When Robbie Bennett was hired as the Columbia County Development Authority’s new executive director less than two months ago, part of his job entailed placing an increased emphasis on retail recruitment.
Though the development authority’s mind-set in years past was centered on the industrial sector, the past decade has brought a boon in Columbia County’s housing market, leading to a growth potential in commercial development as retailers tend to follow new housetops. According to 2010 census data, the county’s population grew by about 38 percent since 2000.
Those statistics coupled with a high- to medium-household income make the county attractive for businesses looking for an area to locate, Bennett said.
“We have great demographics that support retail development,” he said. “I think my job is going to be to get out there and tell that story.”
With a retail subcommittee tasked with identifying commercial opportunities now in place, Bennett will expand on those efforts by partnering with local developers, attending trade shows and directly contacting businesses that would be a good fit in the county, he said.
“The effort to shift into the retail segment is driven by the opportunity available,” Bennett said. “We have a lot of retail sales that are leaving Columbia County for whatever the reason may be, and we want to be able to capture some of those sales and help increase our sales-tax revenue for the county.”
Bennett was quick to point out, however, that the development authority will continue to develop new and existing industries, such as John Deere, Serta and Georgia Iron Works.
FOR OTHER LOCAL economic-development organizations, the focus remains solely on the industrial sector.
Aiken County has continued to attract manufacturers in recent years through companies such as Bridgestone, Tognum America and Recleim, which announced in February it will invest $40 million and create 200 jobs at a new Graniteville facility.
About 1,600 undeveloped acres remain in Graniteville’s Sage Mill Industrial Park, said Will Williams, the director of the Economic Development Partnership serving Aiken and Edgefield counties.
Aiken’s deep manufacturing roots have existed since the mid-1800s, he said.
“We’ve got a strong existing base,” Williams said. “We really want them to expand, because in today’s environment, corporate capital dollars are so hard to come by, and it’s a competitive environment so Aiken County wants to position its existing industries to be in a way that they can receive those corporate dollar allocations.”
The same holds true in Richmond County.
“That’s sort of our bread and butter right here is manufacturing,” said Augusta Economic Development Authority Executive Director Walter Sprouse, listing Starbucks and Rockwood Pigments as recent companies choosing to build plants in Augusta, “so
we’re going to continue to do that.”
Sprouse does plan to give special attention to manufacturing companies already located in Richmond County and expects to hire an existing business coordinator within the next month to assist corporations
in taking advantage of tax credits and other available incentives.
Recruiting retail to the county is more difficult because of funding, Sprouse said, though demographic information can be provided to large-scale retailers.
The development authority receives a small fraction of its $967,000 budget from the Augusta government, with the rest generated through industrial revenue bonds.
“That’s a large-ticket item that helps us finance large projects,” he said.
“We do what we can on retail primarily because of our funding.”