Smart Growth

Warner Robins, Georgia

Located one hundred miles south of Atlanta, the town was originally a sleepy whistle stop town named Wellston, on a train route that connected Atlanta, Macon and Perry in Georgia. The surrounding area consisted of dairy farms, corn fields, peach orchards and pecan groves. Like much of the country, Wellston and the Middle Georgia region were affected by the Great Depression, and local leaders decided to attract the defense industry to bring jobs to the area. These efforts paid off after the army was invited to locate an aviation logistics depot and flying field in the area. On June 16, 1941, the War Department announced that it would build the aviation depot east of Wellston on land donated from forty-seven local farm families. The depot, now known as Robins Air Force Base was named after General Augustine Warner Robins, one of the Air Corps first logisticians. The town of Wellston was renamed as Warner Robins on September 1, 1942.

As Robins Air Force Base (AFB) grew, so did the town. The town thrived and grew during World War II, with Robins AFB employing over 24,000 personnel. As the Cold War intensified in the 1950s and 1960s, the workforce grew to over 15,000 and the city topped 20,000 people. From 2000 to 2010, the Warner Robins city population growth percentage was 36.4 percent, growing from 48,804 people to 66,588. Its metro area is home to about 140,000 and, combined with the city of Macon (sixteen miles to the north) and other towns in the Middle Georgia region, it is one of the only parts of Georgia outside Metro Atlanta (population 6.1 million) with over 500,000 people.

Today, Robins AFB is the largest industrial employer in Georgia with over 25,000 employees. The base is home to the Air Force Materiel Command’s Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex (WR-ALC) which is the worldwide manager for a wide range of aircraft, engines, missiles, software and avionics and accessories components. This is one of three US Air Force air logistics centers located in the country.

Much of the city’s rapid growth is thanks to retired military personnel who settle and work in the area. Dozens of aerospace and technology companies such as Boeing, Northrop, TRW and SAIC have located major facilities in and around the city. This growth has also brought service industries such as national restaurant chains and retail to Warner Robins.

Gary Lee, Executive Director at the Warner Robins Redevelopment Agency, spoke about the virtues of the city and how employers can take advantage of what it has to offer. Located on Interstate 75, which links Michigan to Florida, and, to the north, Interstate 16, which links Macon to Savannah and its port, Warner Robins’ location gives the city an advantage for trucking and other logistical operations.

“With our location in the middle of the state, we provide an advantage for businesses from a logistical standpoint,” Mr. Lee explains. “There’s no better place to be as far as moving cargo. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, the Port of Savannah had to be dredged to move super freighters. Middle Georgia can take advantage of that growth and become a distribution hub – moving product and carriers.”

He cites the air and road traffic congestion in the Atlanta area and explains how Warner Robins and Middle Georgia can be a good alternative. “Lots of truckers who have to pass through Atlanta, but want to avoid their traffic and rush hours, often have to park until they are able to move,” Mr. Lee says. “What we’re doing is positioning ourselves as an outlet to that area to move some cargo traffic down here.”

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the busiest airport in the world, handling over a quarter of a million passengers per day. While its cargo operations are significant, it is dwarfed by other airports including Memphis International Airport (Where FedEx has a major hub) and Hong Kong International Airport. Mr. Lee says that Warner Robins has the infrastructure to handle these cargo operations. “Robins Air Force Base is home to a 12,000 foot runway, second longest in the state next to the runways at Atlanta’s Airport,” he says. “Let Atlanta handle the passengers who need to change planes, and move the cargo here as an alternative and ease the congestion in Atlanta.”

Mr. Lee cites Fort Worth Alliance Airport in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan area, a smaller airport with the infrastructure to handle cargo operations, as an example of how Warner Robins can do the same. “That allowed Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport to focus more on handling passenger traffic.”

Besides Robins AFB, the city is also well known for being a hub of education and healthcare. Several colleges and universities are located within Warner Robins and Houston County, including Fort Valley State University, Middle Georgia State College, Georgia Military College Central Georgia Technical College and Georgia College & State University. Most of these institutions have affiliations with the Air Force Base and many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related courses and programs help create a strong workforce in the area. The Houston County Healthcare system is noted for its facilities and advanced technology which serve 300,000 people a year. The hospital system offers inpatient and outpatient surgery, maternity and neonatal intensive care, advanced cardiovascular care, psychiatric care and 24-hour emergency care among its services.

Due to its intertwined history with the air force base, Warner Robins is known for its aviation heritage which is displayed at the Museum of Aviation. Established in 1981, the Museum of Aviation is the second-largest aerospace museum of the US Air Force. On its fifty-one acres, it has five buildings featuring ninety-three different aircraft. The museum is noted for having an SR-71A Blackbird on display. The Blackbird is the current record holder for flight airspeed, setting an unbeaten absolute speed record of 1,905.81 knots (2,193.2 mph; 3,529.6 km/h) in 1976. The museum also has bombers, cargo aircraft, fighters, helicopters, missiles and a number of special aircraft on display.

Due to the presence of the base, Warner Robins is also known for its diverse population earning the nickname: “Georgia’s International City.” The city acknowledges this by holding an International City Festival each year. The festival includes arts and crafts, food, music and other activities for people to enjoy.

Warner Robins has many plans for its future. On top of the list is the revitalization of the downtown area, including plans to build a conference center and hotel near city hall, where the recreational center currently sits. The recreational center will be relocated in the northern part of town where it can best be utilized. “We are looking to drive economic development and bring people back into the downtown area to make it a place where people not only work, but live and play,” says Mr. Lee.

To be sure, Warner Robins is noted for being a great place to live. The city has become one of the largest retirement communities in the country and its public school system and low cost of living are cited as major reasons for why people have been moving to the area and retired military personnel stay put. “We’re known as a great place to raise a family and we have a great educational system. Our children get a private school level education in the public school system, which helps the local industry because they need an educated workforce.”

And Warner Robins’ reputation has not gone unnoticed. In 2009 and 2010, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine named the city the best place in Georgia in which to raise a family. In 2012, CNN Money named Warner Robins number seven on its Best Places to Live list of America’s best small cities. “We’re only ninety minutes away from Atlanta – close enough to visit, but far enough from the hustle and bustle,” Mr. Lee shares. “We’re growing, but we’re a quiet city with a low cost of living and that attracts a lot of people.”

Mr. Lee himself is a native of Warner Robins and returned to the city after graduating from Georgia Tech in Atlanta. “I can dedicate myself to helping Warner Robins grow and spend time with my family here in the area,” he says.

With its location in the heart of Georgia and a dedication to an educated workforce, Warner Robins has the potential for continuous growth and a bright future. “We’re open for business and industry and look forward to creating a hub of technology and logistics. Warner Robins is a great place to live and work and residents get a lot of bang for their buck.”

March 20, 2018, 9:47 AM EDT

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