Banking On Economic Development

Immediately after Luke Morgan graduated from the University of Georgia in 1975 with his business degree in hand, he returned to Douglas, the small town in Coffee County where he was raised.

“I’ve never regretted it,” says Morgan, executive vice president of the Douglas National Bank. “I don’t really care for the traffic, the hustle-bustle. Even though we used to know everyone in town and don’t anymore, the atmosphere hasn’t changed all that much.”

Maybe the atmosphere hasn’t changed, but Douglas certainly has and Morgan is a big part of it. “I started working at the Farmer’s Bank right out of college,” he says. “It was expected that you become involved in community leadership.”

His business leadership – he worked in real estate and helped found the Douglas National Bank – as well as his involvement with the chamber of commerce led to him being tapped for his current position, president of the Economic Development Authority.

Morgan says civic involvement on the part of small, medium and large business owners is how projects are accomplished in rural communities. “It takes the banks and the people who work there, the developers, to get behind community projects to make things go,” he says.

In addition to leadership, Morgan’s experience taught him that there are three key elements to the success of a county development authority: trust, appreciation and continuity.

“The state knew we had some early successes and the project managers never worried about sending a prospect to us,” he says. “They had total trust in our community’s ability to work a project.”

Additionally, the local community could count on the buy-in of other businesses to support development projects. “We showed a lot of appreciation to our existing businesses and they, in turn, supported what we were trying to do,” he says. “We also had tremendous continuity on our board. There have been people involved in economic development in this community for a very long time. And our chamber of commerce runs leadership programs to continue to bring in new faces, younger people.”

That foundation of trust, appreciation and continuity began in the 1950s when Coffee County became one of the first in the state to develop an urban renewal plan. “Our leaders knew early on that they needed to diversify our agriculture-based economy,” Morgan says. In 1956, city and county leaders decided to go after a matching urban renewal grant, but they had to raise $250,000 first. They did it in just two weeks.

“It was a grassroots campaign,” Morgan says. “School kids raised money; there were pledges from businesses.”

In 1957, Coffee County citizens voted to use a portion of their local taxes to support economic development. In 1959, the Georgia legislature ratified the creation of the Douglas-Coffee Industrial Authority, now the Economic Development Authority.

To both celebrate and renew its 50-year commitment to community service, the EDA launched a $2 million capital campaign in November 2008, the Leadership, Excellence, and Progress (LEaP) Campaign, which will provide funds for industrial parks, a spec building, and workforce development.

The EDA plans to leverage money raised through LEaP with approximately $18 million in grants and other identified sources. It’s a large task for a county with a population of just over 40,000. But Morgan believes firmly that now is the time to grow. “The success Douglas and Coffee County has seen these last five decades is a reminder of just how important leadership is to our future,” he says. “The current downturn in the economy is no reason for us to sit idle. Now, more than ever, we must plan for the future.”

Morgan looks to the past to illustrate his point. “So many people in this town care about the community,” he says. “Without the vision of the leaders in the early 1950s we never would have grown our industrial base. I’m not saying we don’t have our problems, but our city and county governments meet once a quarter to cultivate an atmosphere of collaboration and we’ve outgrown Tifton and Waycross because of it. And we’re not even on an interstate!”

Categories: Influential Georgians