Rather than the ‘winner takes it all’ approach, sixteen counties in three states – Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama – are cooperating to attract economic development to the entire region. The good news is that it is working for all of them, including Catoosa County in northwest Georgia, which shares a border with Tennessee and is just twenty minutes from Chattanooga, the main economic driver in the region.
Catoosa County Economic Development Authority (CCEDA) Director Keith Barclift has been involved with economic development since 2009, working until earlier this year for a four-county coalition that includes Catoosa County and shares marketing costs. Now as the county’s economic director, he works in an office in the county seat of Ringgold, just fifteen minutes from where he grew up.
It is his job to attract industry to the county, but that does not mean he has lost sight of the spirit of cooperation. “We partner with the Greater Chattanooga Economic Development Partnership (five counties in Georgia, three in Alabama and eight in Tennessee) when we go on marketing trips for the region, and we sell the region as a good place to locate a business first and our individual counties second,” he says. “There’s a lot going on here. It’s an economic hotspot.”
Catoosa County, he told us, is part of the Chattanooga Metropolitan Statistical Area and was one of the fastest-growing counties in Georgia from 2000 to 2010. According to the most recent 2000 census, the population was 55,000, but by the time the next census is taken, he predicts it will have increased to 70,000.
Although Catoosa County has a workforce of 31,000, at least 25,000 – mainly middle and senior management level people – leave every day to work, with most of them driving into Chattanooga, an easy commute on Interstate 75. “I think people like living here in the county,” Barclift says, “because it’s a safe place for kids to grow up. We have highly regarded public schools and a good range of housing with prices from affordable to luxurious.”
Based on 2015 numbers, there are only about 4,500 people who actually live and work in the county, where employers include floor covering manufacturer Shaw Industries and retail outlets such as Cabela’s and Costco. “What we want to do,” he says, “is shift the focus from residential and commercial development and bring in more industry to strengthen the tax base.”
Rather than feeling envious because Volkswagen is set to ramp up production at its Chattanooga Assembly Plant or that the Korean solar panel manufacturer Hanwha Q Cells announced earlier this year it will do final assembly in neighboring Whitfield County, Barclift views any investment in the region as an opportunity to capture spin-off business.
“Because we are so close to Volkswagen – just seventeen miles from the assembly plant which is at Exit 9 off I-75 – we want to be in a position to attract suppliers for them,” he says, explaining how a Tier 3 supplier might supply a knob for a stereo, a Tier 2 supplier might purchase the knobs to install in the stereo and then send it to a Tier 1 supplier which would install it into a dash-mounted system.
“Then they sell that to the OEM, in this case, the car manufacturer, who installs it in the car. We want to look for not only VW suppliers but suppliers for other OEMs around the Southeast, which is where we think we could be successful. Currently (since 2011) Volkswagen is producing the Passat and Atlas, but they continue to add additional lines, and we hope to grow with them,” explains Barclift.
“We are going to aggressively seek out automotive projects and advanced manufacturing projects. We’re not looking for thousands of jobs, but we are looking for three hundred to four hundred good-paying jobs,” he says.
And that is something that he is planning to do sooner than later, when a shovel-ready fifty-acre business and industrial park, on Interstate 75, opens by year’s end.
Earlier this year, the county purchased a parcel of publicly-owned land and has completed a Phase 1 environmental study which did not identify any issues with the site.
“What we’re doing now is getting it shovel-ready,” says Barclift. “We’re doing the engineering for the site, the geotechnical work on the subsurface, so we can get together a master plan, then do a grading plan, so there’s a rough grade for a pad and utilities in place. With all that done ahead of time, when a company purchases the site, as soon as they get their permitting done – in thirty or sixty days – they could be moving dirt and laying down a concrete pad.”
In addition to getting the site ready, he is also prepared to talk to potential investors about tax credits and incentives. “One thing we do offer in our business park is a special military zone designation because there is a military training area in the census tract where the park is located. What this does is it doubles the state income job tax credit so it goes from $1,750 per job to $3500 per job and also lets the company apply any unused portion to offset liability that can apply to payroll tax. It’s not exactly cash in your pocket, but there’s a lot of cost savings as far as payroll tax.”
What is of enormous significance for manufacturers planning to import or export goods is the park’s proximity to neighboring Murray County’s Appalachian Regional Port (ARP). Before the construction of this inland port, imports and exports were picked up or delivered to the Port of Savannah, where drivers queued for hours, waiting for containers to be loaded onto trucks, and then had to face massive congestion in and around Atlanta.
Now containers are loaded onto the CSX rail line and transported to Murray County. Manufacturers in Catoosa County can reach the port in less than an hour, saving both time and money.
Beginning in September, a group of seventeen junior-level (third-year) high school students will be entering the new Catoosa County College and Career Academy, a partnership between local high schools and the Catoosa campus of Georgia Northwestern Technical College, located in Ringgold. There they will study industrial systems, technology, robotics, and mechatronics and emerge after two years with both a high school diploma and a diploma qualifying them to begin work immediately in the manufacturing industry.
The Georgia Northwestern Technical College, with seven campuses in the region, also offers career pathways in architecture, construction, information technology, nursing, sports medicine, therapeutic services, law and justice, and emergency management.
“We feel we have to educate students to want to go into technical careers,” says Barclift. “For the past thirty or forty years, the idea in the US has been that you have to have a four-year degree to get a good job and be successful, but we’re seeing that backfire. We’re seeing a lot of people in my generation who did that, and they don’t have a job, and they have to pay down a huge student debt. But this way, their education will be paid for through the college and career academy system. When they graduate, they will have a two-year diploma, no student debt, and they can go straight to work,” he says.
“We have to educate kids and their parents that manufacturing nowadays is probably cleaner than some of the restaurants they eat at. These places are very highly technical and are heavily invested in automation. So when running a line, it’s not about turning a wrench; it’s more about programming the computer to do the work. So it takes a lot more training to get students ready to enter the workforce, and that’s what we’re trying to do with this model.”
This combination of the new, shovel-ready business park with a young, energetic workforce skilled in technology, robotics, and mechatronics reads like a sure-fire recipe for success. It is certainly beneficial for economic development in Catoosa County. It is good news for individual students destined to become sought-after employees with good-paying jobs, and it is encouraging news for advance manufacturers who choose to locate there.