Rome/Floyd County: Staying on Top
Aviation, diversification and education are key
No geography courses are offered at Rome’s Coosa Valley Technical College, but that hasn’t kept the school’s president from developing an intense interest in the subject.
“ Rome sits in the middle of the Atlanta-Birmingham-Chattanooga [ABC] triangle,” says Craig McDaniel, president of Coosa Valley Tech, on his way to making a point. “Those three cities have major airports, and inside the ABC triangle there are smaller airports like those in Rome, Calhoun and Kennesaw. In North Georgia, there is no program for training aviation mechanics.”
Until now. McDaniel, former chairman of the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce and the Rome-Floyd County Development Authority, saw an opportunity for economic development in the void and he took it. “Most people think the aviation industry is in a downhill slide; but, right now, I think it is a growth industry,” McDaniel says.
And Rome and Floyd County economic developers are betting $1 million their community can grow with it.
After studying his maps and getting the lay of the land, McDaniel launched a needs assessment investigation and found that North Georgia badly needs more programs designed to produce aviation mechanics and avionics specialists. And as an experienced local economic developer, he was aware that Rome’s Richard B. Russell Regional Airport was surrounded by more than 1,000 acres of unused land, a handy site for any kind of aviation instruction.
After garnering approval from his state board to start aviation mechanics and avionics programs, McDaniel began putting them in place. The two subjects are among the most expensive a technical college can offer, requiring airplanes as teaching aids, a hangar to house them and all the tools and attendant equipment. That’s when the Floyd County Commission flew to the rescue, approving a $1 million appropriation for the purchase of an existing building and the construction of another at the Russell Airport.
“When we first heard of the possibility of such a program in our county, I think everybody on the commission got excited,” recalls Floyd County Commission Chairman John Mayes. Already, the commission has spent $400,000 to rehab an existing building. “And we’re going to provide more money to build a hangar where the students can work on airplanes. This kind of investment of county money is a first for us. County governments are usually involved in providing roads and meeting other infrastructure needs,” he says.
All this over a couple of new classroom subjects? “It’s more than that,” Mayes says. “For years we felt the airport was underused. With its 1,000-plus acres, there will be room for aviation related development.”
Mayes joins McDaniel in the belief that if you teach it, they will come – “they” being aviation industries with high paying jobs. Evidence is unfolding that such an assumption is on the money. “We have already had calls from companies that employ aviation program graduates,” McDaniel says. “And they told us that if we had them right now they would hire two – and at $25 an hour.” The new aviation courses at CVTC will be offered in fall 2007.
A Diversified Economy
Rome has long had a reputation for high caliber health care, a quality of life asset that has propelled the city to the top of several national publications’ “Best Cities” lists. However, this town of 36,000 has been passionate about keeping its multifaceted economic base as diverse as possible since 1997, when stunning job loses left a brutal memory in the community’s consciousness. That was the year the textile mills closed and 1,400 jobs left town.
“Those closings in 1997 told us we had to diversify,” notes commission chairman Mayes, who served on Rome-Floyd 20/20, an economic recovery effort begun in 1997 and built on careful planning. “Community leaders came together to develop a plan for the future to make sure Rome and Floyd County had jobs growth and utilized its resources to maximum advantage,” he says. “And that plan has worked.”
Despite the ’97 closings, Floyd County saw an increase of 24 percent in total personal income in the period 1998-2003. And in the last decade the county’s economic base has widened considerably.
Rome was chartered as a city in 1824 and grew into a textile center and rail hub at the site where the Etowah and Oostanaula rivers come together to form the Coosa. A century-plus dependence on textile manufacturing brought jobs and a measure of prosperity to mill workers. The mills also attracted retailers, who, by the arrival of the 20th century, found Rome’s vibrant economy an ideal atmosphere for the pursuit of business. The result of their investments was an explosion of Victorian architecture in the downtown area during a building boom following the Civil War.
The city didn’t exactly get its name because it’s surrounded by seven hills like its Italian namesake. In fact, Rome was just one of several names on slips of paper placed in a hat by the city’s three founders.
Today’s Romans are less inclined to depend on chance in shaping the future. “We look for any opportunity to continue the diversification of our industrial base,” says Mike Pennington, director of economic development for the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce. “Inside the ABC triangle, we can capitalize on our location.”
Getting in and out of that triangle is about to become easier as better roads lead to Rome. “Last year, the federal government gave us a $25 million package of funding for road improvements that we see as a key to our future,” Pennington says. “We’re looking at a direct, divided, limited access, four-lane connection from Rome to Interstate 75 within the next six years, four possibly.”
Another road project will link the Interstate to two unused industrial parks totaling 475 acres. “The right-of-way work has already begun there,” Pennington says. “It is extraordinarily important for us to have that connection for manufacturers and to lighten the drive time from Rome to Atlanta. The new roads will save 10 to 15 minutes on that drive. These improvements will put two industrial parks at the intersection of two four-lane highways just eight miles from the Interstate.” And, he adds, the roads are easements to the retail centers around Rome and the shops, eateries and entertainment of the historic downtown.
Improving access to Rome was very much on the mind of the city’s mayor, Ronnie Wallace, as he prepared to welcome the thousands of movie fans expected to file into the city for the 4th Annual Rome International Film Festival (RIFF) in September. “The film festival came to us from another community and it has become so successful it’s back for its fourth year,” he says. The four-day event features more than 130 films screened in four theaters – some improvised – throughout the city.
“It is truly international because the films, their directors, actors and actresses and the audience will come to Rome from all over,” says Wallace, who is also director of the Business Expansion Center at Coosa Valley Technical College. “And that is so fitting because we have students and faculty from all over the world at our colleges. Also, there are more than half a dozen foreign businesses and industries located here.”
Where The Jobs Are
About 29 percent of the income earned in Floyd County comes from manufacturing, more than twice the state average, according to economic studies conducted by the University of Georgia. Those same studies show jobs in health care and social services account for 18 percent of the county’s salaries, double the state average. The mix of income from manufacturing and health care provides some immunity from the threat of economic disaster in the event one sector falters. If the past is indeed prologue, Rome’s health industry is likely to remain healthy.
Floyd County is teeming with doctors, some 260 of them in 2002, an increase of 60 percent from 1992. Though ranked only 24th in population among Georgia counties, Floyd County is 13th in its population of doctors. And the persons-to-physicians ratio of 358:1 (compared to 519:1 for the state as a whole) implies a shorter office wait.
In Rome, it seems the doctor is always in. Ken Davis, M.D. could lay claim to being Floyd County’s busiest physician recruiter, perhaps even its most successful. One half of the county’s physicians work for the Harbin Clinic, where Davis is president and CEO.
When recruiting, his bedside manner includes blunt assertions of what he sees has the hard truth. “Doctors feel completely out of control now,” says Davis, who was a practicing general surgeon at Harbin for 15 years before leaving the OR to become CEO. “They feel that between insurance companies and hospitals and so many other things that they have no ability to control their medical practice.”
Beyond Rome’s charming downtown, its wide array of cultural and educational opportunities and a low cost of living in a beautiful setting, Davis offers his physician prospects an earning environment he says they find most appealing.
“We have a business model that works for doctors and a community that loves and appreciates its doctors,” he says. “We are 100 percent owned and run by physicians. Everything we do is geared toward making sure the patient is taken care of and the physicians’ practice runs well, as opposed to physicians that, let’s say, are recruited by hospitals where the hospital wants to take care of them, but the hospital is going to take care of itself first.”
Under the clinic’s business model, doctors who have two years of service with Harbin become shareholders and participate equally in the division of profits from billings, which last year totaled $140 million. Harbin Clinic is also a regular on the national lists of research facilities conducting drug trials in cooperation with pharmaceutical companies. “This allows for someone from the [ Rome] area not to have to go to Birmingham or Emory to get in a clinical trial that would be of great benefit to them,” Davis says.
Harbin’s primary service area includes 10 counties in Georgia and Alabama with a population of 500,000. With 885 employees, the Harbin Clinic is among Rome’s top 10 employers, and it’s about to become larger. “Right now I think we have about 12 open [physician] positions we are recruiting for,” Davis says.
New physicians are being sought to staff the 75,000-square-foot Harbin Clinic Specialty Center now under construction and set to open in the summer of 2007. The 130 to 135 doctors at Harbin practice in 36 specialties, which the clinic’s literature says makes it “the largest privately owned multi-specialty physician group in Georgia.”
One of Davis’ recruiting points centers on what he says are “excellent local educational opportunities.” And there’s plenty of evidence to back him up. The Floyd County School System’s high school graduation rates are seven points better than the state’s average, and the SAT scores are 26 points higher than those of Georgia as a whole. Rome’s city school system also ranks well above state averages in SAT and ACT testing.
Not long ago such scores seemed only a distant possibility. “We recognized five years ago that the school system was failing in its obligations to high performing, diligent and very able students in middle school and high school,” says Floyd County School Superintendent Kelly Henson.
“We didn’t have the curricula offerings in place that constituted the level of rigor and the level of challenge that our high performing students needed. There were very few, if any, advanced placement courses.” And like a business with poor products, the system began losing customers. “We were losing some of those [high performing] students to other school systems and private schools,” Henson says. “We developed a rigorous, demanding and relevant program of study for high performing high school students.”
The honors program offers 17 advanced placement courses in the county’s schools. Students in these programs can take, for instance, advanced algebra courses leading to geometry, calculus, statistics and probability and on to college level math.
Most dramatic have been the results among trailing students. To reach poorly performing school kids as demanded by No Child Left Behind legislation, the Floyd system added three weeks to the school year by bringing in youngsters for remedial help during vacation breaks in the existing calendar. These efforts raised high school SAT scores 30 points and, Henson says, “our Georgia High School Graduation Test scores are now among the best in Georgia.”
Participation is not exactly voluntary; high schoolers who consistently fail to show up for the remedial classes can lose their parking spaces.
Rome/Floyd County At-A-Glance
Population (2004): Floyd County, 94,009; Rome, 35,551; Cave Spring, 995
Per capita income (2003): $25,337; Georgia, $29,000
Unemployment (Aug. 2006): Floyd County, 4.4 percent; Georgia, 4.6 percent.
Top 10 employers: Floyd County Schools, 1,855; Floyd Medical Center, 1,880; Mohawk Industries, 1,100; Redmond Regional Medical Center, 1050; Temple Inland, 912; Harbin Clinic, 885; Zartic Corp., 804; Kellogg’s, 762; Floyd County, 710; city of Rome, 676
Government: The county commission is composed of five at-large members and a county manager; they, in turn, elect a chairman
Sources: Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau, Floyd County Board of Commissioners
Is Rome Getting Burned
Last year when the city of Rome attempted to recover hotel/motel taxes by filing suit against a laundry list of online hotel and motel booking agencies such as Hotels.com, Expedia, Inc. and Cheaptickets.com, it was soon joined by a score of other Georgia cities and counties.
The discovery phase of the class action suit has begun and should be completed by spring, says Anderson Davis, the Rome assistant city attorney who filed the suit. “We expect the case to be ready for trial in late spring or early summer.”
The suit has far-reaching implications for every political subdivision in the state, Davis says. “The bottom line is, the cities and counties are not getting the monies they are rightly due; monies that are earmarked for local economic development, including the promotion of tourism and conventions,” he adds.
The suit centers on the practice of hotel bookers such as Expedia collecting full taxes on room rates but paying lesser amounts to local governments after negotiating the rates down.
“In short, Defendants collect a greater amount in Excise Taxes from the general public than is remitted to the Plaintiffs [Rome and other Georgia cities and counties],” the suit states.
The Rome suit was the first filed in the Southeast, Davis notes. Other local Georgia governments quickly joined the action. “They wanted their constituencies to know that they were out there seeking reimbursement for monies that had been collected as a tax from the people using the services of the defendants,” Davis says. He believes the uncollected taxes could total tens of millions of dollars, perhaps more.
— Ed Lightsey