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IDA casts an eye on its I-16 tract
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A lengthy planning retreat Thursday night may lead Effingham Industrial Development Authority members to figure out what’s next in attracting more industries.

IDA members, poring over ideas and strategies for nearly three and a half hours, will look at the steps to make the northern side of the I-16 tract more appealing to potential industries.

"We kind of know what we need to focus on," said IDA CEO John Henry. "Implementation is the main thing. You can have the grandest plans. But until you turn dirt, it doesn’t get built."

The IDA has had interest, and a great deal of it, from potentially large prospects. There were six prospects large enough to be situated on the largest open space of the I-16 north tract.

"We need to make as much progress getting that megasite as market-ready as we can get it," said IDA Chairman Dennis Webb.

Some of those have located elsewhere, Henry said. But many potential clients continue to be "tire kickers."

"We had our busiest year last year," Henry said, noting the amount of interest the IDA’s holdings generated. "The tire kickers are kicking bigger tires."

IDA members also weighed how to accommodate prospects that aren’t as big in scope, and the IDA’s Governor Treutlen site might be able to fill that bill.

Veteran site selection consultant Jim Ewing, former top project manager for the state Department of Economic Development, urged the IDA to do what it could to make the site more visually appealing — particularly to international prospects.

Ewing replied that if he had $5 million to spend on the I-16 north site, that amount of money wouldn’t go far into putting in a road. His recommendation is clear the site and grass it, which could take as much as $1 million. He also advised that the IDA could make it pad ready, which is to get the land cleared and grubbed to where a building pad could be put down.

"Site prep is always money well spent," he said. "Foreign investors love to see that open area. They don’t have anything like that at home. The cleaner it is, the more open it is, the easier it is to market. If I had the money to spend, I’d open up the property."

Building a road back to the heart of the 1,550-acre northern side and its nearly 280 acre parcel in the heart of the property may take waiting until the IDA receives approval of its wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. There’s also the hurdle of delivering water and sewer service to the site, which could have a tab of almost $5 million.

The IDA is still in talks about acquiring the property needed for a road into the property, and getting that entrance road has been listed as a goal by IDA members.

Any water and sewer service to that tract likely would have to be built there, since the cost of extending lines from the county’s network is seen as prohibitive.

Henry said the IDA is well-situated to put something major at both I-16 and at Research Forest Tract. Both areas meet the qualifications for the state’s GRAD status, though work on Research Forest could be years away.

"We’re not going to have these 2,600 acres filled up within the next five years," he said.

The Transportation Investment Act’s upcoming vote, the T-SPLOST, also is seen as critical to the development of the Research Forest Tract. The proposed Effingham Parkway/Georgia Portway would bisect the sprawling property.

"If T-SPLOST passes," said IDA Chairman Dennis Webb, "our phone won’t stop ringing."


Lowering the numbers

Henry presented employment and labor market data to the IDA members, showing Effingham’s unemployment rate for December 2011 at 7.6 percent. In early 2007, Effingham’s jobless rate was near 3 percent.

The state’s current unemployment rate is 9.7 percent, and unemployment nationally is at 8.5 percent.

"Georgia is hurting. Rural Georgia is hurting," Henry said. "Once you start losing that labor force and lose that population, it’s hard to get it back. It’s hard to attract new employers."

The number of people in Effingham County who are employed has grown by 5.77 percent from 2005-12. The number of people in Effingham who were employed in 2005 was just below 24,500, and that number peaked above 27,500 in early 2008. It dipped to almost 25,500 in mid 2010.

Since 2005, the county’s labor force has grown by 10 percent, from just below to 25,500 and surging past 29,500 in 2009 before hitting its current mark of approximately 28,000.

Henry said there are positive indicators in for coastal Georgia’s economy.

"We’re an area that’s growing," he said. "We’ve got the momentum to make things happen."

Dr. Mark Toma, the director of Armstrong Atlantic State University’s Center for Regional Analysis, said many firms are waiting to see what happens with the November presidential elections before moving.

"Having the uncertainty removed is going to help in some respect," he said. "There are folks who are planning to make their moves later this year. This gives you some healthy space. So when the tire kickers are ready to go, you’re in place."

Dr. Toma also offered that the economy is starting to work its way off the bottom.

"The national economy is beginning to come around," he said.

The economic growth projected for Coastal Georgia will be headed in Effingham’s direction, Dr. Toma said. He also advised the IDA to set aside large tracts for potential "gamechangers," those businesses employing hundreds to thousands of potential workers. Smaller prospects won’t hire enough people to affect the county’s employment rate —it would take adding 300 jobs to drop the unemployment rate a full percentage point —and said the IDA’s strategy to focus on large sites is great to boost the per capita income.

"The local community has to be involved in workforce development," he said. "That’s a critical piece."