Georgia has long been recognized as a tale of two cities - its metro areas thriving, its rural areas lagging.
But the state has a new economic development program and a beefed-up tax incentive program to try to change all that.
Georgia's General Assembly this year overwhelmingly approved Gov. Roy Barnes' 25-year plan to pour up to $1.6 billion into economic development efforts aimed at helping rural Georgia catch up with more prosperous urban and suburban communities.
Lawmakers also revised the Business Expansion and Support Act jobs tax credit program, increasing the number of economically disadvantaged counties eligible for job tax credits and increasing the amount of credit for each job created.
"Some counties are having an easier time than others," said Chuck Meadows, Georgia deputy policy director. "We recognize that a lot of the economic activity is centering around the Atlanta area, but when you get into the outlying counties of Georgia, particularly some of the more rural areas, they need more support, particularly in the area of economic development."
The OneGeorgia legislation creates an authority with the power to dole out grants to clinch deals with companies interested in locating in rural parts of the state. The grants would be used for infrastructure such as highways, water and sewer systems, industrial parks and for downtown revitalization projects.
The name OneGeorgia comes from the initiative's goal of uniting the state economically rather than having an affluent metro Atlanta and a second Georgia that is economically lagging. Of Georgia's 159 counties, 106 would be eligible for the money.
"We're looking for ways to bolster the economy and recruit new jobs, and one of the ways is by supporting some of the efforts that we have that work toward business retention or business recruitment," Mr. Meadows said. "The OneGeorgia Authority actually works with local groups such as chamber organizations, municipalities and development authorities to help these economic development projects progress."
The governor's plan sets aside one-third of Georgia's tobacco settlement money to establish the OneGeorgia Fund. He has proposed the state commit $63 million this year - and $1.6 billion during the next quarter-century - to OneGeorgia.
The BEST program has been around since 1994, but has undergone several revisions, Mr. Meadows said. In this past legislative session, the governor increased the dollar amount of tax credit for each job created.
In the BEST program, counties are assigned to tiers based on per capita income, percent in poverty and average unemployment. The most economically disadvantaged counties are in the first tier, while wealthier counties, such as Columbia County, are in the fourth tier. The changes to BEST become effective Jan. 1.
This is how the program works under the revised plan:
Those companies moving to a first-tier county would have to create five new jobs to be eligible for the job tax credits. That company would receive a $3,500 per job tax credit against its state corporate income tax for five years.
"This is the highest dollar amount that's ever been made available," Mr. Meadows said.
Invostyle, an Eastman, Ga., truck cover manufacturer, announced plans Aug. 22 to expand and add 85 jobs. The company had considered closing the plant but decided to stay in Eastman rather than relocate to Mexico or move the operation to an existing facility in Colorado. And much of the credit was given to the governor's plans to offer incentives to industry.
"No state in the nation has a more aggressive tax incentive program for rural areas that are lagging behind than Georgia does," Mr. Barnes said in making the announcement at Eastman. "You create a new job, you get the tax credit."
Lincoln County will be one of the first in line for OneGeorgia money when the first appropriations are made next year, said Alana Burke, executive director of Lincoln County's Chamber of Commerce. Plans are on the drawing board for a major resort and conference center, complete with a golf course, restaurant, tennis courts and health facility. It is a plan that would create an estimated 200 jobs. It is also a plan lacking in funding.
But it is a step in the right direction, a step away from relying on a handful of industries to support its economy and a plan with an eye on tourism, one of Georgia's major growth industries.
"We want to support those industries that have helped these counties get where they are, but we also want to bring in features of the new economy - such as more technology oriented projects - so we can try to create new sources of wealth in some of these counties," Mr. Meadows said. "We just want to make sure they can compete in the new economy."
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.