Albany/Dougherty County: Potent Forces At Work
Training centers bring jobs; housing stabilizes
With a pelting rain falling from a sky the color of oatmeal, it wasn’t exactly a chamber of commerce day for announcing the arrival of 134 new jobs brought to Albany by the Senior Life Insurance Company at its new Corporate Training Facility and Call Center.
But the welcoming committee of 150 or so people huddled in a tent or grazing at the buffet were aglow at the promise by Senior Life executives of as many as 400 jobs over the next five years. The company’s leaders see no problem filling those positions. “We ran an ad in the Albany paper and we had, like, 600 to 800 calls in one week,” says
Senior Life President Ron Powell. “There is a good educational base here and once we saw that facility near the airport it just made sense that Albany was the right place for us.”
Senior Life is a Thomasville-based insurance company that targets policy buyers in the over-65 age market, a niche that adds some 1,000 prospects a day thanks to America’s aging population. Senior Life made a $1.2 million capital investment in rehabbing the long vacant 46,000-square-foot building, once home to a plastics factory.
“We’ll be using that facility to bring people in from all over the U.S. for training,” Powell says, explaining the value of the nearby airport. Senior Life is now licensed in 21 states and is moving forward with plans to be in all 50 states within seven years.
The opening of a company called Senior Life in Albany seems entirely appropriate for a town that’s welcoming a growing number of retirees seeking their own senior life. During a January economic forecast session with University of Georgia economists, Albany leaders were told their retiree population was growing four times faster than the general population, and 10 times faster than the working-age population.
The Senior Life opening came within a few weeks of the first day for shoppers at a new 68,000-square-foot Kohl’s retail center that employs more than 130 people. The Kohl’s opening underscored Albany’s reputation as a retail hotspot where more than $1.8 billion in sales are recorded annually.
“If this keeps up we’re going to need a new red carpet, ours is just about worn out,” says Jeff Sinyard, chairman of the Dougherty County Commission. Sinyard was referring to the arriving retirees, new business openings and a spate of economic development announcements that washed over the community as 2007 ended and 2008 began.
Some announcements represented common-sense moves. When a vacancy opened up earlier this year for the job of CEO at Albany Tomorrow Inc. (ATI), the city’s public/private downtown revitalization program, leaders decided to use the moment to reexamine the organization’s mission. One area of concern was the possibility of overlapping efforts by ATI and another downtown agency, the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Au-thority (ATTICA).
“The future of ATI lies in its ability to find and attract downtown development,” says Dr. C.W. Grant, chair of the ATI board. “If someone else is already doing that, then it may be that we don’t need to be duplicating that effort.” ATI’s board used a spring retreat to make a complete examination of its role in downtown. “We are examining every facet of [the ATI] mission,” Grant says. “That’s why we are waiting to secure a CEO.”
Another announcement held profound promise. A February resolution passed by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia calling for more Medical College of Georgia (MCG) students to do their clinical training at Albany’s Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital would mean about a dozen new doctors-in-training arriving here as early as the fall of 2010, says Dr. Douglas Patten, Phoebe’s senior vice president of medical affairs.
The situation is ripe with potential. “Physicians have a greater tendency to practice where they train,” Patten says. “And this moves into the second part of this relationship with MCG. If we can increase the number of medical school grads, then that helps [reduce Georgia’s physician shortage]. But what also has to occur is an increase in the number [in] post-graduate training, residencies.”
Phoebe is actively working toward getting those residencies, and the hospital is armed with a strong argument built on cost savings. With enough available space to accommodate new resident physicians, the facility expenses would be minimal, Patten says. “In terms of bang for your buck, the ability to expand medical education using clinical campuses like ours, where the existing hospital framework and the faculty framework is there … you have very little capital outlay, and you get a great return with a small investment.”
Like all of Albany’s businesses and industries, the effect of new doctors locating here would radiate into the surrounding counties, all underserved by physicians and most of them among the poorest in Georgia.
“Estimates are that on an annual basis across all specialties, per physician, the economic impact is over $1 million annually. So, populating these counties around here that are short of physicians will not only improve access to healthcare, but will also be an economic engine in each of these locations,” Patten says.
The MCG-Phoebe partnership is part of a plan to triple the state’s annual physician production. But the hospital already is a leading contributor to the low doctor-patient ratios enjoyed by Albany citizens. Dougherty County ranks among the top 10 best counties in the state in those ratios in the practices of internal medicine, OB/GYN and general surgery.
No one was more interested in the MCG move than Dr. Willie Adams, an OB/GYN practitioner who also is Albany’s mayor. “I know that a doctor’s office can create jobs and boost the local office,” Adams says. “And too we know that retirees weigh heavily the availability of healthcare as they measure a community. And healthcare is an important component for business and industrial prospects looking for a location. It all fits together, and Albany is a healthcare leader in this part of Georgia.”
Last fall when Albany Technical College President Anthony Parker was touring Pacific military installations to study logistics needs, he met a Marine sergeant who was injured in Iraq when his Humvee struck a mine.
“He spent seven or eight months in the hospital but he is good as new now and he’s back on active duty,” Parker says. “His story gave me a feeling for what our part is to make sure that young man and his comrades had all of the equipment they needed to do well and be as safe as they can possibly be. To think that some of that equipment could have been brought up to speed right here in Albany, Georgia, makes you realize we, too, have a job to do in furthering the mission of those fighting Marines.”
Parker’s job is to make sure his college is providing the training needed by Albany’s Marine Corps Logistics Base (MCLB). “Right now we educate about 60 logisticians a quarter at the diploma or associate degree level,” he says. “The curriculum was developed by a Department of Defense expert who is a retired logistician that works full time at MCLB now.”
Parker’s current goal is to deliver more logistics training using online and DVD teaching aids, in concert with traditional teaching methods, to expand enrollment up to 500 people a quarter. “We want more troops in the pipeline,” he says.
To keep that pipeline full, Albany Tech has joined with Albany State University to offer coursework that can carry a student all the way to the master’s level in supply chain- and logistics-related degrees. For its part, Albany Tech will be depending on the legislature to pass a budget that includes some $10 million for the renovation of a donated building to house the planned Logistics Education Center, which would be a critical part of future training plans to meet the needs of the Marine Base mission.
“There are also opportunities for these students to apply their degrees and training in the private sector,” Parker says.
And they are sorely needed at the Marine Base.
“The operations here have increased over the past three to five years,” says Colonel Christian Hali-day, MCLB’s commanding officer.
Much of the growth is related to Marine Corps missions in Iraq and Afghanistan – and to the changing face of combat. “When they de-signed, for example, Humvees, years ago, they didn’t envision them being used in an environment such as we see overseas.” Haliday says. “When we found ourselves confronting the enemy that we are confronting over in Iraq, the Humvees were vulnerable.”
That led to a demand for better armor on the vehicles, Haliday says. Maintenance Center Albany, a part of the Marine Corps Logistics Command, was given the job of de-signing and producing the improved armor protection. To expedite that task, MCLB became a manufacturing center, building armor “kits” that are shipped to Marines overseas.
All of what occurs at this Marine Base is of keen interest to local economic developers, for one very good reason. An economic impact study published recently by MCLB showed that in 2006 the installation was responsible for more than $1 billion in expenditures for civilian and military salaries and retirement, and in construction and other contract and procurement costs.
Not all that money lands in southwest Georgia, base officials point out, but enough does to make this one of the region’s most potent economic forces, and one that is likely to be around for a while. Tens of millions of dollars are going into renovations and new building projects on the base, including the replacement of 250 family housing units. The base is more than 50 years old and is showing its age. The march of technology long ago passed the facility’s infrastructure and upgrades are either under way or planned. All of this is a signal to local economic developers that the Pentagon has plans for its Albany base.
When MCLB survived the last round of Pentagon base closings, locals watched intently for signs that the facility was planning for a long relationship with its host, and they feel they have it. “The replacement of the housing, the ongoing construction and infrastructure upgrades, and the intensification of MCLB’s mission are sending a message that this base has a role to play for years to come,” Sinyard says. “Seeing all this activity at an economic engine that puts more than one-half billion dollars into southwest Georgia is nothing but good news for Albany and southwest Georgia.”
The base’s 400-plus military personnel and 2,500 civilian workers are one half of an important government-manufacturing tandem that brackets Albany’s diverse economy, and in many ways keeps it healthy. Government employment comprises about one-fourth of all the jobs here, and goods-producing companies about the same. So it’s good news for the community when both sectors show robust vital signs.
One Albany goods producer for the new home and housing renovation markets has carved out a niche that seems impervious to even the most severe downturns in those sectors. ACMI, Inc., has become the woodworker to the stars, providing architectural moldings and hand-carved appointments to the libraries and salons of the rich and famous. “We cater to the $3 million and up [homeowner] market,” says Reed Mitchell, president of ACMI. “They tend to be not so affected by swings in the economy.”
While Mitchell is tightlipped about his client list, published accounts have listed his company as a major contractor in the reconstruction of the Cloister on Sea Island, as well as current projects on that storied isle’s Beach Club North residences and the Frederica Golf Club in Frederica Township. When Mitchell bought into ACMI in 1993, he had to take some drastic measures to get his company into the narrow market he saw as a key to the future.
“I fired every customer we had,” Mitchell recalls. He then sat down with a map and drew a 400-mile circle around Albany, and ended up striking Georgia’s capital city from ACMI’s prospect hunting grounds. “I realized real quick that Atlanta was not the market we were looking for,” he says. At about the same time, he got a call to do interior work on a Sea Island home, and learned something he already knew: A commitment to quality and meeting deadlines can generate word-of-mouth business.
“The client base I’m working with now is basically repeat business. These people have three and four homes. They are always buying and building bigger and better homes.” And they tell admiring visitors to those homes the name of the virtuoso who crafted the woodwork.
Mitchell’s narrow niche marketing ideas have worked well. Since taking the helm, he has seen ACMI’s employees grow from 10 to 40, all of whom are enjoying up to 35 hours of overtime in many weeks. The company’s success has caught the eye of the Albany-Dougherty Economic De-velopment Commission, whose members last March named ACMI the 2008 Small Business of the Year.
AMCI isn’t the only local company adding employees to the payroll. In the last eight months three leading Albany manufacturers announced the addition of new jobs for expansion and the introduction of new products. Miller Brewing is adding Foster’s Beer to its array of beverages; Procter and Gamble is adding a new tissue and towel converting line, and 30 new jobs; and Cooper Tire is bringing in an additional 100 new employees as it begins to roll out a new tire line.
But leaders here say this city has also benefited from unwelcome trends that bypassed the local economy. “We were not a part of the wild roller coaster ride the national housing market has been on,” says Andrea Schruijer, vice president of the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission. “And our stable housing market has contributed to Albany having the lowest cost of living of any urban area in Georgia. In addition, we are a regional health center, and those two factors continue to help attract retirees here. But those two features of life here also attract businesses and industries.”
And, says Schruijer, Albany sits on the Floridan aquifer, a freshwater ocean, an important factor in recruiting new industry. “I think we also benefit from our diverse economic base,” she says. “If there should be a downturn in one sector, that can be offset by the collective strengths of the other sectors.”
Albany/Dougherty County At-A-Glance
Albany (county seat), 75,335, Dougherty County, 94,773
Dougherty County, 6.1 percent; Georgia, 5.3 percent
Per Capita Income
Dougherty County $26,079; Georgia, $30,914
Top 10 Manufacturers
Procter & Gamble, 1,394; Cooper Tire & Rubber, 1,290; Miller Brewing Company, 642; Coats and Clark, 496; Masterfoods USA, 272; Southern Concrete Construction Co., Inc., 225; Georgia-Pacific Corp., 185; Tara Food, 145; Sunnyland Farms, Inc., 130
Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Dept. of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau