Trend Radar: November 2006

Driving Home A Point: When Gov. Sonny Perdue drove the golden spike into the last crosstie to mark the completion of the not-so-transcontinental Overton Junction leading to the Port of Brunswick, 200 onlookers applauded and cheered, and none louder than Phil Overton, who gave more than his name to the 7,500-foot section of rail.

Overton, project manager for the Southeast Georgia Joint Development Authority, spent the last two years working to clear obstacles to improving rail service to the busy port. “This little section of rail will have a huge impact on the region’s economy,” he says. As soon as the golden spike was driven, a Norfolk Southern train pulling 42 railcars loaded with Mercedes Benz autos rolled toward the port’s Colonel’s Island to be loaded aboard a waiting ship on their way to dealers.

“The new rail section is essentially a shortcut,” Overton says, modestly having trouble calling the tracks Overton Junction. “It will cut the roundtrip travel time of the Mercedes from their Alabama plant to the port from 13 days to three-and-a-half.”

But there are other, even more local benefits. “It will save drivers 7,000 hours of waiting at train crossings each year,” Overton notes. And there’s a little satisfaction in a coastal port rivalry. “The additional costs associated with the longer travel time for Mercedes was forcing them to look at Jacksonville as a port … ,” he says. After losing several big auto accounts to Brunswick over the past few years, Jacksonville port boosters were looking at Brunswick economic developers as car thieves. The Floridians smelled payback, but their train never arrived at the station.

Affordable Housing: Two Georgia cities have received national recognition for the affordability of their homes. The cities, Albany and Columbus, were placed in the top five markets in the Southeast for “undervalued” real estate in a joint report issued late last summer by economic forecaster Global Insight and a Cleveland, Ohio bank, National City. The report assessed 277 national markets and measured factors such as historical trends and the ratio of local home prices to local incomes.

Columbus leaders say local real estate bargains won’t last long. “If you want one, you’d better hurry,” says Columbus Chamber President and CEO, Mike Gaymon, alluding to the well publicized growth coming from the arrival of 30,000 new soldiers and their families, a result of the BRAC decision to expand Fort Benning’s mission. Retailers and Benning vendors are already setting up shop in anticipation of business to be created by the Army post’s population boom, and subdivision developers in surrounding counties are bumping into one another in the rush to create more housing.

A2A = $400 Million?: Georgians who remember train trips from Atlanta to Athens to attend UGA football games during the 1940s and ’50s will have the opportunity to relive those days if the Georgia Brain Train Group has its way. Peopled by students and faculty members from seven of the 12 colleges and universities that line the route from Atlanta to Athens (shorthand: “A2A”), as well as business and industry reps, this nonprofit has loftier goals than getting Bulldog fans on a nostalgic football party trip. “Our goal is taking commuters from the suburbs into Atlanta and Athens, then getting them back home,” says Emory Morsberger, chairman of the Brain Train Group and president of the Morsberger Group, a Lawrenceville development firm.

Working estimate of the cost of putting passenger trains on a CSX right-of-way now used for freight is $400 million, with 80 percent funding from the feds and the balance from the state. A capacity study being conducted by CSX and the Georgia DOT is expected to be finished by the end of the year. “This is the logical next step in the evolution of Atlanta,” Morsberger says.

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Categories: Economic Development Features, Features