Growing Opportunities in Rural Georgia
Douglas-Coffee County, GA
Douglas-Coffee County is one of Georgia’s fastest growing communities. “Coffee County has always been a great example of a rural community that is progressive and growing, despite the fact that we are over 30 miles from the nearest interstate,” says Andrea Taylor, President of Douglas-Coffee County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority.
Located in the scenic coastal plains of southeastern Georgia, the business-friendly community is nestled between four interstates and is close to three major ports. “So we have easy access to any one of them, no matter which way you are going.” Four lane highways whisk residents to any one of these interstates at 60 miles per hour – or to anywhere else in the southeastern United States.
Local leaders are committed to growing the community and supporting commerce. As a result, the permitting process is quick and easy and taxes are refreshingly low – giving the rural community a clear advantage over more populated areas. “It is much better to do business here than metro communities due to the low taxes, low cost of land and tax abatements we can offer depending on investment and number of jobs created,” Ms. Taylor points out.
A diverse range of businesses have been attracted by the county’s attributes. Manufacturing, food processing, and distribution all enjoy a particularly strong presence. Leading local employers include Coffee Correctional Facility, Pilgrim’s (poultry processing), PCC Airfoils (jet turbine blades manufacturing), Optima Chemical (specialty chemicals), a Wal-Mart regional distribution center, two Southwire plants (electrical wire, cable and cord manufacturing), Diamond Cargo (cargo trailer manufacturing), and Premium Peanut (the world’s largest and newest peanut shelling facility).
The county has managed to successfully hold on to manufacturing – even when the demand for key products nosedived. The community was once a mecca for mobile home manufacturing, until the recession pulled the rug out from under the industry. “In 1999 the entire mobile home industry produced something like 363,000 units,” Ms. Taylor remembers. “In 2010 they produced something like 53,000. It went from booming to absolutely nothing.” The county figured out a way to utilize the community’s trained labor by shifting to a similar industry. “A lot of those plants that shut down have become cargo trailer manufacturers… The workforce that was building those mobile homes can easily transition into building cargo trailers.”
Operating since the 1950s, the Douglas-Coffee County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority has worked hard to help local industries remain viable. “We try and stay in touch with our industries and our industry leaders to make sure that we can help them in any way and address any issues that they might be having,” says Ms. Taylor. “We try to visit each of our industries at least once a year. We make sure there are no major hurdles that we need to help them jump.”
Many of these local employers are enjoying significant growth. “A great number of our local industries continue to expand. That is one of the things that we really focus on.” Spectrum Distribution Center and Optima Chemical both recently expanded, while Elixir Extrusions purchased a new building and created 70 new jobs. Coffee Correctional Facility recently completed a major expansion and is now building a $2.1 million training center where inmates can learn relevant job skills, primarily diesel mechanics and welding. “I think that is a great thing to help grow our workforce, to give people necessary skills,” says Ms. Taylor.
The Coffee County Campus of Wiregrass Georgia Technical College (WGTC) recently expanded its facilities as well, creating more opportunities for local students. “We brought it to the attention of our legislators that we needed an expansion to help grow our workforce,” Ms. Taylor recalls. Locals also have easy access to South Georgia State College, which is located right beside WGTC and recently began offering four-year degrees. In addition, the local school system just opened the Wiregrass Regional College & Career Academy, a new high school that focuses on life skills and preparation for college and career entry and the first in the state to be located on the campus of a technical school.
The local transportation network has also enjoyed key expansions. In the past, the municipal airport was unable to accommodate large planes, which was a deal breaker for some businesses considering a move to the county. “Our community has always identified the necessity of an airport to handle corporate jets,” Ms. Taylor explains. In response, local leaders pushed for upgrades, and the airport is now equipped to handle jets as large as 737s, making it one of the biggest municipal airports in the area.
Back in the 1980s, a roadway intended to encircle the community was only partially completed. Now, the project is back on the table, and expected to be completed soon. “So we will have a four to five lane perimeter road around our city and there will be another overpass over the railroad.” The largest GA DOT project recently bid, the expanded roadway will create a wealth of new options for commercial and retail developments. Incoming businesses can also take advantage of Satilla Park; the land was purchased with private funds raised from a capital campaign and the Economic Development Authority has received $4 million in SPLOST funds to finish out the industrial park’s infrastructure. Businesses involved in distribution, manufacturing, or food processing would all be particularly well suited for the new park.
Incoming businesses will appreciate the quality of life as much as the economic opportunities. The county enjoys “a laidback, friendly environment, with people who love their community,” says Ms. Taylor. The relatively small population makes it easy for locals to remain close. “We are a county of about 43,000 people, so there are a lot of connections.” And these locals are eager to create new connections, as well as maintaining old ones. “Because of the diverse industry base that we have here, we have a lot of people coming from out of town to work in our industries. The best thing about it is that the people are so welcoming. We hear that so often.”
The close-knit community is eager to work together to improve opportunities and livability for longtime residents and newcomers. For example, the School, Business, & Industry Connection group meets regularly “to talk about topics that are affecting the school system and how business and industry can help and vice versa. Out of that, we have developed a STEM internship because a problem in rural communities is that the best and the brightest leave. But really, there are higher level jobs that are available [here], engineering positions and things of that nature with higher pay, and they need a workforce with college degrees.” The program highlights these local STEM opportunities, encouraging interns to stay in Coffee County to start their career upon graduation.
Douglas boasts a booming downtown with plenty of shopping and entertainment opportunities, including antiquing. “The downtown is beautifully done. It is 90 percent full; we don’t have many buildings that are vacant. [There are] a lot of local shops, a lot of high-end clothing and jewelry stores, restaurants.” More is likely to come. “One of the things that our city is focusing on is developing more retail opportunities. That is going to enhance the quality of life here.”
The county’s local barbecue is celebrated, and eateries with authentic recipes abound. Residents can pick up fresh produce at the Red Brick Farm or the Farmer’s Market. Nature lovers enjoy exploring Broxton Rocks Preserve or General Coffee State Park. Hunting is a popular pastime at Gopher Plantation. Golfers have access to three courses. History buffs can visit Heritage Station Museum and the WWII Flight Training Museum.
Douglas’ community spirit is evident during the South Georgia BBQ & Outdoor Festival, an annual event featuring an eclectic range of activities including a BBQ Cookoff, Motorcycle Show & Poker Run, Car Show, hunting and outdoor apparel/activity vendors, Friday night concert, arts and crafts vendors, food vendors, and turkey and duck calling contests.
Douglas-Coffee County has managed to put itself on the map, despite being located in a rural area without immediate interstate access. Already a regional hub for retail and industry, local leaders are eager to continue growing the community and expanding opportunities. With so much to offer, that should be an easy task.