Originally created 07/21/02

Chamber developing economic growth plan



When it comes to economic development, there's apparently no textbook way to do it.

The Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, which is in a transition to new leadership, is trying to figure out the best way to make it work here.

"There's almost as many different approaches as there are cities and counties in the state," said Cullen Larson, executive director of the Georgia Economic Developers Association. "Communities tend to kind of go back and forth between different models."

Every city has structures in place to land the next factory, high-tech lab or distribution center so that it can make a big announcement about more jobs and an expanded tax base.

But Augusta has not had such an announcement in some time. And the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, which is paid to market Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties to industries, has taken the heat for it.

Chamber Chairman Robert Osborne said the slowdown has simply been a reflection of a contracting national economy.

"It's not like a lot of places have seen a huge increase in the last two years or building plants," he said.

However, Mr. Osborne said, the chamber is working on potential projects with capital investment of $206 million - more prospects than the chamber has had in a while.

Before Jim West resigned as chamber president last month, he had begun trying to raise confidence in the chamber's recruiting efforts.

The chamber had always closely guarded the names of the companies it was wooing, but Mr. West began publicizing a list of projects - with code names - that the economic-development staff was working on.

It was not enough to assuage public criticism from the Augusta Commission about the chamber's performance.

Since January, the county has been holding on to the contract money it traditionally gives the chamber for marketing, about $37,500 a quarter.

City Administrator George Kolb and state Sen. Charles Walker, who heads the Richmond County Development Authority, have proposed a new economic development office run by the city.

Although Mr. Kolb has created a rough description of the three-person office, including a preliminary budget of $400,000, its mission has not been finalized.

"There isn't any doubt that the city needs to establish its own economic-development department," Augusta Mayor Bob Young said. "Now, what role that department's going to play hasn't been decided yet."

The worst thing a city can do is create too many offices with redundant messages, other chamber officials say. In the early 1990s, Macon suffered because too many people were trying to improve the city.

People in city government, county government, on the industrial authority and in the chamber were trying to recruit industry.

"It was very confusing. Nobody knew who to call when they had a prospect," said Patrick Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission.

The commission was created as a public-private partnership to combine government and chamber funding under one economic development umbrella.

Now, Mr. Topping said, the city speaks primarily with a single voice, which helps it react quickly to prospects.

"Back then, it was a problem," he said. "Now it would be even more of a problem because the time constraints for these projects are so compressed that people don't have time to go all throughout the community and figure out who to talk to."

In Columbus, chamber officials say they work closely with the consolidated government and area authority boards, but it's understood that the chamber takes the lead on economic-development inquires.

"The first call comes to us, and we pull in all the various partners and pieces that we need for a support role," said Michael Gaymon, the chamber's president.

Who's in charge does not seem to matter as much as having a single voice marketing the community.

Savannah's chamber of commerce focuses more on small and existing businesses and programs for its members, duties that Augusta's chamber also must pay assume.

Targeting large industry is the responsibility of a separate, independent board, the Savannah Economic Development Authority.

SEDA gets the bulk of its funding from the industrial parks it owns and markets to prospects. One 1,600-acre park near the Savannah International Airport holds distribution centers for Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Michael's and Dollar Tree.

Pier 1 recently announced plans to build a distribution center at the park. And the Georgia Institute of Technology soon will create a satellite 50-acre campus for an engineering program that city leaders hope will help attract more high-tech employers to the area.

"We've not been accused of not doing a good job of it," said SEDA's president, Rick Winger. "I don't think anyone sees the need to create a new entity to do the same thing."

Savannah's city government has its own economic-development office, which focuses on small business and targeted neighborhoods.

But Bill Hubbard, president of Savannah's chamber, said there's still a clear division of labor among the groups, even when their paths cross.

"There's no rub. So consequently they don't look for more power, and we don't look for more power," he said.

Reorganizing economic-development strategies is not always a smooth process. Athens-Clarke County, which recently created a new group to consolidate the area's marketing, went through some rough patches in the changeover.

"There was some politics involved, some territorial issues," said Kevin Johnson, president of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce. "But once those issues were resolved it became clear this was the right thing for us to do. The Economic Development Foundation is funded by the county's chamber, economic-development authority and the University of Georgia.

"It's up to an individual community to manage the process. In Augusta, it sounds like you all are trying to rethink how you're going to respond to economic development."

That's exactly what Augusta's chamber officials are working on now, said Ed Presnell, a local businessman who was recently named interim president of the chamber.

After less than a month in the position, he said, he does not have a definite answer yet for what those structure changes should be.

"My responsibility is to figure out how to put the right pieces together," he said. "We can't wait too long. We're on an aggressive pace."

First, the chamber must solidify its relationship with its contracting county governments, Mr. Osborne said.

"The first and foremost issue we're going to look at is what needs to be done on a regional basis," he said.

The idea of regional marketing was something Mr. West stressed heavily before leaving, and Mr. Presnell is emphasizing it as well.

It might not be the most politically popular approach to economic development because it might mean developing sites outside Richmond County. But chamber officials say it is the only way to remain competitive with other regions that market that way.

"The only people that really are concerned where the county lines are are the elected officials," said Macon's Mr. Topple.

Mr. Osborne said the regional approach would not require much change to the existing structure because it already markets Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

If the relationships improve, there's room for the chamber to expand its regional approach to Aiken and Edgefield counties.

Mr. Osborne said that discussions he has had with Mr. Kolb lead him to believe the city's plan for its own economic development office will not end up stepping on the chamber's toes.

In fact, he said, at the end of this evaluation period, the area's approach to economic development might not look that different from the existing one.

"My opinion is that we're going to tweak this thing in the structure of it, to make it more effective, but we don't have to start over," Mr. Osborne said. "A good person can overcome this thing. To me it's not rocket science."

ACTIVE PROJECTS

The Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce is working on 19 code-named economic development projects. Altogether, the companies would generate an estimated 3,990 jobs and $194 million in investment.

PROJECT: Terra

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Manufacturing

NEW JOBS: 1,000

SIZE: 450,000-square-foot building on 130-acre site

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $70 million

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PROJECT: Buddy

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond or Columbia counties

INDUSTRY: Call center

NEW JOBS: 1,000

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $12 million

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PROJECT: Pearl

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond or Columbia counties

INDUSTRY: Call center

NEW JOBS: 750

SIZE: 50,000 square feet

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $10 million

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PROJECT: Black

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond or Columbia counties

INDUSTRY: Manufacturing

NEW JOBS: 250

SIZE: 150,000 square feet on 15 acres

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $10 million

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PROJECT: Page

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond or Columbia counties

INDUSTRY: Corporate headquarters

NEW JOBS: 250

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $9 million

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PROJECT: American

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond or Columbia counties

INDUSTRY: Call center

NEW JOBS: 150

SIZE: 30,000 square feet

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $5 million

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PROJECT: Equis

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Office

NEW JOBS: 125

SIZE: 18,000 square feet

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $3 million

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PROJECT: Monitor

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Office

NEW JOBS: 100

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $5 million

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PROJECT: Gene

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Manufacturing

NEW JOBS: 100

SIZE: 35,000 square feet

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $30 million

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PROJECT: Signature

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Retail

NEW JOBS: 75

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $3 million

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PROJECT: Antibody

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Manufacturing

NEW JOBS: 50

SIZE: 15,000 square feet

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $7 million

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PROJECT: Canada

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Manufacturing

NEW JOBS: 30

SIZE: 40,000 square feet

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $3 million

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PROJECT: Truck

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Columbia County

INDUSTRY: Warehouse

NEW JOBS: 30

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $5 million

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PROJECT: Pyro

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Manufacturing

NEW JOBS: 15

SIZE: 13,000 square feet

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $5 million

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PROJECT: SMD

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Manufacturing

NEW JOBS: 15

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $3 million

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PROJECT: Chair

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Manufacturing

NEW JOBS: 15

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $3 million

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PROJECT: State

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Columbia County

INDUSTRY: Warehouse

NEW JOBS: 15

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $3 million

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PROJECT: Klara

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Research and development

NEW JOBS: 10

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $5 million

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PROJECT: Path

POTENTIAL LOCATION: Richmond County

INDUSTRY: Research and development

NEW JOBS: 10

SIZE: Unknown

CAPITAL INVESTMENT: $3 million

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227 or vicky.eckenrode@augustachronicle.com.