Southeast: Ports And Highways

The year 2010 closed to mixed reviews from economic developers in the 23 counties of Southeast Georgia, with some calling for encores while the remainder showed no interest in sitting through a similar performance this year.

The region’s economy is anchored by two fast-growing ports and is enhanced by nearly 200 miles of interstate highways whose motorists spread cash among local retailers as reliably as the Atlantic tides wash the coastal shores.

Steven Weathers may be the biggest fan of the year past and all that it brought his community. It would be difficult for Weathers to subdue his rave reviews on the subject, so he doesn’t try. “The interesting challenge we’re going to have in this part of the state is how are we going to fill all of the new jobs that are going to be created in the next two or three years,” says Weathers, president and CEO of the Sa-vannah Economic Development Author-ity (SEDA). “We’re talking about 3,000 to 5,000 new jobs, which are already committed to by the likes of JCB, Mitsubishi, Gulfstream, Weyerhaeuser, International Paper and many others.”

Weathers was ticking off the names of local corporate citizens who’ve made announcements of expansions or new job hires. Word came from luxury jet manufacturer Gulfstream last fall that the company would begin a $500-million expansion, creating 1,000 new jobs. JCB products, like its high-speed military excavators, are in increasing demand by U.S. and foreign forces, creating job growth there.

More good news came when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a long-awaited draft report on the deepening of Savannah’s harbor, a critical step in the port’s ability to handle the larger ships that will come calling after 2014 when the Panama Canal completes its own deepening and widening projects. The corps hopes to get final approval within a year.

Some 76 miles down I-95 south of Savannah, economic developers in Brunswick celebrated more good news from the Savannah jet manufacturer in 2010. “News came then that Gulfstream is extending their lease at the Brunswick-Golden Isles Airport,” says Nathan Sparks, executive director of the Brunswick & Glynn County Development Authority. “They employ about 175 people and they do maintenance and completions on Gulfstream executive jets. With more production facilities coming on line in Savannah, there is an opportunity for more maintenance work here.”

And 2010 saw Glynn County’s Jered LLC make a planned move to a 70,000-square-foot building at the Brunswick-McBride Industrial Park and add 40 new jobs. Jered makes elevators for aircraft carriers and manufactures industrial cranes. The Port of Brunswick welcomed Mercedes Benz to its new 102,000-square-foot processing center. The center will handle 55,000 imports annually.

In Bryan County, a new home construction drought ended as the new year began when January groundbreaking ceremonies were held at WaterWays Township, marking the start of the first 70 homes on the 2,300-acre site. “That’s a welcome sign for the housing construction sector of our economy,” says Josh Fenn, executive director of the Development Authority of Bryan County. “We had some more good news with the arrival of Asphalt Operations, which moved into an old Georgia-Pacific sawmill that had been shuttered for 25 years. They brought about 20 jobs and made a $20-million investment.”

The county saw a $2.2-million investment made by Atlanta Gas Light to extend lines into the county’s Belfast Commerce Center. “This [Savannah] metropolitan area is obviously stronger than most of the MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas) in the state, with economic engines like the Port of Savannah and the large military presence of Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield really propping us up. For instance, we’re on track to be up 16 percent in 2010 retail sales, ahead of 2009.”

Camden County’s David Keating had some encouraging numbers of his own to share. “Our initial [2010] unemployment claims are down 20 percent from the year before,” says Keating, executive director of the Camden County Joint Development Authority. “And store chains continue to enter our market, like Goody’s and restaurants like LongHorn Steakhouse. So we’re growing. You know Camden County is about as far from Atlanta as you can get, but we do enjoy the close proximity to the largest border city at the state [line] of Georgia, which is Jacksonville. We have professional football, an international airport and the Mayo Clinic, all just 30 minutes away.”

The county’s most populous town, St. Marys (pop. 16,800), has been the setting for several motion pictures, and two television pilots have been filmed at the little seaside village. Keating says it’s one of the few places in the country where crews can “go to the beach and film where there’s not a condo, not a single high-rise.”

Effingham County’s proximity to the Port of Savannah has brought the community distribution centers and manufacturers like EFACEC, a Portuguese company that makes the huge power transformers used by industry and utilities. EFACEC, which uses the Port of Savannah for importing and exporting, held an “inauguration” for its plant near Springfield last spring while locals celebrated the 400 jobs the company brought here. “We had about 200 guests from Portugal, with the governor coming in, too,” says John Henry, the CEO of the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority. “The company has delivered its first transformer, and they are up to $130 million in capital investment here.” Henry says he is seeing a lot of tire kicking by corporate site selectors.

Liberty County is host to the nerve center of Fort Stewart, the giant, sprawling Army base that spreads about $1.5 billion in economic impact through the region.

That number seemed sure to rise until the 2009 decision by the Pentagon to cancel the scheduled arrival of another brigade. Even then, locals could find some promising news in the aftermath. “The construction contracts to support the brigade were carried out,” says Ron Tolley, CEO of the Liberty County Development Author-ity. “We have the new facilities now that will accommodate up to an additional brigade being placed on Fort Stewart at any point in the future.”

More manufacturing jobs are landing in Toombs County, with the January announcement that U.S. Pets Nutrition will be producing upscale pet foods at the Toombs Corporate Center, marking a $25-million capital investment. Plans call for 150 workers within five years.

The company is part of Thai Union Frozen Products, which placed a Chicken of the Sea tuna packing facility in the center two years ago.

“We think there will be opportunities for further growth nearby with vendors and associated businesses landing here,” says Bill Mitchell, executive director of the Toombs County Development Authority. The county’s easy connection routes to the Port of Savannah by road and rail were cited as a key factor in the arrival of U.S. Pets.

Last year saw the arrival of Firth Rixson, a British company producing advanced manufactured parts for the aerospace industry. The company made an $85-million capital investment at its 200,000-square-foot facility in Liberty County’s Tradeport East Business Center and brought 204 new jobs to the community. More development was noted in downtown Hinesville, where a new $7-million city hall sprang up; a short distance away the new $21-million Liberty County Justice Center opened its doors.

No community in the region suffered as painfully as Coffee County when the local chicken processor, Pilgrim’s Pride, shut its doors after filing for bankruptcy in 2009. Some 900 people at the plant were thrown out of work, and the ripple effect became a flood as hundreds of chicken growers lost their key buyer, truckers lost contracts and restaurants and retailers closed in Douglas, the county seat.

Then last May came the announcement that a Brazilian company had purchased a controlling interest in Pilgrim’s Pride and the Douglas plant would reopen. The response in the community was the small-town version of a Super Bowl victory celebration.

Even today Jo Anne Lewis can get emotional discussing the moment. “It means a thousand jobs, a $50-million investment and the opportunity to put 600 poultry houses back in operation, with 100 more planned for construction,” says Lewis, president of the Douglas-Coffee County Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development Authority. “It will actually mean, from the farm to the factory, 2,200 new jobs. This is huge for us in Coffee County, but it’s also huge for the region because those poultry houses were in 10 different counties.” The plant was back in operation with its planned 24/7 shift schedule expected to be implemented by the beginning of summer.

A number of economic developers in Southeast Georgia counties report no groundbreakings or ribbon cuttings, but say they have observed the first stirrings of an awakening economy.

“We have had several prospects looking into our area,” says John Riddle, president and CEO of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce & Industrial Development Authority. “Getting funding is what is holding a lot of these companies up.”

Riddle says there is continuing in-terest from investors in facilities for the production of wood pellets for export.

“We’re seeing an uptick in small retail/commercial activity,” he says, “and some of our existing industries are looking at new product lines and small expansions.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features