Valerie Gray and Kimberly Fuller of the Chambers County Development Authority discussed a competitive realities report prepared earlier this year for Chambers County at a recent meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Valley.
In May of this year the CCDA retained Garner Economics LLC of Atlanta to do the report and offer recommendations on specific businesses the county should pursue.
It took approximately 12 weeks to do the study. It looked at such factors as the county’s population, education levels, demographics, community assets and the like. The analysis concluded with four types of target businesses Chambers County should be pursuing.
For comparison purposes, Chambers County was ranked alongside Hall County, GA., Newton County, GA., the state of Alabama and the U.S.
With the report’s minuses far outweighing the pluses, it does provide some gloom and doom reading for anyone who would like to see Chambers County grow and its people prosper.
On the surface it may seem unfair to compare Chambers County to Newton and Hall counties. Both are in the burgeoning metro Atlanta area. Officials in those counties don’t need to do a lot to find growth, it finds them. Largely because of where they are, these two counties saw greater population growth over the past 10 years than Chambers County has people. Both added more than 33,000 people, or the number of people who were living in Chambers County in 2010.
The two counties were used for benchmark purposes because they often compete with Chambers County for new businesses and industries.
On the positive side, the report notes a number of advantages for Chambers County that new businesses and industries are looking for. These include access to markets, central location for both regional and national markets, being well positioned to serve international markets, the presence of an Interstate highway and a major railroad, the availability of cheap labor and more than enough water and sewer service.
Negatives include not having good access to capital from the local area to help in starting businesses, local taxes, a high crime level, not enough housing, a lack of major shopping places, not much diversity in the way of restaurants and a community that’s just not very attractive to visitors.
A big minus is the fact the county continues to lose population. Chambers County lost a total of 2,335 people between 2000 and 2010. The median age for Chambers County is 41.5 years. This is from 3.6 to 7 years older than the other areas it’s compared to. The county also has a higher population of people who are over 50 than these other areas.
Compared to the other areas, Chambers County has a high percentage of residents whose highest level of education is between grades 9 and 12. The county’s average wage per job ($30,262) and per capita income ($27,504) are significantly lower than the other areas.
Across the U.S., the average wage per job is over $47,000 a year. It’s right at $40,000 in Alabama and in Hall County, GA., and $38,000 in Newton County.
Gray said some of the weaknesses listed are surprising, one of them being broadband access. Given the fact Knology has roots in the area one would think that wouldn’t be the case. “We’re now involved in a broad-band initiative to do something about that,” she said.
While the county has a lot of cheap labor, it lacks skilled labor. Gray attributes that, in part, to the loss of WestPoint Home. “When they started downsizing, the skilled workers and pay scale left the area,” she said.
The county also has a high rate of people filing for disability.
The study does offer some helpful advice on the types of businesses and industries the county should be pursuing. Four major targets are (1) food manufacturing, (2) logistics and warehousing, (3) diversified-demand manufacturing and (4) continuing care/retirement communities.
Food manufacturing that may be well suited for the area includes dog and cat food breakfast cereal, frozen specialty food, ice cream and frozen desserts and so on.
Some people may scoff at the idea of making dog food for a living, but before they do they need to consider the fact that average annual earnings for the industry is just under $73,000 a year. It’s over $78,000 a year in the cereal business.
Interstate and rail access, along with good water and sewage are good factors for these type businesses. It’s also good for logistics and warehousing, something that should benefit from an increase in U.S. manufacturing activity, developing global markets and the rise of consumer spending that will be taking place as the economy improves.
As our population ages, there will be a greater need for continuing care and retirement communities (or active adult centers). According to the Census Bureau, the share of the U.S. population that’s 65 and increases by some 500,000 people every year. Due to advances in medical care and longer life expectancy, the segment of the U.S. population that’s 85 and older is expected to grow at about three times the national population growth rate.
Future demand will be for facilities with technological advances and new architectural designs in semi-rural locations that are not too far away from population centers. The presence of skilled heath-care workers and support facilities will be critical.
Gray said it’s important for the CCDA to be diverse in its pursuit of prospects. “We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket” she said. “We may have less bigger announcements in the future.”
A company locating here may bring 50 jobs rather than 250, but if you get eight or ten of those you may be better off than having the one business with 250 employees If they shut down it’s a huge loss. It’s not likely that all 10 smaller firms with 50 people will all be shutting down at the same time.
Gray added that the CCDA would have a more carefully targeted approach. “We don’t need to shoot for everything that comes by, but when we do we don’t want to miss,” she said.
Fuller said it’s important for the CCDA to stay focused and to not do anything alone, to remain connected to small businesses, local governments and the healthcare industry. There’s always work that can be done in improving the local talent pipeline. “We have interns coming to the office from local schools,” she says. “We teach them about our community and encourage them to consider staying here.”
In being of assistance to small businesses, the CCDA has a checklist of items that need to be done when getting started. It’s a guide that tells that business when to apply for utilities, to get a business license, when’s the best time to hire and so on. “It takes you step by step through the process,” Fuller said. “It tells you when to do it and who to contact.”
There’s also a program advising small businesses how to apply for grants that are available. Small businesses can also get advice on building a website and making it look professional.
The CCDA will be launching a shop local initiative in October.
One suggestion made by the Garner study was to take a serious look at consolidation. “We’ve been asked by local officials to accept proposals on this,” Fuller said. Alabama State and Auburn have expressed interest in doing such a study.
“We’re always open to new ideas,” Fuller said. “More heads are better than two.”