Southwest: Changing Times

Southwest Georgia is a beautiful region that was once considered part of the Black Belt’s far eastern edge. Rich in water resources, verdant forests and prime farmland, it continues to be defined by agricultural industries. In the 20th century, the region was the scene of a prosperous railroad economy and, later, a military community. Yet even with these developments, the agricultural image remained.

Times are changing in Sowega (Southwest Georgia). Traditional industries have given way to new ideas about how to make money and promote the region. And as times change, so does the focus of economic development planners.

There was a time not too long ago when these planners focused on railroads, roads and airports. To attract big businesses to the region, they needed a sound transit system. For without the capacity to move goods from Point A to Point B, they could not attract the corporations that would provide jobs to their citizenry.

Today, the focus is still on transit systems – but the conversation is about big data, not big trucks.

“The No. 1 infrastructure challenge of Southwest Georgia today is lack of internet,” says Winston Oxford, executive director of the Lee County Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority. “Internet is the public transportation highway of the future. We can’t move ahead without it.”

And that may explain why leaders are so focused on this issue – starting in the cities, then moving outward to the rural areas. James Crozier, former economic development director for Early County, says that Blakely, its county seat, went live last June with an all-fiber network that can reach 2,600 homes and businesses. Once Blakely has full coverage, the next horizon is to wire the rural parts of the county.

Thomasville in Thomas County has been in the vanguard of efforts to wire the region, according to Max Beverly, its former mayor. “We are a bright and shining city on the hill in terms of high-speed internet,” he says. Today, Thomasville’s digital infrastructure “can handle anything that Atlanta can handle.”

John Flythe, Adel’s city manager, says that the Cook County community now has fiber optics in most areas. Other success stories include Sylvester in Worth County, which now has fiber optics available for any new business that needs it.

Reimagining Academia

Historically, the region has struggled with workforce development. The lack of skilled manufacturing workers sometimes limited the region’s ability to attract businesses.

The problem is being tackled head on with a slew of training and corporate outreach programs at local schools. Just this past February, Albany Technical College held its first Employer Workforce Outreach event to help students better understand the skills and attributes employers look for in recruits. Southern Regional Technical College allies with local corporations to match workforce needs with graduating students. And in December, Albany State University announced it would “reimagine its academic programs” to align them more closely with the needs of employers.

Across Sowega, community leaders are taking other steps to match educational programs with the needs of local industry. One noteworthy example sponsored by the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission (SGRC) is an annual Youth Leadership Summit, which aims to inspire and guide the region’s young people. The Albany-Dougherty Educational Collaborative works with local colleges and public schools to help improve students’ readiness to take on jobs in local industries. The goals of these initiatives are to discourage talented youth from leaving the region, as well as to increase training opportunities.

Energy Options

Electrical capacity is also expanding to meet the needs of new businesses. For example, when German gas manufacturer Linde North America Inc. broke ground on a plant in Adel last year, the city enlisted MEAG Power to build an $8-million substation to serve the company’s huge energy requirements. According to Lisa Collins, executive director of the Cook County Economic Development Commission, the expansion added an additional 50 percent to Adel’s electrical capacity.

In Valdosta, a public-private partnership is offering both citizens and businesses an opportunity to go solar. Just completed in December, one solar array is currently running the city’s wastewater treatment plant. A total of nine solar photovoltaic installations across the city can power up to 6,300 homes. The almost $10-million solar energy project, which created approximately 135 jobs, is a partnership between the city and Hannah Solar, an Atlanta-based solar integrator company.

The solar installations are part of Valdosta’s pursuit of renewable energy options, as well as an effort to generate returns from otherwise useless land, such as property adjacent to a wastewater treatment plant or state prison. “The smart energy decisions being made in Valdosta have fully embraced technology and innovation to benefit our citizens and our community’s future,” says interim city manager Mark Barber, “and serves as a model for other communities to follow.”

Abundant Assets

The Southwest region does not have an international airport, but this is not seen as a hindrance to growth by regional planners, who have found ways to capitalize on their proximity to the Florida border. According to Sara Kimmel Heady, executive director of the Cairo-Grady County Chamber of Commerce, “We don’t suffer from the lack of an international airport. We’re just 40 minutes by road from the Tallahassee Airport and three and a half hours from Atlanta. That’s enough for most businesses.”

On one topic, everyone seems to agree – the region’s water resources are a major asset. “We’re blessed in Southwest Georgia with abundant water, including three aquifers and two rivers,” says Crozier. During the 2007 to 2008 drought that left Atlanta and other northern Georgia cities parched and thirsty, the region was largely unaffected (although historically, the area has not been immune to drought).

The region’s rich water resources also help to improve its quality of life. “In order to keep people from leaving our communities, we need to have attractive live-work-play communities,” says Heady. That idea was the inspiration behind Cairo’s Tired Creek Lake, a 960-acre construction project. The taxpayer-funded initiative is creating a new recreational fishing lake at the confluence of three existing creeks.

Quality-of-life factors, like parks, hospitals, recreation areas and low crime rates, says Lisa Collins, executive director of the Cook County Economic Development Commission, are as important to retaining talented workers as anything else.

Albany is a buzz of economic activity these days. The city has earmarked $5 million to renovate the downtown district. To serve students at the city’s colleges, a college center and a Home2 Suites by Hilton hotel are currently under development in the downtown district; both initiatives are seen as indirectly aiding workforce development. Albany’s longstanding employer, Thrush Aircraft Inc., added 100 jobs to the payroll last year.

Hospital infrastructure is a hot-button issue in a region where residents often have to cross county lines to get medical care. Lee County has a $123-million, 60-bed hospital facility in the works that is expected to generate 350 new jobs and have a $38-million annual economic impact. State regulators approved the long-awaited facility in late 2017. “In terms of infrastructure, healthcare is at the top of the list,” Oxford says. “New residents won’t come here if we don’t have low-cost healthcare.”

Folks in Cook County see the advantage of expanding healthcare, as well. “It’s been a great year for our county in terms of job creation and infrastructure,” says Collins, pointing with pride to Adel’s Exit 37 Corridor Redevelopment Plan, which includes a major hospital construction – a new Cook Medical Center – that broke ground just last month.

That project follows on Adel’s successful courtship of California agricultural chemicals maker Custom Ag Formulators Inc., which opened its Cook County plant in 2016. The company is in the process of adding a new 25,000-square-foot dry fertilizer facility to its existing facility. The $5-million investment will add at least 20 jobs to the region, according to Jerry Steward, its president and CEO.

Local leaders see all the signs pointing toward greater economic prospects, especially now that the state’s economic cheerleader has a presence in the area. Last year, the Georgia Chamber opened its Rural Prosperity office in Tifton. Following discussions with community leaders about the needs of rural Georgia, the office will focus on four areas: rural incentives, defense communities, talent and education, and homegrown entrepreneurship. The goal – increasing prosperity for all in the region.

People to Meet

Steadman Taylor

Trucking doesn’t have the most glamorous reputation, and that makes recruitment of workers tough. Steadman Taylor wants to change that. “We’re trying to create a more positive impression of our industry,” says the 34-year-old head of Moultrie’s Broadleaf Trucking. How is he doing that? Through social media and television advertising. Taylor hopes to make his industry more appealing to the region’s youth so that more of them will stay.

Jason Dunn

Jason Dunn says counties need to think regionally, not locally. “All counties face the same economic obstacles,” he says, “and obstacles don’t stop at county lines.” That idea is at the heart of Locate South Georgia, a 21-county organization that aims to make the region more globally competitive. Dunn, who is vice chair and a former Albany resident, says that the group is “creating a unified voice for the southern counties.”

Regional Highlights

The Linde Group’s $40-million investment in a new, custom-engineered air separation plant in Adel will create 35 jobs.

• Broiler-breeding company Aviagen is investing $18 million into a new 65,000-square-foot hatchery in Brooks County, creating 100 jobs.

• China-based peanut production and exporting company Farmax Merchandise is investing $5 million into a new peanut oil processing facility in Crisp County, adding 20 jobs.

• Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe is expanding its Valdosta-Lowndes County bakery to increase production capacity. The move will add approximately 120,000 square feet and 36 new jobs.

Southwest: Population, Income and Unemployment statistics

Click HERE to view in the digimag – page 51