17 Dec 2014

Southwest Georgia: Reloading and Rebranding

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Southwest Georgia featured in the December 2014 issue of Georgia Trend:

Economic developers in Southwest Georgia, which boasts some of the richest, most biologically diverse ecological systems in the United States, seem to be drinking the same water. Throughout the area, communities of all sizes are undertaking bold new efforts to pitch their stories beyond their borders to attract business, industry and visitors.

Lowndes County, for example, is beginning to tout itself as a “cool community” ripe with opportunities for young people, particularly downtown. The aim: “Keeping more of our college and university graduates in South Georgia,” says Myrna Ballard, the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce president. “Young professionals seek out vibrant downtowns and communities that have a lot of diverse things for people in their age group to do – shopping, restaurants, coffee, nightlife. That’s our community – and that’s our message.”

While many communities have hired out-of-town promotion experts to assist with their efforts, leaders in Dougherty County also are soliciting the aid of tens of thousands of individual marketers – its residents.

The “There’s Only One Albany” branding campaign was created in 2014 because local research shows that many residents have a negative community outlook, says Justin Strickland, the Albany-Dougherty County Economic Development Commission president.

The multimedia campaign includes a strong Web and video push along with print and broadcast advertisements, billboards and downtown banners. The venture features familiar faces proudly touting the community as a great place to live, work and play and includes a “Local Heroes” program that encourages people to bring attention to their friends, neighbors and coworkers who lend helping hands and are change agents in the community.

“The best people who can tell the Albany and Dougherty County story are those of us who live here,” Strickland says. “The campaign is a reminder to all of us about how much there is to love about Albany and Dougherty County, and that there are lots of reasons to be proud about living here.”

Just months into the campaign, Strickland says he thinks the efforts are paying off.

“You can just tell that there’s a positive change and a lot of community pride here that we haven’t felt in Albany and Dougherty County in a long time,” he says.

Strickland’s team also is in the early stages of building a regional alliance of partners in Southwest Georgia.

“All of us who do what we do have found that if we cooperate with the people we compete against for projects, we can all benefit in the long run,” Strickland says of forming a regional economic development organization, which is in its infancy. “Positioning ourselves [collectively] puts us in a much better competitive position with companies and industries.”

Barbara Grogan, the Americus-Sumter County Payroll Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce executive director, says small communities like hers will benefit greatly from the collaboration.

“All of our communities rely on each other for our combined regional workforce, and we don’t mind helping each other,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity, and we’re very eager to be a part of it. We look at it as if Southwest Georgia benefits, we all benefit.”

In Colquitt County, two big projects are well underway that could benefit the entire region. The county will soon have a new $45-million high school, and the $30-million renovation and expansion at Colquitt Regional Medical Center in Moultrie will offer upgraded services and facilities that will help keep the region healthy.

In neighboring Tift County, American Textile Co. (ATC) is expanding. ATC has operated a bedding products manufacturing and distribution facility since 2011. A recently announced $10-million investment will create more than 100 new jobs over the next three years.

Cook County is exploding with infrastructure investment and new industry, according to Lisa Collins, director of the Cook County Economic Development Commission (EDC). Just this year the EDC has been working with three new companies to bring $70 million in capital investment and 130 jobs when the details are finalized.

The EDC also completed a $1.3-million road improvement project at the South Georgia Megasite, Cook County’s 3,000-acre industrial park adjacent to I-75. In addition, the recently completed $5-million-plus airport improvement project features new hangars, a 4,000-foot and a 5,001-foot crosswind runway, 24/7 fuel station and an FAA-approved repair station. The terminal also now houses the EDC office – handy for folks flying in and out for site visits.

This article appears in its entirety in the December 2014 issue of Georgia Trend.