Like a fisherman trying to keep a big catch on the line, Georgia development officials felt it was necessary to pay Pratt & Whitney a quarter of a million dollars to pull the trigger on a $19.3 million expansion and upgrade at its Columbus plant.
The state and local mission more than a year ago was to keep work from being moved elsewhere, with the project guaranteeing 177 new high-paying jobs and eliminating anxiety that the same number possibly could be relocated to another facility in the U.S. or overseas.
“It was a competitive project. There were other states, other countries competing for this piece of business. So, yeah, without a strong incentive offering, that piece of business would have gone somewhere else,” said Becca Hardin, vice president of economic development with the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
On Wednesday, the State of Georgia made good on its promise, saying it has paid the $250,000 owed to Pratt & Whitney through its Economic Development Growth and Expansion awards.
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“It’s really a follow-on to help facilitate the hiring of those 177 new people,” said Leo Makowski, spokesman with Pratt’s headquarters in East Hartford, Conn. He downplayed the notion that any of the business or work force at the aerospace firm’s Columbus plant on Macon Road could have been yanked to another location.
“I don’t believe that was the case,” said Makowski. “We’ve done business in Columbus for quite a while and obviously we’re going to continue with this grant.”
Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of conglomerate United Technologies, opened its Columbus plant in 1983 with an initial investment topping $200 million. Its work force has fluctuated frequently through the years because of ups and downs in the airline and defense sectors.
Today, the Columbus Engine Center has 450 on its payroll, while a disk-forging operation employs 150, Makowski said. The investment announced by the company in February 2011 was aimed at handling additional engine overhaul and forging work for military and civilian jets.
“That was to help facilitate the upgrading of a test cell and to make some shop floor improvements,” the Pratt spokesman said of the 2011 project. “That stuff happened over the course of the last year or so. But there’s nothing really new as far as expansion or new projects going on over there.”
Maintaining the status quo is not necessarily a bad thing in an ultra-competitive global recruiting environment that can be dog eat dog, said Hardin. The Pratt & Whitney grant served its purpose well, she said.
“We work as hard to retain jobs as we do to bring new ones in,” she said, “because we’ve got a lot of other people who do what I do, and they’re out there trying to steal our business.”
The $250,000 from the state was funneled through the OneGeorgia Authority, a state office set up as part of a settlement with the tobacco industry. It’s geared partially toward assisting economically challenged areas, although Hardin said the Columbus area’s Valley Partnership economic development group has managed to snag $17 million of the funds for the region since 2003.
“It’s gone to help us do deals,” she said. “For instance, to help us build roads up in the Northwest Harris (Business) Park. It’s a partnership with the state.”
The OneGeorgia Authority expects to receive about $1.6 billion over 25 years from settlement of the tobacco case. More than $320 million has been awarded across the state, with projections that it has assisted $8 billion in development and helped create or retain more than 57,000 jobs.
In today’s announcement, the state said just over $7.5 million combined was awarded in five Georgia communities, impacting projects totaling $551 million and about 2,300 jobs. Aside from Columbus, awards went to projects in Savannah; Elberton/Bowman-Elbert County; Milledgeville-Baldwin County; and Rome-Floyd County.