Southwest: Encouraging Signs

Despite an economy that just can’t seem to shake the recession blues, spring 2010 finds economic developer Bruce Drennan in an upbeat mood. He’s about to see a project seven years in the making finally come to fruition. Construc-tion is scheduled to start later this year on the Cordele Intermodal Center (CIC), a $43 million project that is expected to serve as a much-needed stimulus to the economy of the entire southwest Georgia region.

Drennan, executive director of the Cordele-Crisp Industrial Development Council, says CIC is an inland distribution facility that will provide companies a faster and cheaper way to ship goods to and from Georgia’s bustling Port of Savannah.

“This is very much a regional project,” Drennan says. “We expect to see as many as 3,000 to 4,000 jobs created over the next five years. Our studies found that a similar operation in Virginia generated around 15,000 jobs over 20 years.”

The Cordele facility will serve companies within a 350-400 mile radius. Cargo will come to the center by truck, be placed in containers and shipped to the port by rail. Conversely, cargo will come from the port by rail to Cordele and then be distributed by truck. “We’ll offer shippers a big savings in time and money,” says Drennan. “They’ll save time and money by not having to have trucks spend hours waiting at the busy port to load and unload and save more money because we can ship four to five containers by rail for what it costs to ship one container by truck.”

The facility will be located on a large site near I-75. “We’ve purchased about 200 acres to start and have another 600 acres under option,” Drennan says. “We wanted the extra land for private investment, for warehousing, distribution centers. … That’s what will bring the jobs.”

Drennan says the Intermodal Center will start shipping containers by the third quarter, and nine companies are already lined up to use the facility when it opens. About 100 jobs will be created when the center opens.

“Hopeful” is a word being used a lot by economic developers in a region still trying to recover from job losses brought on by the closing of several major plants over the past two years. For some of the 24 counties in the region, “economic growth” just doesn’t come into the conversation for 2010. The bigger population centers like Valdosta report good prospects for the future, while smaller counties are banking on expanding small businesses and the somewhat recession-proof agriculture industry.

Valdosta-Lowndes County has been, as one neighboring county official says, the region’s “shining star” for several years. Two years ago, Valdosta-Lowndes was enjoying record growth, but a lingering bad economy began to take its toll in 2009.

“We lost some 200 jobs when two manufacturers closed, but in many respects 2009 was still a good year,” says Vicki Hughes, director of marketing and existing industry for the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority. “We added 172 new jobs and were able to retain 450 jobs.”

The county also has several projects getting under way in 2010, including a $120 million power plant fueled by clean wood waste being built by Wiregrass Power LLC. With an eye on future growth, the industrial authority is adding two new industrial parks – one 430 acres, the other 157 acres – to the six it already has developed. Infrastructure work is scheduled to start this year.

A relatively strong agriculture-related economy and a convenient I-75 location have been factors in helping Tift County weather some of the downturn. “The past two years have been tough, but 2010 has gotten off to a good start,” says Brad Day, executive director of the Tifton-Tift County Economic Develop-ment Authority. He’s referring to the day in January when Tift celebrated the announcements of a new company locating in the area and a big expansion by an existing industry.

Mississippi-headquartered Merchants Foodservice is opening a food distribution center that will employ 160, and Bold Formulators, a crop protection chemicals company, is expanding and adding 100 employees.

Count Ted Clem among those happy to see 2009 over. “It was a tough year, but we survived,” says Clem, president of the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission. “I hope and expect 2010 to be a much better year.”

Last year, the area had to deal with the loss of more than 2,000 jobs from the closing of the huge Cooper Tire plant. The community hasn’t been able to replace very many of those jobs, “but we’ve seen a number of local businesses expanding,” Clem says. One of those is Coats & Clark, the sewing and needlecraft products manufacturer, which is relocating its North American distribution hub to Albany and adding 25 jobs.

Expansions were also the news for nearby Turner County. “The local economy was tough in 2009. … We had nothing new, but fortunately we did have local expansions and more are scheduled this year,” says Shelley Zorn, president of the Ashburn-Turner County Chamber of Commerce.

Zorn says she does see good signs for growth. “We’re in a joint development authority with Cook, Tift and Worth counties, and at our last meeting we all had prospects. Last year at this time we did not.”

“Steadily slow. That’s about all I can say about our economy right now,” says Dan Bollinger, executive director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Commis-sion. The commission keeps track of the economic health of 14 counties, many rural.

Over the past two to three years, several big plants closed, and the area hasn’t been able to recover those jobs. “Unemployment is still high, but I think we have seen the end of job losses and will start growing again soon,” Bollinger says.

Despite problems in other segments of the economy, Bollinger says the area’s “agricultural business has held its own. Generally, both farmers and processors are doing well.”

In Worth County, “Things seem to be fairly stable at the present,” says Greg Sellars, executive director of the county’s economic development au-thority. “Our businesses are still hurting,” he says, “but we started 2010 stronger and are working four good projects – two local expansions, one regional and one new facility that could mean a good number of jobs. I’m excited about what we have in the works.”

Because of its growing retiree population, Lee County is one of the state’s wealthiest counties and can count on its retail sector to boost its economy. That will continue in 2010, says Winston Oxford, executive director of the Lee County Development Authority. “We have a new Publix-anchored complex scheduled to open in the third quarter along with a new pharmacy and a new bank.”

Also for 2010, Oxford says, “We’ve sold a 14-acre site in the park for a distribution center that will add 75-80 jobs. I wouldn’t say everything’s great, but things are happening and we are moving ahead.”

Mitchell County is “still hungry for jobs,” but development authority executive director Marilyn Royal says she “remains optimistic” that things will get better by the end of the year. “We have a great market here, we’re Entrepre-neur Friendly and Work Ready, so when the economy turns upward we should be attractive to potential companies.”

Royal would like to see more alternative energy companies like First United Ethanol LLC (FUEL) locate to the county. Despite some problems brought on by economic conditions, FUEL is “doing great,” Royal says. “We’re proud of the company and what it’s doing to help our farmers.” FUEL, which uses corn to produce ethanol, is scheduled to open a plant to sell raw carbon dioxide this summer.

In the far southwest corner of the region, Don Sims, president of the Thomasville-Thomas County Chamber of Commerce, says his county hasn’t been unscathed by the down economy, but, “We have been surprised by our resiliency. We have 122 manufacturing industries, and by and large they have hung in there. We’ve seen layoffs, but unemployment seems to have settled and we’re doing better than the state as a whole.”

For 2010, Sims can look forward to the fall opening of the headquarters of Senior Life, a Thomasville-based life insurance company that he says “has grown from a small business into a big company.” The 40,000-square-foot headquarters building represents a $9 million investment and will add some 200 jobs. Another big project scheduled to open in 2010 is Archbold Medical Center’s new 42,000-square-foot oncology center.

“Once we get over this hump with the economy, I’m very optimistic about better times ahead for our area of the state,” Sims says.

In Early County, the community’s aggressive economic development ef-forts have been hurt by the economy, but “we are hopeful 2010 will be a good year,” says Lisa Collins, director of economic development for Early County 2055, the nonprofit organization that coordinates economic development efforts for the county and city of Blakely.

Last year, the county’s second grocery store opened, creating 50 jobs. “That’s not a big deal in a lot of places, but it’s a huge success in a community of 5,000,” Collins says.

“We’ve had a few setbacks, but we’ve been able to rebound and 2010 looks very promising,” Collins says. “We refuse to give up.”

Categories: Opinions