Eastman/Dodge County: Air Power Transportation
Fueling a diverse economy
With rising winds blowing in a morning sky dark as midnight and forecasts of rain and hail for the Eastman area, Andy Lundell was busy shepherding small airplanes into their hangars at Georgia Aviation and Technical College (GATC).
From the concern on his face, you’d think Lundell had a personal and financial interest in the aircraft. And in a way, he does. Many of the 22 air-worthy airplanes owned by GATC were purchased outright, but Lundell acquired others in trades and barters. The 10 grounded aircraft used as maintenance training aids were rescued by Lundell from salvage and scrap heaps and even an Arizona aviation graveyard for use as teaching aids in courses at this unique Georgia learning center. “
One of these planes was brought in here in buckets of parts,” says Lundell, president of GATC. “The students put it together over time and we took it to the college’s paint shop. We find that if the students are working on airplanes that really look and feel like serviceable aircraft, then the quality of their work goes up.” Worn-out planes, confiscated drug planes, crashed planes, all have been brought to this Dodge County technical college to join a fleet of aircraft that now stands at 32.
Down the 6,600-foot runway from the hangar where Lundell was rushing his planes to safety sit a 12,000-square-foot terminal and a control tower that both seem to belong at a much larger facility. This spanking new air traffic center is fully operational but also doubles as a classroom for courses in airport management, something Lundell sees as an underserved aspect of aviation.”
Part of our dream was to make that tower operational and that has been approved,” Lundell says. “And now an air traffic control simulator has been ordered and the radar simulation software and equipment should be on board by summer.”
Graduates of the 18-month course will be certified tower operators, a big step toward receiving advanced placement at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City.
Recognizing the economic potential at GATC, Eastman’s leaders are supporting a $1.5 million sewer and water improvement plan for the college and its neighboring aviation industries.
“We’re doing our part by joining the county in supplying the technical college and the businesses in the area with the infrastructure they need to expand,” says Woody Woodward, chairman of Eastman’s city council. “We have annexed 130 acres around the airport and bypass and are extending water and sewer to that section. We have begun steps to begin an $11.2 million upgrade of the sewer system through the Eastman-Dodge Industrial Park. And we are joining with the county to build a new spec building. There are ways every level of local government can work on economic development and help provide jobs.”
The growth of transportation-related sectors of Dodge County continues a tradition born with the county’s founding. As the last of the Creek Indians left the area in 1827, settlers from the northern and mid-Atlantic states arrived and began clearing the thick pine forests to create farmland, using the harvested timber to build their homes.
The availability of timber quickly became a source of income for early entrepreneurs who attracted the railroads necessary to get their products into northern markets. The county’s most famous entrepreneur, native son Williamson S. Stuckey, took a $35 loan from his grandmother to open a roadside stand where he sold pecans and candy. That youthful enterprise grew into the pre-interstate nationwide chain Stuckey’s – tourist stops that dominated the auto travel boom of the 1950s. Offering gas, gifts and food along major highways, the Stuckey’s one-stop sites were precursors to the modern convenience store.
Strength In Diversity
Today, keeping the local economy diversified is a chief strategy for Eastman’s economic developers.”We are seeing steady growth in our manufacturing and transportation industries here,” says Josh Fenn, president and CEO of the Eastman-Dodge County Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not headline-making when one industry adds two employees and another adds three, but when that is happening throughout the industrial base, then that is success.”
Fenn sees diversity as a key to maintaining a healthy local economy. To shore up his point, he ticks off a list of local products made in Dodge County. “Paper bags, airplanes, motor homes, trailers, aluminum, composite panels, utility poles, hardwood flooring, candy, apparel and mats made from recycled tires,” he says. “We’re not dependent on one single industry. I think of our industries as part of a large community portfolio in which diversity is the key. When they are all doing well, you add value to the community. But if one of them has a downturn, the community doesn’t have to suffer so badly.”
That last bit refers to a lesson Dodge County learned the hard way 20 years ago when its economy took a hard hit from a meltdown in textiles.
With the state’s largest civilian employer, Robins Air Force Base, just 40 minutes away, aircraft maintenance program graduates from GATC have immediate access to a large and steady demand for their skills, but there was a time when locals couldn’t get through the gates of the huge military base.
“In the 1970s, the base started requiring more formal education and training to get a job,” recalls Terry Coleman, speaker emeritus of the Georgia House of Representatives who has represented Dodge County for 33 years. “We were tired of seeing our kids trying for jobs at Robins and being turned away for lack of the formal training.”
What began as rudimentary sheet metal classes evolved over the years into GATC in 1996, thanks to a $6 million appropriation Coleman secured from the legislature. During Coleman’s tenure as president of the Eastman-Dodge Chamber back in the 1980s, the local economy fell into a crisis when two textile industries closed, leaving 600 workers jobless. The experience instilled local leaders with a dedication to diversifying the local economy – a goal Coleman says has been reached.
“We have evolved into a manufacturing and commercial transportation center,” he says. “Today over half our jobs are directly tied to transportation, but those jobs are in different parts of that industry. Over the next few years we hope to have the area served by two four-lane highways that will connect us to I-75 on the west and I-95 on the east.” That development, Coleman says, will open up possibilities for distribution centers and warehousing.
A short walk down the runway from the Georgia Aviation and Technical College is Metal Crafters, which manufactures aircraft parts for companies such as Boeing, Lockheed and Gulfstream as well as the U.S. military. Of its 31 employees, about 65 percent are GATC graduates. The company saw an 8 percent increase in sales last year, says General Manager Stephen Cook.
Metal Crafters sits next door to Aircraft Manufacturing & Development (AMD), an airplane manufacturer that last November introduced its CH 601 XL. The two-seat, 100-horsepower aircraft is capable of speeds nearing 130 mph and gets better gas mileage than many SUVs on the road today.
The 601 XL has been sold in kit form for 20 years, giving it a certain cachet in aviation circles. “There are about 500 of them flying around the world,” says Terry Tiraboschi, AMD’s plant manager. “This plane is well known throughout the world.”
Recent changes in FAA light sport plane regulations have reduced the requirements necessary to fly the plane and opened the possibility for new market development, Tiraboschi says. Its $75,000 price tag also is an attractive feature. “Compare that to what people are spending on Hummers,” Tiraboschi says. Already, AMD has had to hire two new employees to keep up with orders that are running four months ahead of production. Tiraboschi expects to hire more over the next few months.
With modern and historical connections to railroads, aviation and highway entrepreneurship, Dodge County seems a welcoming place to the transportation industry, which explains why Greg Williams says he has found a happy home here. “We saw a fantastic work force and a low cost of living and a business-friendly environment,” says Williams, general manager of Optima Trailers, a division of Chicago-based Pace America.
While Optima’s enclosed vehicle-hauling trailer sales have been steadily growing nationwide, it’s a new product, Williams says, that’s currently generating excitement in his company.
Optima’s trailers are popular with auto racing teams that use them to haul cars from event to event. It seemed a natural step in industrial evolution for Optima to produce something with which to pull those trailers, and that’s where the excitement lies. Optima’s Eastman plant is now rolling out a motor home behemoth sitting on a Freightliner over-the-road chassis with a 450-horsepower engine capable of pulling 20 tons of trailer and contents.
“They were originally designed for the motor sports market to be used by teams to haul their race trailer to the track and then have a place to stay,” Williams says. “That market has evolved into a typical motor home structure for the RV market.”
There is little typical about these giant Freightliner motor homes. In addition to the muscle and size of a semi, the Optima product offers carpeted floors, granite kitchen counters and in-motion satellite LCD TVs, amenity packages that can boost the total vehicle’s cost to $320,000.
Adding a $150,000 trailer to the package gives the owner a half-million-dollar self-contained caravan. That’s an understandable draw for a racing team, but RV-crazed retirees are getting in on the act as well. “It gives an advantage to the retired individual who wants to put a stacker trailer on the back and take all his toys with him,” Williams says.
And though sales are being made to those toy lovers, Optima isn’t forgetting its central focus. “Our market is still fueled by the auto racing industry,” says Williams, who expects to increase his 106 employees by 50 percent within the next 18 months.
Unlike Optima’s plush semis, the big trucks hauling the 100 tons or so of product each day from Eastman’s Smurfit-Stone packaging plant are wearing their working clothes. That’s good news for local economic developers who watched the plant struggle to stay alive in the late ’90s when it was in the hands of now defunct paper bag producer Durango.
Since Smurfit-Stone acquired the plant in 2001 and installed new equipment, the only struggle has been keeping up with demand for the heavy-duty paper bags manufactured here. The bags are used to hold 50 pounds of cement, dog food, fertilizer and other products.
“Our major customers are growing like weeds,” says Plant Manager Phil Ingram. “One of our dog food customers has grown 19 percent over the last two or three years, where the rest of that industry has grown just 2 or 3 percent. One of our larger concrete customers that used to be served out of two or three plants is now served out of three or four, and I have a $5 million piece of equipment that is used only for that customer and it runs two or three times faster than the old equipment that was here.”