Originally created 12/29/96

Augusta saw a mixed economy in 1996



Economists and business leaders warned of a slower economy in the Augusta area for 1996, and they were right overall.

But business leaders disputed the contention that Augusta was in a recession, a call made by Donald Ratajczak, Georgia State University's economic forecasting director, at midyear.

The year was mixed with announcements of new businesses and expansions, which brought or will bring a hefty number of new jobs, and business closings and layoffs.

The area is losing another local headquarters, too, with the merger of Thomson-based Allied Bancshares with Alabama-based Regions Bank. Meanwhile, with the passage of a new state banking law, Columbia County became a hotbed of competition.

The Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce was in its own hot bed with controversy over a recruitment letter, but hired a recruiter earlier this year to help it gain more jobs in the area.

Albert Niemi Jr., formerly dean of the University of Georgia School of Business Administration, said in January that Augusta's economy would slow down, especially because it had no official link to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Augusta's economy, he said, is sensitive to an expected decline in federal spending growth, so it probably won't keep pace with other metropolitan areas in the state.

That proved to be true regarding the area's unemployment figures, consistently the highest in the state this year.

The latest Georgia Department of Labor figures show that in November, the Augusta area had a 6.2 percent unemployment rate. That was better than the October 1996 and November 1995 rates, but still almost a whole point higher than the state's next highest metro area rate in Albany at 5.3 percent.

The Augusta area includes Richmond, Columbia and McDuffie counties in Georgia and Aiken and Edgefield counties in South Carolina.

Through the year, openings of new businesses, mostly in the retail sector, fueled optimism. Those openings included: Augusta Sports & Recreation, which brought about 75 jobs; an expanded Wal-Mart - in the new Southpointe shopping center in South Augusta - which provides 350 full-time and 143 part-time jobs; and the expanded Lowe's superstore on Bobby Jones Expressway, which provides about 265 jobs, a gain of about 100 jobs.

AT&T announced that it would bring 500 jobs in February with the opening of its operator assistance center, and grading has begun for the Augusta Exchange shopping center off Wheeler Road that will hold a Target department store.

Then there were the disappointments. While Colonial Baking Co. changed its name to Earthgrains and its corporation went public on the New York Stock Exchange, the corporation closed its Augusta bakery. Earthgrains Co. transferred production from its Augusta bakery to Atlanta, putting about 60 employees out of work.

The Wrightsboro Road Earthgrains plant will continue to be used for distribution in Augusta, and more than 115 sales employees remain in the Augusta market.

The Thomson Co. also announced 300 jobs would be lost at its men's apparel plant when it closes this year.

And in Waynesboro, officials are wondering what will become of the Sunbeam plant that employs 500. Corporate officials expect to sell the plant but could close it, such as Bruno's did with three area FoodMax grocery stores that left hundreds unemployed in November.

In Columbia County, the banking scene is in the process of changing. SunTrust Bank, Augusta, will open a major branch in January, and Wachovia Bank expects to gain a foothold within a year. Other banks are vying for market share, too.

The Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce has been vying to bring more jobs to the area under its Forward Together economic development program. It hired Marty Blubaugh from Henderson, Ky., to concentrate on luring companies and jobs.

Chamber President Al Hodge was disciplined for taking the recruitment drive too far. A letter was sent to the golf ball manufacturer Titleist against chamber rules. The letter urged the company to look at a site in Richmond County while it was considering a spot in Columbia County for a $50 million golf-ball factory.

Chamber officials won't say what the status of Mr. Hodge's job is for 1997, but have said that there will be changes at the chamber next year.