West Central: Regional Rewards

From an inland port and public transportation system to bike paths and bridges, much of West Central Georgia reports recently completed and ongoing projects to improve and increase infrastructure in the region.

Columbus and Muscogee County are part of the Valley Partnership, one of the first regional entities “before regionalism became cool,” says Brian Anderson, president and CEO of Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce. The partnership, led by the Columbus chamber, also includes Cusseta-Chattahoochee County, Harris County, Marion County, Talbot County and the city of West Point.

“[The partnership] has had the effect of pulling us together, at least in thinking about each other,” he says. “I do think it’s created good relationships, communication channels and an ability to work together.”

The successful passing of the 2012 T-SPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) is the most evident result of that regional partnership, says Anderson. In addition to those already completed in Columbus and Muscogee County, there are a number of projects currently underway or in the design phase, including the $10-million project on the Columbus RiverWalk that will connect Bibb Mill and City Mills by the end of this year; the $22.4-million project to expand the intercity bus service; the $20-million U.S. 27/Custer Road interchange; the $40-million Buena Vista Road interchange; the $58-million Cusseta Road/Old Cusseta Road/I-185 interchange; and the $47-million Buena Vista Road/ I-185 interchange.

“T-SPLOST has added great connectivity improvements to our regional partners, given that every county around us – minus Russell County in Alabama and minus Harris County – are small population counties, very rural, very underdeveloped and economically challenged,” Anderson says. “I think they need that lifeline of connectivity, given the challenges small communities face.”

Activity in the area isn’t limited to infrastructure projects, however. The Greater Columbus economic development team is also creating and implementing a measurable marketing strategy to promote the Columbus region as a viable business location, says Brian J. Sillitto, executive vice president of economic development for the Columbus Chamber.

Harris County voters will see a SPLOST referendum on the ballot in May, says Colin Martin, president and CEO of the Harris County Chamber of Commerce, adding that the one-cent sales tax would be used for infrastructure and broadband projects. The county recently made some airport improvements with the addition of two 10,000-square-foot corporate hangars and a jumbo T-hangar with 10 individual hangars, says Airport Manager Bill Champion of the total $1.6-million investment. All hangars are currently under lease.

Solid Growth

Lack of T-SPLOST funding hasn’t hampered transportation projects in Troup County, now in the Georgia Ports Authority’s (GPA) Strategic Plan as the state’s third inland port, a process that will take 24 to 30 months to complete, says Scott Malone, executive director of the LaGrange Economic Development Authority. “The inland port will be a huge driver to all kinds of other industrial development and economic development going on with the region,” says Malone, adding that it will be located next to the KIA plant, GPA’s second largest customer.

Focused on advanced manufacturing, Troup currently boasts more than $1 billion in new capital investment under construction and another 25 projects in the pipeline, totaling a potential $700 million in capital investment, he says.

A $530-million facility being constructed by a Chinese tire manufacturer tops the list. Expansions of three existing industries – Duracell, Caterpillar and Jindal Films – total another $325 million.

Also in Troup County, the city of West Point and its Downtown Development Authority earlier this year closed on 12 acres of frontage on the Chattahoochee River to expand the city’s river access and make way for a high-density residential, retail and commercial development as well as a riverfront plaza and recreation amenities, says Meghan Duke, economic development director for the City of West Point. In addition, late last year West Point’s Hyundai Damos, manufacturer of automobile seats for KIA and Hyundai, completed a $9.5-million expansion, adding a new product line and 150 jobs.

Reaping the Benefits

Overlapping many counties in the Valley Partnership is the 16-county River Valley Regional Commission (RVRC). Patti Cullen, executive director, says more than $167 million in funds generated by the 2012 T-SPLOST has been spent on approved projects. Four of the 23 projects are complete, and another eight major projects are under construction.

In addition, nearly $57 million has been distributed to local communities. Last year saw completion of the Highway 27 project, including the widening of SR 1 and U.S. 27, as well as a bridge replacement on U.S. 27. Completion of Sumter County’s South Georgia Tech Parkway is slated for this spring, and the new bridge over Lake Blackshear, connecting Sumter and Crisp counties, is underway with completion slated for May 2019. Taylor County also has the Bickley Bridge replacement underway, she says.

With the majority of funding from a Georgia Department of Community Affairs grant, Sumter County broke ground last year on Eaton Road, giving Eaton Lighting an alternate route. Previously, its only access road intersected with a major rail line in an area that required train traffic to stop, blocking access to the business, says Barbara Grogan, executive director of the Americus-Sumter Chamber of Commerce and Payroll Development Authority. A connector road is also being developed for Elite Comfort Solutions, opening access to an additional 73 acres of an industrial tract, she says.

Elsewhere in the county, Lexington Marine Group of North Carolina invested $8 million to renovate a building and create 80 jobs initially for the production of its Lexington and Palm Breeze pontoon boats. In addition, Reames Concrete, a decorative concrete business, acquired 10 acres in Sumter County’s industrial park and will locate there this year with 10 to 15 jobs.

While new industry is always a focus in the region, the RVRC is working on its five-year regional economic development strategy, part of which will target tourism and agritourism in the region.

“Several of our communities have recently [worked with] the Georgia Tourism product development team through the Georgia Department of Economic Development,” says Cullen, including Andersonville, Plains, Marion County and Randolph County. “There’s been a lot of good things to come out of those plans that local governments can actually sink their teeth into and start working on.”

For example, Marion County will soon be home to a bourbon distillery, adding to the handful of other breweries and distilleries in West Central Georgia, including Richland Rum and Omaha Brewing in Stewart County and Thirteenth Colony Distilleries in Sum-ter County, says Cullen. In addition, work continues on bike trails throughout the region, such as the project in Stewart County to connect Providence Canyon, Florence Marina and downtown Lumpkin.

Additional projects to increase tourism are rolling out in Heard County, which will soon boast a riverside park near Franklin on the Chattahoochee River. The land at Bush Head Shoals State Park was initially being considered for the Department of Natural Resource’s proposed ATV park, but that idea was quashed last summer due to public outcry against disturbing the tranquility of the setting, says Kathy C. Knowles, executive director of the Development Authority of Heard County.

“We asked [the Department of Natural Resources] at the time the ATV park was proposed that even if it didn’t materialize to please give us access to the site, and they’ve worked diligently to make it happen,” she says, adding that the 700 acres will soon offer primitive camping, kayaking, walking trails and other activities.

Heard County will also be the new home of Wall Asphalt Services, which invested $500,000 to relocate from Villa Rica to Franklin in Heard County, says Knowles. The company purchased five acres in the county’s Industrial Park West and will begin construction on a 10,000-square-foot facility this spring.

Three Rivers Regional Commission member Upson County extended water, sewer and gas to its industrial park to accommodate Golden Star Inc., manufacturer of janitorial cleaning supplies since 1908, which recently purchased a 78,300-square-foot spec building, making a $5-million investment and bringing 30 jobs initially, says Kyle Fletcher, executive director of the Thomaston-Upson County Development Authority. The expanded utilities will “open up the park for some more development,” says Thomaston Mayor J.D. Stallings.

Bottom Line

Back in Columbus, Anderson says they’re taking another look at the regional concept. “We’re sharing water, sharing people, sharing jobs, sharing transportation networks, so should we be working more closely with our LaGrange friends and our Auburn-Opelika friends?

“We’ve had a few meetings, and we’ve talked about it,” he adds. “I think we’re going to be redefining the definition of regionalism and what that means from a cooperative and collaborative standpoint as we go forward.”

People to Meet

Bo Bartlett

A leading figurative painter, James “Bo” Bartlett was honored recently with the naming of the Bo Bartlett Center on the downtown RiverPark campus of Columbus State University, where he is a distinguished visiting professor of art. Housing more than 300 of his paintings and drawings, the center serves as a collaboration catalyst for all art forms.

Rob Goldstein

Taking a “wild leap,” Atlanta businessman and event planner Rob Goldstein relocated to LaGrange after organizing a successful craft beer festival there and opened the county’s first brewery, Wild Leap Brew Co., with Anthony Rodriguez. Goldstein’s live music series is drawing performers – and their fans – to the small town from across the Southeastern United States.

Regional Highlights

Pratt & Whitney announced a $386-million expansion, creating more than 500 jobs during the next three to five years.

• LaGrange’s Great Wolf Lodge indoor water park and resort is scheduled to open next month. The project represents a $150-million investment, a projected $53.5 million in annual spending and 645 jobs.

W.C. Bradley Co. unveiled The Rapids, a $52-million residential and retail complex that will be built along the Chattahoochee River in Uptown Columbus, with initial occupants moving in early next year.

• Harris County celebrated the completion of automotive supplier Daesol Material Georgia’s manufacturing facility, a $35-million investment bringing 110 new jobs.

• West Point’s Hyundai Dymos, manufacturer of automobile seats for KIA and Hyundai, completed a $9.5-million expansion, adding a new product line and 150 jobs.

West Central: Population, Income and Unemployment statistics

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