West Central: Wheels Of Progress

Getting Ready For Kia

As the U.S. Army Armor School heads toward Fort Benning and Kia plant activity intensifies, west central Georgia counties are watching ripples of growth spread over the entire region.

By January, as the nearly 3,000-worker hiring process began at the Kia plant in West Point, the area had already spent months bracing. The $1.2 billion facility is expected to create more than 5,500 jobs directly by 2009 and produce countless more in Heard, Meri-wether and Harris counties.

Around Columbus expectations are even higher: In January timber clearing began at Fort Benning in preparation for relocation of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, a realignment ordered in 2005 and scheduled for completion in 2011.

From its northern limit at Ephesus to Morris – population: just over a thousand – in the south, west central Georgia stretches the boundaries of The Valley, a region dependent more on land form than state lines, one whose waters feed south Alabama and Florida as well as communities such as Thomaston and Georgetown.

“Our competition is Alabama,” says Dietard Lindner, chairman of the Development Authority of LaGrange. His county won in 2007, securing an expansion by auto floor-mat manufacturer Pretty Products LLC, a 90,000-square-foot commitment by injection-molder and assembler DaeLim USA and a $170 million investment by tier-one automotive parts manufacturer Sewon Precision.

Then there’s the 600-job, $60 million Kia supplier Hyundai Mobis’ investment announced in August. “The one thing we have in our favor is location, and location plus local incentives has really swayed some folk in selecting Troup County,” Lindner says.

Chris Laborde, Thomaston-Upson County Industrial Development Authority executive director, sees location as the region’s edge. “Over to our east we’ve got Macon, Warner Robbins; to our north Atlanta and to our west there’s Kia, LaGrange, Colum-bus, Fort Benning,” Laborde says. “The theme we’ve been talking about is ‘The crossroads of progress.’”

Using a team approach – county industrialists have a mutual aid agreement – Upson in 2007 positioned itself at the crossroads of technology and transportation, locating the $2 million Bank of Upson and SouthCrest Financial Group Inc.’s four-bank processing center at the Central Georgia Business and Technology Park immediately adjacent to Thomaston-Upson Airport, itself recently expanded to offer charter service.

Just five miles from the Kia site off I-85, the 192-acre Northeast Harris Business Park proved another winner when it opened in July to dual location announcements: concrete supplier Xpress Materials and the smaller IMS Inc., a sewer pipe and valve manufacturer that represented a $1 million investment in the nascent park.

Harris County Chamber of Commerce President Lynda Dawson notes that land prices are rising with the promise of Kia employee housing demand. She says participation with The Valley Partnership, a multi-county development group that straddles the Chattahoochee to include Phenix City, Ala., yielded planning efforts that value the region’s rural roots.

“We have a number of rural areas here, and we don’t want that to disappear,” she says. “We want to keep our quality of life, but growth comes, so we’re managing it the best we can.”

In Meriwether County the announcement of Dongwon Autopart Technology’s $30 million facility on Ga. 54 was greeted with pride and relief.

“We’re a rural community, a community that’s lost some jobs,” Meriwether Develop-ment Authority President Kip Purvis says. “We’ve been able to recoup some of those jobs and offer a new opportunity for some of our citizens. It’s a great economic opportunity.”

Talbot County Development Authority Chairman Slade Johnson reported efforts in 2007 aimed at drawing future Kia-related growth.

“The tier-one guys are getting situated now,” Johnson says. “Once they’re situated then we think we’ll start seeing smaller suppliers start looking for locations.”

Managing growth was the challenge of 2007 in Musco-gee County, where Fort Ben-ning’s expansion is projected to add 45,000 residents to the region.

“It’s an exciting time, a challenging time, in that we have a lot to do and a fairly short period of time,” Greater Columbus Chamber of Com-merce Vice President of Eco-nomic Development and Valley Partnership leader Becca Hardin says. “If you’re looking at the bottom line numbers, in this region that includes six counties and two cities in Central West Georgia, we’ve created 1,875 new jobs and seen a capital investment of $330 million in 2007.”

That includes a “banner year” for aerospace in Columbus. “We had two major announcements: Cessna announced the planned building of a new manufacturing facility here in Columbus for 50 jobs, and Precision Components International announced they’re building a new facility that’ll create 100 jobs,” Hardin says.

Columbus-headquartered Aflac also completed an expansion that added 250 employees and plans to complete a further expansion by 2009.

Also getting ready for economic activity are Chattaho-ochee County to the south and Marion County to the east. “We’re preparing for growth and actively seeking industry,” Marion County Commission Chairman Frank Powell says. He reports his county anticipated Muscogee County overflow in 2007 with planning.

“We’ve already gotten a grant to connect some main water lines, and the next step is to get storage capacity in the upper part of the county. That’s where our growth is coming.”

To Marion’s southeast the Schley-Sumter County nexus experienced a construction boom it might have been willing to forego.

“You know, we had a tornado come through here,” Americus-Sumter County Community Payroll Develop-ment Authority Executive Director David Garriga says, referring to a devastating storm that destroyed Sumter Regional Medical Center last spring. “It’s really been a revival in the commercial side of things,” he adds, noting the help desk outsourcer Zavata’s expansion in the county and the location of the Spiegel Catalog’s order processing center in the area in 2007 in addition to the building of a new, albeit temporary, hospital.

“There are lots of new doctors’ offices and professional offices. The community is coming back strong. In the next few years I expect we’ll be surpassing the potential we had before the storm,” Garriga predicts.

Pike County is retooling, with two businesses located there in 2007. “I think Pike County is ripe for growth,” says Karen Brown, new chamber of commerce and development authority president.

In 2007, medical billing company Zanella and Associates agreed. It located in Pike; Atha Custom Moldings and Interiors moved into the Pike County Business Park.

Quitman County’s western boundary is Lake Eufala, which it shares with Alabama. No wonder the community is proud of its fishing.

“D&J Plastics, which is a lure manufacturer here, is one of the great entrepreneurial stories in the state of Georgia,” Georgetown-Quitman Consol-idated Government Chairman Richard Morris says, adding the plastic bait-maker plans a $500,000 addition. His county and city are among the few in the state to successfully unite, a move he says will reap benefits in years to come.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but in a county with 2,400 people to have the city and county last year get a unified government – we feel for so few people that’s a tremendous opportunity for us to focus on the needs of the people and on development,” he says.

In a drought year, water assumed greater importance, even in a region of plenty.

“The water we’re pumping doesn’t come out of the river,” Stewart County Manager Mac Moye explains. “This is ground water, and we have an adequate supply for our needs. Now, I’m not saying we’re offering it to Atlanta … but it’s more than adequate for what Stewart County needs in the foreseeable future.”

Water use concerned planners at the 2007 opening of the CCA-administered immigrant detention facility in the county, Moye says, but grant monies and careful planning have borne fruit.

“It’s hard to deny the upward mobility of our property values,” he laughs. “That’s got the whole county feeling better about the future.”

In Taylor County, future expansion preparations centered on education.

“Our workforce development center at Flint River Technical College is currently expanding,” Taylor County Board of Commissioners Chair Patty James reports. “With that expansion we’re going to bring in new programs to enhance our workforce. Our goal is to make sure we have an educated, trained workforce to attract business to our county.

Water. Kias. Rolling thunder through The Valley. For some, it’s less a change in economy and more a change in ownership.

“It’s not so much an expansion in industry,” Webster County Commission Chairman Dave Wills muses. In the region’s rural southern area, major timber companies such as Weyerhaeuser liquidated holdings totaling 25,000 acres in 2007. Much of it became investment property for out-of-staters.

It’s a simple calculation, Wills says: Take 1031 tax-deferred exchanges and add a timber market ready to liquidate. It could be construed a creeping incursion.

“It’s a significant change in ownership, with our population, by Floridians,” Will says.

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features