Columbia County’s goal of keeping its workforce “in house – especially high-wage earners – could be achieved by focusing on five business sectors, predominantly the region’s growing cybersecurity industry.
That is one of the main recommendations to come out of a study county leaders intend to use as their economic development road map for the next decade. The findings were presented publicly Thursday during the Development Authority of Columbia County’s Business Appreciation Awards event.
Prepared by Atlanta-based consulting firm Garner Economics LLC, the “Harnessing Opportunities and Talent” study aims to diversify the county’s economy and help it evolve beyond bedroom community status. Census economic data shows roughly 76 percent of the county’s workers are employed elsewhere, while most in-county jobs are service-sector positions that pay 30 percent less than the national average.
“We have more people who live here than work here,” Garner Economics President Jay Garner said. “So we want to get some of those people back and stay in Columbia County.”
The five business sectors with the most potential to “build wealth” in the county were listed as: cybersecurity/government contracting; high-value professional services; innovative manufacturing; entrepreneurial/retail development and health services.
Given the growth of Fort Gordon’s expanding cybersecurity missions, and that the industry’s average annual wage is $115,000 and boasts a 10-year growth rate exceeding 20 percent, focusing on cyber-related contractors, businesses and entrepreneurs is a no-brainer, Garner said.
“We were just wowed by the activity that has occurred there,” Garner said of Fort Gordon, which on Nov. 29 is having a ground breaking ceremony for the Army Cyber Command facility. “We’ve done a lot of work at military installations, but this is really a shining star in the various commands, and I’m not sure if everyone understands that. It’s a huge, huge asset in the community.”
Though Fort Gordon is located in Richmond County, about 70 percent of its off-post population live in Columbia County, according to installation estimates.
“High-value professional services” would include corporate headquarters and campus-style office developments such as ADP’s Augusta operations, while “innovative manufacturing” would encompass mostly non-polluting, precision-based industries that wouldn’t overtax the utility infrastructure. David Versel, a Garner analyst and principal, said the county’s proximity to the interstate and ample water supply would make it an attractive location for a food and beverage manufacturers.
“You don’t have a food and beverage processing industry here yet,” he said. “But there are many prospects who have been banging on the Development Authority’s door lately in this area…We think it’s something that needs to be aggressively targeted.”
“Health services” would be a major medical facility, such as the Augusta University-affiliated medical center proposed in the Grovetown area, while “entrepreneurial and retail development” would encompass everything from tech-based start-ups to boutique retail and trendy restaurants, such as those found in traditional downtowns.
Because most new jobs are created by start-up companies, Garner said, the county should partner with industry or academia to create a business incubator-accelerator to foster an entrepreneurial culture. To attract major corporations, he said, the county may want to consider creating a “deal-closing fund” from a special sales tax or some other type of tax-funded incentive, such as tax increment financing and tax allocation districts, known as TIFs and TADs.
Public input was gathered from 53 people at four focus group sessions and from the 270 responses to the county’s web-based survey.
For bench-marking purposes, the consultants compared Columbia County’s metrics to the state, the U.S. as a whole, and two affluent, fast-growing counties on the periphery of urban areas: Forsythe County, a north Atlanta suburb; and Williamson County, Tenn., south of Nashville.
Overall, the firm’s strength/weakness assessment found Columbia County had 17 “assets,” 17 “challenges” and 23 “neutral” areas.
“If you’re talking about a county in a mid-sized major area like Augusta, Columbia (County) is doing quite well,” Versel said. “The goals were set high for a reason.”
Among Columbia County’s weaknesses are a lack of shovel-ready sites and buildings for new business and industry. Garner recommended the county contract with an national real estate firm – to avoid local conflicts of interest – to address what he says is a 1,000-acre deficit in developable commercial and industrial land. The county should also consider beautifying its gateways, improving signage and better maintaining its landscaping.
“The charm factor is extremely important in the economic development arena,” Garner said.
Economic development officials and the Columbia County Commission are expected to spend the coming weeks and months determining how to implement parts, or all, of the study recommendations, which Development Authority Executive Director Robbie Bennett said will be posted through the county website.
“We’ll be keeping you posted as we go through this process,” he said.
Authority Chairman Hugh Hollar said the months-long study process was the “easy part.”
“The hard part is moving and putting the plan in place,” he said to presentation attendees. “In order for us to do that, it’s going to take all of you participating.”
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org