Caterpillar breaks ground in Athens

Plant near Athens to be finished in a year

Less than two months ago, Mary Bell was standing in the woods on the outskirts of Athens, trying to decide whether the land she was looking at was the best place for Caterpillar to build a new plant.

The answer was yes, and now the construction equipment manufacturer is working at a breakneck pace to get the new plant open. State and local officials and company executives ceremonially broke ground Friday on the 1.2-million-square-foot facility, just four weeks after announcing its decision.

“I’m so happy to be back here celebrating the groundbreaking of our new facility with so many people who worked so diligently on the project,” said Bell, the vice president of Caterpillar’s Building Construction Products Division.

The $200 million plant will employ 800 people within five years and eventually will provide 1,400 jobs, making it the biggest economic development coup in Georgia since Korean automaker Kia built a plant in LaGrange in 2007, said Chris Cummiskey, the commissioner of the state Economic Development Department.

“This is the biggest news in our community since Herschel Walker came to the University of Georgia,” Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge said jokingly.

Construction will be finished in about a year, and the company will hire 250 to 300 workers next summer, plant manager Todd Henry said. Most of those jobs will go to Georgia residents, although about 30 or 40 employees will transfer from other Caterpillar facilities, he said.

After a few months of assembly-line dry runs, mini-excavators and small track-type tractors will start rolling off the line in late 2013.Those attending the ceremony, held at the Orkin tract at the intersection of U.S. Highway 78 and Georgia Highway 316 in Bogart, emphasized Caterpillar’s quick pace. Some said the company’s timeline was impossible, Bell said.

“When Caterpillar says they’re in a hurry, they really mean it,” Gov. Nathan Deal said.

Company executives and government officials all said that the key to wooing Caterpillar was cooperation among various state agencies and the Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County governments.

“It truly has been a team effort,” Deal said.

In addition to jobs at the Caterpillar plant itself, about two dozen suppliers are expected to move to the region, bringing 2,800 more jobs with them. Workers’ spending will create 1,500 more jobs indirectly, Oconee County Commission Chairman Melvin Davis said.

And Deal said he isn’t done. He said he wants Caterpillar to move its corporate offices from Peoria, Ill., to Georgia.

“Georgia is a great place for corporate headquarters,” he said. “Now you all help me with that encouragement as the year goes on.”

“We have a tract of land,” Davis said. “I think it would work out real well.”

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