements. “We are working toward attracting high tech companies, those that pay higher wages,” Daffin says. “Our newest industrial park, Horizon North, has a fiber-optic ring for telecommunications reliability. And in the past, we’ve been able to attract two tractor parts suppliers to support the production of John Deere, so that says to us that we could be a good fit for the suppliers to, say, off-the-road vehicles.”

Considering Consolidation

To help manage growth, many of Columbia County’s leaders would like to see consolidation of the municipalities under one umbrella, becoming a 290-square-mile countywide city, just like neighboring Richmond County.

With 91 percent of the population living in the county’s unincorporated areas, consolidation could have seemed the remotest of possibilities. Yet leaders here are tossing about the idea of incorporating portions of the county and then consolidating all the governments.

“It is a unique opportunity because we’re not having to take two existing government entities and merge them,” Thigpen says. “But in a lot of respects, that new entity from a purely municipal perspective is no different than the county government as it now exists. But it does give us the opportunity for us to be whatever we want to be. We have the opportunity to be a premier community in the state of Georgia.”

County Commission Chairman Cross is also warm to the idea. “We have two incorporated cities, Harlem and Grovetown,” he says. “One is about 1,800 people; the other about 7,000. The county furnishes the water for both towns and the majority of sewerage for Grovetown. The county has no signature municipality. The results [of consolidation] would be $5 million to the county in yearly franchise fees from utilities like Georgia Power, which could be used to finance a $30 million bond issue to make improvements in storm water drainage and roads, and we could use $5 million for land acquisition for greenspaces and parks.”

Cross interrupts his musings on overlays, municipal incorporation and government consolidation to lament the recent loss of a few trees accidentally cut down in a commercial area of Evans.

“We cut down seven real attractive oaks in front of a shopping center,” he says. “I got a call from a lady just this morning who said she hated that it happened. It upset a lot of people and it upset me but those things are going to happen. We’re going to make mistakes,” he says. “You’re always wondering when the next wheel is going to run off.”

Then Cross becomes introspective. “How long I’ll last, I don’t know,” he says. “You know, you can’t do what has to be done and do it as boldly as we have done without offending some people.” He pauses, then adds: “We’re going to replant those trees.”

Categories: East Central