In the News

Southwest Georgia: A Brighter Outlook

Don Sims has always been an enthusiastic sort, a quality to be expected of the president of the Thomasville-Thomas County Chamber of Commerce.

But lately Sims has been downright breathless in his assessments of the future of his county and that of the Southwest Georgia region. "This will be a record year in the number of locations of industries in Thomasville," he says, jabbing a finger into the table before him.

The source of Thomas County's recent industrial growth spurt is a growing discontent in neighboring Florida. "We've always had some interest from Florida but nothing like this," Sims says. "This is a new phenomenon. In Thomasville, we have located four industries from Florida this year, two from the Miami area, one from Fort Myers and one from Chiefland. And we have two more that we think we can announce by the end of the year. They include industries from steel fabrication to a hat manufacturer, a real diversified basket of industries, and that's exactly what you want in rural Georgia."

For years, Southwest Georgia economic developers have noted a growing number of Florida retirees being chased out of the Sunshine State by hurricanes that leave in their wake rising homeowner insurance premiums. Now business owners, too, are facing the climbing costs of operation. "I had one fellow tell me that on a 30,000-square-foot metal building he has in Florida he pays $70,000 a year in property taxes," Sims says. "And wage earners are being priced out of the real estate market in Florida because of high taxes and the high cost of insurance."

To alert Florida businesses and industries that Southwest Georgia has the welcome mat out, Sims is working with others on a regional recruitment campaign. "Various joint economic development authorities and the Southwest Georgia Chamber of Commerce Council, representing 25 counties in the region, will spearhead an effort to recruit business and industries from Florida." The effort, Sims says, will hit full stride the first of the year.

Emerging Metro Areas

Beyond the Florida factor, Southwest Georgia, led by its two metro areas, Albany and Valdosta, is emerging from a decades long torpor.

"Southwest Georgia is growing," says John Lawrence, assistant director of workforce information and analysis for the Georgia Department of Labor. "Southwest Georgia is shedding its longtime reputation for recording third world-like numbers. Albany added 200 jobs in retail trade, a sign of a growing economy and a stable population base; people are going to work and spending money."

On the whole, the Albany Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) added 1,400 jobs over the year. "That is annual growth rate of 2.2 percent, which outpaces the state average of 2 percent; and the Valdosta MSA added 1,100 jobs, with a jobs growth rate that is right in line with the state average," Lawrence says. He notes that some of the region's largest job growth is in state and local governments, not entirely a bad thing. "Most of that [government] job growth is in education, again because the population is stable, it is not leaving the area."

Some of that population stability and job growth is homegrown through local business and industry and expansion. "This is stacking up to be a Katie-bar-the-door year for us," says Brad Lofton, executive director of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority. "We have seven industrial parks in Lowndes County, but right now we have more projects in the works than we have land to hold them. We have begun discussion on the acquisition of more land."

And, he adds, there are discussions with local government leaders to make sure adequate infrastructure is in place to handle the business and industry growth and the jobs they bring.

Lofton reports a number of business expansions fueling new jobs growth, including a $26 million addition to the county's Lowe's distribution center that calls for 200 new employees. The Valdosta site of Convergys Corporation, a call center, is adding 200 jobs, bringing its workforce to 800. "We've had five call centers calling us," Lofton says. "They are hearing of the unique workforce assets we have here."

The call center interest in Lowndes County is due to the presence of Valdosta State University and Moody Air Force Base, rich hunting grounds for call center employee recruiters, Lofton notes. The community's location alongside Interstate 75 is the attraction for distribution centers. "The interstate that connects the burgeoning Atlanta and Florida markets has been a huge selling point for us in logistics and transportation," Lofton says. And it's only going to get better as work continues to expand the Interstate from four to six lanes through Lowndes County.

Expansion In Moultrie

The fall announcement of a $4.5 million expansion of the first company in Georgia to receive OneGeorgia Authority funding underscored the wisdom of the state's original investment.

This capital outlay by Moultrie's National Beef plant will add 110 jobs and bring the total employment to 575. National Beef opened with 120 employees in 2001 and has expanded five times since the ribbon cutting. "Expansion is the greatest compliment an industry can pay to the workforce and the community," says Darrell Moore, president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce. "And we are fortunate to be surrounded by a population of 500,000 within a 30 minute drive."

Another Colquitt County employer, Sanderson Farms, hit its full production level as summer was ending; and that meant 1,500 workers were drawing checks.

Three years ago when Sanderson announced Moultrie as the choice for its chicken processing plant, there were concerns about availability of employee housing, especially for middle level managers and up. But, thanks to one of Southwest Georgia's largest and fastest residential home building booms, those concerns have evaporated. "There are 35 new subdivisions either under construction or proposed in Colquitt County, and that is from August '05 to August '06," Moore says of the growing housing market. "Some of them are just 20 or 25 houses and some are large subdivisions."

The effect of continued growth in jobs and population is rippling through Moultrie. "We saw a 14 percent increase in sales tax collection last year," Moore says. "And to date this year, we have a 14.9 percent increase over that. Increased retail sales, a building boom and business expansion, and no sign of letup."

Blakely sits 100 miles west of Moultrie, and for decades things have been pretty much the same. Annual new housing starts in Early County could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Last year, a University of Georgia economic profile predicted Early County will see a nearly 4 percent decline in retail sales over the next few years.

Community Makeover

But the economic seers didn't take into account the economic impact of what amounts to an Oprah-sized makeover of the entire county announced earlier this year by an Atlanta private foundation.

The project, known as Early County 2055 (EC55), is a 50-year effort to revitalize Blakely, the county seat, and three other neighboring towns. Toward that end, last spring the Charles and Catherine B. Rice Foundation - Charles Rice is a Blakely native - brought in architects, town planners, engineers, lawyers, economic specialists, artists and other experts in community revitalization.

The team met with local citizens and hammered out a plan to take Early County into the 21st century by returning it to its 1930s small town look and feel. After a series of meetings, the townspeople and the revitalizers came up with an economic development plan for the future that includes downtown restorations, retirement developments for baby boomers, construction of affordable housing, regional wi-fi and broadband technology, tourism initiatives and even movie-making.

"New economic opportunity is the first thing we are trying to achieve," says Barton Rice, executive director of the Rice Foundation, and son of Charles and Catherine Rice. "We have a lot of new ideas and if just a few of them work then we'll improve the situation here."

Some of those ideas are taking hold. Restoration has begun in buildings around the Blakely town square, a motion picture is in pre-production and an Orlando-based wardrobe company has announced a move to Early County.

Barton Rice believes a return to the rural village atmosphere will appeal to technology-based entrepreneurs the way it appealed to him. "As a boy, I used to come down here every summer to visit my grandparents," he says, describing his Huck Finn summers in Early County. "I literally went to the swimming hole and went fishing down at the river, messed around in the back of my grandfather's shop and went to church on Sunday, things that maybe don't sound like a lot of fun to city kids; but for me it was a blast."

The Rice Foundation boosted its efforts in Blakely back in 2004 when Charles Rice sold his Atlanta-based Barton Protective Services (BPS), a security firm, to a Pennsylvania company for $400 million. At the time, BPS had 13,000 employees and was the nation's second largest security firm. Barton Rice would not discuss specifics of the foundation's endowment, nor would he disclose the size of its investments in Early County, except to say, "It's seven figures."

Still, the Rice family hopes to see its contributions to the county bear fruit in a number of ways. A recent matching funds challenge spurred locals to collect enough money to get a long-desired weight room for the high school football team. There are plans to use the foundation's funds to leverage larger grants from government and other nonprofits. Some locals are wondering if they'll be around to see the conclusion of a 50-year plan. "Yes, this is a two-generation effort," Barton Rice says. "We are planting the tree that will provide shade for future generations."

Academic Approach

Everette Freeman's interest lies in present generations, especially the baby boomer retirees that have become so familiar to Southwest Georgians.

In mid-September, Freeman, president of Albany State University (ASU), was preparing to meet with an accreditation committee as the last step leading to the establishment of a master's degree program in social work with an emphasis on gerontology.

"The effort was launched to meet the needs of an aging population and deal with the demographic phenomenon of the arrival of retirees flooding into the [Southwest Georgia] area," says Freeman, who took office as ASU's eighth president last May. "One of the things the search committee made very clear was that they wanted someone who understood the role of the university in economic development."

To accommodate the aging population of his Southwest Georgia service area, as well as the growing number of boomer retirees moving in, Freeman is setting up summer Chautauqua programs and wealth transfer seminars. "There is about to be a $23 trillion transfer of wealth from those who are moving to eternity to those, hopefully, who are moving to Southwest Georgia," he says.

They Wanna Be In Movies

Facing the Giants
With his latest movie opening on 441 screens nationwide the Friday before, star and director Alex Kendrick was busy on the first Monday in October looking over weekend box office receipts and reading responses to "Facing The Giants," a film financed by members of Albany's Sherwood Baptist Church.

To the uninitiated, ticket sales seemed downright spectacular: 215,000 people paid $1.4 million to see "Giants" - not bad for a movie that cost only $100,000 to produce.

But Albany isn't Hollywood, and to Kendrick this movie is about more than money. "We admit our [church's] agenda is to have people walk out of the theater and have a closer walk with God," says Kendrick, associate pastor of media ministry for Sherwood Baptist. "We actually won't see any money until it clears $12 million. Sony [Pictures], Samuel Goldwyn [Studios] and Provident [Films] are working together to do the publicity, promotion and make the prints and do all that stuff; they need to get all their money back first; that was part of the deal."

But no Hollywood mogul has any claim on the souls of the audience members who paid to see "Giants," and that's where Kendrick and his investors - the 3,000 members of Sherwood - hope to reap their rewards. "From a ministry standpoint, it has already been overwhelmingly successful," he says.

"Facing The Giants" was filmed entirely in and around Albany and is the most noticeable of Southwest Georgia's efforts to turn the region into the film capital of the South.

Far more capitalistic motives are at work here than those of the Sherwood Baptist movie producers, however.

In Blakely, about 45 miles south of Albany, Barton Rice Jr., executive director of the Rice Foundation, says his nonprofit has committed "six figures" for the production of a motion picture to be filmed in Early County. "We already have a sound stage [in neighboring Miller County]," Rice says. "A majority of the jobs available to make a movie here are here already - electricians and carpenters, for example."

And in September, the Early County Development Authority donated five acres of land in the local industrial park for construction of a 12,000-square-foot facility for a wardrobe company to serve the movie industry. The Rice Foundation has agreed to fund the project, with repayment coming from the costumer, who is presently located in Orlando, according to the Rice Foundation project manager.

A Labor Day weekend film festival in Colquitt drew 500 moviegoers, and the Southwest Georgia film commissioner reported that same month that two movies are in pre-production. In Valdosta, a newly minted film commission was getting off the ground. Representatives from the state Department of Economic Development have been banking digital photos of possible Southwest Georgia location sites for motion picture and television production.

These efforts are all about economic development, says Lee Thomas, who served as interim director of Georgia's Film, Video and Music Office. "Last year the figure was $145.6 million dollars for the total year," Thomas says, referring to the state's study of the direct impact of filmmaking in the state. "That's what's left in Georgia: what people have paid for their hotel rooms, rental cars, dry cleaning. For the first half of this year, January through June, we're already at $222.8 million.