Cordele | Crisp County: Broadening Bragging Rights
Manufacturing, education and affordable housing
Cordele is known as the Watermelon Capital of the World, but it is broadening its bragging rights. Growth in the residential sector, expanding commercial and industrial activity and a rise in tourism attractions are all contributing to the South Georgia town’s rising reputation as a great place to live, work and visit.
“Cordele is my hometown,” says City Manager Angela Redding. “We are a destination for South Georgia. As of August 2, we had a total of about $13 million in commercial construction projects and a little over $12 million in residential construction projects.”
There’s a new Love’s truck stop that just added an overnight RV park that includes a kids’ splash pad, playground and a dog park; a new T-Mobile store, a new Starbucks, Firehouse Subs and Bojangles. According to Redding, three other companies have expressed an interest in locating additional truck stops in Cordele.
“I think they’re choosing Cordele for several reasons,” she says. “We’re right next door to [Interstate] 75, we do a lot of advertising and we’re 100 miles from the Florida line. Cordele is kind of a ‘let’s take a break’ area for [travelers].”
Right next door to the new Love’s truck stop, Indian River Transport opened a new 15,000-square-foot terminal in March. The Winter Haven, Fla.-based company is a privately owned food-grade tank carrier that primarily transports milk and orange juice, according to Grant Buckley, executive director of the Cordele-Crisp County Industrial Development Council.
“When the tank is empty, in order to be used again the inside of that tank has to be cleaned and sanitized,” Buckley explains. “The truck wash here uses steam to clean the inside of the tankers. There’s also a couple of mechanical bays at the terminal and a bunch of the drivers are based out of Cordele.”
Sitting on approximately 13 acres, the terminal employs 30 and expects to hire up to 120 people within the next couple of years, Buckley says, noting most of those hires will be well-paid truck drivers.
“Absolutely, proximity to the interstate was a draw for them to locate here, but there are also some dairies in our area – in Americus, Montezuma and other some other areas,” he says. “I think their decision to come here also somewhat relates to the dairies. Additionally, being next door to the new Love’s truck stop creates some synergy there at that interchange. This development is all new at that interchange, exit 102, which is Georgia Highway 257 at I-75.”
On the residential side, Gillespie Gardens, a new $12 million housing development within the Gillespie- Selden Historic District, began construction earlier this year and involves the adaptive reuse of four historic buildings, each listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as construction of one three-story building that will complement the existing structures and neighborhood. (The site features education and medical buildings that opened as a school for Black students in 1902.) Individuals and families who are at or below 60% of the area median income will live in the 53 housing units, which will include efficiency and one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. Construction is expected to be completed by next summer.
“I remember Gillespie because they had a Head Start program,” Redding recalls, “and that’s actually where I went to Head Start.”
While the old adage of “location, location, location” certainly holds true, the city has additional advantages that are helping to lure people and commerce to the community, Redding says. Those advantages come in the form of rural tax breaks. In 2021, Cordele was designated a Rural Zone by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, enabling businesses and investors to obtain tax credits for job creation, investment in downtown properties and renovation of derelict buildings downtown.
“Between the tax credits we have to offer, advertising and the room to grow, I think that’s why people are coming to the area,” she says.
Mix of Industries
The city and county have a diverse mix of industries that fared well during the coronavirus pandemic, with some even thriving, says Buckley.
“All of our existing industry is doing pretty well,” he says. “When COVID came about and China shut down, people couldn’t get dumbbells and kettlebells, so Golden Foundry, which is based in Columbus, but has a facility in Crisp County, added dumbbells and kettlebells to their product line. It was a crazy byproduct of COVID.”
Golden Foundry produces precision-machined castings for a wide variety of industries, including construction equipment, heavy-duty trucks and farm machinery and equipment. In addition to Golden, Crisp County is home to Marvair, a company that manufacturers exterior wall-mount air conditioners and heat pumps for industrial and commercial uses; West Fraser, the largest mill in the world that makes oriented strand board, a type of engineered wood; and Big Tex Trailers, which manufactures professional-grade open trailers.
“Big Tex Trailers has made some additional hires,” Buckley says. “They started a second and maybe even a third shift, so now maybe they’ve gone from 120 employees to 300 employees; these are all approximate numbers. This is another company that added workforce due to COVID.”
Also as a result of the pandemic, Buckley believes there is a renewed emphasis on re-shoring manufacturing closer to home to alleviate supply shortages. He bases that belief on the inquiries he’s been fielding from companies interested in potentially locating in the community.
“People haven’t landed yet, but I’ve had to respond to these types of inquiries as a result of trying to bring manufacturing back to America,” he says.
Meanwhile, there are several new industries under construction. Griffin Lumber and Hardware, which operates a lumber and hardware retail store and a sawmill in Crisp County, has added a truss plant to its operations, and the company is in the process of building a new asphalt facility, as well, according to Buckley.
“We have four different projects in various stages of construction in our two industrial parks that extend over the next 24 months; some of those projects that haven’t started moving dirt yet, but are doing the drawings now,” he says. “I’m estimating the investment [at] about $40 million and then on the employment, I’m estimating about 235 new jobs spread across those four different projects.”
Supply chain disruptions have also been a boon for Cordele Intermodal Services (CIS), which operates Cordele’s inland port, a rail-centric terminal that sends and receives containerized freight to and from the Port of Savannah.
“When a container comes off the vessel and gets put on the port, that container only has a certain number of ‘free days’ – it has to move fairly quickly,” explains CIS Vice President and COO Robert Kiser. “We’re able to stop the clock, if you will, once it gets into our facility. We can stop the charges on that container once it in-gates at our terminal.”
When a distribution center, for example, is ready to receive containerized goods that traveled by rail from Savannah, CIS’s fleet of 65 owner-operator truck drivers make the delivery, and the empty containers are brought back to Cordele for use by exporters, including farm goods like cotton, according to Kiser.
“We do several other export commodities as well,” he says. “Any exporters within our geographic region, we offer those containers to them. The steamship line owns the containers and we bring them back to the port and send them overseas.”
CIS is a family-owned business that employs more than 125 people across five different companies. Its Cordele location is home to its warehouse, container yard, trucking hub and support staff. The company’s latest venture is The Cordele Agency, an internal and external workforce recruitment agency that launched this year.
“It’s a very unique animal,” Kiser says. “We utilize that office to supply recruitment of personnel for any of our companies, but we also provide service to external customers. We specialize in every industry, recruiting for transportation and supply chain, the medical field, accounting, education, across the board.”
Traditional recruitment efforts were disappointing and the task was too time- consuming for existing staff, so The Cordele Agency was born to solve these problems. “This company is very entrepreneurial,” Kiser says. “It was certainly a need for us to get more sophisticated in our hiring. We couldn’t just rely on job postings on job boards.”
Solving problems is also a hallmark of South Georgia Technical College. The college’s Cordele campus carries about 30% of its enrollment, according to President John Watford.
“We service about 3,000 students annually, and that’s an unduplicated headcount in credit programs,” Watford says. “We also provide economic development, which is noncredit industry certifications and industry trainings.”
Industry certifications include the Commercial Truck Driving certificate program; upon completion, students take the Georgia CDL Skills Exam. In the fiscal year that ended in June 2022, the technical college trained more truck drivers than ever before in the college’s 75-year history, Watford says. “In one year, we trained 175 truck drivers. Previous to this year, our largest enrollment was [in] 2016 and that was 65 drivers, so we almost tripled that number. The jobs are there and the pay is there,” he says.
This year also saw the college leading in innovation when it solved a problem for Crisp County. Watford says the county administrator reached out with a need for motor-grader training. A motor grader makes rural dirt roads drivable after heavy rains or winds.
“So we developed it and had the first class in January,” Watford says. “The county said we have this need and we just responded. We’re offering motor grader training in several other counties now.”
The college partners with Crisp Regional Hospital to train its Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) and Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) students, Watford says. And there is an EMS program.
“Having a rural hospital like Crisp Regional is very special,” he says. “Our partnership with Crisp Regional goes all the way back to the late 1990s. It’s a good, strong partnership.”
Crisp Regional is a 73-bed acute care hospital that operates a Level 3 trauma center in Cordele. The hospital also operates 243 licensed beds for long-term care at two skilled nursing facilities.
“We operate about 18 physician practices, and we have about 3,600 in-patient admissions,” says Crisp Regional CEO Steve Gautney. “We see something like 4,000 surgical procedures; just over 300 a month is what that looks like.”
Gautney says there are 24,000 visits to the hospital’s emergency room a year, a utilization rate that’s higher than in some communities, but underscores the struggle faced by rural hospitals across the state – people using the ER for primary care.
“A number of hospitals have closed in Georgia over the last few years,” he says. “Emergency rooms are one of those places where I don’t think people understand the high cost of healthcare. It’s a 24-hour operation to support an emergency room.”
While the struggle of rural hospitals trying to stay afloat isn’t new, the shortage of workers is more recent. Gautney says Crisp Regional employs more than 800 full- and part-time employees. On any given day, the system has more than 100 vacancies.
“We used to need jobs in rural Georgia,” he says. “Now we have jobs, but we need people to fill them.”
Part of that solution may be on the horizon in the form of a new doctorate in physical therapy degree to be offered by Albany State University (ASU) on its satellite campus in downtown Cordele. There, the university also offers day and evening classes that lead to bachelor of science and associate science degrees and certificates.
“The chamber went to the county commission and asked them to put in $8 million for what was at the time Darton College,” says Monica Simmons, president of the Cordele-Crisp Chamber of Commerce. “The money was set aside and the facility was built. We chose the site downtown for this college because we felt like it would be a catalyst to help us revitalize downtown; it would be the anchor.”
Darton State College was consolidated with ASU in 2015.
With the addition of the doctoral program and its weekend classes, Simmons envisions a vibrant downtown bustling with students and professors who will drive demand for more downtown housing, coffee shops and a variety of other establishments.
“There are already quite a number of small businesses down there, but this will entice others to locate downtown,” she says, “and some new businesses will open up because of the opportunity.”
According to Simmons, the chamber has about 450 members; at the top of its wish list is bringing a large grocery store to town. “That’s a good number of chamber members for a community our size,” she says. “We would love a Kroger or a Publix because we don’t have a major grocery store.”
What the community does have is a “huge” softball complex that this year will host 33 weekends of tournaments, Simmons says. Also bringing visitors to town are the annual Watermelon Days Festival in June and two relatively new festivals coming up at the state farmer’s market, the Harvest Festival and Christmas in Crisp.
“Those festivals don’t bring as many people to the community as the Watermelon Festival does, but they’re very important to keeping the market open,” she says, noting there was talk of closing the market about three years ago. “The farmer’s market helps not just our community but [also supports] the farmers that bring their produce here from 20 or more counties. We did a survey three years ago, and it was amazing to find out how far people will come to go to our farmer’s market.”
Whether you’re a sports or festival fan, a small or large business or looking to relocate to a place with room to grow, Cordele and Crisp County have something for everyone.
While many locals in small towns across Georgia complain about the delays caused by trains crossing the railroad tracks in their downtowns, the city of Cordele has embraced its rail history. In doing so, it is welcoming people from all over the world – virtually and in-person – to this small South Georgia town.
“This year we’ll have our fourth Railfan Festival,” says Monica Rentfrow, director of Downtown Cordele. “It’s always the second Saturday in November, and we’re thinking at least 400 people attend each year. I know that’s not a lot for the bigger cities, but for little, rural Cordele, that’s pretty awesome to have that number of people in downtown in a day.”
Originally founded as a junction between two major railroads, Cordele was named after the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery (SAM) Railroad president’s daughter, Cordelia. The city is one of the only places in the South for rail enthusiasts to view a “unique” diamond crossing, which more than 80 trains pass over each day.
As part of a rail tourism plan, the city created RailWay Park in the heart of downtown, the star of which is a recently opened $700,000 viewing platform for folks to sit a spell and watch the trains. There’s even live, 24/7 streaming from the platform on a dedicated YouTube channel, Virtual Railfan. People from all over the world are tuning in, Rentfrow says.
“We built the park and tourists are coming to town and they’re spending money, they’re spending the night; they’re feeding into our local economy and that’s what we want,” she says. “And we’re meeting the nicest people. We had a visitor from Scotland who saw the platform on Virtual Railfan on YouTube and he came to Cordele just to see it and spent a whole week here.” According to Rentfrow, the economic impact of RailWay Park to date is $235,907.
Another attraction trading on Cordele’s railroad roots is the SAM Shortline Excursion Train, which runs east out of town to Plains and back, with stops at Georgia Veterans State Park and in the towns of Leslie, Americus, Plains and Archery, the birthplace of former President Jimmy Carter. Passengers ride in air-conditioned vintage rail cars and each depot offers the opportunity to explore the various historic sites, museums and downtowns. The SAM Shortline celebrated its 20th anniversary in October.