Northwest: Silver Lining

A region that has seen plant closings, layoffs and unemployment rates as high as 20 percent, Northwest Georgia is finding some good news – even if, in more prosperous days, it might not have been considered so good.

“We went from a Tier One county to a Tier Two county,” says Eric McDonald, president of the Polk County Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority. “Our unemployment hit 20.5 percent, and our people need help. If we can knock down our poverty level by helping businesses qualify for a tax credit that other cities or towns don’t get, well, we consider that the silver lining.”

Georgia offers a tiered system of tax credits aimed at creating jobs, stimulating new private investment, supporting the retention of existing jobs and enhancing regional competitiveness through capacity-building projects. Job tax credits can range from $750 to $4,000 per job each year for five years. Tier One counties also receive additional tax benefits other counties do not.

To qualify, a county must be “located outside the boundaries of a metropolitan area with a population of 50,000 or less and with a poverty rate of 10 percent or greater,” according to OneGeorgia Authority, which annually approves the grant and credits.

Dade, Murray and Chattooga counties also saw similar silver linings.

“It’s been an unfortunately bad year in Murray County,” says Dinah Rowe, president and CEO of the Chatsworth-Murray Chamber of Commerce. “We fell from a Tier Two to a Tier One, which is good and bad. The good is that we will get more grant money and will also be able to offer prospects a higher tax credit, but it also means that our people are hurting.”

Still, the overall view is that while the worst seems to be over, the recovery may not be around the very next bend.

“I’m encouraged,” says David Tid-more, president of the Chattooga Coun-ty Chamber of Commerce. “We’re seeing a slow uptick in jobs, but that’s tempered by the state employment sector. There is a concern about state and government jobs. Jobs are coming back a little at a time, and we’re making progress.”

Mount Vernon Mills added about 80 jobs last year. “They’re at about 1,200 now, up from 1,120 from last year,” says Tidmore.

Other counties, after a few years of layoffs and plant closings, particularly in the textile sector, are seeing a similar uptick in new jobs or plants recalling laid-off workers.

In Gordon County, Shaw Industries Group and Mohawk Industries are calling back former employees after retooling their plants, says Jimmy Phillips, president of the Gordon County Cham-ber of Commerce. Shaw added 300 new jobs, and the chamber had 21 ribbon-cuttings and two groundbreaking ceremonies. The first was for LG Hausys America, which is building a 90,000-square-foot, $50-million engineered stone plant that will bring up to 80 skilled jobs; the second was the expansion of Georgia Northwest Technical College.

Engineered Floors will begin a two- to three-year $100-million expansion that will bring 500 jobs. In addition, Evco Plastics was awarded a long-term John Deere contract that will ensure job security for its workforce for the next three to five years and possibly bring new jobs.

The carpet industry in Dalton and Whitfield County seems to have stabilized, says Brian Anderson, president and CEO of the Dalton-Whitfield Cham-ber of Commerce. “We have had new technology come into the plants, which has impacted our labor force. The plants are doing more volume but with less people.”

Dalton saw 15 industries expand last year and four relocations, bringing 340 new jobs and a capital investment of $25.3 million. It has six active retail projects in its pipeline.

Optimism isn’t as high in Dade County, which is still reeling from Shaw Industries Group Inc.’s Plant 76’s closing three years ago. “We didn’t see the full impact at first, but we are now as the unemployment extensions are ending,” says Butch Raper, president of the Dade County Chamber of Com-merce. “We were a Tier Three county, but we were granted Tier One status for the Highway 11 corridor. We expect things to look up.”

Part of Raper’s enthusiasm comes from the belief that the nearby Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Volkswagen plant will be hiring more area workers. “There are press reports that Volks-wagen isn’t hiring Georgia folks, but I know they are. I think we’ll be seeing more of that in Dade County.”

Still staggering from a plant closing is Walker County, which lost 350 jobs when the Blue Bird Bus Company closed its LaFayette plant in August.

“On a positive note, I have heard from the company that about 75 percent of those workers have found new jobs or [they] went back to school,” says Keith Barclift, project manager for the Northwest Georgia Joint Economic Development Authority. Still, the plant has a “For Sale” sign in its front yard.

Unlike Dade County’s Raper, Bar-clift is becoming “increasingly frustrated” about Volkswagen. The car company, he says, has pledged to only deal with suppliers within 30 miles of its Chattanooga plant, but “we have 20 to 25 sites ready to go within that 30-mile limit and no action.”

Rome and Floyd County have had some good news lately, says Al Hodge, president and CEO of the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce. The $15-million Harbin Cancer Center opens in April. Southeastern Mills announced a $14.9-million expansion and at least 25 new jobs by 2013. FP-Pigments, a Finnish high-performance specialty paint company, will open its first U.S.-based operations in Rome and bring a $20-million investment and 20 jobs.

In addition, Temple-Inland is ex-panding, Pirelli Tire North America signed an agreement for a new plant, and Profile Extrusion is investing $6 million in equipment upgrades. “We’re fortunate to have these projects as well as others,” says Hodge.

“Our unemployment is over 10 percent. We’re not happy about that. But we are encouraged that firms that laid off workers 18 months ago are starting to call them up. “

The big news in Catoosa County was the opening of a new Costco, which was a “real boost in terms of jobs and tax revenue,” says Catoosa County Cham-ber of Commerce President Martha Eaker. “We may have a couple of major retailers coming in, and I’m still hoping in the next few years that we’ll get some spillover Volkswagen business. Overall, 2011 is going to be a little better than 2010.”

Bartow County and Cartersville had a very positive 2010, according to Melinda Lemmon, executive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Depart-ment of Economic Development. Last year, 18 new industrial projects were announced that, when fully developed, will result in a capital investment of $975.6 million and more than 1,500 new jobs.

A large part of that dollar figure involves an existing manufacturing op-eration, she says.

The company is expecting to officially announce substantial new hires and a major upgrade to its facility.

Bartow County still hasn’t “recovered from the heartache of the closing of Mohawk carpets [229 jobs lost] and Trinity Railcars [400 jobs lost],” Lemmon says. “We have had an increase in the number of businesses opening but a decrease in the number of employees working,” she says. “A lot of people are becoming entrepreneurs and starting businesses. We still have to put people back to work.”

Gilmer County saw the loss of Courier Industries and 20 jobs, but overall the county held its own. “It wasn’t a banner year, but we’re expecting the same or better for 2011. FM Stainless Fasteners will be adding an untold number of new jobs,” says Paige Green, Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce president.

The good news was that tourism was up. “We saw a lot of people from Metro Atlanta and really all over the state come to Gilmer County. I guess people were saving money by vacationing closer to home,” she says. “We have a new park, and some of our attractions are expanding.”

What is dragging the county down is the real estate market. “Second homes and retirement homes are big here, and I don’t think we will rebound in that area until Atlanta and Florida real estate get better,” she says.

It’s a struggle for Haralson County with unemployment around 11.6 percent.

“We’re looking the way we imagined we would in 2011. Foreclosures are down in December but unemployment is at 11.6, which means we have a lot of people still out of work,” says Jennie English, president and CEO of the Haralson County Chamber of Com-merce.

Putting people to work are Honda Precision Parts in Tallapoosa, which has had two job increases in six months and now has more than 420 workers, and Honda Lock in Bremen, which increased its workforce to 550.

“We have a relocation that we can’t announce yet but we’re very excited about it,” she says. “Overall, we have a lot of optimism for 2011.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features