Northwest: Creating New Connections

As economic activity has picked up throughout the Northwest Georgia region, so has a renewed commitment to building the roads and infrastructure that attract and keep business and industry.

Road projects that were stalled during the Great Recession are finally moving again, and they’re about more than just getting cars around. Across the 12-county region, economic developers will tell you that access to major highways is a prime factor in persuading a company to move into the area. One result of this focus on connectivity: Many leaders are counting more new jobs for their areas.

The role that roads play in the economy is reflected in the recent redesign of the old Highway 411 Connector project into the Rome to Cartersville Development Corridor.

“The 411 Connector as a federal project was officially put to rest,” says Melinda Lemmon, executive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Develop- ment. “GDOT [Georgia Department of Transportation] requested the [federal government] transfer certain planning funds over to a newly defined project. The new and interesting twist is since economic development is a newly allowed federal purpose for this road, then that’s opened up some new opportunities to get that road infrastructure closer to coming to fruition.”

The corridor will connect U.S. 411 and I-75. While relieving traffic is a big concern, it is being driven by the idea that improving access and connectivity will support economic development along with access to existing businesses.

Both Floyd and Gordon counties are benefiting from another connection – the East-West Connector.

The road will connect “just below Exit 312, which is one of the main retail thoroughfares getting off I-75 that will bring you into downtown Calhoun,” says Kathy Johnson, president and CEO of the Gordon County Chamber of Commerce and the Development Authority of Gordon County. “That’s a huge DOT project that is well underway and is making a big difference for our industries and how they navigate around.”

In addition, with the opening of Exit 310, the county now has six access points off the interstate to attract development as companies find it easier to get on and off I-75, according to Johnson.

Some counties are reaching into their own pockets to fund road and infrastructure. Walker County just passed a new sales tax, which will bring some much-needed improvements to the area’s roads.

“The county has been in a difficult situation, but with the passage of that T-SPLOST [Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax], it’s expected to generate $3 million per year. And that will greatly help with road paving and some other projects as well,” says Lacey Wilson, president of the Walker County Chamber of Commerce.

Inland Port Potential

Connectivity also played a role in one of the biggest economic development projects in the region – the new Appalachian Regional Port in Murray County. Construction of this landlocked “inland port” picked up speed this year for an anticipated October opening. With CSX providing a direct 388-mile rail route to the Port of Savannah, the facility will eventually handle 100,000 cargo containers per year from markets in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The project has put Murray on the map for a growing number of companies that want to set up operations in close proximity.

These operations range from light industrial to heavy manufacturing and include a greenhouse operation that will take up 80 acres and produce 110 new jobs.

The idea is to locate companies that need port access close, while steering companies that don’t to other parts of the county. The county recently acquired a 382-acre site for an industrial park in South Murray – a first.

The entire region could benefit from the passage of freight to the port.

“We believe there is some potential for impact in Gilmer County from the inland port,” says Kent Sanford, executive director of the Greater Gilmer Joint Development Authority.

Real Estate Revival

The upsurge in business has put a premium on commercial real estate, and that has been good for old industrial buildings that had outlived their original purposes.

“We have very few available commercial properties,” says Heather Seckman, director of economic development for the Rome Floyd Chamber. “It’s a good thing but also a bad thing, because then you have a hard time attracting the [other businesses] people want.”

In Haralson County, three large turn-of-the-century industrial buildings in Bremen are being repurposed. In fact, one will be occupied by a company that long ago was the city’s biggest manufacturer. Warren Sewell Clothing is relocating a specialty sewing operation. The company had a plant here decades ago that closed in the face of offshore competition.

Counties are also seeing increased retail expansion, with much of it coming along nodes connected to the interstates and other roadways.

“We’re seeing a lot of commercial growth,” says Martha Eaker, president and CEO of the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s more commercial than industrial owing to our connection to the interstate. We also don’t have much land available for development.”

Jobs Return

The economic upsurge has meant that communities are winning back jobs lost during the recession. In Dade County, Vanguard National Trailer brought an operation with more than 400 jobs.

“They are well into the process of hiring, and they’re building trailers,” says Peter Cervelli, executive director of the Dade County Industrial Development Authority.

Its location in the “three corners area” where Georgia touches Tennessee and Alabama and access to two interstates made it a natural choice. The company was seeking a plant from which it could serve customers throughout the Southeast, says Cervelli.

Healthcare Expansion

One area of the economy that continues to flourish is healthcare. Some of the region’s bigger hospital systems are going through expansion projects to better serve their patients in these regions.

Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton is constructing a $30-million community cancer institute. The institute will be housed in a three-story, 37,800-square-foot new building near the main hospital entrance and will offer patients collaborative oncology.

“And they are also building an autism center,” says Carl Campbell, executive director of the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority. “So there will be two brand-new facilities at the hospital right now.”

Gordon Hospital, part of the Adventist Health System, has undertaken a $37-million expansion of its Calhoun facility. The effort added 59,000 square feet to the hospital and enabled the renovation of 11,500 square feet of existing space.

The hospital has also opened a new radiation center and announced an expansion of the Edna Owens Women’s Center.

Counties in this region aren’t neglecting air connections, either. Airports like the Tom B. David Airport in Calhoun have been getting upgrades to accommodate the kinds of small jets that corporations favor. Along with celebrating its 50th anniversary, the field is getting larger hangers that will be able to house commercial-sized aircraft.

Together this region is using its natural assets of place and location and an ever-improving network of infrastructure to drive its economy higher.

People to Meet

Jonathan Connell

When Jonathan Connell relocated his MedSTAT Medical Supplies business to Catoosa County, it was a homecoming for him. After developing a successful operation in Albany that outgrew its home, he turned to the place where he had grown up. The company, a supplier of packaging and medical supplies, counts among its customers pharmacies, spas and corporations like McKesson.

“We’re geographically closer to all our customers because we ship all across the United States,” he says about the move.

Illya Copeland

Illya Copeland became Murray County’s very first economic development director at a historic moment. He leads the new economic development office as the county and the region are gearing up for a massive expansion centered on the new Appalachian Regional Port.

“It’s put Murray County on the map,” says Copeland.

A flood of interest from companies angling to find locations near the port made a professional economic developer not just desirable, but vital.

Regional Highlights

• German grocery retailer Lidl is investing $100 million into a new regional headquarters and distribution center in Cartersville that will employ 250.

Voestalpine Automotive Body Parts Inc. expanded operations in Bartow County with a $50-million investment and the addition of 150 jobs.

Meggitt Polymers & Composites, which manufactures environmental components, is expanding in Rockmart. The $30-million investment will add 211 jobs to its existing 1,000 employees in Polk County.

Balta Home USA consolidated its U.S. floor-covering operations into a new Floyd County distribution center. The 330,000-square-foot Shannon facility employs 75 to 100 people depending on the time of year.

Northwest: Population, Income and Unemployment statistics

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