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Regional commission adopts new economic development strategy

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Leaders of the 15-county Northwest Georgia region adopted a new long-range Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) during a Northwest Georgia Regional Commission session in Calhoun Thursday. The plan provides a blueprint for economic growth through the year 2022.

The regional commission has offices in Dalton and Rome, which Jim Henry, Chattooga County, chairman of the economic development strategy committee, said illustrates the difficulty in putting together a package for the entire region. “Dalton and Rome have completely different economic bases,” Henry said. Dalton is the home of the floor covering industry while Rome’s economy is more diverse and dependant on health care, education and manufacturing.

The 15-county region includes Dade, Catoosa, Walker, Whitfield, Murray, Fannin, Gilmer, Pickens, Gordon, Chattooga, Floyd, Bartow, Polk, Paulding and Haralson counties.

Henry said every sector of the economies of communities spread out over the 15-county region were included in the strategy development committee. “We had people representing agriculture, education, labor, workforce boards, utilities, non-profits, local governments, tourism economic development and people from the private sector,” Henry said. “We had some really good discussions, I wouldn’t say heated but they got really excited.”

The final 48-page document approved by the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission organizes goals into four broad categories: human capital, community assets, essential infrastructure and business climate.

The plan seeks to increase the number of residents skilled in advanced manufacturing to meet present and future needs of employers. Critical to meeting that aspect of the plan is the expansion of the number of students across the region that are prepared for employment in skilled and professional positions.

The strategy for meeting the skilled workforce objective includes the introduction of robotic and science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) programs into middle schools featuring real world applications. It also calls for efforts to expand apprenticeships, internships and on-the-job training programs.

In terms of community assets, the plan calls for increasing emphasis on tourism with particular emphasis on the burgeoning film and television industry in Georgia. The strategy to support tourism initiatives would focus on educating the public on the positive impact tourism brings to the region, increase funding for tourism, and encouraging collaborative marketing among the various communities and tourism destinations to attract greater visitation.

“There’s always room for groups to work together with a single purpose in mind,” said Lisa Smith, director of the Greater Rome Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are not a lot of leads that come to us directly unless they are indies that don’t go through the Georgia Film office.” Smith also said there’s no question that additional staffing is needed to work on behalf of seeking films and developing leads.

The plan also seeks to promote quality of life amenities across the region to retain future generations. The document makes note of the fact that millennials bring a new lust to live, work, and play in downtown areas that focuses on connectivity and quality of life issues that needs to be understood and addressed communities across the region.

The discussion of quality of life issues also led to a strategic need for the implementation and enforcement of land use policies that balance economic competitiveness with cultural and natural resource preservation.

There are housing issues and the need to make certain that sufficient quality, affordable housing is available to all residents of the region. The implementation strategy calls for an Affordable Housing Taskforce with members from each county to assess housing issues. It calls on private developers to construct new and affordable housing in underserved areas. The promotion of housing tax credits and other state and federal housing programs is also part of the plan.

The new five-year economic strategy also calls for the elimination of barriers to participation in the workforce including childcare, affordable healthcare and public transportation.

The essential infrastructure goal calls for the development of properties all over the region, along with necessary transportation improvements to get goods and services to market. The strategy to deal with the transportation objective calls for development of a regional transportation coalition to advocate for vital projects in northwest Georgia. It also calls for the enhancement of links to the Appalachian Inland Port under development north of Chatsworth in Murray County.

“The Georgia legislature is looking at several other inland ports (areas). That’s all kept under wraps as to where,” Henry said. “We’re looking at building a manufacturing base that covers more than just a flooring industry which Northwest Georgia is so famous for,” Henry said. “We’ve got to have the proper transportation to do that.”

Investments in multi-modal transportation systems that strengthen connections to regional, national and global markets are also called for in the new five-year plan.

“We’re finding the state is not as competitive drawing money for projects,” said Lynn Laughter, new chairwoman of the Whitfield County Commission. She told the regional commission board Whitfield County had recently lost a major prospect to another state.

“We’re doing everything that we can do in Northwest Georgia to show the nation and the world that we’re open for business. We’re not only open for business; we’re ready and willing to gain business. That doesn’t mean we’re going to throw the baby out with the bath water,” said Lloyd Frasier, executive director of the regional commission. “We’re wanting high paying, high tech jobs because those companies are assets to the communities when they come in.”

“We’re still the number one state in the union to do business, so these other states have to make sacrifices to compete with us, but we can’t give away the farm,” Henry said. He also explained to Laughter that the region was part of a tri-state economic development collaborative with Northeast Alabama and Southeast Tennessee.

The CEDS also seeks to identify funding mechanisms to provide utilities including water, sewer, and natural gas, specifically along East-West corridors for future industrial development. Henry said the regional commission has to wait for its member communities to ask for help with such projects. “Whenever we get a request we look to find the grant money and expertise. We have planners that can help them design their plans for economic development,” Henry said.

The plan also calls for the enhancement of high speed internet capabilities across the 15-county northwest corner of the state, with added focus on some of the more rural areas.

Henry said expanding broadband access across the region is critically important. “The value of an average home now has a $3,000 gain if it has access to broadband,” Henry said. “So much work is done at home now; so many commuters don’t have to be on the road if they work from home, so our rural areas especially need that.”

The business climate goal stresses a focus on entrepreneurship and innovation in both existing and emerging sectors of the economies.

Ensuring the Northwest Georgia region’s ability to compete globally by supporting sound regulatory practices and a favorable tax environment is part of the strategy for achieving a stronger business climate. The plan seeks to improve access to capital for entrepreneurs and calls for creation of business incubators and accelerators.

The five-year CEDS is a requirement for communities to be able to receive grant funding from the federal Economic Development Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.