Effingham County business and government leaders are trying to find ways to broaden the county’s retail and commercial sector, after the annual Effingham Chamber of Commerce-sponsored community retreat.
“We need to kickstart some things in the county to help spur and make this economy move faster,” said Peggy Jolly, economic development specialist for Georgia Power.
Effingham County Industrial Development Authority CEO John Henry said the economy in Effingham has had a bad couple of years and now there’s a push for retail recruitment.
“It’s become a much bigger issue this year,” he said.
Though many companies have slowed or stalled their growth and expansion plans in the face of economic uncertainty, “there are some things we can do,” Henry said.
“It is not going to happen by itself,” he added. “Somebody’s got to be out there be pushing, somebody’s got to be out there marketing. We’re taking part of that role on. It’s an entire community that has to come together. We have to have certain things in place.”
There are statistics that bode well for the community, Henry pointed out. The county is projected to have a 3.94 percent growth rate in households through 2014, twice as fast as the state’s projection and four times faster than the national average.
“That bodes well for us in retail recruitment,” he said.
The county’s median household income is growing at a 1.23 percent clip, nearly twice that of the state (.64 percent) and more than the national average (.8 percent).
“That’s pretty dadgum good,” Henry noted. “We have some things going for us.”
But many retail outfits, such as nationally franchised restaurants, prefer to have a larger concentration of people within a certain radius. Longhorn requires 75,000 people within a 15-minute drive, Henry pointed out, and Olive Garden requires 100,000 people within a 15-minute drive. Since two-thirds of the county’s labor force is employed outside of Effingham, there isn’t the daytime population to support many of those interests.
“We don’t have enough people working in the county to sustain a lunch crowd. It’s a hard sell,” he said.
Still, those that have franchisees operating their locations are willing to let the franchisee risk his capital, while others are concerned about protecting their brand name and don’t want to see their company associated with a location in danger of closing.
“You’ve got to make it easy for these guys,” Henry said. “We’re going to keep plugging away at them.”
Pollyann Martin, a commercial real estate specialist from Vidalia, said she twice tried to get Chick-Fil-A interested in her town. But the fast food giant said the town was too small for them each time.
“Don’t be afraid to try,” Martin said, “but be realistic in your approach.”
She also said that many industrial companies seek to eliminate potential sites before picking where they go. Retailers, she said, are more receptive.
“They’re not looking to eliminate a location. They’re looking to move to a location,” she said.
Martin told Effingham leaders that those retail interests also will have done most of their research online before choosing a new spot.
“You need to maintain a strong Web presence with up to date information,” she said. “Nothing upsets them more than seeing a site with 2004 traffic information.”
Henry pointed out that the Facebook site “1,000 People That Support Restaurants and Movie Theater in Effingham” has over 3,000 friends. He also said the word has to be spread about Effingham’s continued growth and that is one of the top-10 fastest growing mid-sized counties in the nation.
“We’ve got to get that message out. We’ve got to let people know that,” he said. “We’ve got to act like real estate agents for the entire community.”
Effingham Chamber Chairman Randy Shearouse said a unified front is important in drawing new businesses to the community and in pushing the county forward.
“There are things we can do to improve our county as a destination for tourists, a destination for industry and a destination for retail businesses,” he said. “Whatever we can do to make that happen sooner, the better for Effingham County. We always push working together, because it truly takes everyone. We all benefit.”