West Central Georgia: Growing Out West

T-SPLOST Success: Patti Cullen|!!| executive director of the River Valley Regional Commission|!!| at Columbus’ Heritage Park

Wherever West Central Georgia’s economic development officials look, whether it’s in the rearview mirror or to the road ahead, they see good things happening – businesses expanding, businesses arriving or tourism rising. Nowhere is the view better than in LaGrange and Troup County.

What’s sparking excitement in Troup and its largest city is what Mike Criddle, director of the City of LaGrange Economic Development Office, calls “the largest commercial/retail impact project ever in Troup County.” That project is a mixed-use 550-acre development straddling I-85 between exits 13 and 14 assembled by Atlanta’s Selig Enterprises.

The massive project’s centerpiece is a 500,000-square-foot Great Wolf Resorts attraction featuring a 93,000-square-foot indoor water park and 456-room hotel. Great Wolf, headquartered in Madison, Wis., is investing $170 million in the venture. An economic impact study says the venue, due to open in May 2018, should generate $53.5 million in annual spending and create 645 jobs, Criddle says.

The family-oriented resort is projected to attract 500,000 visitors annually. That’s 16 times the population of LaGrange (30,695) and seven times the county’s population (69,763), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition to Great Wolf’s 44-acre portion, the development will include a $17-million city-owned convention facility that Great Wolf will manage, a 300,000-square-foot outlet center and The Village, a mix of entertainment, hotel, restaurants and retail-office space. The outlet center developer hasn’t been identified, and the village’s size is a work in progress, says Elizabeth Hagin, Selig’s marketing director.

Two other 2016 projects continue to generate excitement. One is Sentury Tire’s $530-million car and light truck tire manufacturing operation and research and development center. When fully operational, the first U.S. facility for China’s fifth-largest tire maker could employ 1,000-plus people. The project is in the design phase, Criddle says.

The other 2016 announcement still causing a stir is Duracell’s move to consolidate its AA and AAA battery production from other U.S. plants into one facility in LaGrange. That will result in a $100-million investment, says Criddle.

Several 2016 projects continue to strengthen LaGrange’s downtown business outlook, says Bobby Carmichael, executive director of the Downtown LaGrange Development Authority. Topping these is construction of a Marriott Courtyard. Due to open in December 2017, this is LaGrange’s first downtown hotel. Wild Leap Brew Co. got 2017 off to a quick start with a January ribbon cutting for a craft brewery in the former Westbrook Tire building.

Columbus, Georgia’s second largest city, is celebrating a similar pattern of 2016 announcements and early 2017 starts. “The past year was a transformative year, and 2017 is shaping up to be what could be a banner year in terms of projects,” says Bill Murphy, executive vice president of economic development and workforce for the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Combined, the projects in Columbus are worth $123.8 million and represent 850-plus jobs.

Expansion announcements include a five-year, $386-million plan at Pratt & Whitney to upgrade its engine overhaul facility and create 500 jobs; an investment by Hostess bringing a new snack cake and 40 new jobs on line; and a third Blue Cross Blue Shield expansion, this one valued at $3 million and 450 jobs.

New-to-Columbus companies include Convergys, a call center operator that invested $2.2 million and is adding 460 jobs, more than negating 200 jobs lost when Road America closed its call center, and Hammett Steel, a steel processor investing $4 million to retrofit an existing facility, resulting in 21 jobs.

Columbus State University (CSU) helped get 2017 off to a fast start with the January opening of a 90,000-square-foot, $25-million complex housing many CSU education and nursing programs. The facility, on CSU’s downtown RiverPark campus, combines the renovated former Ledger-Enquirer newspaper building with new construction.

Also revving Murphy’s engines is the January launch of an economic plan called Columbus 2025. “The 2025 plan represents the first time in at least 15 years we have done a strategic plan like this,” Murphy says.

The 2025 plan has five strategic focus areas and goals: education through a cradle-to-career workforce initiative; targeted economic growth designed to boost key industries (aerospace, automotive, biosciences, defense, manufacturing, technology and tourism); enterprising culture, which will promote entrepreneurialism and small business growth; a cohesive image and identity to better tell Columbus’s story; and vibrant and connected places, which will build on downtown’s successes plus those in other neighborhoods and in nearby Phenix City, Ala.

New industry entries and expansions are also big news in Upson County. The move of two companies into the county in 2016’s waning days was especially notable, says Kyle Fletcher, executive director of the Thomaston-Upson County Development Authority.

One is Solutions Pest & Lawn, a direct-to-consumer pest control business that purchased the 300,000-square-foot Apollo Industries manufacturing facility, which will employ 70 people when fully staffed. The other is a logistics provider that asked Fletcher to withhold details because it is still making building modifications.

“We haven’t had a new industry locate here in five years,” says Fletcher. “So this is significant for us.”

Also significant is the continuing effect from a March 2016 announcement that the Standard Textile plant will produce “Made in the USA” towels and bath mats for Marriott International hotels. The project is expected to add about 65 jobs.

In Meriwether County, Carolyn McKinley, president of the Meriwether County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, is proud of tourism initiatives that include three trail projects designed to attract new tourist segments and unify the county’s seven cities.

One trail will feature murals promoting each city’s unique local history along with some county references, such as FDR’s involvement in Meriwether County. A second trail will feature a butterfly garden in each city. These gardens will include a habitat for Monarchs, a migratory butterfly in serious decline.

The third set of trails will feature a geocache theme and prompt visitors to hunt for objects with GPS-enabled devices. The first geocache trail came online last fall in Woodbury and has a zombie theme. “We are the home of the real Woodbury,” says McKinley, referring to The Walking Dead town. “We decided to capitalize on the linkage.”

Another trail, the 93-mile Georgia’s Undead Trail, connects Woodbury with other filming sites for popular TV shows featuring vampires and zombies.

Last fall, Meriwether County voters approved a $3-million bond and referendum to create fire districts and build or renovate fire and first responder stations.

“The support to build new fire stations is one of the best things that could happen in our county,” says Jane Fryer, executive director of the Meriwether County Industrial Development Authority. “Not only will it reduce insurance ratings for our citizens, it will be an incentive for industry.”

“T-SPLOST continues to be a big economic generator in our region,” says Patti Cullen, executive director of the River Valley Regional Commission. The region was one of only three districts out of 12 that in 2012 approved a 10-year, 1-percent tax to fund transportation projects.

“We have collected $177.6 million, with $133.2 million going toward 23 projects approved by the voters and $44.4 million being distributed to local governments in discretionary funds,” says Cullen. Several projects have been completed, including a roundabout near South Georgia Technical College in Sumter.

Other counties in the region are feeding off momentum from 2016. In Harris, the Northwest Harris County Business Park remains a suppliers’ magnet for the nearby Kia plant. In Taylor, which Cullen calls the Southeast’s solar power capital, Southern Company’s 150-acre Butler Solar Farm has come online.

In Pike County, TenCate Protective Fabrics, which manufactures fire-resistant materials, invested $3 million to expand in Zebulon.

In Marion, 2,500 attended the grand opening of Pasaquan, a 7-acre visionary art environment that was created over a period of 30 years by St. EOM. After his death in 1986, the site was neglected for decades until CSU, the Kohler Foundation Inc. and the Pasaquan Preservation Society partnered to restore what some call one of the most important sites of its kind in the country. Now, for Pasaquan and the region surrounding it, good times are ahead.

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