Northeast: Link To The Future

Without question, 2009 was a miserable year for the state, national and planetary economies. But a group of economic developers in Northeast Georgia will remember the year a bit differently.

“I think 2009 will go down in history as the watershed year when we actually did something that will help business in this area for generations, far into the future,” says Charlie Auvermann, executive director of the Development Au-thority of Dawson County.

In December, Vice President Joe Biden visited Dawsonville to an-nounce a $33 million federal stimulus grant for a 260-mile fiber-optic Internet network that Auvermann and his partners in the North Georgia Network (NGN) Cooperative believe will create 800 jobs directly (up to 21,000 indirectly) during construction, laying the foundation for economic growth across the region.

“We haven’t begun to realize what this will mean and the economic activity it will create,” says Bruce Abraham, executive director of the Lumpkin County Devel-opment Authority.

Under Abraham’s direction, economic development agencies in Dawson, Habersham, Lumpkin, Union and White counties partnered with Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, Habersham EMC and North Georgia College and State University to create NGN, which used a OneGeorgia Au-thority grant for preliminary studies.

When stimulus money became available through the Broadband Tech-nology Opportunities Program (BTOP), administered by the National Telecom-munications and Information Admin-istration (NTIA), “We just decided to be audacious,” Abraham says.

State and local funding will contribute to the $42 million system, which will provide broadband access throughout the upper portion of the Northeast Georgia region (Fannin, Rabun and Towns counties, in addition to the NGN counties).

“Where you’ll see an immediate impact is with existing businesses and entrepreneurs,” says Tom O’Bryant, di-rector of community and economic development for White County.

Some of those entrepreneurs pack-ed into the Nacoochee Tavern & Piz-zeria (which opened in September outside of Helen) for a recent White County Chamber of Commerce reception. These were mostly small business owners, many of them dependent on tourist dollars.

There’s Hue Rainey, who opened his Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards tasting room on Halloween 2009 and who chairs the Helen Chamber of Com-merce board; there’s Joe Smith, owner of Serenity Cellars and winemaker for Yonah Mountain Vineyards; there’s John Boyes, owner of The Vines Rest-aurant and president of the Winegrow-ers of White.

And there’s Sheilah Welsch, who opened InsideOut Sautee, a decorative arts and home furnishings store, with an art gallery upstairs. Yonah Mountain Vineyards has a tasting room, and Elfmade Wooden Toys (made from recycled wood) occupies space on either side of Welsch’s store, in the building her husband Steve Welsch constructed.

“Small businesses are what sustain us, not just in White County, but across the country,” says Judy Walker, president of the White County Chamber of Commerce.

“In my job, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing an individual take their passion and turn it into a successful business.”

In May, a partnership of small businesses, InsideOut Sautee and Yonah Mountain Vineyards, will present the first Taste of Sautee, a two-day festival featuring fine wines, food, art and music. In April, the first White County Cork & Keg Festival will offer a taste of craft-brewed beers, local wines and food to raise money for the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association’s (SNCA) summer story play, Head-waters: Birth, Death and Places in Between.

In Clarkesville, the Habersham County seat, Downtown Coordinator Lane Gresham is working to attain Georgia Main Street/Better Hometown status, while building a sense of community.

“It’s been a tough year for the economy all over, and people here are hungry for something more positive,” says Gresham, who last year organized community movie nights in Pitts Park on the banks of the Soque River. The city’s passage of a liquor-by-the-drink ordinance last year opens up new opportunities for the historic downtown area, Gresham says.

With the proliferation of vineyards and tasting rooms, the art galleries and shops, and live entertainment options, cultural- and agricultural-tourism continued to loom large in Northeast Georgia.

“It’s what we do best,” O’Bryant says. “And we want to continue to build on that, to diversify and enhance the tourism experience.”

Over in Franklin County they produce another story play, Land of Spirit, in Lavonia. This summer’s production, subtitled Ahhhhhh Shot in the Arm, is all about healing. The timing couldn’t be better – Ty Cobb Healthcare System is partnering with NGTC Health Prop-erties to build a regional hospital in Lavonia, replacing aging facilities in Royston and Hartwell. The investment could reach $70 million, says Franklin County Industrial Building Authority Director of Economic Development Lyn Brumby Allen.

Healthcare expansion was huge in Hall County, too. Last year the $180 million North Patient Tower opened on the Northeast Georgia Medical Center campus, and the system acquired a 119-acre site for a planned $200 million hospital/healthcare village in South Hall. The county also had $107 million in capital investment from 26 different new and expanding industries.

Across the region there was plenty of bad news, and most counties worked to secure stimulus money to energize some forward momentum.

In Rabun County, Sky Valley Resort & Country Club closed its golf course, and Waterfall Country Club’s developer declared bankruptcy. But the county received $1.2 million of stimulus to make improvements on Old Highway 441.

Oglethorpe County is using stimulus money and a Georgia Department of Transportation grant to renovate the 1840s-era depot in Crawford – it will continue as home of the chamber of commerce and become a community events facility.

Banks County is using $2.8 million in stimulus money for a water treatment plant. At the I-85 Banks Crossing interchange, a movie theater has been added at Tanger Outlets, and a Fairfield Inn was under construction. The county is trying to secure stimulus money to extend sewer service to an undeveloped industrial park on I-85 north of Banks Crossing.

Fannin County is looking to enter the water business – hoping to obtain funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Fannin County Water Authority expects to break ground on new water lines in 2011.

Bubba Foods (maker of the Bubba Burger) broke ground on a $2.7 million, 40,000-square-foot freezer, creating 30 new jobs in Elbert County, where Star Granite opened a new bronze foundry and Athens Technical College broke ground on a $5.1 million facility.

Shane Short, who is president of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, reports that ALDI Group has begun building its $45 million, 500,000 square-foot facility.

Columbia Farms began production at its new $25 million feed mill in Madison County, where Superior Shavings set up shop in 2009.

In Athens/Clarke County, Pilgrim’s Pride closed one of its two chicken processing plants, but many of the 330 workers were offered jobs in the sister facility across the street, or in the Commerce, Elberton or Gainesville plants.

“It was the first year in many that we did not enjoy a dramatic upsurge in business,” says Drew Page, retiring president of the Athens-Clarke Coun-ty Economic Development Founda-tion. “But it hasn’t been a total loss. We’ve had some interesting things happen.”

The Medical College of Georgia/ University of Georgia Medical Partner-ship campus was dedicated in 2009. Classes start this year. ArtBio is building a corporate campus to attract new life science industry, and in downtown Athens, the environmentally friendly, LEED-certified Hotel Indigo opened with 130 rooms.

Additionally, a Sleep Inn hotel opened in Athens, and over in Oconee County a new SpringHill Suites by Marriott is open.

In Greene County, Rabco Products Corporation moved into a new 33,000-square-foot facility at the industrial park, and construction on the new charter school progressed toward its May completion date.

In Hart County, AgStrong announc-ed it would open a new $5 million oilseed processing plant, and Fenner Dunlop started making conveyor belts and transfer systems in its new $54 million facility.

Government grant money is being used to build a terminal at R.G. Le-Tourneau Airfield in Stephens County and to improve Toccoa’s sewer system. Meanwhile, Wilbros Organic Recycl-ing is investing $4 million and plans to create at least 80 jobs.

In Towns County, Blue Ridge Moun-tain EMC (BRMEMC) is developing a new campus, which Erik Brinke, the company’s director of economic development, says will use energy-efficient geothermal heating and be completed in 2011 for $15 to $20 million. Young Harris College (in the midst of a multi-million dollar strategic plan) is installing a solar power array that will generate just under a megawatt in electricity.

“But the big news for Towns County, and this entire region, is the North Georgia Network,” Brinke says.

Union County Development Author-ity Executive Director Mitch Griggs is inclined to agree.

“Of the 2,200 applications received by the NTIA, the NGN project was ranked No. 1 nationally,” says Griggs.

In Lumpkin County, a new Dah-lonega water plant is coming on line, and Gold Creek Foods is moving into the former Mohawk Industries plant. Bruce Abraham says it could mean the creation of 1,000 jobs in time, “if everything goes right.”

Abraham is trying to remain grounded in the present while pondering the possibilities of what may happen with the super-speed broadband network he is helping to build for Northeast Georgia.

“The way I see it is, we’ve got to be good ancestors,” he says. “Our parents’ generation built the interstate highway system. We’ve got to leave something for our kids. I think this network is the highway of the future.”

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