For not having a comprehensive economic development strategy, Columbia County appears to be doing all right.
Still, a national site-selection consultant said Wednesday that metro Augusta’s fastest-growing and most affluent region could miss out on new jobs and industry unless it addresses a key weakness – a lack of shovel-ready sites where companies can locate.
Not having fully developed industrial parks and office properties takes Columbia County “out of the game on certain types of projects,” said Jay Garner, the president of Atlanta-based Garner Economics LLC.
“That would cause some companies to have pause and move on to the next site,” he said. “We’re called site-selection consultants, but in reality, we’re site-elimination consultants because we’re looking for reasons to eliminate a community, not keep it. It’s survival of the fittest.”
His presentation to county business and community leaders was designed to hype the launch of the Development Authority of Columbia County’s summerlong initiative to create a strategic economic development plan.
The authority’s executive director, Robbie Bennett, said the organization has never had a plan as comprehensive as the one it is asking Garner’s firm to help develop through a series of focus groups with key business leaders and a communitywide, web-based survey to be rolled out in July.
“To my knowledge, one has not been done to this scale before,” Bennett said. “So we really want to hear from the community.”
Bennett said the strategic plan likely will be unveiled at the authority’s annual banquet, usually held in November.
He said growth fueled by the U.S. Army Cyber Command’s relocation to Fort Gordon provided the impetus to take an unflinching look at the county’s strengths and weaknesses, and to develop strategies to accentuate the former and attenuate the latter.
Some of those strengths and weaknesses were previewed Wednesday by Garner during the Georgia Power-sponsored breakfast at Savannah Rapids Pavilion. Aside from a shortage of fully developed industrial sites, he said, the county does not have enough high-paying jobs for its residents.
About 76 percent of the county’s workforce commutes outside the county for work, many to Richmond County, where the majority of the high-paying technical, manufacturing and professional jobs are. Of those who do work in Columbia County, Garner said, the largest single share of them – 16.5 percent – work in the low-paying retail-trade industry.
Garner said the county should focus on recruiting high-wage jobs. With the exception of nursing, the occupations projected to grow the fastest in the next decade are lower-wage jobs. He said manufacturing, which has an average annual wage of $53,000 but accounts for less than 9 percent of jobs in Columbia County (compared with 15 percent for the entire metro area), is one option to create more wealth in the community.
“You still have to manufacture something, somewhere,” he said. “So why not do it here?”
Garner said surveys show what companies want most in a community, after labor availability and accessibility to transportation corridors, is a good quality of life – a commodity in which Columbia County excels. He said companies sample a multitude of sources to find out what life is like.
“We’re looking at your website. We’re looking at the media. We’re looking at blogs, letters to the editor, all of these kinds of things to see what people are saying about the community,” he said. “We’re looking at you before you even know we’re looking at you.”
Though many national, state and regional entities play a role in economic development, Garner said, deals are “always sold on the local level.”
“There is one common denominator in the process, and that is the most important ingredient: leadership,” he said. “The quality of your public and private leadership is what differentiates a community every day in the economic development arena.”