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This is a great article!

New energy, new prospects, new residents

By Ben Young

Columbus is exploding with activity and positivism these days. The enthusiasm in this 21st century boomtown is inescapable. Signs of renewal appear on every corner. But the frenzied activity has not noticeably quickened the pace of this western Georgia river city. Yet.

"Am I proud? You're darn right!" Mayor Bob Poydasheff says, asking himself the first question of an interview. He has good reason - actually several good reasons: Fort Benning's expansion in the wake of last year's Base Realignment and Closure announcement is bringing the Armor School to the base from Fort Knox. An estimated 30,000 new residents are expected to come to the region, and 22,000 of them will live in the city.

"Actually, former Undersecretary Bob Shannon told us last week that when we're planning and thinking about the number, we should double it," Poydasheff says. "So we're saying 26,000 to 30,000 people, but it may be more than that." The Columbus Chamber of Commerce has estimated the economic impact could be as high as $3 billion.

Then there's the highly anticipated Kia plant in nearby West Point, expected to bring 3,200 jobs to the region. At press time Kia and its parent company Hyundai were embroiled in scandal and groundbreaking had been postponed twice, though state officials remain optimistic about the plant.

Even without Kia, the local economy is hot: Aflac Insurance announced that it would expand by 2,000 jobs in November. New companies like Road America, Lightning Distribution, Lucas Products and IC Form are creating another 1,000 jobs.

The Convention & Visitors Bureau is awaiting an analysis to see how Fort Benning's growth will affect tourism, but there is every reason to think numbers will grow dramatically. Area leaders, who have invested heavily in the town's quality of life, couldn't be more gratified.

The Fort Benning announcement has really opened up Columbus, which for the past decade has been quietly investing money for streetscape improvements, the fine arts, the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, the Chattahoochee RiverWalk and other projects. If that sounds improbable, remember that this city is home to three major corporate headquarters that consistently nab slots on in national magazines' annual lists of the country's best places to work: TSYS, Synovus and Aflac.

"We're very proud of what they've received. It's a healthy competition where no one loses," says Michael Gaymon, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber. "Some asked why we raised $100 million for the arts. Some said we'd lost our minds! But if you think about it, growth of tech-based companies in successful cities parallels those in which the arts thrive. It's the same parts of the brain" used for technology and the arts. "So it's not just because we like the arts - we do - but it's also directly tied to long term, tech-related job growth."

The investments have also made Columbus a regional draw for cultural tourists who enjoy visiting for Atlanta-quality shows, says Convention & Visitors Bureau President Peter Bowdon. "If you draw a line across the state, cities south of Columbus could look at Columbus as an alternative to Atlanta," he says. "It's closer, the prices are easier on the pocketbook, and there's not as much congestion or hassle. Some have even come from Atlanta to see shows, and told us it's quicker to get to Columbus than it is to get across Atlanta!"

Having the Springer Opera House, RiverWalk, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, Columbus State University's Schwob School of Music, and (come November) the CSU Arts and Theater Departments in Uptown Columbus, along the riverfront, emphasizes how the community has embraced a river it once turned its back on. Further evidence can be seen in the conversion of structures like the former Pillowtex building, which originally had no windows facing the river but does now, into mixed use condos and restaurants by developer W.C. Bradley Co. Pillowtex closed in 2002, eliminating 1,000 jobs, but now the property is prime real estate that will help provide housing for the new population.

Gearing Up For Growth

Gaymon says it's difficult to overestimate the impact of Fort Benning's expansion on the region. "When you think that 30,000 people will be here in the next five to seven years - that's a city the size of LaGrange - plus some 120,000 students, there will be no part of the region that won't be affected," he says. While Columbus is more prepared than many parts of the region, he says, it will take a team effort to deal with all the ramifications - and economic opportunities - associated with the growth.

Columbus City Manager Isaiah Hugley agrees. "We project 60 to 75 percent of those 30,000 new residents will reside in Muscogee County, and the others will reside in the region," he says. The city's "Operation Preparation" has brought together regional government leaders in quarterly meetings to start gearing up for the changes, including representatives from Phenix City and Russell County across the river (and state line) in Alabama.

Columbus also is hiring an outside consultant to assist in planning efforts. "We have plenty of water, but we need more roads - about $314 million worth - and approximately 8,000 housing units. So we've got to get busy," Hugley says. "We're anticipating funding in our 2007 budget above and beyond what we'll get from the federal and state government. We need an outside organization to make sure we're planning for smart growth. If others in the region want to join us, we'll invite them to join."

Fortunately, Columbus is ahead of many communities impacted by BRAC announcements. Muscogee County School District Superintendent Dr. John A. Phillips, Jr. organized a coalition of affected school districts to request funding for new facilities and has spoken twice to the U.S. House Subcommittee on the subject, according to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

The U.S. Department of Education was pleased with the innovative manner in which the two states came together to talk about regional education needs, says Gaymon, adding that the growth will require $300 million in school construction.

Gaymon isn't quite as comfortable about the health care situation, noting that while area civilian hospitals are teaming up to coordinate funding needs, the military medical community doesn't seem to be as concerned with the impact of the growth. "Our hospitals are saying this is going to be tremendous, how can we get ready? But the military health care side, there doesn't seem to be the same sense of urgency," he says.

Regionalism is the key to the city's future, notes the mayor. Becca Hardin, the chamber's executive vice president for economic development, agrees that the area's team approach was critical to courting both BRAC officials and Kia representatives. More recently, Phenix City, Ala., has joined the chamber's Valley Partnership, which also includes West Point.

"Phenix City Mayor Jeff Hardin works very closely with me," Poydasheff says. "Fort Benning was able to see that this city understands regionalism, of which I'm a big devotee. We can't go it alone."

Gaymon notes that military spouses and retirees will help drive the region's workforce, and, in turn, its boom economy, providing workers for employers such as Kia and other newly opened businesses. There's a real opportunity to compete for tier one through three suppliers, he says, which manufacture everything from transmission parts to brake drums. They need to be in a 75-mile radius, and could bring anywhere from 500 to 900 employees."

The armor division will bring a tremendous amount of value added jobs, Gaymon notes. "The heavy equipment takes a lot more folks to service and provide the technology for a giant weapons system than it does for an infantryman."

And then there are the anticipated Kia commuters - including some likely to relocate from Korea. "Once the plant is up and running, then there will probably be a big influx of families," Gaymon says. "Arts and music are big with Koreans, so we think because of CSU's Schwob School of Music - combined with our Korean school, churches and restaurants, many of them will want to live here. Let's face it: we've been an integrated, international city ever since Fort Benning has been here."

That translates into a great opportunity to further develop inner city Columbus, Hugley says, especially if the city can successfully relocate the marshalling railyard, an 88-acre tract used by the railroads and located behind the chamber offices. Elected representatives, including U.S. Reps. Lyn Westmoreland and Sanford Bishop, have helped secure federal funds for a study of such a move which could open some 88 acres to what Gaymon and Isaiah Hugley hope will become mixed-use, park-oriented development.

"The challenge became even greater, knowing the BRAC changes were coming, when Kia made its announcement," Hugley says. "It's welcome news, but we know that many of those [employees] will reside here and commute."

Planning For Visitors

"While we're still awaiting a comprehensive analysis, we're beginning to see signs that this is truly going to be a phenomenon," says the CVB's Bowdon. "The schools at Fort Benning hold graduations almost weekly - sometimes three or four of them a week." Bowdon says six hotel projects are coming online. "CSU has a conference center on campus now, so we have a lot of venues for different sized conventions," he says. "It makes our jobs more exciting to have such flexible options."

Several new announcements further demonstrate the city's diverse economic growth. American Consumer Products, a Chicago-based toiletries and cleaning products company run by magnetic Palestinian-born Robin Szahran, will hire 250 workers for a new Columbus facility. IC Form, a Canadian construction firm selling foam units as an alternative to wooden house structures, will eventually hire 100 to 150 people; and Road America, a roadside service company, will locate its 300-employee call center operation on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

The Chamber's Hardin says none of the recruitments and expansions, including Aflac, came easily. "We worked on Road America for over a year. They started with 3,000 communities, and we were able to put them in a part of the city that's targeted for development [south Columbus]," she says. "And Aflac, regardless what some may think, was not a 'gimme.' It was very competitive - they were looking at expanding their operations in Omaha and upstate New York instead. Our discussions took nearly seven months, and our Workforce Team at the chamber created a five to 10 year recruitment plan to support this."

"The expansion is a direct result of the past success of our business and Aflac's prospects for future growth," says company president Dan Amos. "It is a testimony to the hard work of our employees and sales associates and the confidence of our policy holders and shareholders, and it is particularly gratifying to have made the announcement during our 50th year [2005]."

While Columbus "sells itself," Hardin says, "we don't work in a vacuum. Gov. Perdue's team was a very, very critical player for us - also CSU, Columbus Technical College, the local department of labor, and our own team at the Chamber."

The city also worked with the state to get Free Trade Zone status for its Muscogee Technical Park, which will provide cost savings to potential international tenants. "We spent a year and a half working on it, but now we're in a good position to get Kia suppliers," Gaymon says.

Another component of the city's corporate culture, however, is its homegrown generosity. One good example is Baudier Apparel, which relocated to Columbus after losing its New Orleans facility to Hurricane Katrina. The company supplies products to Dixie Chopper, a motorcycle manufacturer, and took advantage of that connection to contact the chamber's development authority.

"We don't ordinarily do projects that size," Hardin says, "but this was special. Al Baudier had lost his business, home, everything to floods. He ended up in Columbus, with big contracts to fill, and needed space very quickly, so we helped him by showing him some leased space, and introducing him to some city people who could expedite the permitting process. It was a case where we were in the ultimate support role."

More productive chemistry is in the making - that between Dixie Chopper and Lightning Distribution, which sells the Lucas Oil used by another Dixie Chopper product: lawnmowers. The Lightning Distribution store that opened last fall on Veterans Expressway - and offers both Lucas Oil and Dixie Chopper mowers - represents $4 million in investment.

"One of the most unusual things about Columbus is that the companies that are growing, like TSYS, Aflac, and Carmike Cinemas, have invested so heavily in the community," says John Turner, W.C. Bradley Company associate and board member for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. "We're not a big place, yet we've seen an enormous amount of investment. There is an unusual level of commitment to the community - an exceptional level that Columbus is lucky to have. There is a culture of that in Columbus, that kind of feeds off itself."

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You are SO right -- a GREAT article. I always look forward to June when Columbus is featured in Ga. Trend. Let me suggest that you post this on SkyscraperCity as well -- I would do it but I am technologically-challenged!

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You are SO right -- a GREAT article. I always look forward to June when Columbus is featured in Ga. Trend. Let me suggest that you post this on SkyscraperCity as well -- I would do it but I am technologically-challenged!

I'll be glad to post it!

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Georgia Trend Magazine: March 2007

Bullish On Columbus

Jeffrey Humphreys

The economic outlook for Columbus is good. The local economy will grow more rapidly than it has at any time since 1999. Even better, I expect the pace of economic growth in Columbus to accelerate slightly. And that’s just the opposite of my expectation of slower growth for both the state and the national economies. I suspect that 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 will be truly phenomenal years.

Why am I so bullish on Columbus? First, Columbus will continue to benefit from several major announced expansions by existing employers. Obviously, growth at both Fort Benning and Aflac underpin my optimism. The new Kia plant also is a factor. But, it’s not just mega projects and mega expansions that will fuel economic growth. For example, improving conditions in the aviation industry will prompt several local companies to add workers.

After two delays stemming from the bribery scandal in Korea involving Kia’s chairman, construction has finally begun on the proposed $1.2 billion Kia Motors auto assembly plant that is just to the north of metro Columbus. That’s a huge relief. I was concerned about whether or not that project would ever get going.

Even though the Kia plant will technically be located on the western fringe of the Atlanta metro area, the plant will be much closer to the core of the Columbus area. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that in 2007 the impacts associated with building the Kia plant probably will not be too large. I suspect that we are mostly talking about spending by engineers, planners and others involved in site preparation.

Now, let’s look more closely at what’s going on at Fort Benning. The planned expansion there constitutes the largest announced economic development project in the entire state. According to the Fort Benning Futures Partnership, the number of permanent military personnel working at the base will grow by about 5,500. Add in about 5,600 civilian employees and contractors, and you get about 11,000 new permanent jobs.

Conservatively, the multiplier effects associated with spending by people who land these new jobs should create at least 4,000 more positions in the off-base economy. It’s important to recognize that we have yet to actually feel much of the economic impact of these planned expansions at Fort Benning. Thus far, few new jobs have been created; the big economic push will begin in 2008. That’s when the Armor School begins to move in. The lion’s share of the new base-related jobs will be created over three years – 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Now let’s look at Aflac. A little over a year ago, Aflac announced plans to expand its employment in Columbus by 2,000 jobs over five to seven years. Two recent developments lead me to believe that those workforce expansion plans should easily be realized – if not surpassed. First, the Japanese economy appears to be moving from a no-growth era to a moderate growth era. In my opinion, Japan’s economy is in the best shape that it has been in since I started working at UGA some 18 years ago.

That’s great news for Aflac, which obtains about two-thirds of its revenues in the Japanese market. I’m also encouraged by Aflac’s recent focus on marketing insurance products to Hispanics living in the United States. The U.S. Hispanic market is growing rapidly and is underserved with respect to insurance and other financial services.

The combined employment impact of expansions at Fort Benning and Aflac will be about 19,000 jobs. On average, these two employers alone should generate about 4,000 jobs per year for the next five years.

So, why am I only expecting about 2,500 new jobs in Columbus in 2007? The bulk of job creation stemming from Fort Benning’s planned expansion won’t occur until 2008, 2009 and 2010. So, my projections for job growth in 2007 must reflect that timing. Also, we’ll have to wait a while before many of the new jobs associated with the Kia plant are actually created.

The bottom line is that Columbus is poised for substantial growth, but the big push – in terms of actual job creation and population gains – won’t begin until 2008. That leaves about one more year to adjust business plans to tap into several years of fast-paced economic growth.

Dr. Jeffrey Humphreys is the director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia.

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