Study aims at plan for local economy
• Objective group of outsiders helps develop a strategic plan for economic development; outlines strengths and weaknesses
By Ben Nelms
Local economic review
Data from 16 socioeconomic categories were collected and analyzed for Jefferson County and compared with counties in four groupings that included counties statewide, the 14-county Central Savannah River Area (CSRA), a nine-county regional Labor Market Area (LMA) and a peer group of four counties with a large number of similarities to Jefferson.
Researchers from Georgia Tech's Economic Development Institute (EDI) met Jan. 9 with members of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce and the Development Authority of Jefferson County to present the draft version of a strategic assessment of the county's economic development positioning and potential.
The purpose of the exhaustive research project, conducted during 2001, was to provide the information, analysis, proposed guidelines and recommendations for a strategic economic development plan for the county.
Though some of the findings presented will require updating before presentation of the final version, the project represented the culmination of extensive data collection, personal interviews, research and analysis designed to arrive at recommendations for "A Strategic Plan for Economic Development for Jefferson County."
"I think it's very important," said economic developer Brad Day. "After having been here for two years, to have an objective outside group come and examine what we are doing and to make sure we're going in the right direction, as well as bringing up some new ideas."
EDI researchers Larry Edens and Joy Wilkins said the project was geared to defining actions that will help the county expand its economic base and improve the lives of its residents.
They presented the findings in five sections that included a local economic review, a survey of community leaders, an industrial development assessment, an examination of community economic development issues and recommendations compatible with the community's vision and quality of life that could be realized over the next 10 years.
Jefferson County fared better than counties in all four groupings in five of the categories, worse in seven of the categories and had mixed results in four categories.
The county fared better in the teen pregnancy rate and in the manufacturing employment rate and significantly better in the infant mortality rate, the overall crime rate and the juvenile arrest rate, with an arrest rate of .41 percent in 1998 compared to 5.0 percent in the peer group, 4.65 percent in the LMA, 3.59 in the CSRA and 5.48 percent statewide.
The county fared worse in the poverty rate, food stamp participation rate, average Iowa Test of Basic Skills scores for 3rd graders, per capita income, job growth, population growth and significantly worse in the unemployment rate, with 13.3 percent unemployed in 1999 compared to the peer group average of 7.4 percent, the LMA average of 8.3 percent, the CSRA average of 7.5 percent and the statewide average of 4.0.
Jefferson showed mixed results, faring better than some county groupings and worse than others, in socioeconomic measures that included the labor force participation rate, the average weekly wages in manufacturing, the average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the high school dropout rate, though Jefferson fared better than county averages in the peer group, LMA and CSRA.
Survey of community leaders
Researchers conducted confidential interviews with 24 local leaders for the purpose of obtaining input on community growth potential, expectations and goals. The interview format focused on evaluating the community's strengths (assets), weaknesses (liabilities), opportunities and threats.
The highest scoring factors viewed as assets were the county's highways and railroads, community quality of life while the highest rated liabilities were a low-skilled labor force, the intra-county rivalry between Louisville, Wrens and Wadley, and the lack of industrial infrastructure/buildings.
Community leaders said the greatest opportunities for development were tourism, new industrial operations and existing industry expansion. The greatest threats to economic growth were plant closing and layoffs, lack of community/industrial infrastructure and "no-growth factions" within the county.
Small/diversified industrial plants and the establishment of retail and service firms led the preferences for new industry and types of business. Survey participants said the most important "next step" for the community included the development of industrial property and buildings and to strengthen community support for economic development.
The major community issues facing the county were public school issues such as retention of students, quality and pay of teachers and student discipline.
Other significant community issues facing the county were lack of job opportunities, apathy within the community, lack of industrial infrastructure and quality and availability of housing.
The report addressed the county's lack of ownership of industrial property or buildings, placing the development authority at a disadvantage in dealing with industry prospects.
Potential industries that offer the best recruiting opportunities for the county based on trends in rural Georgia and the county's existing industry base include fabricated metal products, industrial and commercial machinery, transportation equipment and electric and electronic equipment.
Local natural resources make the county a feasible target for lumber and wood products, food products and clay/stone/glass products manufacturers.
The study also cited the needed step by the development authority of hiring the county's first professional economic developer in 2000.
Ten issues were identified based on conclusions drawn from the review of economic performance measurers, interviews with community leaders, the industrial development assessment and other research.
The Leadership Jefferson was cited as a positive factor in leadership and community visioning and the suggestion was made to expand the program to include the earliest levels in grade school and across all sectors of the community.
Threats to economic growth in this area included the "no-growth factions," the diversity issue of those wanting to maintain the "status quo" as opposed to those wanting change, the intra-county rivalry between the county's three largest cities, the lack of a unified vision among leaders and community apathy, identified as a leading community issue.
Also included was the lack of diversity in county leadership where the majority of the population is black and the vast majority of leadership is white.
A second issue was community diversity, with 87 percent of leaders believing that the diversity issues of race, age and gender present challenges for the community.
Research findings also found a fair level of intolerance and misunderstanding between diverse groups in the county.
Workforce development and training of a quality workforce being essential for attracting new industry, supporting existing industry and generating new business were cited as a third issue.
The county's low-skilled workforce was considered the leading economic development liability.
The fourth issue, industry base diversification, suggestedthe county could benefit from a greater presence of higher-end manufacturing and non-manufacturing/non-governmental industries. Entrepreneurial development on a local level by organizations and financial institutions was cited as a fifth issue.
Also cited was the development authority's role in helping Riverside Manufacturing preserve 150 jobs when the Wadley Shirt Cop. closed in 2000. A sixth issue was the need for the revitalization of the City of Wadley with ongoing participation by city and county leaders.
Another issue identified was the need to acquire and develop publicly-owned "products." The Louisville Industrial Park was identified as the county's only current site that meets the generally accepted requirements for a full-service park.
Competitiveness of the community through supporting highway and airport expansion, the upcoming Sandersville Tech satellite campus and the Freeport tax exemption were seen as positive measures in attracting industry.
The current leadership of the development authority and the presence and ongoing efforts of the county's first professional economic developer was viewed as significant to the overall economic development program.
A key accomplishment has been that of servicing existing industry and receiving a .23 mill increase for economic development.
A long-term plan for implementing goals was recommended, the report said. Population and standard of living encompassed the final community economic development issue.
Lack of growth in population and nearly non-existent job growth makes the retention of young adults problematic. These factors and the need for better quality housing and a higher standard of living might be addressed as the county reevaluates and strengthens its public policy positions regarding future growth.
Eight recommendations cited by researchers were geared to be compatible with the community's vision, quality of life issues and the expansion and growth of new business.
Community building and betterment could be enhanced and strengthened by expanding the Leadership Jefferson program and the creation of a sub-program within the public schools.
Expansion of education and training systems could be facilitated with the Sandersville Tech satellite campus and by the development authority and the school system working together to provide additional apprenticeship and mentoring programs.
Also recommended was the investment of an increase in public dollars for education. Continuing to follow-up on existing industry and supporting their presence in the community was a third recommendation.
Outreach and informational workshops on becoming an entrepreneur and the varied approaches geared to support new and prospective entrepreneurs was recommended.
A fifth, and urgent recommendation, was the acquisition of competitive industrial property (50-100 acres) by the development authority within 1-3 years.
Also recommended for marketing and recruitment was the development of a comprehensive information packet for business prospects, tourists and anew residents.
A recommendation to strengthen the current economic development program includes building an "image of proactivity" and the levy of 1.0 mills on the tax digest to provide stable annual funding.
The final recommendation, providing for quality of life, cited the need for the county to promote central business districts and encourage the development of permanent, affordable, quality housing for low to moderate income residents.
Day said the research project was broadly based and objective. It gives the community of Jefferson County the opportunity to look in greater detail at certain areas identified in the report, especially in areas where economic development can be impacted clearly and positively.
"I think they looked with a very broad brush and they did a very thorough job," said Day. "They started fundamentally understanding our area statistically. Some times even those of us who live in the community think we know the community.
"But by having someone objectively look at the statistics, making sure that those statistics are accurate and then making inferences based on those statistics and on experience in comparison with other communities can really give you a good perspective on things."
Day acknowledged the efforts of both EDI and East Georgia College in Swainsboro in developing the project.
"I'm grateful to the Georgia Rural Economic Development Center at East Georgia College for funding the project through a grant," he said. "And I appreciate Georgia Tech because Economic Development Institute has a national reputation. For them to come here to our county is privilege."
The final version of "A Strategic Plan for Economic Development for Jefferson County" is anticipated in early spring.
NAACP celebrates King's birthday
• Residents pack churches for services
By Ben Nelms
The legacy and the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were celebrated in Jefferson County in the words, songs and expectations of those who see his work as pertinent and relevant for 21st century America. These and other voices were clearly heard at the NAACP's Jefferson County Branch Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration at Stone Springfield AME Church near Stapleton Jan. 19 and at Youth Day at New Zion Baptist Church in Wrens Jan. 20.
Stone Springfield was packed to standing room only capacity Jan. 19, as the more than 500-strong congregation listened to singing by the Jefferson County Community Choir and heard the message of Rev. Lee Roy Britt. The church's minister told listeners that you can kill the dreamer but you cannot kill the dream.
Children and adults from throughout Jefferson County, more than 170 in all, filled New Zion the morning of Jan. 20 as the celebration continued with Youth Day activities. Listeners heard Rev. Willie Jones speak on "The entreating past, the available future" and Dr. Dennis Thompson's words on "Economics and the need for education." The congregation heard a panel discussion by three young people on the life of Dr. King as well as dancing presented by the Praise Team.
Jefferson County Branch President Lee Shellman implored the congregation to heed the basics of communication between adults and children so that the message and the mission of the NAACP will not be lost.
"Kids, listen to adults," he said. "Pay attention to what's going on around you. And adults, take time and spend time with kids and tell them what's going on. Those in leadership can't do it all. We need help from churches and individuals and we need more of you to be involved."