Columbia County at economic crossroad

In case you couldn’t tell from the luxury SUVs and sedans parked in front of all the McMansions, there are a lot of affluent people living in Columbia County.

 

There just aren’t many affluent people working in Columbia County.

More than two-thirds of the suburban community’s workforce – about 37,000 people (including yours truly) – cross the county line every day to make the payments on those Cadillac Escalades and BMW Series 7s (or Dodge Calibers, as the case may be).

That’s a plethora of physicians and professors departing for downtown Augusta. That’s an abundance of intelligence analysts ambling through security gates at Fort Gordon. That’s a prodigious number of plant managers and heads of production heading down to major manufacturing sites in south Richmond County. And that’s an enormous number of engineers and technicians making the long trek to Plant Vogtle in Burke County, or crossing into South Carolina to slog it out at Savannah River Site.

At the end of the day, all those workers burn more fossil fuel to get back home to participate in the soccer-industrial complex (or some other family-oriented diversion) for a few hours before falling asleep with the comfort of knowing they reside in a place where – for the most part – the schools are good, the citizenry is upright and the government is responsibly efficient.

And for many suburbanites, that’s pretty much all they expect out of their burg. That’s why they’re called “bedroom” communities. If residents wanted all the “stuff” that goes along with being the center of economic activity – lots of public-supported infrastructure, a robust social-services sector and “affordable” housing – they would have stayed in the city.

But it’s obvious from a community meeting last week that a good number of the county’s political and business elite aren’t content with the bedroom label alone.

Some community leaders want to see more residents earning paychecks in the same political subdivision where they lay their heads at night. That’s based on comments Wednesday at a breakfast to hype the Development Authority of Columbia County’s summerlong initiative to forge a new economic development strategy.

That’s why the county’s quasi-political industrial recruiter has selected an Atlanta-based economic development consultant, Garner Economics LLC, to help craft a five-year plan to create higher-paying (read nonretail) jobs in the county.

The firm’s head, Jay Garner, has nearly four decades of experience helping cities, counties and regions create the “product” that business and industry want to buy. He’s already said Columbia County’s main weakness appears to be its lack of development-ready industrial sites and office parks, which would immediately knock the county out of the running for many economic development projects

During the Georgia Power-sponsored event at Savannah Rapids Pavilion, Garner said the dearth of available industrial sites will have to be addressed if the county wants to stand out from the nation’s other 90,000 or so other political subdivisions.

“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,” he said. “It’s survival of the fittest.”

But what does economic development success in Columbia County look like, exactly? Is it creation of more “light” manufacturing, such as Club Car and John Deere? Is it encouraging more tech-focused corporate offices, such as TaxSlayer’s headquarters? Or is it paving the way for more health care facilities, such as the new hospital that county leaders have gone through gymnastlike contortions during the past three years to get Augusta University Health to build?

Most likely, it will be a combination of all three.

But that won’t be determined until after a comprehensive evaluation by Garner over the summer and fall that includes focus groups with business and community leaders and a web-based, open-to-all survey expected to be launched in July.

So if you have an opinion on the matter – and if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you do – get ready to share it when the survey comes out.

 

GOING, GOING...: Are you affluent and looking for the antithesis of suburban living? If so, you might want to contact the folks at Rex Property and Land. They are looking for someone to buy the last remaining condominium in The JB Whites Building that faces Broad Street. The two-bedroom, two-bath unit (No. 404) is the last room with a view, so to speak. I’d take it myself to reduce my commute time, but I don’t think my son would appreciate his new high school as much as his old one. Oh, and I’m not affluent.

 

ON THE JOBS FRONT: Georgia’s jobless rate in May fell to the lowest level since January 2008, which economists said was month two of the Great Recession.

The Georgia Department of Labor said Thursday that the state’s jobless rate for the month was 5.3 percent. Metro area jobless rates won’t be available until this week. Last month’s metro Augusta rate was 5.5 percent.

Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner said the state’s overall economy is in “pretty good shape right now” with the construction and technology sectors showing strength. He expects the state to add jobs at a faster rate than the nation as a whole in 2016.

“Augusta continues to see quite a bit of activity,” he said of the local market. “The buildup for the Army’s Cyber Command and the growth at (the National Security Agency facility) are continuing to bring new residents and a new industry to the region. Construction on Plant Vogtle continues to be a positive near term and will also help the region and attract and retain businesses over the long run.”

His economy-watching counterpart at Augusta University’s Hull College of Business, associate finance professor Simon Medcalfe, reported his Augusta Leading Economic Index for April edged up 0.3 percent from March and 1.9 percent from April 2015.

The index, the broadest measure of the Augusta-Aiken economy, is simple to read. Up is good, down is bad.

 

SPEAKING OF JOBS, AGAIN: The new Zaxby’s restaurant set to open soon at 1450 N. Liberty St. in Waynesboro is hoping to hire about 40 people. Go to zaxjobs.com to apply.

 

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE: There’s some bittersweet business news out there in the form of Georgia Bank & Trust Co.’s parent set to be acquired next year by Columbia-based South State Corp., South Carolina’s largest bank holding company.

The sweet part is that the South State Bank, though roughly five times larger than Georgia Bank & Trust, appears to operate more like a community bank than a regional. That’s good for the Augusta metro market, where Georgia Bank & Trust has been one of the most stalwart corporate citizens since it was founded in 1989.

The bitter part is that Augusta is without a locally based bank. Georgia Bank & Trust was the last remaining Augusta-headquartered bank after the 2015 acquisition of First Bank of Georgia by Atlanta-based State Bank & Trust. The closest we have to an Augusta-based bank now is Queensborough National Bank and Trust Co., which is actually based in Jefferson County, or Aiken’s Security Federal Bank.

The all-stock deal valued at $335 million won’t close until next year. Until then, the community will have to hope the new bank will, as its CEO, Robert R. Hill Jr., said, continue “the legacy of service in these communities.”

More