Carroll County: Ready, Set, Grow

A rediscovered county strikes a balance

Carroll County is in the catbird seat: close enough to Atlanta to share in its spillover growth, but not too close for comfort.

Like many exurban communities, it enjoys a slower pace of life that no one is in any hurry to compromise; unlike many, there isn’t as much pressure to cash in on the bedroom boom. “We’re not begging to grow,” says Daniel Jackson, president of operations for the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce and Carroll Tomorrow.

“Our concern is to balance quality with growth by partnering with developers, and that’s bearing out.”

“You’ll see a lot of significant change in the next half dozen years,” says Ken O’Neill, former chamber president and current director of the new Burson Center, an incubator designed to help create and grow small businesses. “We’ve been rediscovered.”

Having recently passed the 100,000 mark in population, Carroll County is suddenly appearing on numerous radar screens, and the fact that prospects like what they see is borne out by Bobcat’s decision last year to locate a manufacturing plant here – a $10 million investment that will create 100 jobs. On the residential side, Carroll County is also hosting Wolf Creek, one of the metro area’s new potential “billion dollar babies” – a mega-development that, if built, is expected to create mini-cities of 40,000 to 50,000 or more. (Others are being planned in Gwinnett and Clayton counties.)

Leaders have responded to growth with a sophisticated network of coordination and cooperation. Chamber spin-off Carroll Tomorrow, created four years ago to boost economic growth and to moderate conversations with developers, was recently approved for five more years. The chamber and Carroll Tomorrow have both prospered from collaboration, forming a nexus that recently begat the Burson Center.

“Bobcat called and said, ‘We want a community that wants us.’We said, ‘Quit looking,'” Jackson recalls, revealing the confidence of an organization that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year by growing leaner and meaner. A new structure that accommodates both the chamber and Carroll Tomorrow, bolstered by the off-campus Burson Center, will allow the county even more flexibility to recruit and expand businesses.

Bobcat, which located in the vacant Blaw-Knox building in Carrollton Industrial Park, did indeed quit looking, choosing Carroll County over sites in Kentucky and North Dakota early last year. “Because we’re in the [state-designated] West Carrollton Enterprise District, we’re able to offer tax abatements,” says Carroll Tomorrow CEO Slater Barr. “They also wanted a building in place.”

Carroll Tomorrow, which has the means to measure a proposed project’s economic impact even as negotiations are taking place, estimated Bobcat’s fiscal impact on the community at $284,149.

“We don’t want to win a project but lose for the community. We make sure we’re repaid for whatever incentives we offer,” Barr says. Incentives are repaid only if a company fails to live up to its commitment. If a company promises 600 jobs and only creates 200, he explains, it must return a pro rata portion of the incentives.

Bobcat helps fill Carrollton Industrial Park as the county scopes for new industrial property. “We’re currently in Phase 2 of expansion at Temple Industrial Park, which includes 25 acres right on Interstate 20,” Barr says. “Our bigger initiative, funding for which was approved in a 2003 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, is a new industrial park, which will make several hundred acres available. We’re gradually moving from the recruitment of manufacturing and distribution industry toward more technical companies such as software development, back office and call centers; but the new park will be mixed-use – manufacturing, business and office space.”

The diversity of Carroll Tomorrow’s recruitment strategy, which Barr compares to “an investor diversifying their portfolio,” reflects the county’s workforce. “There are times when manufacturing will be down, and the future may be in tech,” he says. “But if you chart our demographics, there are a lot of older textile and mill workers, mixed with the newcomers, who have a higher level of skills. It allows us to offer both typical manufacturing workers and executives for upper level management. As we see the changing community, it works to our advantage to accommodate both ends.”

More Expansions

This approach has also served Carroll’s existing industries extremely well: At last count, some eight companies (including Flowers Baking Company, Greenway Medical Technologies, Janus International, Southwire, Saber Diamond Tool, AirTran Reservations, American Container, and Sony) either have or will be expanding over the next two years, representing 500 new jobs and capital investment of $80 million.

“Some have really turned around. When I arrived in 2001, Sony was down to 150 employees,” Barr says. “Now they’re over 800.”

Ample post-secondary education options help fill the labor pool. “West Central Technical College, which is in the process of hiring a new president, and University of West Georgia have been tremendous assets,” O’Neill says. “They’ve been a lifesaver on many fronts.”

On one end, the main branch of the four-campus West Central Technical College in Carrollton trains workers for new manufacturing-type jobs; on the other, UWG has been creating and supporting new businesses in such fields as health care and technology. Jackson adds that “UWG is feeding the economy big time. Enrollment is now up to 10,000 students, and the latest plan suggests enrollment will reach 15,000 in the next five years. It’s being called the ‘pig in the python’- an expected overflow from other Georgia universities.”

Beyond student spending and such UWG-specific relationships as that with AirTran, (250 student employees are actually shuttled over to the company from the campus on UWG buses), UWG also supports the local economy through entities like the Richards College of Business Small Business Development and Resource Center. In the last 10 months the center has served more than 150 local clients, helping them secure some $5 million in loans. UWG, which has an estimated $300 million annual economic impact, also provides social services from water resource management to Latino community initiatives and “Hotel Katrina,” which housed more than 200 evacuees in an empty campus building last year.

Dr. Beheruz Sethna, UWG president, confirms the “pig in a python” growth coming this way, but doesn’t necessarily see it happening in the next five years. “We resist placing dates, but believe it might be 2015 or 2020 before we reach 15,000 students,” he says. “Our current campus is 85 percent built-on or committed, so we need new land to grow. But this is a long-term, gradual plan.”

UWG is in the process of securing a 246-acre land donation from the city of Carrollton for new parking and facilities, both athletic and academic, and has begun a $10 million fund raising drive to build a 9,000 seat football stadium and sports center.

“We are a state university in a region where educational attainment is among the lowest in the state,” Sethna notes. “Although most people think of South Georgia in that regard, our region, unfortunately, is not far behind. So we believe that [enrollment] caps would be irresponsible, assuming that state funding will be adequate to support the needed growth. This is a critical factor in all planning.” He says admissions standards will continue to rise, “not as a limiter to growth but as a determinant of student success.”

Controlling growth is the overarching theme of Carroll’s planning efforts. There seems to be less concern about traffic at the 11,000 acre Wolf Creek project, which would include multiple entrances and have a 23-mile link directly to the airport down an extended South Fulton Parkway, than about Highway 61 – the long corridor linking Carrollton to I-20 but lacking sewer needed to qualify properties there for major development.

“The city has great interest in 61,” says Carrollton City Manager Casey Coleman, “as do Villa Rica and the county. We all feel that road in particular needs control. We’ve had some annexation requests, and want to extend sewer service there, to create high-end retail and restaurants with residential springing off. Two years from now, it will be a different world, and we want to do it right.”

Fortunately, the seven cities and other ruling entities of Carroll County are harmonious in their approach to growth. “One enjoyable part about my job is that the county commission chairman, board of commissioners and city leaders all get along well and work together,” Coleman says. “Such a good relationship is a rarity in many counties.”

If it seems coincidental that Carrollton, Villa Rica and Bowdon all have simultaneous efforts to grow tourism, or that Temple and Villa Rica are growing industrially, remember that the Chamber/Burson/Carroll Tomorrow staff is facilitating inter-city negotiations that have helped all share in the retail spoils of the county’s new 100,000-plus population status. This is evidenced by the Wal-Mart Supercenter coming to Carrollton this year and by a new cinema and restaurants such as O’Charley’s, IHOP and Longhorn. Some 15 community banks, including the Latino-oriented West Georgia National Bank, have offices or representation in the county.

Carroll Tomorrow in particular has been a real referee with its Wolf Creek Online Forum, allowing anyone interested in the project a voice in cyberspace. “It was with some trepidation that we took on the role of facilitator for Wolf Creek,” Barr says. “We don’t have the luxury of expressing an issue-specific opinion. To remain neutral won’t make everyone happy. But this is the largest potential development in Carrollton in years. We can’t afford to punt, or ignore it.”

Without a doubt, the dialogue this forum has gathered has given the project stronger legs, Barr says. “Our approach is to have a big round table, and get it all out, not to bury our heads in the sand.”

Agricultural Roots

Opinions about quality of life are all the more acute in such an agricultural county. Western town Bowdon has hosted the Farmland/AG Expo for the last three years in Copeland Hall, a brassy performing arts venue that has also welcomed Leon Redbone, and has become the logical locale for Georgia farmers to rally annually. The chamber also sponsors Farm City Tours and Ag Heritage Days. “The good thing about the Ag Expo is that we’ve had a lot of young farmers involved,” says Beth Cater, Carroll Tomorrow communications manager. The event appeals to newer generations of farmers with such topics as agritourism, land trusts, organic farming and other alternatives to “cashing in the family 401k.”

“Agriculture is still one of the larger industries in this county, and we would be foolish to ignore it,” Barr says. “Also, it’s part of our quality of life. We want to put in mechanisms to let agriculture remain in the community, such as Transfer Development Rights and Carrollton’s Georgia Agricultural Land Trust, which is the only Land Trust in the state oriented specifically to protect farm land.”

Carroll County’s quality of life is considerably enhanced by the massive Tanner Health System. Tanner recently expanded its cardiac ward, built the new Roy Richards Cancer Center in Villa Rica, expanded and updated Higgins General Hospital in Bremen and built a new intensive care unit.

“Tanner has just been a huge piece of the community’s success,” Jackson says. “They’ve also been very aggressive in pursuing specialists.” The county’s health care scene also gets a boost from nursing programs at UWG and West Central Tech; and a new treated water system in Carrollton may increase its appeal to pharmaceutical and other health care cluster companies.

Most important, the county and city boast excellent school systems abetted by interesting programs and collaborations. The Ferst Reading Program, a literacy effort founded by Georgian Robin Ferst Howser, buys one book a month for children aged up to five and has proven to boost test scores as the children enter primary grades. The Chamber and the Carrollton Civic Women’s Club helped start the effort locally. Other initiatives have been established to fight adult illiteracy and teen pregnancy.

Such a strong foundation is good, because as Carroll eyes continued growth, schools, along with infrastructure and traffic issues, are going to take on a bigger role. “Schools are the biggest unknown,” Jackson says, referring to the need for new facilities a massive project such as Wolf Creek may ultimately require. “No one knows what [numbers] we’re talking about.”

Traffic is perhaps a smaller concern: “As far as traffic is concerned,” he says, “we have 18,000 commuting, but we also have 18,000 working here. In the metro area, we’re second only to Fulton County in the number of employees who don’t have to commute to work.”

Barr agrees that traffic won’t be the sort of problem the billion dollar babies may create for Gwinnett or Clayton. In fact, the county welcomes it – on its own terms. “As we become more of a destination for sporting events, more hotels and convention activity will happen,” Barr says. “We’re close enough in to take advantage of Atlanta, but far enough out to have our own identity and economic base. The challenge is getting the word out. So much of the media is Atlanta-oriented.”

Categories: Metro Atlanta