High-tech jobs fueling Rome’s economic growth - Northwest Georgia News: News

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High-tech jobs fueling Rome’s economic growth

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Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2013 7:00 am

Rome jumped up 35 slots in the Milken Institute’s annual analysis of best-performing small metropolitan cities in the United States.

The City of Seven Hills improved to 132 out of 179 small metros from 167 in 2012. It topped Dalton and Gadsden, Ala., but rates below five other Georgia cities reviewed.

Columbia, Mo., was the top-performing small metropolitan area, while Austin, Texas, was the No. 1 large metropolitan area for 2013.

The Milken Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that “believes in the power of capital markets to solve urgent social and economic challenges and improve lives.” Its annual “Best-Performing Cities” review ranks where jobs are being created and sustained.

Unlike other reports, it does not factor in quality of life issues. Employment growth is weighted most heavily as an indication of community vitality. Wage and salary growth measures the quality of jobs created and sustained.

While Rome made a significant stride up the list, it still ranked below the Georgia cities of Gaines ville, 49; Valdosta, 51; Athens, 94; Macon, 110; and Warner Robins, 113.

It did score better than Albany, 146; Brunswick, 158; Dalton, 177; as well as Alabama cities Anniston/Oxford, 178; and Gadsden, 141.

Of the elements that went into the calculation, Rome got its highest mark — ranking 25 — in one-year relative high-technology Gross Domestic Product growth. The city ranked 44 in five-year relative high-tech GDP.

Rome was No. 65 in the one-year job growth category, No. 150 in five-year job growth and No. 152 in five-year salary and wage growth.

While no one is quite ready to compare Rome to Silicon Valley, the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce’s initial Rome-Floyd 20/20 plan focused on taking advantage of the community’s medical and higher education assets.

“Then we leveraged that, through the good work of the Future Industries Initiative,” Chamber President Al Hodge said.

“Each of the strategies — whether it’s the recruitment of the Georgia Regents University Medical College of Georgia and Georgia Tech, the new fiber networking capabilities, the continued work to increase per capita income — it has all paid off for additional opportunities here.”

Future Industries Initiative

Minoli Ratnatunga, an economist at the Milken Institute, identified jobs that were included in the relative high-tech GDP growth statistics measurement.

Among the areas: pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, medical diagnostic and labs, software publishers, telecommunications, Internet service providers and Web search portals, architectural and related services.

Rome has fared well in virtually each of those categories with companies like DermaTran Health Solutions, Parker Systems, Petz Enterprises, SAI Digital and others.

Craig McDaniel, who chairs the Chamber’s Future Industries Initiative, said he credits a lot of the local development of high-tech jobs to the four institutions of higher learning in Rome, along with two strong public school systems and strong independent schools.

“We can deliver the talent,” he said.

McDaniel said that since the Rome-Floyd 20/20 program was conceived, the community has maintained a commitment to technology and the changing needs of traditional manufacturers.

“We’ve always maintained focus on increasing broadband capability and expanding the brand name of Rome and Floyd County as being ready for technology- type jobs,” he said. “What they’ve done at Harbin, Redmond and Floyd (hospitals) with electronic medical records … we were way ahead of the curve there.”

Hodge said the data from the Milken Institute also reflects the move by many local manufacturing facilities to upgrade their technology — and retraining their workforce to operate computer-based or robotic equipment.

“In other ways, it’s the new high-tech employers that we have recruited,” said Hodge.

Ratnatunga also noted that Rome is probably in the smallest 10 percent of the small metropolitan cities that are ranked.

“Small changes in the economy can have a big impact on the metro’s ranking, and that may be what’s at work here,” she said.

Hodge recognized the importance of Floyd County voters’ approval of two recent sales tax referendums. One provides funding for improvements at city and county schools; the other pays for a package of projects that includes a new industrial park at a site yet to be chosen.

“We will have a new infusion of money for education and the future workforce, as well as a place to put the new high-tech employers that we’re recruiting,” said Hodge.

Hodge also said the Milken report is positive reinforcement for the Chamber’s Geek Week, Spectrum of Technology and Confluence conferences.

Georgia resurgence

In a forecast released last week, Charles B. Knapp — interim dean of the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia — said the state economy is expected to rise more than the national average in 2014. He based his projection on rising home prices, smart economic policies and new jobs.

In contrast to the high-tech emphasis of the Milken Institute report, Knapp predicted the fastest job growth will occur in construction, professional and business services, and mining and logging.

Knapp also cited resurgence in the manufacturing sector for part of his belief that the Georgia economy is growing.

“In 2012 and 2013, we’ve seen major project announcements in aircraft, automobile, construction equipment, life sciences and flooring manufacturing,” he said.

And new technology appears to be an integral part of jobs once considered to be fairly low-tech.

Mohawk Industries just announced a $31 million investment in its spinning facility on Lavender Drive in West Rome. Plans call for a major equipment upgrade to accommodate a shift to BCF yarns made from recycled plastics.

Company officials said that decision saved more than 230 jobs in Rome and could result in the addition of jobs in the future. Many of the employees at the Mohawk facility will have to be retrained to operate the computerized equipment.

Local economic development officials contend Rome has positioned itself well for even more high-tech jobs in the future, with a fiber optic network based downtown and a growing technology program at the Floyd County College and Career Academy.

The data from the Milken Institute comes two weeks after the Bureau of Economic Analysis in Washington, D.C., issued a report indicating that the per capita income for Floyd County residents increased to $34,230 in 2012, up by 2.7 percent from the previous year.

And, while Milken skips over quality of life in its “Best-Performing Cities” review, McDaniel said it’s an underestimated factor in Rome’s economic growth equation.

“What is so often taken for granted about Rome and Floyd County is, it’s a heck of a good place to live and raise a family,” McDaniel said.