Central: Strengthening Ties

Major transportation projects in Central Georgia will make it easier for existing and new businesses to reach the Port of Savannah – and beyond. Savannah’s harbor expansion already is helping the central region garner job commitments and investment from global retailers like Amazon and companies with manufacturing, distribution and logistics operations.

A $500-million investment to reconstruct the I-75/I-16 interchange in Macon will reduce congestion with more lanes and improve safety, efficiency and access, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

“One of the main focuses is to help improve that highway to take advantage of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project,” says Pat Topping, former senior vice president and now a consultant to the Macon Economic Development Commission. “It’s part of the mission to develop the middle Georgia area, not just Macon, … as a real strong logistics hub.”

Evidence that the plan is working is announced almost monthly, it seems. In 2017, Star Snacks announced a plan to create 115 jobs and invest more than $18 million. Tyson Foods’ nearly $60-million expansion of its Macon distribution center should add 100 jobs and be complete later this year. Graphic Packaging International is investing $136 million to update its Macon-Bibb County mill. The facility, which makes paperboard for food and beverage packaging, supports 460 manufacturing jobs.

In May, an 11-county Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) is up for referendum, five years after a failed bid. The 1 percent sales tax is expected to generate more than $637 million by 2028, according to the Middle Georgia Regional Commission. GDOT has committed $135 million toward projects as well.

“Keep your fingers crossed, but it looks like all the communities have bought into the project this time,” Topping says.

The list of 55 projects includes completion of Ga. 96 from I-16 to Ga. 49 (Houston, Peach and Twiggs counties), construction of a northeast Eatonton bypass and improvements to Ga. 247 (Houston and Pulaski counties), Ga. 80 (Crawford County) and a number of other roadways.

The Middle Georgia Transportation Executive Committee selected projects that address critical infrastructure needs, are essential for moving freight and people, are important for economic development and have a benefit that is “greater than one community,” says Laura Mathis, executive director of the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, which serves 20 cities and 11 counties.

“It’s the road that connects to a state highway or to a major employer or to a major commercial center,” Mathis says. “It’s those connectors that are really important.”

For example, the Ga. 96 project is essential for moving people and freight to and from the ports. The planned rail spur project at the 972-acre industrial Griswoldville Park in Jones County, also on the T-SPLOST list, presents a great opportunity to build on the container activity with the port, she says.

The I-75 corridor from Macon to Atlanta is being upgraded, thanks to GDOT, including new managed lanes and even talk of truck-only lanes. All of this makes the connection to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport easier for businesses in Macon.

GDOT’s planned extension of Ga. 96 would create a five-lane highway from I-75 to I-16, providing faster access to the port and expanding economic development opportunities in the area.

Elsewhere, recently completed infrastructure projects are poised to be a boon. A new bridge over the Oconee River near Dublin opened in 2017, using $13.3 million in Georgia Transportation Investment Act funds.

“That’s going to be good for us,” says Brad Lofton, president of the Dublin-Laurens County Development Authority.

He emphasizes the county’s connection to the port and says the authority has been aggressive about investing in infrastructure projects and spec building, thanks to SPLOST funds for economic development.

“You’re 90 miles inland without any risk of hurricane activity, and yet you’re still within an hour-and-a-half truck drive of the port,” he says.

Communicating with Industry

Latvia-based Valmiera Glass Group is expected this spring to open its 450,000-square-foot U.S. headquarters, creating 425 new jobs and representing a $90-million investment through 2022. It’s the sixth international company with a North American headquarters in Laurens County and will be the largest private-sector manufacturer, Lofton says. Dublin’s Carl Vinson VA Medical Center – the county’s largest employer – also has a $40-million expansion underway.

Some communities are preparing GRAD (Georgia Ready for Accelerated Development)-certified sites that are primed for fast-track construction projects. In Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County, the former Delphi battery manufacturing site is GRAD-certified, and the entire property is under contract, says Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Development Authority Executive Director Jason Dunn.

The Fall Line Regional Development Authority (Baldwin and Wilkinson counties) also has a GRAD-certified property at U.S. 411 and the Fall Line Freeway. The freeway’s new $78-million section in those counties opened in 2016, assisting freight trucks traveling between Columbus and Augusta.

Other counties, including Crawford, have industrial park expansions underway. In 2017, the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Development Authority received a $500,000 One Georgia grant to develop a business park on U.S. Hwy. 319 that Dunn says will serve the agricultural industry, food processors and metal fabrication companies. Protein Plus’ new 40,000-square-foot processing facility and a 50,000-square-foot distribution warehouse by nonprofit MANA Nutrition were among nearly $20 million in capital investment announcements in 2017.

“We are staying in direct communication to our existing industries and listening to their needs,” Dunn says. “We are at the table when they are discussing their expansion plans and assisting in overcoming barriers. Whether those barriers are land, infrastructure, incentives or workforce needs, we are actively engaged.”

Other counties are also touting job growth. The Putnam Development Authority announced 506 new jobs and $4.45 million in new investment in 2017. Pure Flavor announced in 2017 a $105-million investment in a 75-acre, high-tech greenhouse facility and distribution center serving the Southeast out of Peach County, just 3 miles from I-75.

North of Macon, Monroe County is seeing continued interest in warehouse and fulfillment center projects, says Bo Gregory, president of the Development Authority of Monroe County. While next door in Barnesville-Lamar County, technology company Continental is making a $9-million investment in its textile reinforcement business at its Aldora Mills facility and is expected to add 106 new jobs.

“Because our facility was efficient and our workforce is so strong in that facility, they can compete and therefore keep it in the U.S., keep it in Barnesville and keep it in Georgia,” says Kathy Oxford, executive director of the Barnesville-Lamar Industrial Development Authority.

Ready, Set, Work – and Play

Throughout the region, workforce readiness is a growing focus. Gordon State College in Barnesville received approval in 2017 to add a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, a classroom and online program that will allow adult learners to complete degrees.

Central Georgia Technical College, which serves 11 counties, provides 1.6 million hours in training annually, Topping says. And to land Valmiera, staff from Oconee Fall Line Technical College flew to Latvia to model and put the program in place. Without that, Lofton says, “we wouldn’t have won the project.”

In Fitzgerald, a new college and career academy, which could begin construction in 2019, will prepare students to fill local jobs, Dunn says.

As business and education flourishes, community life is also changing in central Georgia. Hawkinsville’s Flicks on the Bricks and a sculpture at Dublin’s Martin Luther King Jr. Monument Park both received grants in 2017 from the state’s tourism product development program.

The cities of Warner Robins, Perry and Centerville plan to add amphitheaters, walking trails and dog parks to draw families, Gheesling says. And in Madison, in Morgan County, the Georgia Safari Conservation Park project will be built on 500 acres and will also include 80 lodging units, zipline, ropes course and carousel.

“Miraculously, the construction industry slowed only slightly during the years of recession; therefore, no one has slowed down their development efforts,” Gheesling says, of the ongoing growth in the region.

People to Meet

Kathryn Dennis

The Community Foundation of Central Georgia’s assets have grown from $22 million to $119.5 million since Kathryn Dennis became president in 2002. CFCG is in the midst of a three-year, $3-million grant initiative to transform downtown Macon. Dennis says the effort aligns with its vision to enhance quality of life and strengthen central Georgia communities.

Karen Berman

Karen Berman has garnered national and state grants to bring acclaimed international artists to work with students and adults in central Georgia. The theatre chair and artistic director at Milledgeville’s Georgia College theatre and dance department received a 2017 Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities for her theater and arts advocacy.

Regional Highlights

Irving Consumer Products is expected to create more than 200 jobs and invest $400 million in a new Macon tissue plant.

Amazon announced a $90-million plan to create more than 500 full-time jobs at a new fulfillment center in Macon-Bibb County.

Zschimmer & Schwarz, a German chemical company with a facility in Milledgeville, is building a new location in Wilkinson County. The $50-million investment will create 75 new jobs.

IPL, a plastics company that purchased Encore Plastics in 2016, announced an $18-million investment in Forsyth and more than 20 new jobs.

• In Dodge County, Kencoa Aerospace plans to add 100 jobs over four years with a $2-million investment.

Central: Population, Income and Unemployment statistics

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