Building the Future on Southern Ground

Oconee County, GA
Written by Claire Suttles

Oconee County enjoys a prime location, strategically nestled between Athens and Atlanta, Georgia. The community sits at the crossroads of two major highways, providing easy access to the surrounding metro areas…
“We are in a really good place, close to some major markets, so that people can work in Atlanta or Athens and be back in time for dinner with their family,” Economic Development Director J.R. Charles points out. “And if anybody wanted to come in and manufacture and distribute a product they would be able to access our logistics network very easily.”

Oconee County’s location also provides access to world-class educational opportunities. “We have an extremely well educated workforce because of our close proximately to the University of Georgia, Athens Technical College, and the University of North Georgia,” Mr. Charles reports. Chamber President Kay Keller adds, “A large majority of our population holds bachelor’s degrees or greater.”

This level of education translates into a high standard of living for Oconee County residents. The county’s unemployment rate is just 3.8 percent, one of the lowest in Georgia, while its incomes are some of the highest. “Historically we usually have the first, second, or third highest per capita income for the state,” says Board of Commissioners Administrative Officer Jeff Benko.

The county’s list of firsts continues. “Oconee County has been ranked the top county [in Georgia] by a lot of organizations,” says Melvin Davis, Chairman of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners. “We have been rated as the number one best county in Georgia, rated number one as the best county to raise a family, rated number one for the best public schools, ranked number five as the safest county in Georgia, and ranked number five [as the] best county to buy a house.”

The County’s attributes have attracted a number of major corporations, including a Caterpillar manufacturing plant and the Zaxby’s headquarters. “We are really becoming more diversified in Oconee County,” says Mr. Davis. “Many years ago we were strictly an agricultural county and a bedroom community. In the last 15 years we have really moved to a diversified economy.” While agriculture still plays a strong role in Oconee County, manufacturing and retail have recently taken off, and the bioscience sector is showing huge potential. “We have made a lot of effort to recruit bio-life science companies,” says Mr. Charles. “Because of our proximity to the University of Georgia, we have really tried to use intellectual resource to our advantage.”

The bioscience sector has already begun to gain ground locally. “For example, there was a company that spun out of the University of Georgia incubator that treats rare disease symptoms and conditions, and that company was acquired by Alexion Pharmaceuticals for $8.4 billion,” says Mr. Charles. “Their technical services are located here in Oconee County.” The next step could be to repurpose an already established industrial park for the biosciences sector, enticing more pharmaceuticals to set up shop. Located on Highway 316, which runs into Atlanta, the location is ideal. “[We want to] make that our hub for bio-life science companies that either spin out of UGA, or want to come into the county and make use of that highly educated workforce that we have,” Mr. Charles explains. “We know that this is the future. Bio-life science is going to do for the 21st century what industrial did for the 20th.”

Oconee County is part of Georgia’s Innovation Crescent, which is both a geographic area and a coalition of more than 15 counties and economic development entities dedicated to supporting Georgia’s life science and technology growth. “We are not going it alone,” Mr. Charles remarks. Stretching from the University of Georgia in Athens to the metro Atlanta area – home of the world’s busiest airport and third in the nation in research facility space – Georgia’s Innovation Crescent is quickly gaining momentum. In fact, 12 Fortune 500 companies and 26 Fortune 1000 companies are already headquartered there. And, with 40 percent of the state’s population located within the crescent, as well as a long list of top research organizations, the region has huge potential for ongoing growth.

Oconee County is well prepared to welcome new bioscience companies, as well as a range of other businesses. From a streamlined permitting process to reasonable tax rates, incoming enterprises will enjoy a smooth transition and healthy business climate. “Our community is very business friendly,” Ms. Keller remarks. Mr. Davis adds, “We are responsive to businesses when they look to locate in our area. We are proactive; we ask questions, we listen to their needs. We want to be responsive to their needs and act on those so that they can turn a profit and stay and do business in Oconee County.”

The County’s positives extend beyond business opportunities. “Oconee County is a good place to live, work, and play,” Mr. Davis summarizes. Oconee Tourism Director Alex Perschka credits “our sense of community, our wonderful school system, our parks and recreation opportunities.” The county’s graduation rate is above 90 percent and US News and World Report ranks its two high schools among the Top 25 high schools in the state of Georgia. Housing options are affordable and varied, from smaller lots in town to acres of farmland in the countryside.

Many residents cite the community’s friendly atmosphere as one of its top attributes. “It is hard to find another community that has the cooperative spirit that we have in Oconee County,” Ms. Keller says. “All of the people in our community we consider our neighbors. We feel safe in our county going anywhere.” Mr. Perschka and his family moved away and returned because they missed that close-knit, welcoming culture. “We want to get to know our neighbors,” he explains. “You go to the store and run into somebody and you know they are interested in how your family is doing. It is those small things that make our county special and make people want to move back if they move away.”

With so many companies and potential residents showing interest in the region, Oconee County is expected to grow dramatically over the next decades. Maintaining the community’s current quality of life has become a top priority. “We are a growing county,” Mr. Davis points out. “We are probably going to double our population by 2050, so that is going to require some significant planning on our part.” Local leaders have risen to the challenge. “I hear a lot of people say that our growth looks smart and it looks clean,” says Ms. Keller. “And that didn’t happen by accident. We have planned our growth [so it doesn’t] take away the quality of life that we have here in Oconee.”

Several new developments are underway, including the construction of about 400 new homes. The retail sector is expected to continue its rapid expansion, increasing the county’s tax base and providing convenient access to the goods and services residents want. Corporations are continuing to take advantage of the county’s friendly business climate as well. For example, Zaxby’s recently announced plans to increase its presence in the community, expanding its headquarters and adding a training facility. “There has been a lot of growth,” Mr. Perschka summarizes. “And there is a lot of opportunity. That is exciting.”



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