Hall County’s business community took a well-earned opportunity last week to celebrate a full November cornucopia of blessings and pat itself on the back a bit.
Despite rhetoric of the election season that tends to run toward extremes, the local economy continues to move steadily forward after several years of stagnation and uncertainty. Though pockets of difficulty remain in the nation and throughout Georgia, this part of the world seems settled in for a period of steady growth.
Wednesday, the Featherbone Communiversity, in partnership with Lanier Technical College and Brenau University, held its fifth annual “Entrepreneurs: Masters of Innovation” event at its Chestnut Street locale. Led by founder Gus Whalen, Communiversity partners with Lanier Technical College, Brenau University and area businesses to highlight the “masters” in many key fields.
Eight local innovators were cited, each building success based on old-fashioned values and hard work, but with an eye toward the future that has helped them adapt to changing markets. That’s key in an era when the economy continues to shift in directions few can see coming until it’s right on top of them.
“Customers change,” said Jimmy Adams of the Adams Companies, founded in 1903. “Demands change. Today we have so much more technology than we did years ago. You’ve got a different market and the market is changing faster today for you guys than it ever did for me or my father or grandfather.”
A day later, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce handed out its annual Industry Appreciation Awards, honoring the best small, medium and large companies, along with other recognition in various areas. King’s Hawaiian, Syfan Logistics and Aerocom took the top honors, but the crowd of more than 200 munching on lasagna at the Chattahoochee Country Club included many winners.
The keynote speaker, state Sen. Butch Miller, pointed out the number of goods made in Hall County, many displayed on a table in the banquet hall. He noted how he began his day with coffee from St. Ives, shaving products from KIK, and was attending a luncheon featuring tablecloths from Milliken and rocking chairs on the patio from Georgia Chair.
He reminded the crowd the strength of Hall’s economy is that it doesn’t rely on one industry or one giant employer but a wide array of homegrown product development.
“If you can’t make it, mine it or grow it, you can’t sustain it,” Miller said.
As an example, look at the disparate fortunes of the two corners of Georgia, Gainesville in the northeast part of the state and Dalton in the northwest.
When everyone took a hit from the Great Recession, this area weathered the storm better than most, thanks to a diverse base of manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, health care providers and high-tech industry. As a result, unemployment numbers went up for awhile but have eased since. The jobless rate in Hall was 6 percent in September, down from the previous month and year, with more than 1,900 jobs added since September 2013.
But the Dalton area economy, driven chiefly by its carpet makers, saw unemployment and foreclosures skyrocket when the housing market sank. Its jobless rate remains 9 percent with job growth remaining flat over the last year.
This past summer, a New York Times article ranked counties in the United States on how easy or hard it is to live there, with the criteria including education, household income, unemployment rate and health indices. Hall County ranked No. 642 of 3,315 for quality of life, roughly in the top 20 percent in the nation. Nearby counties Forsyth (36th), Gwinnett (205th), Cherokee (184th) and Dawson (687th) also were rated high on the list.
It’s true not everyone has yet benefited from the recent hiring surge, but more help is coming. Kubota Manufacturing and Kings Hawaiian both plan major expansions, adding hundreds of new jobs. The Gateway Industrial Centre off Ga. 365, home to the state’s new poultry lab, likely will generate more job growth as new clients locate there.
Two more major economic magnets are scheduled to be in place next year. The Northeast Georgia Health System’s South Hall hospital near Braselton will open in the spring with 100 beds and 600 jobs anchoring a hub of commercial growth in that area.
Also opening next spring is the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Gainesville, on 168 acres donated by Charles and Lessie Smithgall. It is expected to be a prime tourist destination drawing visitors to the area.
That influx of good-paying new jobs also should boost the housing market, which has seen strong signs of recovery in recent months, and help fill government tax coffers with much-needed tax revenue to improve schools, public safety and transportation priorities that were set aside during lean times.
In addition, extra commerce through county sales taxes helps those governments rake in more SPLOST money for special projects.
Local retailers have high hopes for the holiday season, with gasoline cheaper and consumers likely to spend more. Thursday’s Jingle Mingle event on the Gainesville downtown square welcomes the season with decorations, music and other holiday festivities, while merchants extend their hours to help shoppers begin filling their stockings.
Residents also can help local businesses with the Shop Local Saturday initiative the day after Black Friday, when post-Thanksgiving sales drive most traffic to the big-box stores. Sharing the wealth with the mom-and-pops in the neighborhood is a good way to aid the local economy.
Businesses still face many challenges, from rising health insurance costs to training workers for a changing workplace. But the can-do spirit displayed last week indicate local industry leaders aren’t shrinking from those challenges, and that prosperous days await on the horizon this holiday season and beyond.