Business

Chamber event focuses on State of Economic Development, Regional Prosperity Initiative

TONY ADAMS

tadams@ledger-enquirer.com

Alex Pearlstein kicked off his address Thursday to Columbus community and business leaders with the basic premise that nothing is guaranteed or truly predictable, playing off an old Yogi Berra quip about not knowing what tomorrow holds.

“Really, it speaks to the reality that we don’t really know what the future’s going to hold for the national economy, for our local economies. I think the Great Recession sort of put to rest the thought that we can predict what’s going to happen in the future,” said Pearlstein, vice president and principal with Atlanta-based Market Street Services.

That set the tone for comments on the need for improvement as a community, with the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce promoting an effort called the “Regional Prosperity Initiative,” a blueprint of sorts for making progress in a number of areas.

Pearlstein, whose firm was hired to help formulate the initiative, was the keynote speaker during the luncheon, held at Columbus State University’s Cunningham Center and also spotlighting the “State of Economic Development” in the city and region.

First and foremost, the executive said, is the need to develop a skilled, educated and seasoned work force that will draw future employers to the area, while also attracting young professionals who desire to live, work and play here.

“One thing that is definitely going to happen in the future is that this work, economic development, is going to be much more about talent,” Pearlstein said. “It’s going to be much more about the kind of workers that you can provide to companies as opposed to the kinds of sites or the kinds of incentives that you can provide to them.”

Human capital particularly will become more valuable as the Baby Boomer generation continues to transition out of the work force and into retirement, he said, with fewer individuals coming along to fill the gap.

“The generations coming up behind them are simply not as large,” said Pearlstein, calling it supply and demand, with competition being generated in specialized fields such as computer engineering and software design.”

That’s where the Regional Prosperity Initiative comes in, with the process including surveys, committees, discussions and other work all pointing to a strategic plan being developed and made public sometime next March.

An assessment already has determined that areas needing emphasis and more focus — aside from more and better talent — include more in-migration of people with ideas, overcoming income and poverty issues, improving education and entrepreneurism, and developing a better overall “quality of place and quality of life.”

Pearlstein, who has worked with dozens of clients and cities in 18 states, stressed that once the strategy is developed, Columbus-area residents and leaders should be prepared to support it long term to make significant changes and improvements.

Bill Murphy, executive vice president of economic development at the chamber and with The Valley Partnership, echoed those thoughts and, in essence, beseeched people to take part in the effort.

“This is simply not a brain exercise. This isn’t just an economic development or chamber strategic plan,” he said. “It truly is a community strategic plan, and that’s important because all of us have a role in defining our future.”

Murphy, tasked with creating jobs through new and existing employers and businesses, laid out the state of the local economy. He pointed out target business sectors for growth locally include insurance and financial activities, financial technology to include cyber security, aerospace and automotive, and call centers and shared services operations, also known as back-office support.

He mentioned manufacturing, business support services, travel and tourism, health care and Fort Benning among the existing strengths of the area that need not be ignored when looking for growth and improvement.

The military post, specifically, may have gotten some good news this week with Congress potentially headed toward passage of a two-year federal spending bill that would eliminate money and personnel hiccups locally and elsewhere. Fort Benning already is bracing for the loss of several thousands troops under current defense budget cuts.

“So (we’re) avoiding the potential devastating impact of sequestration,” Murphy said of the spending bill. “But what that doesn’t do is look beyond that two-year budget. We’re committed to this for the long term because we know that to keep Fort Benning strong we need to be working day in and day out with our federal elected officials and the Defense Department decision-makers to make sure they understand what we have here as we look to the next Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC.”

In other economic areas, Murphy said the city received fewer leads on prospective new businesses and expansions in 2014, although major expansion announcements by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, as well as Kodak, were major boosts. In the end, the community saw just over $136 million in capital investment by businesses last year, he said, with that off from $181 million in 2013. There were 1,355 “jobs announced” a year ago, he said, although that was lower than the 3,330 in 2013.

In 2015, Murphy said, the chamber has pieced together some solid projects in the region, with Ankerpak, BD&K Foods, ITC Security, Masterbuilt and Path-Tec investing a combined $8.7 million and creating 260 jobs between them.

“I guess the best way to describe this is we didn’t see a lot of home runs,” he said. “But we sure did see a lot of singles and doubles, and they were by companies who have been strong partners in our community and our chamber.”

The chamber executive also touched on the Columbus metro area unemployment rate, which has lagged the recovery by other Georgia cities and the U.S. as a whole. The local rate in September was 6.7 percent, second-worst in the state, with Albany at the bottom. The Columbus metro area’s job count now stands at 124,200.

“Although charts don’t always tell a good story, I think in this case it helps us understand the depth of the recession and how long it has taken us to begin to get out of it,” Murphy said, noting the current job total is about what it was in the year 2000. “That really reminds me every day why we’re out here working to make this community better. We went through a very, very difficult time.”

Wrapping up the economic luncheon Thursday was the presentation of two awards. Path-Tec, founded by Kevin Boykin, was “Project of the Year” for its expansion into the former Lithokrome plant in Muscogee Technology Park, with the facility closed this year by its parent firm Hallmark. Path-Tec, a medical supplier, invested $3 million into its new home with a pledge to create 100 jobs to go along with its existing 100.

“Volunteer of the Year” was presented to Jacqualyn W. “Jacki” Lowe for her tireless work with the chamber of commerce and other organizations, including serving as the chamber chair. The retired Georgia Power executive also has lent her time and expertise to several boards, including that of the National Infantry Foundation and the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley.

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