Rockdale County: New Opportunities
Manufacturing and movies
Rocked by exurban Metro Atlanta growth, Rockdale County has maintained its remarkable assets and unique brand that has borne it through recent challenges and should propel it forward into new opportunities, say local leaders. Awareness of a staggering problem is the first step to solving it.
The county grew from 40,000 in 1995 to 70,000 in 2000, says County Commission Chairman and CEO Richard Oden, yet the amount of commercial property declined from 25 to 17 percent by 2005, while the industrial digest declined from 12 to 7 percent. Residential boomed from 55 to 65 percent, with potential to edge up to 70. “No community can survive on a digest that imbalanced,” says Oden, underscoring the need for more revenue-producing commercial properties.
Correcting the tip is tricky. Almost all the industry in Rockdale is in its one city, Conyers, which has a population that makes up a fifth of the county population. In terms of infrastructure, residential is a natural for unincorporated Rockdale. However, Interstate 20 bisects the county, with several exits that are thriving commercial nodes.
The generally slow economy is giving the county a chance to correct the imbalance, while industrial growth is revving back up in the Conyers community, keeping the county and city in the spotlight. A little bit of a Hollywood connection isn’t hurting, either.
Georgia has a $1.4-billion film industry, and several projects, including Fast Five and American Reunion, were recently shot in Rockdale County. “We will take all of the movie business we can get and go out of our way to make them welcome,” says Conyers-Rockdale Economic Development Council Executive Director Glenn Sears.
“Numerous films shoot here, all based on the Georgia tax credit for the movie industry,” says Sears. “The tax reform proposed last year would have eliminated that, so they would have gone elsewhere. We’re talking about some 25,000 jobs – even if it’s only for two to eight months, they’re still jobs.”
Sears believes the fact that actresses Holly Hunter and Dakota Fanning are from Conyers has helped strengthen the connection, but the Conyers-Hollywood link goes back to the 1970s, when Burt Reynolds’s Smokey and the Bandit and the Dukes of Hazzard franchise helped make country Conyers cool. “It became more competitive when [former Gov.] Joe Frank Harris created the film industry tax credit in the eighties,” says Oden.
Oden adds that it helps that there are only two governments to deal with and says, “In any given moment, if we’re all in town, we can assemble decision makers in an hour or two.” That is a situation that applies to other businesses as well.
The teaming up has led to success in converting a large distribution presence into manufacturing facilities, says Sears. “We were recently successful in bringing corrugated box and packaging company Pratt Industries, creating 120 jobs in the $45,000 to $65,000 range, into an existing space.”
Other job creators include Solo Cup, expanding by more than 100; Golden State Foods, expanding by 60; and BioLab, growing by 35, says Sears. “I can remember when I heard of the impending sale of Sweetheart Cups [now Solo Cup] when I was commissioner. We courted them as strong as we could,” says Sears. “We were fortunate they were one of the [companies that] stayed in and expanded.”
Looking ahead, says Oden, the county will seize on opportunities and strengthen regional ties to correct the unincorporated county’s tax imbalance and improve infrastructure. “Rockdale is almost 80 to 90 percent septic [tanks],” says Oden. “You can’t put industries on septic. It doesn’t work. The city has the sewer capacity so they have that piece, and we have to catch up.”
Rockdale borders DeKalb County to the west and Newton County to the east. “On our borders we have an intergovernmental agreement with other counties with sewer to bring capacity in on the fringes. We have partnered with DeKalb County to increase our waste capacity to 175,000 GPD (gallons per day) with peripheral capacity to support commercial and industrial use.”
Oden seeks to bring clean jobs to the borders. “We have vacant property on the West Rockdale/East DeKalb side for a potential technology center with light commercial amenities, and at the same time, on the eastern border, we should be able to do the same thing with our Newton County colleagues. Both intersect Interstate 20, which is why we say we are a perfectly positioned community,” says Oden.
To create the workforce, Oden again turns to regional resources. “There was no college in Rockdale a couple of years ago. Now we have brought in a Clayton State University master’s program, a Mercer University undergraduate program, DeKalb Technical College and Georgia Perimeter College [satellite campuses], all of it in harmony with our Rockdale Career Academy, in which we teach our youth to build the workforce. All of it is located on the same campus, which was a strong move for us. It gives us a foundation to build on going forward.”
“DeKalb Tech has been simply invaluable in this effort,” adds Sears. “At the Parker Road facility, they now provide skill-assessment testing, and we were successful in obtaining a grant to add a new wing to Rockdale Career Academy, all staffed by DeKalb Tech and Perimeter College instructors. We are trying to establish an even larger DeKalb Tech presence here.”
The synthesis with companies has also been beneficial, says Sears. “The Quick Start program [administered through the Technical College System of Georgia] is dynamite,” he says, “allowing existing industries to train when they expand, in association with DeKalb Tech and Georgia Perimeter, to prepare people for the job market.”
Additionally, the Georgia Depart-ment of Economic Development’s En-trepreneur Friendly program, which encourages and recognizes communities that have established a welcoming environment for entrepreneurial efforts and developed programs for small businesses, was based on the Conyers-Rockdale County Chamber of Com-merce homegrown effort.
“We just try to show people what they are getting into,” says Chamber Presi-dent/CEO Fred Boscarino of the program. “Many don’t realize how many resources you need to start a company. The governor [former Gov. Sonny Perdue] liked it so much that we were the first to be certified in Metro Atlanta.”
Ready For Growth
Rockdale has every reason to believe growth will come back when the recession is over, and it wants to be ready.
“When I-20 bifurcated Conyers in 1962, it brought the business out,” says Conyers Mayor Randal Mills. “Whether it’s trucks coming in and out to Texas and Columbia or travelers, I-20 has been a huge asset. But on the negative side, as communities grow, you get [people who] travel 20 to get in and out of Atlanta, and it becomes a public safety issue.”
The Atlanta Regional Commission Liveable Centers Initiative (a grant program for infrastructure that reduces traffic congestion and improves air quality) awarded Conyers $100,000 in 2000 to examine the feasibility of mixed-use and connectivity in areas such as those surrounding the Rockdale Med-ical Center, says the mayor, and “a lot of that is coming into play now. We could actually take an area and plan around it, creating walkways, bike paths and retail at the intersection of Highway 138 and I-20.”
“Rockdale Medical Center was a stand-alone community hospital and was bought by Lifepoint Hospitals two years ago,” says Sears. “That kind of strength to do the right things has given it leverage and created an excellent medical community.” Over the past decade, Rockdale Medical has expanded to include enhanced services, new medical equipment and a two-story parking garage.
The potential for medical-related growth is not lost on the county, which seeks to mitigate its “bedroom-community” status with higher-paying local jobs like medical manufacturing.
With a population of 87,000, Rockdale is physically the second smallest county in Georgia – after Clarke. “Our population is much bigger now, which is good because we live on the sales tax,” says Sears.
To stimulate more business investment, the Conyers Downtown Development Authority has a grant program for up to $20,000, says Mills. “It’s a 50/50-type deal, and we have been very aggressive about bringing businesses there to stimulate that local economy. We still have our vision of what to do on the other side of town, in terms of rooftops. That has been scuttled because of the economy, but we have purchased dirt,” he says, referring to vacant property for future development. “Like the city of Alpharetta, we may ask voters to approve a bond to stimulate commercial as well as residential.”
With a bond providing seed money, the match investment project could be “mixed-use, small lots, cluster homes, senior citizen development, modeled like Decatur, Marietta, Suwanee, Alpharetta or Duluth,” says Mills. “These models are the best to create a critical mass of people, where you can park your car on the weekend and walk around – that’s the type of thing we want that will drive local business here.”
Alpharetta structured its bond by paying $5 million up front and asking voters to put $5 million back in, says Mills. “We have not gone that route. We have bought our property with reserves and greenspace money, working within budget and not levying new tax to property. Grantees are required to improve the economy with their project and be able to find a backer and to market it. Lenders have shied away from development like this based on demand so a bond is a great way to go about it, but we need the private side to come in and partner with us.”
In the unincorporated county, “we have a lot of existing inventory and will pursue any resources we can to stabilize, retool and rebuild” foreclosed homes, says Commissioner Oden. “Anything to put people in homes at the right price – we want the type of homeowners here who can afford it. We don’t discriminate, but the buyer needs to qualify for the neighborhood stabilization program from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). We received $3 million, purchased 25 homes in the last two years, have already sold 21 and have contracts on the other four.”
Aggressive outreach has brought success for homeowners, says Oden. “Those homeowners had to get their own financing and attend homebuyer seminars and credit training. We held community workshops and partnered with the real estate industry and builders, who asked us to help identify future homebuyers. Then we went to faith-based organizations to ask parishioners if they wanted to apply; then we went to schools, the city, fire department, sheriff and other branches and asked if they wanted to take part in seminars to help make them homebuyers – working people. And hopefully with more revenues, we can buy more homes – we’ve made a couple million [dollars] already that can be reinvested.”
Prior to 2005, Rockdale had an inventory of 200 surplus homes a year; from 2006 to 2008, the number of available homes on the market jumped to more than a thousand. “We changed the code to increase our greenspace in 2008, but we probably have five or six years worth of inventory out there,” says Oden.
“We’ve been through the mother of all recessions,” says Mills. “So if we don’t want to sacrifice service, we have to prioritize. We are still buying dirt [land] through the Development Council, using our reserves – 15 to 16 acres in the last two or three years – to advance our plan once the market turns around. We were fortunate enough to see it coming – no one knew how deep, but we knew the recession was on the horizon, planned in advance, and built reserves in 2003 and 2004. Our finance committee and council helped us dodge a lot of bullets that hit cities, and we haven’t had to reduce services.”
Rockdale residents’ commitment to pre-recession plans showed last year when another Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) for transportation passed. “It will provide $30 million for six years to maintain and beautify our roads so that going forward, we can improve and enhance our fire stations,” says Oden. The SPLOST allocates $12.14 million to public safety, which includes the Fire Division. “For us it was an economic development issue – it will bring our ISO rating [used by insurance companies to set rates] down, so businesses can get better insurance premiums. In fact we were rated a County of Financial Excellence for the first time in 2010, when we were also able to move our bond rating to Aa2 from Aa3, proving we are very fiscally responsible as agents of this community.”
The county has plenty of industrial space to market – a 450,000-square-foot pad, or 212 acres for build-to-suit, says Sears. “One of our most attractive buildings is the former John Deere southeast headquarters – 375,000 square feet with lake and interstate visibility. It has already attracted four manufacturing interests.”
Regional moves could help spread new industry more evenly across the tax interests of Rockdale, says Oden. “I got involved in the Atlanta Regional Commission and talked to my colleagues in Henry, Clayton and Walton, and we came to an agreement with Newton [County] on how to widen Highway 138 with ARRA funding. And we support each other on the north end, too, in Walton; we collaborated to retool Highway 162, to Newton, from two- to four-lane.
“Now we are trying to develop a relationship with Gwinnett, to begin these dialogues to be a true region,” he says. “All of us are now seeking public-private partnerships, and we need to team up as a state as well, to go after global markets with more educational tools. Now is the time to attack.”
Chairman and CEO
Rockdale County Commission
Conyers-Rockdale Economic Development Council
City of Conyers
Conyers (county seat), 10,689
Median Household Income
Walmart, Rockdale Medical Center, Hill Phoenix Inc., Golden State Foods, Acuity Brands
Conyers-Rockdale Economic Development Council, U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia Department of Labor