East Central: Much to Offer
Whether it’s a scenic route like Highway 15 that traverses through Johnson, Washington and Hancock counties, a new bridge or other road improvements, the movement of people and products is key to economic development efforts in the East Central Georgia region.
“We have a lot of truck traffic,” says Allen Haywood, Sparta mayor pro tem and executive director of the Sparta-Hancock County Development Authority. “DOT [Georgia Department of Transportation] told us six months ago that 900 trucks a day come through town.”
Despite having 200 miles of dirt roads, truck traffic through Hancock County is expected to continue to increase, as traffic from the bustling ports in Savannah and Brunswick continues to grow. In February, the Georgia Ports Authority announced it is forming a master plan for a 10-year, $2.3-billion expansion of its capacity.
Though no start date has been determined yet, a new truck bypass around the county’s seat of Sparta is in the planning stages. The $14-million, three-mile bypass is funded by the 2012 Transportation Investment Act (TIA). The town and surrounding Hancock County are part of the Central Savannah River Region, which passed the tax.
Neighboring Taliaferro County is also a member of the Central Savannah River Region and will have a new $2-million bridge this year as a result of TIA funding.
The bridge replacement is great, says Jackie Butts, chair of the Taliaferro County Development Authority. “But the big news is the development authority is purchasing land for an industrial park.”
The 200-acre park will be the county’s first.
“We’re very excited about it,” Butts says. “Now we have an opportunity to try and attract prospective industries and businesses. In the past we had nothing to offer, and you have to have something to offer before they’ll come looking.”
Industrial parks are accessories to interstates like I-20, which runs through Taliaferro, Columbia and Richmond counties, and I-16 spanning Bulloch and Emanuel counties.
Emanuel County boasts seven industrial parks within its borders, including one so new it doesn’t have a name yet. The park sits on 395 acres, and this summer it will become home to a new $25-million sawmill operation that will support 100 new jobs. The sawmill is the latest investment by LJR Forest Products, which has three operations located in the county’s industrial parks – a pellet mill, a carbon reclaiming plant and the new sawmill.
“Once construction is complete, they’ll have 225 jobs at that site, and they’ll be supporting over 100 trucks a day out of those three facilities,” says Ken Warnock, CEO of the Swainsboro-Emanuel County Chamber of Commerce and the Emanuel County Development Authority.
This spring, a 2,400-foot railroad spur will be operational, giving LJR Forest Products the ability to load pellets and ship them directly to the ports in Savannah and Brunswick.
Head east down I-16 into Bulloch County, and one of the selling points of its newest industrial park is its proximity to Savannah’s port.
“Southern Gateway Commerce Park is Georgia Ready for Accelerated Development [GRAD] certified, which is a synonym for shovel-ready,” says Benjy Thompson, CEO of the Development Authority of Bulloch County, noting it’s less than 45 minutes from the Port of Savannah.
While local officials work to land the park’s first tenant, business is good for two existing industries. Briggs & Stratton Corp., the world’s largest manufacturer of gasoline engines for power equipment, announced an $18-million expansion, while G.H. Tool & Mold, a direct service provider to Briggs & Stratton, expanded its facility to nearly 20,000 square feet and added three skilled tooling professionals.
Also looking to cash in on the success of Savannah’s port is Jenkins County, which recently landed Roto Polymers, a producer of rotomolding resins and color compounds used in industrial and commercial applications, including outdoor chairs, kayaks and agricultural tanks. The Mexico-based company sells its products to 30 different countries and plans to have 20 employees at its new distribution warehouse by the end of the year.
“What brought them to us was access to rail from the port,” says Jeff Brantley, Millen city manager. “It’s 60 miles to the port on a four-lane highway and rail straight to the port.”
Adding to Millen’s manufacturing portfolio, last year, Waycross, Ga.-based ScotBilt Homes opened a $5-million satellite plant in the city. The plant, with its first 50 jobs, rolled its first mobile home off the line in February.
“They’ll add 50 jobs every three months, up to 200 employees,” says Mandy Underwood, executive direc- tor of the Jenkins County Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce.
The county is also working on a grant to pay for a service road from the site of ScotBilt Homes to the city’s bypass, Savannah River Parkway.
“This gives us another access route to the development park,” Underwood says, “and it will keep trucks and mobile-home traffic out of congested areas.”
While manufacturing, mining and textiles, among other industries, are thriving in the East Central Region, there’s a new industry in town that’s generating a lot of buzz: cybersecurity.
Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal announced $58 million for the creation of a “world-class cybersecurity center” in Augusta. In November, he built on that news with the announcement of $35 million to expand the Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center. The expansion – a second facility – will house technology startups, training space for the state’s cybersecurity initiatives and workforce development programs.
Also located in Augusta is Fort Gordon, home of the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence.
“Fort Gordon and the growth of cybersecurity in our market are two big pieces [of our economic future],” says Robbie Bennett, executive director of the Development Authority of Columbia County. “The growth at Fort Gordon, as well as the growth of everything happening in the private sector, sets Richmond and Columbia counties in a great ecosystem for us to be leaders in cybersecurity.”
In 2017, Fortune magazine named Augusta one of seven cities that could become the world’s cybersecurity capital.
“We fully expect that cybersecurity and government contractors will be one of our targeted industries, along with other professional services you will see grow as those industries grow,” Bennett says. “We’re interested in companies and all industries dealing with cybersecurity issues, and we think we can grow and support them here.”
Fort Gordon is seen as so important to the economic future of the two counties that local leaders, along with GDOT, are investing millions (GDOT’s portion is $18 million) to improve access to Gate 6 at the fort, in addition to improvements on Gordon Highway.
Though it’s “not on the way from anywhere to anywhere,” Lincoln County is looking to capitalize on its natural assets, including more than 400 miles of freshwater shoreline on Clarks Hill Lake.
“We’re not on the interstate and we don’t have a four-lane highway, but what we do have is this wonderful shoreline that we’re building our economic development around,” says John Stone, director of the Lincoln County Development Authority, about the area known as Georgia’s Freshwater Coast.
Idaho has its potatoes and Vidalia has its onions, and now Lincoln County has its own product patent: Georgia Freshwater Coast Product. This spring the county will break ground on its first aquaponics plant. Aquaponics is a system of growing fish and plants together. The waste produced by fish supplies nutrients for the plants grown in the water. The plants, in turn, purify the water.
“The initial products will be hybrid striped bass and microgreens,” Stone says. “Phase two will be freshwater prawns. We’ll have our first crop in the fall.”
Stone says he hopes to develop a model for aquaponics that is easy to replicate, giving investors in the industry a reason to locate in Lincoln County.
“There’s no reason we can’t have 20 people producing product in the county,” he says. “Another reason to be here is there is a plan to have a lab facility for teaching that can be used by University System of Georgia institutions teaching aquaponics and aquaculture, which gives us tourism without having to wait on people to come swim in the lake, although we still want those folks, too, of course.”
It’s all part of the diverse landscape that makes up a successful economy in the East Central region.
People to Meet
Lazar Brown Oglesby
Chef Lazar Brown Oglesby’s food journey started in the kitchens of her mother and grandmothers, where she cracked eggs, stirred cake batter and learned to love good food. Today, people from all over east central Georgia travel to Honey Café in Millen just to eat her six-ingredient cheesecake. In addition, she and her sister, Mary Beth Brown, also own a successful catering business, Honey’s Catering.
Leonard Jones, a native of Lincoln County, lives in an old tin-roof farmhouse that lacks electricity and running water, but Jones doesn’t mind the simple life – in fact, it is a frequent subject in his art. He created his first paintings in school but dropped out to work. As an adult, he rediscovered his talent and love for painting, and today he is a successful artist, painting scenes on roofing tin inspired by his childhood memories and his immediate surroundings.
• Starbucks is expanding its coffee roasting facility in Augusta. The $120-million investment will add 140,000 square feet and create 100 jobs.
• Briggs & Stratton, which manufactures gasoline engines for outdoor power equipment, is creating 50 new jobs and investing $18 million into an expansion in Bulloch County.
• Wisconsin’s Modutek International LLC, manufacturer of modular buildings and power systems, is investing $6 million on a manufacturing and distribution facility in Treutlen County that will create 70 new jobs.
East Central: Population, Income and Unemployment statistics
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