Southeast: Growth Catalysts

Infrastructure development is something that’s often taken for granted by those who don’t understand what really goes into a region’s economic development. Just don’t count Ronald E. Tolley, CEO of the Liberty County Development Authority, among those who discount infrastructure’s importance.

Last summer, Liberty County was ranked fifth nationally in a survey of mid-sized communities poised to achieve sustainable growth by Fourth Economy Consulting of Pittsburgh. Tolley believes the county’s focus on infrastructure is a big reason for this high ranking.

“We view infrastructure as a key element of economic growth and development,” he says. “Nothing happens from an economic development perspective without water and sewer systems, roads and bridges.” Tolley lists a number of key infrastructure projects in Liberty County that are currently underway or have been recently completed.

These include the construction of a new wastewater treatment facility in Hinesville; the expansion of Ga. 119 on the southern end of the county from two to four lanes; and an extension of the main road through the Tradeport East Business Center.

“This will open up hundreds of additional acres in Tradeport East for new manufacturing and distribution projects,” says Tolley.

In addition, Tolley points to a new general aviation terminal at the MidCoast Regional Airport at Fort Stewart. Funding has also been received to extend the airport’s two 5,000-foot runways to 6,500 feet, which will expand the types of aircraft that can use the airport. “This is one of the best general aviation airports in Georgia,” says Tolley.

Transportation Efficiency

In Chatham County, the major infrastructure initiative is the ongoing Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, which is scheduled for completion in 2021. “When complete, the Port of Savannah, which is already one of the most efficient ports in the world, will be able to move cargo even more efficiently,” says Trip Tollison, president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA).

Another major infrastructure project in Chatham County is a rebuild of the I-16 and I-95 intersection. This will involve reconstruction of the interchange and widening of I-16 to improve traffic flow and safety at what Tollison calls “one of the busiest freight corridors in the state.”

The Savannah region’s workforce comes primarily from within a 60-mile radius of this interchange, Tollison notes. “This project will help employees get to and from work more safely and efficiently,” he says.

The Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is also expanding to accommodate explosive growth. Passenger volume grew by 12 percent in 2017 to a record 2.4 million passengers. “There are more direct flights now than ever from this airport, which means travelers to and from our area can get to their destinations faster and easier,” says Tollison.

Appling County is strategically located right in the middle of the I-75/I-16/I-95 corridor, Dale Atkins, executive director of the Development Authority of Appling County, says. “This is important to industry because time is money, and our location and solid infrastructure help businesses move goods into and out of the region faster and more efficiently.”

Atkins points out that U.S. Highway 341, which runs through the heart of the county, is now four lanes all the way from Brunswick to I-75. And U.S. 1 is four lanes from the Florida state line to Augusta, except for a 30-mile stretch from Baxley to Vidalia. “Getting this final leg expanded to four lanes is one of our major infrastructure priorities,” he says.

Dell Keith, executive director of the Wayne County Industrial Development Authority (IDA), also stresses the importance of improvements at the Georgia ports to economic development in the county. “The ports in Savannah and Brunswick continue to play a critical role when recruiting new industry to Wayne County,” he says.

The IDA is working closely with the Southeast Georgia Alliance to promote infrastructure development throughout the region. “Infrastructure improvements anywhere in our six-county region are a boost for all of us,” Keith says.

He believes that House Bill 170, the transportation funding bill that was signed into law three years ago, “shows both commitment and vision to provide funding for major infrastructure improvements across the state and increased capacity for our region.”

Jana W. Dyke, executive director of the Waycross-Ware County Development Authority, says that Waycross serves as the regional hub for the surrounding area. “So it’s important that we ensure the maintenance and upgrading of our infrastructure,” she says. “For example, we’re excited about the widening of Highway 84 and the role this will play in assisting area businesses with distribution.”

Dyke believes that Waycross-Ware County’s focus on infrastructure development and enhancement are key to the growing interest industries are showing in the area. “Throughout its history, our community has been known as ‘Where the Ways Cross,’” she says. “Due to our infrastructure enhancements, we are seeing an increase in prospects and greater collaboration with our neighboring communities.”

Two major infrastructure projects are on the horizon in Jeff Davis County, according to Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis Joint Development Authority President and CEO Andrea Taylor. The first is replacement of the U.S. 221 bridge at Towns Bluff. “Traffic from the Uvalda-Vidalia area travels on U.S. 221 to reach Hazlehurst to connect to Highway 341, which then connects to I-95,” she says.

A railroad overpass is also scheduled to be constructed on Larry Contos Boulevard, Taylor adds. “These infrastructure projects will relieve congestion and allow traffic to more easily reach major highways to move products to and from the ports,” she says. “They will make it easier for us to market our area, which will help lead to more manufacturing and distribution growth in Southeast Georgia.”

Safety and Tourism

In Camden County, the infrastructure focus is on hurricane preparedness and storm drainage after the damage that occurred along the Georgia coast during last year’s active hurricane season. “We are widening several roads as part of the evacuation route effort in cooperation with Georgia DOT,” says James Coughlin, executive director of the Camden County Joint Development Authority.

“We need safe routes to move large portions of our population inland once an evacuation order is issued,” Coughlin adds. “Also, the widening of Colerain Road will encourage more development off Exit 6 in Camden County.”

It’s not surprising that tourism is a major economic driver on the Golden Isles, generating $1.4 billion in annual revenue and employing 15,000 of the area’s 80,000 residents, says Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Scott McQuade. “There has been significant growth in tourism infrastructure the past several years,” he says.

These include major expansions at Sea Island and new properties on Jekyll Island, such as a Hilton Home2 Suites and a Marriott, as well as a new Marriott in Brunswick.

“As the visitor base grows, this generates more tax revenue for roads, parks, streetscapes, signage, and parking lots and beach access,” says McQuade. “Infrastructure projects like these are critical to maintaining the health of the tourism industry on the Golden Isles.”

From attracting new businesses to moving people and freight more efficiently to accommodating more visitors, infrastructure improvements continue to spur economic development in the southeast region of the state.

People to Meet

Tak Argentinis

In 1997, Tak Argentinis started looking for a new place to relocate Elan Technologies, his New Jersey-based glass manufacturing company. After fielding offers from 31 different locations, he settled on Midway in Southeast Georgia.

Argentinis is actively involved in the local community. In fact, the Tak Argentinis Valor Award is given each year to area first responders who have demonstrated courage in the face of danger.

Daniel and Tyler Merritt

In 2012, brothers Daniel and Tyler Merritt, both military veterans, started Nine Line Apparel in Tyler’s garage. They were soon joined by fellow co-founders Angela Merritt (Daniel’s wife) and Myles Burke.

Selling casual clothing that reflects “relentless patriotism,” the team has nurtured Nine Line Apparel into one of the fastest-growing businesses in the country. They are focused on hiring military veterans and spouses and patriotic Americans to help manage the Savannah company’s explosive growth.

Regional Highlights

Shaw Industries has announced plans for 200 new jobs and $94 million in investment in Chatham County.

• Home goods manufacturer Safavieh is investing $60 million in a new 1.1-million-square-foot Chatham County distribution facility that will create 200 jobs.

Colonial Group, operator of shipping, oil and gas businesses, is investing $60 million into a Savannah yacht repair business, creating 140 jobs.

Premium Peanut spent $14 million to produce peanut oil at its shelling facility in Coffee County, adding 80 jobs.

• Light fixture and home décor company Elk Group International is investing $2 million into a 400,000-square-foot distribution center in Screven County, creating more than 100 jobs over the next three years.

Southeast: Population, Income and Unemployment statistics

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