The Effingham Industrial Development Authority is weighing a proposal on economic and infrastructure services for its Research Forest Tract.
Herbert Barber of Xicon forwarded a proposal to conduct economic, technical and financial analysis for the Research Forest Tract, for a fee of $198,000. The analysis will include what Barber called an argument to present to public and private sectors and the preparation for that argument.
“We have a lot of land in Effingham County,” said Barber, who has doctorates in industrial technology and engineering. “We’re at a crossroads in how we address that — how do we get from where we are today to filling the site? It’s time for us to do something about ourselves.”
Barber said the efforts to turn the Research Forest Tract into a haven for prospects started in rooms such as where the IDA was meeting and not in the halls of Washington and Atlanta.
“We’re sitting on $40 million worth of land, and we’re paying the debt on it,” he said. “We’re sitting right on top of the ports and the interstates. The work is there. The money is there.
“We’ve got the property and it looks pretty sitting out there. But we have very minimal infrastructure. Without it, we’re going to fight an uphill battle day in and day out to get companies in here.”
Building an argument, based on science, to present to those who control financial capital is crucial, according to Barber.
“In my opinion, this is the only choice you have for Effingham County,” he said. “That is the approach that needs to be taken to get even more economic output. We’re going to do our homework so they would be hard-pressed to say ‘no.’”
Barber outlined what he called the preliminary problems — an abundance of industrial land, higher debt burden, minimal borrowing capacity and limited infrastructure. Secondary problems, he noted, were higher unemployment, fewer people working, a weak economy and reduced income, spending and tax revenue per capita.
“We are regressing,” Barber said. “We are seeing fewer and fewer people working.”
Effingham’s unemployment rate for March was 5.6 percent, the lowest in the Coastal Region.
Original cost estimates for Research Forest Tract infrastructure were pegged at $46 million, and Barber said the goal was to disseminate the argument to state and federal governments, especially to the state Department of Transportation.
The idea, Barber continued, is to have a successful argument and develop a portfolio to present. Private sector entities likely would focus more on the financial analysis in the argument.
IDA member Dick Knowlton recommended that any argument developed needs to be shown to private sector interests and not just those in state and federal governments. He also suggested finding two or three of the top land use companies in the U.S.
“I want it to be written for Warren Buffett as well,” he said.
IDA member Chap Bennett said having such a proposal to present to state and federal governments can help, especially when going after assistance with road work.
“The idea is a lot broader than that,” he said. “This should be a way to get others to the table to help us. The (Pooler) megasite started with the convincing argument that it was the best site up and down the coast. You’ve got to prove that you have a gem of a property. It’s going to work and it’s going to repay that digest. We bought the land — we need the doggone road. I don’t think we have the means to develop the property. This allows us to get what we’ve got in motion.”
Barber said he has looked at the private sector and quasi-governments.
“I have less and less confidence in Washington,” he said. “There are lots and lots of resources out there beyond the public sector. Let’s don’t take any cards off the table. Let’s see what’s out there.”
Getting a road into the tract, said IDA CEO John Henry, is paramount.
“Without a road, everything else is moot,” he said. “It’s probably the best site in the Southeast, with the two rail lines. That’s the question — the road. If we can argue that, we’ll have more development partners than you can shake a stick at.”
The nation’s manufacturing sector has been declining for 25 years, Barber said, and Effingham is in position to reverse that trend.
“This is a fantastic opportunity,” he said. “Who’s in a position to develop an economic sector in the state of Georgia? It’s right here. It is here. If you don’t go with us, go with somebody. But please do it.”
The investment is $200,000 with a potential return of $50 million, Barber said.
“Somebody in Georgia needs to take a stab at revitalizing the manufacturing sector in Georgia,” he said. “This is your investment in the economic well-being of Effingham County. I already know this is going to work. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have argued so hard for it.”
“It might be $500 million,” Bennett said of the return on investment in the Research Forest Tract. “If we do it right, it’s going to be benefit everybody in the county.”
IDA members did not act on the proposal at their last meeting, since that kind of expense was not built into its current budget.