In the News

Southwest: Remaining Upbeat

Despite the economic gloom that has enveloped much of the nation in the early months of 2008, economic development leaders in southwest Georgia remain upbeat – and they have reason to be. This 25-county, still mostly-rural region has had more than its share of struggles with economic growth. But local leaders say they are seeing changes for the better.

"It's like we got together and decided not to participate in the economic downturn," says Myrna Ballard, president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce.

Ballard has reason to be optimistic, with Valdosta in the midst of a growth spurt. But she's not alone. Even though much of the region is still economically hard-pressed, there are more signs of success than failure.

"The past two years were our biggest years for development," says Shelley Zorn, president of the Ashburn-Turner County Chamber of Commerce. "I'm optimistic growth will continue."

The type of growth, of course, varies greatly. In a big-population county like Lowndes, Ballard is looking at multimillion-dollar developments on the horizon; while Zorn, representing one of the smaller counties, is happy "we landed a Zaxby's."

Valdosta may very well be the region's success story at the moment, with major projects expanding the city in every direction, including up. The city's downtown skyline will soon change with construction getting under way on Twenty3-Twenty, an 11-story high-rise that will house offices, retail businesses and luxury condominiums. Construction is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2009.

What may be Valdosta's largest project ever is also getting under way in 2008. Located in the James Road area, the $425 million multiuse development covers some 250 acres. The plan includes residential, retail, office and hospitality. Developers claim it's the best currently undeveloped location between Macon and Orlando.

In addition to these high-profile projects, Ballard says major construction is scheduled at Valdosta State Univer-sity and the expanding Moody Air Force Base. The South Georgia Medical Center, Lowndes County's largest non-governmental employer, continues to grow; a new emergency room opened in 2007, and an ambulatory surgery center and a medical office building are opening this year.

Valdosta-Lowndes did have its setbacks in 2007. "We lost a couple of major employers – iLevel and Arizona Chemical, taking more than 400 jobs out of the market," Ballard says. "But we've had a number of companies expanding and success attracting some solid manufacturers."

Valdosta-Lowndes also had welcome news regarding its biggest attraction. Wild Adven-tures, the theme park that had been struggling financially in recent years, ended 2007 under new ownership. Herschend Family Entertainment Corpor-ation purchased Wild Adven-tures for $34.5 million at public auction last September and plans to invest $3 million in the park in 2008.

An event that could generate tremendous future growth in Valdosta took place in January. In what may be the largest auction of land within city limits ever held in Georgia, 2,236 acres were sold for approximately $21 million.

The land comprises more than 10 percent of the city limits, or 27 percent of the city's undeveloped land. It was divided into 81 tracts, ranging in size from a few acres to more than 420 acres, and is zoned for a variety of uses.

While Valdosta may have the biggest projects, Turner County's Zorn has more to be pleased with than just a new restaurant. Her county will be the home of a new corn ethanol plant, one of two planned in Southwest Georgia. Georgia Alternative Energy Cooperative will start construction this summer with production scheduled to start in 2009.

Zorn says the $90-million facility is being built by a cooperative of some 250 farmers from several counties and will produce 50 million gallons of ethanol from some 18 million bushels of corn each year.

The other corn ethanol plant, being built by First United Ethanol LLC (FUEL), is already under way. The $170-million, 100-million-gallon refinery near Camilla in Mitchell County is scheduled to start production this summer. FUEL will use 36 million bushels of corn annually to produce its 100 million gallons of ethanol.

A number of southwest Georgia communities report success in attracting retirees – and businesses – from Florida. Valdosta-Lowndes County joined with Brooks and Lanier counties to form a successful regional retiree attraction program called Triple Crown Hometowns.

"Last year we attracted 82 retiree households and half are from Florida," says Ballard, who adds that there are two active adult retirement communities now under development in the area.

Thomas County also has successfully lured prospects from Florida, says Don Sims, president of the Thomasville-Thomas County Chamber of Commerce.

"We've had seven companies move here from Florida in the past two years and real estate folks tell me retirees, especially from Florida, have kept our real estate market on an even keel," Sims says.

"When I first came here the area was reeling from the huge loss of jobs from textile plant closings," he says. "It's been an uphill battle with unemployment, but we're now under the state average and the future looks good for continued growth. We're attracting new businesses and new residents. We now have 120 industries and they're very diversified."

A number of southwest Georgia cities have been involved in downtown restor-ation efforts, but none is more ambitious than Albany's massive redevelopment project that has poured millions of public dollars into constructing government facilities and attractions.

Earlier years saw such landmark projects as the Flint RiverQuarium, riverfront park and the Hilton Garden Inn hotel/conference center. In December, the city dedicated Ray Charles Plaza, honoring its famous native son.

Several new attractions will be opening in 2008, including a new civil rights museum and a new science discovery center, both scheduled for completion in August. A new welcome center opened in March.

Now that many of the major projects have been completed or are nearing completion, work will begin to update the basic redevelopment plan. One issue to be addressed is the need for more private development downtown, which officials say has a high vacancy rate.

In addition to the downtown projects, Albany-Dougherty County has been experiencing "great growth" in industrial and retail sectors, says Andrea Shruijer, vice president of economic development for the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce.

Senior Life Insurance Company opened a new call center in January, a new Kohl's opened in March and several local companies have announced expansion plans, including Proctor & Gamble Co., Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and Miller Brewing Co.

Albany's biggest employer, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, has a new five-story medical tower under construction. The facility will be the new home of the Phoebe Cancer Center when it opens in late 2008 or early 2009.

The region's smaller counties are seeing positive signs, too. The OneGeorgia Authority has awarded a grant of $2.7 million to be used to provide wireless broadband internet service to the counties of Baker, Early, Calhoun, Miller and Mitchell. The goal is to provide a system that will make these communities more competitive in the quest for new businesses and industries.

Early County, aided in its revitalization efforts by the nonprofit organization Early County 2055 (EC2055), has other good news. The county has been approved for a $500,000 Federal Transportation Enhancement grant to develop the "gateway" to Blakely from U.S. 27.

In 2008, EC2055 will begin implementation of a new program to recruit business and start renovation of downtown buildings for a chamber facility and conference center.

As project managers covering southwest Georgia for the Georgia Department of Economic Develop-ment, Michelle Shaw and Brian Marlowe get a good overview of the region and say they like what they see for 2008.

"2007 was a very successful year for both recruitment and expansion of existing businesses and there's a lot to be optimistic about for this year," Shaw says.

"The year started off at a fast clip and we have a tremendous number of companies interested in the area, including areas that have not seen much activity in the past. The great thing is we now are getting an inventory to show. Communities like Ben Hill, Berrien, Brooks, Cook and Grady have industrial parks under development or are now in the planning process."

For the future, Marlowe says he expects continued strong interest from businesses and retirees looking to relocate from Florida and more communities looking at residential and recreation projects as alternatives to industrial growth.

Community leaders, such as Valdosta's Ballard and Thomasville's Sims, say they are optimistic despite dire national economic news.

"We joke that the future looks so bright we have to wear sunglasses," Ballard says. "But the future does look bright. Valdosta is not the same community it was 20 years ago, or five years ago. It truly is a wonderful time to be living here."

Sims, who says he's been around long enough to see really bad times, agrees.

"In the past," he says, "many people thought of southwest Georgia as a poor area, but when people visit they are amazed at the opportunities here. If we can get them here, retirees and businesses, we have a good chance to close the deal."