Originally created 04/09/04

Group gets day to visit tournament

When two charter buses entered Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday morning, passers-by might have mistaken the hoopla for the arrival of royalty.

After all, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, is in town, making it easy to confuse the excited cheering and red carpet rollout for the royal treatment.

While Tim Schram and about 30 other corporate VIPs who stepped into a hospitality tent inside Gate 10 might not be in line for the throne, the entourage embodies much more than a figurehead. It stands for big business in Georgia.

Mr. Schram and the group of CEOs, consultants and company decision-makers are all members of this year's Red Carpet Tour, the state's premier economic development that hopes to woo business and investment to Georgia.

"After I learn more about the state this weekend, I can act as a conduit for my clients who are in the early stages of expansion," said Mr. Schram, an executive at Grant Thornton LLC, the country's fifth-biggest public accounting firm.

"The things that are important to them are availability of labor force, the highway system and quality of life issues."

For the past five years, Grant Thornton has worked on projects with the state's economic development arm, the Georgia Department of Industry Trade & Tourism, he said.

Inside the tent, the group sat through a few brief pep talks by area officials and was then treated to complimentary Bloody Marys before being escorted to the golf course by a local host.

Many were coy and careful to shield their identities, as is common when companies are looking to expand or relocate and don't want to tip off the competition or stir fear among their own workers. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which runs the tour, said those invited varied from manufacturers to biotech research firms.

Some of the name tags included notable companies, such as Miller & Martin, a leading Southeastern law firm with offices in Atlanta, Chattanooga and Nashville; The Temples Co., a commercial real estate firm headquartered in Vidalia, Ga.; the Shaw Group, a Canadian maker of building products; and Diversapack, an Atlanta company that makes plastic packing for commercial goods such as toilet paper.

For 45 years, the tour has swung through the state, attracting $6 billion in investments, according to the state chamber. Since 1988, the chamber credits the tour with creating 23,000 jobs.

The all-expenses-paid junket generally visits three cities in four days. Augusta is always one of them.

"Augusta is the central event in the most powerful economic development event in the world," said Charlene Sizemore, the chairwoman of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce and last year's state representative for the tour.

As is custom, the group stops in Augusta on Thursday and returns Saturday to attend the Masters Tournament, the tour's centerpiece.

"That gives us two full days to talk with these people," Ms. Sizemore said. "That's more than anyone else and why it's so important to us."

The other stops this year are Atlanta and Gainesville, Ga.

Gov. Sonny Perdue was expected to fly in from Atlanta, but got waylaid when lawmakers didn't balance the budget Wednesday on the last day of the legislative session. It's uncertain whether he will come to Augusta on Saturday.

Though many companies who chose to move to the Augusta area, such as John Deere and International Flavors & Fragrances, have had executives attend past tours, the economic downturn in recent years has led to a recruitment drought.

The last success came five years ago with a Sitel Corp. call center.

To adjust, area officials formed a local offshoot of the tour, called the Augusta Showcase. The group targets smaller companies and uses the days the Tour isn't in town to entertain and educate its guests about Augusta.

In the four years since the showcase started, it has met with limited success, attracting national clothing retailer April Cornell and the Selma, Ala.-based Benefit Development Group, which handles insurance policies for other companies.

"The Red Carpet is important but a lot of the time they're only coming in to see the golf and that's it," Mayor Bob Young said.

"Our local hosts try to talk to them about Augusta, but it's tough to do in a day at the golf course. There's no tour of the city or an industrial park or briefing about the infrastructure. We do that with the showcase, and that's why it will be a success."

Reach Matthew Mogul at (706) 823-3352

or matthew.mogul@augustachronicle.com.


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