Originally created 05/12/02

Georgia wants a foreign affair



CLAYTON, Ga. - Two months before a bus load of diplomats arrived in rural Rabun County, community leaders pondered how best to show off their area to the foreign representatives who could refer overseas employers to industrial sites in the north Georgia mountains.

Should the tour include existing factories, a world-famous boarding school or the rolling fairways of the area's exclusive golf resorts?

"Everybody saw the need, the importance," said Randy Dilliot, executive director of the Rabun County Development Authority. "You don't get an opportunity like this every day."

Given the short time available, the local leaders opted to skip the yarn factory for the resorts and school during the tour two weeks ago.

"The impression I was after is the lifestyle up here is similar to a place you'd want to vacation," Mr. Dilliot said, adding that he believed such amenities were important to the executives of the high-tech companies targeted.

Though Georgia cities don't often play host to international diplomats, they do face the challenge of image-making for the purpose of industrial development both through their own efforts and those of the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism, which organized the diplomatic tour and plans to take it to Augusta next year. The process requires honest self-appraisal, aiming for the possible instead of harboring an unrealistic pipe dream.

It wasn't a pipe dream in the 1820s when gold was discovered in the north Georgia hills, bringing a flood of prospectors, homesteaders and small businesses. But the country's first gold rush dissipated in the 1850s when miners rushed to California, where there had been a richer strike. Today, Mr. Dilliot and his colleagues in the other north Georgia counties hope to strike gold again.

With a population of 15,000 and hilly terrain that allows construction of only modest-size factories, Rabun leaders set their sights on small- and medium-size companies.

"To say we want other industries of that size, we're not sure we could even begin to handle that," Mr. Dilliot told the visitors over a five-course dinner at the posh Waterfall at Lake Burton golf resort.

Factories aren't a good fit because there is no rail service or natural gas cutting through the terrain. So tourism is replacing chicken farming as the dominant industry, a trend that is obvious to diplomats such as Jan Meijer, Sweden's honorary consul.

"When you're down in Atlanta, that's where business is," he said.

Yet, in neighboring Union County, the local government still aims for business of the traditional manufacturing kind, deciding to bulldoze a few hills to create a 100-acre industrial park. The $3.5 million investment in flat land is designed to shorten the construction time for any company locating in the town of Blairsville, where the population of 659 includes 200 prisoners.

Tom Murphy, executive director of the Union County Economic Development Authority, directed the tour's bus past the new industrial park as well as the old park containing the factory for Georgia Boot, which closed March 30, sending 300 workers to the unemployment lines.

"I'm going to show you the bad, too," Mr. Murphy told the diplomats.

Farther down the road, Dahlonega community leaders met at the Smith House Restaurant for a brief huddle before the tour joined them for lunch. Lumpkin County Commissioner Steve Gooch assigned speaking parts to the various business and political representatives, making sure that all of the area's assets would get mentioned during the fried-chicken luncheon.

In Young Harris, over a dinner of trout and roast beef, community leaders minimized the speechmaking and instead offered a floor show of politicians buck-dancing to fiddle music.

After all, it is the personal connections that prove to be the most valuable on trips such as this, said Jim Steed, former state deputy commissioner of industry, trade and tourism.

"In what we do, it's marketing, marketing and marketing - and getting to know people," said Mr. Steed, who organized the first tour in 1985. "We teach the VIPs on the tour that Georgia has a pro-business attitude."

Dignitaries on the tour say it is a valuable service to the local communities and the diplomats. Kent Fallesen, Danish trade commissioner, who has been on two other tours, says the trips provide insight and personal connections that distinguish Georgia communities from others in surrounding states.

"We all cover very big territories, but when the GDITT does this, it creates awareness," he said. "In a way, they are very smart. We have plenty of places to choose from, and being familiar with Georgia helps us. ... It shows me how different Georgia is. ... When you look at the figures on paper, it's one thing, but it's better after you have been there."