Along the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, many communities from Georgia to West Virginia were heavily dependent on the textile industry in the past and were severely affected by the impact of outsourcing. During the recession, the unemployment rate in Hart County, Georgia to jumped to almost fourteen percent, but since that time, the county has worked together to get the community back up on its feet.
“We started a concerted effort to replace the jobs that were lost, and we advised many local citizens who has been displaced to pursue technical college certifications that would support advanced manufacturing. We were one of the first to join the Georgia Work Ready program,” says Hart County Industrial Building Authority (IBA) Director of Economic Development Dwayne Dye. The Georgia Work Ready program assesses workforce aptitude and the skills in areas such as applied mathematics, reading for comprehension, and locating information.
The recruitment process for advanced manufacturing companies was primarily focused on diversifying the industrial base to ensure that its manufacturing community was stable. If one sector happens to experience downtime, the skilled employees who work for that operation can walk across the street and use those same skills at a different company. For instance, the skills used to manufacture pharmaceutical products are very similar to the skills required to manufacture automobile fuel tanks due to the regular use of computer numerical control (CNC) and programmable logic controller (PLC) automation in a variety of industries.
Hart County was very successful in its recruitment process, and it attracted companies from all over the world, particularly from Western Europe including Germany, Belgium, and the UK. “They appreciate and understand what we are trying to do here with our workforce, which is really the key product that any community has. It’s not the buildings, and it’s not the land. What we have found makes a difference is the increased emphasis on workforce development,” says Dwayne. The unemployment rate in Hart County eventually dropped to 3.3 percent, and today, it hovers around four percent.
The job description of the economic development team is always changing since it has it be flexible to meet business needs while looking out for the citizens and the community as a whole. It must consider long-term strategies and investments such as infrastructure as well as pursuing state or federal grants to help keep the infrastructure ahead of the needs of business.
With the low unemployment rate and minimal layoffs and displacements, Hart County is no longer focused on recruiting new business. Its workforce is actually growing naturally from people moving into the community to fill available positions. “We’re doing less recruiting of new industry at this particularly moment. We are focusing very heavily on supporting organic growth of existing industry, which is very healthy, and we’re working on long-term development,” says Dwayne.
The county was also able to advance its high school graduation rate from a low of 64.5 percent in 2006 to its current graduation rate of over ninety-five percent. To encourage this achievement, it pursued a grant through Georgia Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle who is an advocate for improving education. Hart County did not have a local community college, and the grant money was used to establish the Hart College and Career Academy that opened last year. The technical college was established through a partnership between the Hart County IBA, Athens Technical College, and the University of Georgia. The academy is an educational pathway that supports the local advanced manufacturing industry as well as other industries including healthcare and agriculture.
“Our manufacturing sector has grown to be about 28.9 percent of all local economy, which is more than double the national average. We have also seen the wages and benefits in our area climb, now our average wage for manufacturing is 20.75 dollars per hour, which is around 43,160 dollars per year,” says Dwayne. Hart County has been able to improve its workforce, improve its education rates, and build a local college and career academy to help the economy in the area for years to come. The academy is likely the single most important effort by the county to support the long-term workforce development needs in the area.
Lake Hartwell is a tremendous asset for Hart County and attracts roughly ten million people every year. The popular lake is one of the largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi River, and although Hart County does not experience all of that tourism since the lake touches five counties in Georgia and a part of South Carolina, it does get a good portion of it
A special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) was implemented “to capture the tourism dollars,” says Dwayne. The tourists who come through the county and purchase gas, food, or supplies are helping to fund the building of parks, schools, roads, and other public facilities.
Lake Hartwell provides many outdoor opportunities for both tourists and residents. Water sports are very popular, and there have been numerous televised fishing tournaments hosted by sports channel ESPN. The annual Pro Watercross race in which people complete with personal watercrafts, also known as jet skis, is presented by motorsports dealership Broward Motorsports.
As a rural community, there is plenty of space for hunting and fishing, and many visitors are simply attracted to the natural beauty of in the region. “We’ve probably got more walking trails and campgrounds than any other community in this region just because of our location on Lake Hartwell. People really enjoy being able to get out in nature and hike, and they enjoy the scenery, because we are in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and located on Lake Hartwell,” says Dwayne.
The chamber of commerce is quite active in Hartwell, and a few years ago, it began hosting an annual music festival on the shore of Lake Hartwell. Massive groups of people gather to see the live bands and the antique boat and car shows.
The quality of life in Hart County is high thanks to its natural assets and the welcoming nature of residents who have a reputation for being friendly and outgoing. The small-town USA atmosphere has a slower pace, and people take time to enjoy each other’s company in the beautiful setting. “We’ve got so many volunteers and so many people to help, and that’s how we’ve been successful. It has not been the efforts of one or two people; it’s been about the efforts of a large number of people,” says Dwayne.
Industry, tourism and agriculture are the most essential aspects of the economy in Hart County. “Agriculture is huge in our area with poultry, eggs, and row crops from soybeans and corn to canola which is expressed in oil and then sold to people who manufacture things like healthy balanced margarines,” says Dwayne.
Hart County is located between Greenville, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia along Interstate I-85. This is one of the fastest-growing industrial corridors, and it stretches all the way from Birmingham, Alabama to Charlotte, North Carolina. It is an ideal location for business, particularly for companies that are focused on logistics. Manufactured products can be shipped out from the Gateway Industrial Park in Hart County and be on the I-85 going north or south within ninety seconds. In addition to the I-85, there are five highways that merge into Hartwell including US-29. There is a shortline rail that connects to both CSX rail in Elberton and Norfolk Southern rail in Toccoa.
The county is approximately an hour and fifteen minutes from the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport and an hour and a half to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The Franklin-Hart County Airport is a regional airport that Hart shares with its neighboring county, and several years ago, it expanded to have over five thousand linear feet of runway which will accommodate most corporate jets. “We’re blessed with road infrastructure, rail infrastructure, and just a beautiful place to live here in the foothills of the mountains,” says Dwayne.
In the future, the Hart County IBA will continue to manage its diversified portfolio of industries and recruit more technologically-advanced industries since it anticipates that it will be an area of growth in the future as industry work returns to the United States. There will be pressure on the U.S. labor force and the solution to that challenge is technology and ensuring that students and the existing workforce are educated with the most advanced technical skills. “Our college and career academy is updated with the latest generations of equipment and electronic controls, and we use those to teach our workforce,” says Dwayne.
The Hart County IBA directs its youth to the career opportunities that are available locally and raises awareness about the benefits of attaining a technical college certificate and avoiding student loan debt. “It’s more of a long-term community development now that we’re working on educating people as to the opportunities that are here and aligning them with the resources they need to get the education and training to take to those jobs and perform those jobs long-term,” says Dwayne. The goal for Hart County is continuous incremental improvement.