Northwest: Looking Ahead

After a couple years of plant closings, particularly in the carpet industry, and unemployment in some areas topping 20 percent, there are encouraging signs in North-west Georgia. Counties’ economic development executives spent the year honing strategic marketing directions and readying infrastructure for the day when new businesses again will come courting. Some already have.

Overall, the economy in North-west Georgia is “mixed,” says Al Hodge, president and CEO of the Greater Rome Chamber of Com-merce in Floyd County. “Unemploy-ment is still too high and folks are looking forward. Pirelli expanded, and we saw significant capital investment in other places. We have a couple of companies looking here already.”

In fact, Pirelli added 15 new jobs, Belgium-based Bekaert added 20, and Southeastern Mill is expected to bring 20 new jobs this year. Also on tap is the new $13.6 million Tennis Center of Georgia, which will bring 74 professional courts to Berry Col-lege and an estimated 240 full- and part-time jobs.

Funding is still dependent on some state assistance, but the chamber says the center could host 20 tournaments a year, filling 45,000 to 50,000 hotel beds a year. All things falling into place financially, it could open in 2011.

In addition, construction is starting on the Armuchee Connector, a 2.2-mile two-lane rural and four-lane urban connector. The Harbin Clinic is set to build a $15 million three-story comprehensive cancer center near the Floyd Medical Center.

Brian Anderson, president and CEO of the Dalton-Whitfield County Cham-ber of Commerce, says despite severe cutbacks in the carpet industry, the county and its workforce is “boastfully proud of being a manufacturing center. Our workers easily adapt to the manufacturing process. Yes, our carpet industry has matured and the landscape changed but it is still important. There are other manufacturing plants that want our talent – chemical plants, plastics, aviation firms. There’s more than just service jobs out there.”

Last year, IVC US Inc., an arm of the Belgium-based IVC Group, chose Dal-ton for its first U.S.-based manufacturing operation, with plans to begin production in 2011 on the longest vinyl line in the world. The firm will invest some $70 million to construct a new 520,000-square-foot facility that will produce 5,000 sheet miles of vinyl floor coverings each year. The company will also create 115 new jobs. “We’re smiling,” says Anderson.

Adairsville, in Bartow County, saw 40 new jobs added to its Yanmar manufacturing plant.

Of course, potentially the biggest economic driver in the area hasn’t yet started up – the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the German carmaker intends to build midsize sedans. Announced in 2008, the $1 billion plant should open in 2011 and directly bring 2,000 jobs to the area. It’s the “indirect” jobs that also interest the Northwest Georgia counties.

David Tidmore, president of the Chattooga County Chamber of Com-merce, says his county is all set to be a Tier 2 supplier. “We’re in that radius, and we have two city-owned industrial parks. We definitely think we’ll get some businesses coming in to service Volkswagen,” when the new plant opens in Chattanooga.

Martha Eaker, president of the Catoosa County Chamber of Com-merce, points out that her community is 15 minutes from the plant. “We are excited and expect many piggyback suppliers will locate here. There’s a lot of talk but we don’t have any idea of what’s coming.”

Gordon County sees opportunities as a Tier 2 and 3 supplier. “I see a lot of activity coming our way,” says Jimmy Phillips, president of the Gordon County Chamber of Commerce. “Our skilled workforce will be able to handle anything – parts, plastics. I figure we’ll start seeing some action soon.”

Jennie English, president and CEO of the Haralson County Chamber of Commerce, says county officials “spent some time sitting back and doing some soul searching. We looked hard at our infrastructure and re-evaluated our sewers, roads. We looked at how we can become better stewards of our re-sources. The last couple of years were hard, but we are ready. We’ve done some planning and made improvements. We also are working more closely with the other counties to just bring business to the region.”

Anderson agrees that county development officials “have gotten more serious and racheted up” economic development efforts. “We did a plan in 2005 that laid the foundation for our efforts, but we hired an economic professional with the skill sets that we needed in late ‘09,” he says. “We spent time asking how do we compete. Who should we target? The economy has changed the landscape for growth, so how do we re-tool? It’s been rough, but it’s also been enlightening.”

Walker County, which has an option on 500 acres of land for a potential industrial park complete with fiber optics in place, is getting ready for business. “We believe it will help push us toward a different type of client base – not manufacturing but more warehouse, distribution, logistics,” says Keith Barclift, project manager for the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority.

Chattooga County has no four-lane access to an interstate, “and a lot of companies are scared of that,” says the chamber’s Tidmore. His organization is working to develop Highway 140 to link up with Highway 27 and Interstate 75. “We need transportation access,” he says simply.

Bartow County adopted a “defensive playbook,” says Melinda Lemmon, ex-ecutive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Eco-nomic Development. “We did things that would make us an even more business-friendly environment,” she says. “For instance, there are no impact fees in the City of Cartersville, and most of our cities don’t charge property taxes at all. We became Certified Workforce Ready and we improved our sewer lines. We’re a Metro Atlanta county with water.”

Throughout the region, small business, real estate and retail took big hits in 2009, and that doesn’t show signs of improving. “It’s not been the best year or two,” admits Eric McDonald of the Polk County Chamber of Commerce. “We’re starting to see the people who were laid off losing their unemployment or their medical benefits and really cutting back. Small businesses are treading water.”

Tidmore agrees. “So many small businesses are in survival mode. We’ve lost some small shops. Another segment that’s struggling is the car dealerships. No one’s buying a new car.”

Real estate, particularly residential, and the trickle-down effect – everything from the construction jobs themselves to retail operations that sell to homebuyers – have suffered. “We’ve been hit hard by the real estate debacle,” says Paige Green, president and CEO of the Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce. “We sell a lot of second and vacation homes, and a lot of people depend on that real estate business and the building industry. That’s the hardest hit in the county. Getting the real estate market back would be the best thing for us.”

Construction is slow in Bartow County. “That segment has been hurt and continues to be going into 2010,” says Lemmon. “But companies are be-ing creative and responding to customer’s needs by thinking outside the box. I’ve seen competitive bids be more competitive than ever. It’s amazing what these companies will do to keep their doors open.”

Counties are working closely with schools and businesses to improve the schools, particularly the dropout rates.

“Sure it’s [the high dropout rate] a drawback to attracting businesses, but we’ve been working on it,” says Dinah Rowe, president of the Chatsworth-Murray Chamber of Commerce. “Our dropout rates have gone down 10 points. It’s about 28 to 30 percent.”

Eric McDonald says Polk County saw the graduation rates of African-American and Hispanic students soar from 40 percent to 70 percent over the last two years. “We have blocks of poverty, and it took real innovation in the schools to reach out to these students,” he says.

Dade County is touting its Project Synergy, which connects the worlds of education, business, government and community. “The program shows young people the need for education and to have dreams,” says Lionel Austin, president of the Dade County Chamber of Commerce.

Much of this region relies heavily on tourism. Dalton-Whitfield County is working with its convention bureau to go after historic tourism, planning to spend $600,000 on renovating a historic freight depot that will offer meeting space and serve as a visitor center. Bartow County recently opened a new civic center and plans to better market its 17 museums.

“The last few years we were really hurting,” says Haralson’s English. “I’m still worried, but I’m also optimistic.”

Others are expecting to announce new business soon. Catoosa County is eyeing a retail company that will bring 150 high-wage jobs, says Eaker. Dade County is expecting an announcement of 100 manufacturing jobs. Gordon County expects a manufacturing ex-pansion.

Perhaps Jimmy Phillips, of the Gordon County chamber, sums up the long view best. “Carpet giant Shaw Industries closed a residential carpeting manufacturing plant last year, costing 470 people their jobs,” he says. “And then Shaw turned around and remodeled and retooled the very same plant and is turning it into a filament yarn factory. We’re going to see 200 to 300 news jobs. Same company, same plant. All of that took place within a year.”

Categories: Opinions