The biggest threat facing Middle Georgia over the next 10 years is crime. That’s according to regional stakeholders participating in a Department of Defense sponsored economic think tank charrette.
Meeting at Central Georgia Technical College’s Milledgeville campus Aug. 9, representatives from development authorities, school systems, Main Street organizations and other government officials from the 11-county region heard preliminary results from the charrette, held last June, before providing follow-up information for strategists.
Funded through the DOD office of economic adjustment, the target region includes the 11 counties that make up the Middle Georgia Economic Alliance’s Region 6: Baldwin, Bibb, Crawford, Houston, Jones, Monroe, Peach, Pulaski, Putnam, Twiggs and Wilkinson.
Designed to build on the existing opportunities at Robins Air Force Base as well as explore ways to diversify the regional economy apart from DOD contracts, the intention of the regional planning is to assess Middle Georgia’s strengths and determine opportunities to develop business in other markets.
Using information collected from participating stakeholders, planning developers will provide a road map to an economy that is more resilient to DOD spending fluctuations and ultimately guide economic development in the region.
“One of the things they are interested in is seeing regional economies be able to ride out ups and downs,” said David Beurle of Future IQ, which conducted the charrette.
During the June charrette, stakeholders participated in a series of engagement workshops where they discussed the implications of various future scenarios before completing a survey for data analysis.
Looking at opportunities and creative ways to diversify the Middle Georgia economy, which currently depends significantly on RAFB defense contracts, stakeholders were asked to think about and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the region. Those collective thoughts produced data for the first lap of asset mapping.
Beurle presented stakeholders the preliminary reports at the August workshop, which were demonstrated through a series of graphs, noting that in the text analysis, the word “crime” kept coming up over and over.
“That was interesting to me because I’ve never seen a survey in any of our regional work where crime was the highest perceived threat,” Beurle said. “So it does point to some things that might have to be dealt with.”
Other concerns for Middle Georgia’s future included workforce issues, leadership, infrastructure traffic congestion and blight.
Several leaders from Milledgeville and Baldwin County noted that area had significant job loss prior to the 10-year period after the closure of prominent businesses.
“We saw our prisons closing overnight, then central state hospital,” said Angie Gheesling, a Milledgeville native and Houston County Economic Development director. “What would we do without the state jobs here, it would be devastating, and not only to Houston County. RAB reaches out to impact about 70 counties in Georgia.”
Baldwin County stakeholders noted they are beginning to see some rebuilding, but, like some of the other more rural counties in the region, not being on an interstate path means they face some challenges with accessibility from a logistics standpoint.
“We always pondered it, but we never thought it would happen,” Gheesling said about the closings. “So this idea of being prepared is important.”
Twiggs County Economic Director Judy Sherling said the rural areas depend on that regional strength and Houston County is growing, but surrounding counties are not.
“But, if they pull that plug, it could be like they were talking about earlier with Baldwin,” Sherling said. “When that plug was pulled…”
“It hurt,” finished Kara Lassiter, Milledgeville-Baldwin Chamber of Commerce membership director. “And it takes a long time to rebuild.”
Putnam County leaders also know the impact of losing one of its largest tax bases after the closing of Georgia Power’s nuclear power plant.
“Our ‘Air Force base’ was Plant Branch,” said Eatonton-Putnam Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Roddie Anne Blackwell. “Milledgeville’s was the hospital.”
Sherling said the region had learned some things in the last 10 years even though it has moved slowly.
“We’ve been building a background of what we need to do,” she said. “And what we need to do in the future is to move faster. One of the drivers of moving faster is a workforce.”
Beurle agreed, noting Future IQ strategists look at big emerging trends and he is convinced the speed of change is accelerating.
“What that means is some regions are going to get left behind and some regions are going to figure it out and they are going to ride that wave,” Beurle said. “But we’ve got a wave. Are we moving fast enough to keep the momentum?”
According to stakeholder’s input, some of the biggest opportunities for the Middle Georgia region over the next 10 years are the possibilities of economic growth through development of new business and industry as well as a number of areas of opportunity in tourism and transportation.
Sherling said some of the rural counties in the region don’t have the numbers of Houston and Bibb counties in terms of population and some of the residents are challenged to understand what today’s companies want.
“In Twiggs we’re launching a new program on Aug. 21 called Twiggs Works and that will target our most vulnerable unemployed residents and help them find a job in today’s market,” said Dr. Sarah Hawthorne, president of Alpha Skills.
“We’re also aware of which companies look to locate in our area and how we can develop our workforce for those companies,” said Hawthorne “Workforce development has got to be right now for the outlying areas, otherwise everyone is going to leave our counties and go to Houston or Bibb.”
The next step in the process is for developers to detail a mapping system, then reconvene the think tank in November to create a roadmap with a stakeholder supported plan going forward.
Closing the session, Beurle advised the outcome of any good planning process is two-fold. “It’s going to produce a plan,” he said. “But it will also affect the people participating in the program.”