Scuttlebiz: Jobless rate dips; has Augusta metro area hit ‘full employment’?

Metro Augusta, how’s it feel to reach employment equilibrium?

 

What? You didn’t notice. That’s OK – nobody ever does.

The imperceptible workforce balance to which I refer is something economists call “full employment.” It’s what many of them believe exists when unemployment rates hit 5 percent, which is exactly what Augusta-Aiken’s jobless rate fell to last month.

The concept is that in even the best economic times there always will be a certain percentage of jobless people because the labor market is constantly in flux. Young high school and college graduates entering the workforce while older people retire from it, and everyone in between those age extremes are routinely getting and losing full-time jobs or doing “seasonal” work.

Thus, most economists believe full employment falls somewhere between 5 percent, though some argue it’s as low as 4 percent or high as 6 percent.

However you define it, the important thing to remember about jobless rates is that – much like a mortgage rate – lower is better. The good news is metro Augusta’s jobless rates have been consistently below 6 percent since July 2016. Contrast that with mid-2008, when the rate climbed above 6 percent – peaking at 10.5 percent in the summer of 2011 – and never came back until it dipped to 5.9 percent in April 2015.

State Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said in a statement the latest rate shows metro Augusta’s “economy and outlook remains healthy.”

Jobs in the seven-county, two-state metro area grew 0.6 percent to 240,400 between July and August. Since August 2016, the labor market has grown 3 percent, or roughly 7,000 jobs. In all, 8,650 more area residents had jobs in August than they did in August 2016.

Of course, if you’re unemployed but actively searching for work – the statistical definition of being in the workforce – there’s a good chance you can find something right up your alley in this metro area: The Georgia Department of Labor’s online job listing service, Employ Georgia, listed 3,682 new active job postings in metro Augusta last month.

 

MAKING STUFF: Metro Augusta’s unemployment claims – an indicator of newly laid off workers – were down 21.5 percent last month compared to the same period in 2016. Manufacturing claims dipped 11.2 percent, which is especially welcome news for a sector that has shed jobs since it peaked in 1979.

Heavy industry still very much has a place in the local economy, and manufacturers are more likely to close plants and factories elsewhere because of this region’s lower-than-average operating costs and pro-business climate.

That point was driven home last week by Venator Materials PLC’s announcement to close color pigment plants in Easton, Pa., and St. Louis later this year to focus on its Augusta facility, which opened in early 2016 near Augusta Regional Airport.

“We have been working hard to improve the efficiency of our manufacturing network and we have successfully ramped up production at our Augusta site, Venator Vice President Jan Buberl said in a statement. “Our plan ensures that the products made in these facilities will continue to be available to our valued customers and that our associates are treated fairly and with respect.”

The Easton and St. Louis plants employed 80 and 50, respectively. The $172 million Augusta plant, built by Huntsman Pigments &Additives, employs more than 100.

Huntsman spun the pigments and additives business off earlier this year as part of a $500 million IPO. Venator is a Latin word for “hunter” – a play on the Huntsman name. Texas-based Huntsman is pursuing a $15 billion merger with Swiss-based Clariant to create a company called HuntsmanClariant.

 

WIN SOME, LOSE SOME: As much as we’d like to see everything made here (well, not everything - Colorado and Kentucky can keep the nerve gas-disposal plants) the most logical location for product production is often somewhere else.

Which explains why Augusta’s Textron Specialized Vehicles is moving production of its Stampede off-road models from Augusta to the far northwest Minnesota city where Arctic Cat – the ATV and snowmobile maker Textron acquired earlier this year for $247 million– was founded in 1960.

The factory in Thief River Falls, Minn., already produces Prowler and Wildcat side-by-sides and ATVs. Now it will produce the Stampede models and market everything under the “Textron Off Road” brand. Stampede motor production is being moved from Germany to Arctic Cat’s plant in St. Cloud, Minn.

As for the Arctic Cat name, it will remain on all the company’s snowmobile products. As it probably should.

 

THE $672.5 MILLION QUESTION: Speaking of Textron, I’d say it’s one of only a handful of corporate citizens with the size and scale to ask for a nine-figure loan, such as the $672.5 million industrial revenue bond issue currently being pursued on behalf of an unnamed company by Richmond County’s economic development agency.

Earlier this month, the Richmond County Development Authority approved a whopping $940 million worth of finance deals to help local companies expand. The largest of all bonds was a $672.5 million issue for a company identified only by the super-duper secret code name “Project Beem.”

According to the resolution that starts the bond process, the money would help the unnamed company further “the planning, design, acquisition and/or installation of certain machinery, equipment, fixtures and/or related personal property” for its local “manufacturing and distribution” facilities.

Could it be Textron? Absolutely. The company has expanded its local footprint over the past couple of years, has good credit and appears to have the appetite for more than a half-billion in new machinery.

But others on Augusta’s manufacturing team could be Project Beem.

Start an office pool if you like, but don’t rely on my advice: I thought this year’s $100 million “Project Flower” was a food/beverage company. Turns out if was the expansion of Doctors Hospital’s emergency department and patient-room renovations.

Waaaaaaaaay off.

 

SOMETIMES I GET IT RIGHT: I had good reason to suspect not all was “above board” at Prestige Appliance when it filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, leaving dozens of customers high and dry for hundreds of thousands of dollars in appliances and warranty repairs.

The Aiken-based high-end appliance dealer wasn’t just stiffing consumers – it wasn’t paying its taxes, either. Deep inside its Chapter 7 petition is a line listing the South Carolina Department of Revenue as being owed $2,025,893. And 87 cents.

Yikes.

Calls from angry ex-customers have tapered off, but I did receive one early in the week from a woman who said she has five paid-for appliances sitting in the company’s warehouse. Like everyone else unlucky enough to deal with this outfit during its final weeks in business, she’ll probably end up with bupkis once everything gets liquidated.

 

SONIC BOOM: So the question of what happened to the closed Sonic Drive-In on Furys Ferry Road has been answered by our Buzz on Biz sister publication: It’s going to be a Dunkin’ Donuts.

The shuttered drive-in reportedly is going to become the market’s 11th donuttery when renovations are completed during the first quarter of next year.

Sounds like local Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee APS Investments is finally getting the Furys Ferry location it has sought for months. As I reported last year, the company’s attempts to build at the northwest corner of Furys Ferry-Park Lane/Inverness Way – across from the gates to West Lake – were thwarted by county planning and zoning officials because of traffic, noise and other “adverse impacts.”

 

DO YOU OFFER A SENIOR DISCOUNT?: Coffee and donuts ought to be a big hit on Furys Ferry with the future residents of The Claiborne at West Lake, the senior-living community well under construction at 557 Furys Ferry Road.

Hattiesburg, Miss.-based CR Properties LLC is developing the 100-unit community just east of West Lake and just south of the Furys Ferry Town Center medical-office complex. The development will be family-owned CR Properties’ sixth senior-living facility and its first in Augusta.

Brothers Rob and Craig Tatum started building assisted-living centers after looking at communities for their own grandmother.

“With so many large-scale corporations in the senior housing industry and often consolidation among them, we find we are able to offer a higher level of service and better amenities to residents because we don’t have corporate goals or margins to cater to,” Rob Tatum said in a recent statement.

An aside: I spoke to Craig last year when the project was first announced and was surprised to hear his first visit to Augusta was to play in the Dixie Youth World Series when he was 11. The Mississippi State University standout played for the Cincinnati Reds in 2009 and the Baltimore Orioles from 2010-11.

“We took a look at the fastest growing cities over a certain population and Augusta was one of them,” he said during the phone interview. “Then we found out Columbia County was the 28th fastest-growing county in the U.S. and we started doing more research over there. I met with a guy at Starbucks and he said, ‘If you would have been here 10 years ago, you wouldn’t recognize the place.’ To me, that’s a good place to want to build.”

Seventy of the studios and suites will be one- and two-bedroom assisted living units, the remainder will be in a “memory care” area for residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia issues. The property will be operated by Mississippi-based Blake Management Group and is being built by Augusta’s R.W. Allen.

 

BUSY-BUSY-BUSY: R.W. Allen also is the general contractor on Indigo Hall, a senior living center about to break ground at 313 Furys Ferry Road, just under two miles from The Claiborne at West Lake facility.

Indigo Hall, a product of Charleston, S.C.-based Indigo Hall Development Company, is expected to open next fall with 85 resort-style suites on 13 acres. The developer and its operating company, Atlanta-based Thrive Senior Living, said 24 of the suites will be in the secured memory-care section.

“While there are some great providers of senior care in Augusta, the market has grown tremendously over the past 10 years, and hasn’t seen a truly innovative new alternative,” Thrive CEO Jeramy Ragsdale said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing people’s reaction to this new community. It will not line up with the traditional perception of senior living, and that’s the goal.”

 

BEING FLIPPANT: Accelerating housing prices appear to be bringing the home flippers out again, though not so much in the metro Augusta area.

California-based real estate research firm ATTOM Data Solutions said flipping hit a nine-year high earlier this year, but its latest report shows flips in the metro Augusta are well below average.

Data released last week for the second quarter of 2017 shows roughly 105 single-family home sales, about 4.8 percent of all sales, were flips, which is actually 3 percent less than the same period the previous year.

ATTOM said the median flipped home in metro Augusta was a 1,500 square foot home built in 1985 that sold within 188 days for $113,000, netting flippers a 66.2 percent return on their investment.

The data firm noted several markets where flipping accounted for 25 percent or more of sales, including Memphis, Tenn., Washington, D.C., Decatur, Ga., Los Angeles and St. Louis.

 

WHAT’S YOUR BIG IDEA?: Here’s a billion-dollar green-energy innovation you can have you for free: Cooling tower-mounted wind turbines.

I concocted the concept a few years back after noticing the enormous amounts of energy wasted at Plant Vogtle’s massive cooling towers, which condense steam back into water for reuse inside the plant.

The 550-foot-tall hyberboloid tubes do their job well, but they also vent a lot of unharnessed thermal energy into the atmosphere. So instead of just being giant fog machines, why not use their massive updrafts to spin a giant fan, or fans, to generate more electricity?

Not only would the wind-powered turbines generate additional emission-free power for the grid, they would help accelerate the water-cooling process and enable the plant’s two 1,200-megawatt turbines to operate more efficiently, potentially saving millions of dollars a year.

Crazy, you say? Well, the idea can’t be any worse than trying to move James Brown Arena to Regency Mall. At least my idea freely acknowledges that it’s based on hot air.

Anyway, if you think you’re such a smartypants, you should contact the fine folks at TEDxAugusta; they are seeking speakers for the fourth TEDx event Feb. 3

“Are you a thinker? A doer? An idea generator? Whatever you have to say or whatever field you’re in, if you have an ‘idea worth spreading,’ you just might be a candidate to speak at TEDxAugusta,” event organizers said in a statement.

The online application is available at tedxaugusta.com/speakers. The call for speakers closes Oct. 11.

This year’s theme: “Venture – Dare to be Audacious.”

 

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

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