In a region known as the “Carpet Capital of the World” due to the large number of carpet manufacturing plants in the area, the Dalton-Whitfield County Joint Development Alliance has spearheaded efforts to expand and build upon this heritage to become a major manufacturing center in the region for a variety of industries.
Located in Northwest Georgia, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dalton and Whitfield County has emerged as a prime location for business expansion, relocation and economic development. Located 25 miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee and 85 miles north of Atlanta on Interstate 75, the County has always been something of a crossroads of transportation and logistics – indeed, it is within a day’s drive of half of the United States’ population.
With over 150 carpet manufacturing plants in the area employing more than 30,000 people, more than 90 percent of carpet produced in the world today is made within a 65-mile (105 km) radius of the City of Dalton. This strong manufacturing heritage dates back to the 1890s when a teenage girl, Catherine Evans Whitener gave a tufted bedspread as a wedding gift to her brother Henry Alexander Evans and his wife Elizabeth Cramer. The bedspread was noted for replicating a quilt pattern and running stitches into unbleached muslin, and for clipping the ends of the yarn to fluff it out and washing the spread in hot water to hold the yarn in. With a strong public interest in these well-crafted bedspreads, Miss Evans began selling her wares, and they soon became so popular that the need for automates needles and textile fabric on the factory floor drove the development of a massive industry for the area.
When mechanized carpet making was developed after World War II, Dalton became the center of the carpeting industry, as specialized tufting skills were required and the city had a ready pool of workers with those skills.
Brian Anderson, President and CEO of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce, says that Dalton’s historic ties to carpet manufacturing give the city an advantage when it comes to attracting new manufacturing businesses. “We have always had a workforce that is adaptable to 24/7 manufacturing operations,” he explains. “This culture is enabling us to successfully go after and recruit manufacturing entities, auto suppliers, and advanced manufacturing companies.”
While the carpet manufacturing industry has certainly bolstered the city, the economic downturn in the 2000s greatly affected the area, with many factories consolidating or closing altogether. While the carpet and floor covering industry has managed to stay innovative by embracing new technology, applied science, and global marketing, Anderson believes the recession forced the area to really embrace diversifying its economy.
“The consolidation of the carpeting industry over the past two decades forced us to really transform technologically,” he says. “A lot of the older, more inefficient operations were closed, and these consolidations have created a void in job creation. As they’re expanding, the economy is improving, though they’re not using all the workforce members downsized during the recession because there is more automation.”
Anderson feels, however, that new manufacturing businesses coming to Dalton will find a skilled workforce that is willing and able to meet the demands of today’s manufacturing sector. “Carpet is a building product,” he says. “If there is another bubble, we want products built here to hedge against future downturns.”
These efforts to attract new business have paid off in millions of dollars in investments and numerous jobs coming to the area. Significant commitments by Engineered Floors, Mohawk Industries, and Shaw Industries have brought more than 2,500 jobs and nearly $600 million in investment to the area. Indeed, over 35 international companies are located in the area and many businesses, such as automobile frame and parts manufacturer Shiroki North America and commercial print operator Marketing Alliance Group, have a strong presence in the area.
Dalton is situated along one of the busiest interstate highways in the country, Interstate 75, which connects the city to major centers such as Atlanta, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Tampa. Additionally, the number of automotive factories that have opened in the Southeastern United States over the past few decades has given the city an advantage due to its strategic location between them. Known as “Auto Alley,” a number of automobile parts manufacturers have opened operations in Dalton to take advantage of this strategic location. “Volkswagen is in Chattanooga, Mercedes is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and BMW is over in Greenville, South Carolina,” explains Anderson.
Additionally, Hyundai has a manufacturing plant in Montgomery, Alabama and Kia maintains manufacturing operations in West Point, Georgia. With these manufacturing plants in close proximity, Dalton has taken advantage. For example, Shiroki North America Inc, a company that makes door frames, motor vehicle parts and other accessories for Toyota and Nissan, has proven to be a major employer for the city.
Plastics and chemical companies also have a strong presence in Dalton. Employers such as Belgium-based vinyl floor manufacturer IVC U.S. has its North American headquarters in Dalton, and many companies that produce packaging and polymers for industrial, commercial and institutional use are located in the area.
Natural gas pipelines have also helped Dalton boom, Anderson and the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Alliance have assisted six companies in this field to invest in the area. There are also proposals to build lateral pipelines through Northwest Georgia and Anderson expects to see a boom from that venture if the route is approved.
Developments in advanced manufacturing have also been a boon to Dalton’s carpeting industry itself, and carpet companies have invested approximately $450 million and created upwards of 2000 to 2500 jobs in the area. A Brazilian US manufacturing corporation recently added a second plant to produce vinyl tile products; this facility will employ around 500 individuals and invest as estimated $180 million in new capital into Dalton.
The development of Carbondale Business Park has been another venture aimed at drawing business to Dalton and Whitfield County. The industrial and commercial site is located on Interstate 75 and is zoned for manufacturing, warehousing and distribution. This publicly owned property has available lots ranging from three to 54 acres, with all utilities available at the property line to serve industrial operations. In 2011, XL Brands became the park’s first tenant, purchasing a 16.3 acre site to expand its production and shipping capabilities and constructing a 122,000 square foot facility. SwissTex America, maker of machinery for the carpet and textile industries, also has operations in Dalton.
Flooring company Shaw Industries has also recently invested $50 million in capital and has generated 80 jobs in the area, while Mohawk Flooring has invested $60 million in capital and hired 50 employees at its area operations. “Our efforts to make us more competitive have generated flooring to come back and expand in county,” shares Anderson.
All of these efforts to attract businesses and diversify its economy led Southern Business & Development Magazine to name the Dalton and Whitfield area ‘Small Market of the Year’ in 2014 – yet, aside from its key location and rich manufacturing heritage, what makes Dalton especially attractive to businesses is its people.
“We have a small town feel, a nice aesthetically pleasing downtown, lots of high schools, and we’ve made efforts to encourage students there and at the technical college to become a part of the local workforce after they graduate,” says Anderson. “We have invested heavily in parks, recreation, walking trails, and greenspace, and that attracts young professionals to the area. You’re not going to find as many of those assets and amenities in other towns our size.”
Future plans, says Anderson, include continual measures to attract businesses and developing additional business parks for companies that require an abundance of land. “We have the available land, sites, and the infrastructure for water, electricity, and natural gas, and will continue to market our availability and attributes,” he shares. “We’re a business friendly, low tax community and as long as what we can offer what’s needed, we will continue to be successful and get people interested in coming here.”
In spite of the bumps in the road brought on by the Great Recession, the carpeting industry in Dalton and Whitfield County has continued to employ many people in the area and the economy continues to diversify thanks to a strong and dedicated workforce that has attracted companies from all over the world.
“We like manufacturing,” Anderson says simply. “We want our citizens in Northwest Georgia and Whitfield County to have the employment and occupational choices it offers. If companies are willing to make investments and expansions, they can be successful here. If you’re a manufacturer of any type, you don’t have to train a workforce to become used to 24/7 operations because people here have been doing that for decades. We’re a good place to invest.”