Central: Making Progress

While Central Georgia has certainly lost jobs and industry during this economic downturn, in many counties new businesses have moved in, companies have expanded and prospects continue to arrive. To help shake off the economic doldrums, county officials throughout Middle Georgia are celebrating the opening of everything from a bio-energy plant to a distillery.

CARBO Ceramics in Wilkinson County makes ceramic pellets used in the oil industry. The company is in the middle of a $62-million expansion that will double its capacity from two production lines to four, adding hundreds of temporary construction jobs and 45 to 50 full-time employees once it is complete. The first new line will be up and running in the second quarter of 2011, with the second line following in the third quarter.

“We’re holding on to what we have,” Ralph Staffins, economic development director at the Development Authority of Wilkinson County and president of the Wilkinson County Chamber of Commerce, says about the economic situation in the area. He adds that they saw more business prospects in the last quarter of 2010 than in the previous 18 months combined.

Another area that saw business picking up toward the end of 2010 is Houston County. Little League South-east Regional Headquarters and the first Southeast Regional Tournament games moved to Houston County last year, bringing baseball and softball fans with it. The tournament was better for the area economically than anticipated, says Morgan Law, executive director of the Houston County Devel-opment Authority, and should grow over the years.

The people of Macon County are grateful to have had “no major closings during the downturn,” Jimmy Davis, executive director of the Macon County Chamber of Commerce, says. In addition, a local farmer and entrepreneur has put together a new soybean processing plant for making biodiesel. The plant was set to open in March with 10 to 15 employees at the outset.

Local farmers in Irwin County are working to build a cotton gin, which would offer 10 permanent jobs and 30 seasonal jobs, says Hazel McCranie, president of the Ocilla-Irwin Chamber of Commerce. The expansion of the Irwin County Detention Center will double the number of jobs there.

Jones County and adjacent Baldwin County both hope to benefit from the new Georgia Distilling Co., a micro-distillery that will open in an old cannery in the spring. In addition to offering 20 to 25 jobs, the company took over a building that had been vacant for 15 years.

A second new business, NFI Installations, opened in Jones County in 2010, in the new Griswoldville Industrial Park. The company and its 40 employees provide services to coal-fired plants.

These new employees will be able to shop in nearby Baldwin County at Kroger, which is scheduled to open in a new location around Labor Day with 70 to 100 employees.

A prison also broke ground in Milledgeville last August. When it opens it will bring approximately 300 jobs to the area.

While Ben Hill County lost a major trailer manufacturing company, contributing to the above-average unemployment, residents saw some good news when the company was replaced by three different trailer manufacturers. In addition, Decker Energy Inter-national is recycling wood waste into biomass to produce energy. “Don’t call it waste,” Fitzgerald-Ben Hill Devel-opment Authority Economic Director John H. Flythe says. “To them [Decker Energy], it’s raw materials.”

In other good news, economic developers are talking to an undisclosed data company about moving into the local business park.

Ben Hill County has not cornered the market on biomass energy. In Lamar County, Piedmont Green Power, a $160-million biomass plant for generating electricity, hosted a groundbreaking in January and will come online at the end of 2012. The plant will bring in 300 construction jobs and 24 permanent jobs. In other efforts to boost the area’s employment figures, officials are finishing up development of Legacy Industrial Park; Piedmont Renewable Power and General Pro-techt Group U.S., Inc. have already committed to locate in the park.

Biomass isn’t the only alternative energy source making inroads in Georgia. In Laurens County, solar panels manufacturer MAGE SOLAR opened in early 2010 with 350 jobs. Cal Wray, vice president of economic development for the Dublin-Laurens County Development Authority, says the company is expecting to add another 65 this year.

That’s just one of the developments helping to keep unemployment steady in the area. An expansion at the veterans hospital, which added 150 jobs last year and should add 50 to 100 jobs this year, also has helped.

“Activity has been good this year,” says Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Macon Economic Development Commission and the Greater Macon Chamber. “We’re pleased with our progress.” That progress included the announcement of five major projects for Bibb County in 2010, he says, including expansions at First Quality, which will add about 150 jobs when its new diaper-making facility opens in the spring, and the addition of 130 new employees at aircraft-maintenance company TIMCO.

Aviation has been good to Dodge County as well, with Middle Georgia College’s Aviation Campus in Eastman, the county seat. The college offers programs in flight, air traffic control and related areas.

In a sign of the times, Dodge and Crawford counties both boast of having had no major closings in 2010. In Crawford County, Aramark and Dow Chemical are both still going strong, says Charles Westberry, chairman of the Crawford County Development Authority. In addition, the industrial park is full and officials are looking into expansion. He credits membership in the Middle Georgia Regional Com-mission with their success. “Without the regional commission, we wouldn’t be where we are.”

Over the past few years, Hollywood has come calling in Morgan County, with scenes from the Footloose remake and Halloween II filmed here. This activity led county officials to become Camera Ready, a state designation that indicates an area is ready to work with television and film companies to streamline the production process.

But they haven’t put on their shades and gone completely to the movies. Anthony International and Rema Tip Top, both established companies in the area, are expanding – adding square footage and new jobs.

“Our successes are running contra to recessionary trends in other parts of the state,” says Fort Valley Mayor John Stumbo about his city and Peach County.

Blue Bird Corp., which has had a large presence in Fort Valley for years, recently renovated two long-idle buildings totaling 300,000 square feet into a fabrication plant to bend metal for buses. Blue Bird’s reach is long, with several of its subcontractors locating manufacturing plants or distribution warehouses in the area to provide materials for the buses.

In Putnam County they’ll be adding industry thanks to the new Rock Eagle Science Technology Park, developed in part with a $500,000 grant from the OneGeorgia Authority and in partnership with Georgia Fall Line Properties. The first tenant is already lined up, an out-of-state company that officials aren’t quite ready to disclose, says Roddie Anne Blackwell, president of the Eatonton-Putnam County Cham-ber of Commerce.

The Development Authority of Twiggs County also is developing a new 500-acre business park, according to Judy Sherling, the authority’s executive director. The idea is that it will draw businesses to counteract some of the challenges they have faced with the loss of revenue from the shrinking kaolin industry. They’ve had some good news on the expansion front: The local Academy Sports distribution center is hiring for its e-commerce department.

Last year was a good one in Dooly County, which saw a “good increase in jobs and investment,” Bob Jeter, the executive director of the Dooly Economic Development Council, says. Reeves Construction Co. and Marvair both opened in 2010. John Deere has a 57,000-square-foot superstore under construction that should open in 2011.

In Bleckley County, the story is Acuity Brands. Not only does the company still have 400 jobs there, it has also lured one of their vendors to the county, which will bring many more jobs to the area, says Kathryn Fisher, president and CEO of the Cochran-Bleckley Chamber of Commerce.

Pulaski County has become one of the University of Georgia’s Archway partners. Archway is a program that provides the resources of UGA to help tackle issues facing local communities throughout Georgia. The county will focus on education, leadership development, community health, workforce housing, government service delivery and economic development.

A OneGeorgia grant, among other grants, is helping with the $5-million redevelopment of an old cotton mill into the Hawkinsville Cotton Mill Lofts, which will provide affordable riverfront housing, a community market and river walk.

In May 2010, Telfair County was announced as a Certified Work Ready Community, with 516 Work Ready Certificates earned and an increase in graduation rates from 73.8 percent to 78.5 percent.

The Telfair County Chamber of Commerce and the Development Authority of Telfair County are working to bring a healthcare center to the area this year to provide affordable care to the county and surrounding communities.

Across Central Georgia people are working through this down economy to bring jobs, increase education opportunities and hold on until the business climate turns around again.

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features