Originally created 12/13/04

Counties consider economic partnership



Officials from Richmond and Columbia counties will meet Wednesday in a last-ditch attempt to salvage plans for a regional economic development organization.

At stake is whether the two political entities will join Burke County to work hand-in-hand or will compete head-to-head to lure new business and industry to the Augusta area.

The proposed multicounty economic development entity, called the Augusta Regional Partnership, has been thwarted repeatedly in recent months by a faction of Richmond County leaders who believe the organization would be detrimental to the county. Weary of the gridlock, Columbia County officials voted last month to pursue a regional partnership without Richmond County.

Now they're ready to try again.

"The intent, from our standpoint, is to give it a last chance with all parties involved," said Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, who, along with Augusta Mayor Bob Young, organized the 10 a.m. Wednesday meeting at Boathouse Community Center at Augusta Riverfront Marina.

As in past meetings, officials who favor the partnership are sure to meet resistance.

Loren Perry, the chairman of Richmond County Development Authority and the most outspoken opponent of the plan, said his intent Wednesday is clear.

"We need to kill this initiative and put it to bed," he said.

Mr. Perry said he believes the regional marketing organization will not deliver Richmond County its fair share of industrial prospects and would create a bureaucratic Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce-type entity with little oversight.

In a letter urging Augusta commissioners not to support the partnership, the retired businessman wrote that the plan is an attempt by "the beleaguered chamber leadership to inject itself into local economic development as a means of tapping into the millions of dollars available from our county."

He also said that the chamber, when it filled the role of a regional marketing entity, mismanaged private-sector contributions to the Forward Together economic development initiative during the past 10 years.

"We do not specifically know where the funds were spent or what was accomplished under the guise of 'economic development,'" he wrote in the letter, which was published in its entirety in Saturday's editions of The Augusta Chronicle.

For years, the chamber had been contracted by the development authorities of Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties to lure new companies to the area. But internal strife during the administration of then-President James West led to a reorganization in 2002, that, among other things, ended the Augusta Metro chamber's role as a regional economic development agency.

Charlene Sizemore, the chairwoman of the Augusta Metro chamber and a board member of the Richmond County Development Authority, supports the regional proposal. She said chamber staff would in no way be involved in the new organization's management, something she said was agreed on when officials first discussed creating a new regional organization in 2002.

She also said Mr. Perry's allegations of financial malfeasance are absurd.

"Every chamber board member in the last 10 years will go on the record and say nothing he has said in that letter is true," she said.

She said the $6.3 million has been accounted for in annual reports that are given to the 157 individuals and corporations that donated the funding.

"The final report is due in January," she said.

The infighting has caught the attention of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the governmental agency that doles out industrial prospects to the state. It has long maintained that it would rather work with geographic regions rather than individual counties.

"It really boils down to strength in numbers," department spokesman Kevin Langston said. "It's more efficient. It makes more sense for them to band together than to go it alone.

"Companies obviously don't care about arbitrary political boundaries, and neither do workers."

Augusta Technical College President Terry Elam said he does not endorse the current plan but said he thinks the concept is worth pursing.

Mr. Elam, who also sits on the board of the Richmond County Development Authority, said a regional entity is needed to de-politicize the industrial recruitment process so the region's competing economic developers don't scare off a company before it has a chance to zero in on a site.

"How will we operate when (an industrial prospect) is interested in more than one county?" he said. "When folks first come here, they look at everything. There needs to be a group that coordinates that."

If negotiations fall through, Mr. Elam believes the private sector will band together to create a regional marketing group independent of the local governments, similar to the defunct Committee of 100 group that lured companies such as Procter & Gamble and International Paper to Augusta during the 1960s.

Mr. Perry said the Richmond County Development Authority, whose contract with the Augusta Metro chamber expires Jan. 1, needs to be given a chance to do economic development on its own.

"We don't want another body supervising us - we want to do that for once in our lifetime," he said. "If we can do that, you'll be amazed at what can happen in this community."

Regional development group

THE ISSUE: Community leaders want to create an organization to market the Augusta region to business and industry. The Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce stopped doing industrial recruitment after a reorganization two years ago.

THE CONFLICT: Some Richmond County officials are leery of the plan to revive a multicounty marketing organization, saying it will too closely resemble the Augusta Metro chamber, which they allege mismanaged economic development funds. Richmond County officials also say they would not benefit from the partnership as much as Burke and Columbia counties.

THE OUTCOME: Without a regional organization, counties would compete for industrial projects interested in the area.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.