Columbia County officials have a lot of soul searching to do.
The development authority's finances have dwindled, and its two industrial parks are nearly full.
In 1993, the development authority was infused with a $7.5 million revenue bond that it used to buy the 399-acre Horizon South Industrial Park for approximately $2.5 million and fund its development. Combined with $4.23 million in sales tax money to extend water and sewer lines to Horizon South, it was a significant investment toward industrial development.
Now only $459,058 remains in that account, according to County Finance Director Leanne DeLoach. The authority's only revenue to pay the 17-year bond is from land sales and interest: $214,800 is in that account.
"That's all the money they've got left to spend, so you can see they don't have a whole lot of money," said Ms. DeLoach. "The development authority pretty much operates off of bond monies; they don't get any general monies. They don't do anything to generate money. Any money they have to spend comes from bonds. This bond was issued back in March 1993, but of course it's just about all spent."
The county kicked in $678,000 last year to supplement the authority's budget and to help it make payments on the bond -- that's 2.28 percent of the county's $29.6 million general fund.
The interest and principal for 2000 on the note will be a total of $455,000, Ms. DeLoach said. But there are 11 years and $6.3 million left to pay, an amount the county will pay if the development authority doesn't have the funds.
With an industrial prospect eyeing the last remaining large site in Horizon South -- 105 acres -- the development authority is left with only 32 acres to sell.
Market conditions and negotiations with companies will determine the price for that property, but the most recent sale, in April, was approximately 26 acres at a cost of $9,000 an acre. That was to Griffith's Corp., which supplies parts for nearby John Deere.
In Evans, there are only about 16 county-owned acres left in the Columbia County Industrial District.
And now, county officials are asking what's next.
"We need to put some sort of planning initiative together to deal with these issues," said Ronald Thigpen, chairman of the development authority. "We need to address requirements for additional land and explore whatever funding alternatives are available for that. If we are going to remain competitive throughout the state for economic development, obviously we're going to have to acquire and develop additional land so we can attract and place those companies."
But how do you put a price tag on economic development? It is a question that the county commission will weigh before rubber stamping any new projects.
"My question is, what is the county getting for such a large expenditure -- what have you got for $7 million bucks?" said Commissioner Frank Spears. "It's very few jobs. If you also look at the businesses that have been attracted to that park -- are they new businesses, or are they ones that have just transferred from neighboring counties? We are spending a large amount of money, what are the citizens getting in return? That question, in my mind, needs to be studied and carefully analyzed."
The industries in Horizon South employ about 459, but most moved to the park from neighboring Richmond County. The county has yet to fill its speculative building, which was financed with another bond issue and seems to have developed a slow leak of industries moving out of the county.
Just this week, U.S. Battery announced plans to locate a new plant in Richmond County, and it's likely it will phase out its plant in Evans. Also, Blue Dot, a golf cart supplier, announced plans this year to move out of Columbia County and build a new plant in McDuffie County.
"Job creation is very important, but we need to analyze all of this," said Mr. Spears. "Now as we go to the next venture because this park is filled, we have to ask where are we going to go next. Do we need to be in the business of creating industrial parks?"
But County Commission Chairman Jim Whitehead said he believes park development is necessary to remain competitive. Because of land availability in the Harlem/Appling area, it is likely that any new project will be developed there.
"I think we've got to bear that cost if we are going to try to proceed to bring industry into the county," said Mr. Whitehead. "Anybody that doesn't realize how that works probably doesn't see the need for it, but it's a tremendous tool to bring industry in, such as what we have out at Horizon South. We would have never had all of that had it not been for the park."
Horizon South employment
employs 110, opened June 1996, moved from Richmond County.
Employs 237, opened March 1991, before the park was developed
Employs 25, opened 1998, moved from Richmond County.
United Medical Enterprises:
Employs 25, moved from Richmond County.
Employs 37, opened March 1993, moved from Richmond County.
Titan Distribution Inc.:
Employs 25, opened in December 1998, moved from Belair Frontage Road in Martinez.