Caterpillar to make big waves in Athens

By JACOB DEMMITT

Athens mayor Nancy Denson sat in her royal blue blazer, with her makeup pristine and a smile stretched across her face — as she typically does.

But this was no typical occasion.

After months hard work, it was groundbreaking day on the new Caterpillar plant to be built on a tract of land shared by Clarke and Oconee counties.

The event’s guest list highlighted the importance of that March afternoon — Gov. Nathan Deal sat to her right, followed by Caterpillar Vice President Mary Bell, Sen. Johnny Isakson and Georgia Representative Paul Broun. Even former Georgia head football coach Vince Dooley sat fanning himself in the audience.

And they were all there for one reason — to congratulate Denson and her staff for a job well done.

“I think today is really about me thanking all of you,” Bell said. “I wish everyone could have seen how seamlessly everyone — the city, state, technical college system — everybody worked together as one. They listened. They understood exactly what we needed. They pulled together as one team and remarkably — rapidly — developed whatever it took to get the job done. And I want you to know how unusual that is.”

But the March 16 groundbreaking was just the beginning of what will surely be a prosperous relationship between Denson, Clarke County and the manufacturing giant. When the plant opens late next year, it will likely change the face of the community and brining jobs in numbers Denson said she can hardily fathom.  

On the horizon

Construction on the plant is slowly getting underway, but for now the 940-acre tract remains a forest free of any sign of the busy assembly line it will soon house.

But that doesn’t mean its potential isn’t visible.

Former Athens mayor Doc Eldridge called the groundbreaking the “biggest news in our community since Herschel Walker came to the University of Georgia.”

Deal called it a “great day for Athens Clarke County, for Oconee County, for Northeast Georgia and for the entire state of Georgia.”

Others used words like “wonderful,” “good” and “exciting.” But Denson had a different type of feeling — relief.

“You get all geared up for something, the adrenaline is pumping and then when it happens you feel like water and you just want to melt into a puddle,” she said after the ceremony’s conclusion. “But I’m so thrilled.”

Denson said she has heard all the numbers before – 4,200 jobs and an economic impact of $2.3 billion. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

When West Point held a similar event for the opening of their new Kia Motors plant in 2009, few could have imagined how quickly things were about to change.

Just one year later, the plant employed 2,400 people and brought life back to a community that had struggled to stay alive since textile mills moved overseas, according to a USA Today report.

Sales and property tax receipts went up, unemployment numbers fell and an unavoidable sense of optimism floated around the town, according to the article. Aside from the plant, the mayor said 24 new businesses opened in just 20 months.

For Denson, this is the most exciting part of the construction project.

“These 1,400 jobs with Caterpillar are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “When I think about this, I think about the individual lives it’s going to impact because we’ve got so many people in our community who are either unemployed or under employed. And now those people will have the confidence that they can send their kids to college, they can buy that home they’ve dreamed of.”

The wait

Caterpillar officials say they’re working on a tight deadline – but a project of this magnitude takes time.

According to Plant Manager Todd Henry, they hope to have machinery rolling off the assembly line by the end of 2013.

They’ll begin with mini hydraulic excavators, expanding production to several models by 2014.

By 2015, a flock of small track-type tractors will be produced on the state-of-the art assembly line, complete with robotic welding, powder paint systems and onsite logistics.

According to Henry, at maturity, the plant will be Building Construction Products largest facility.

“This project was very important to us and had a very aggressive timeline,” Bell said at the groundbreaking. “Getting the right project site selected very, very quickly was a critical first step. Some talked about it being an impossible first step. But this impossible first step was accomplished thanks to the phenomenal support we had so many entities at all levels.”

But the groundbreaking doesn’t just represent a good first step for Caterpillar.

“I think [Denson has] done a great job,” Eldridge said. “She’s only been in office a year. She’s got three more to go. She’s off to a great start, I can tell you that much.”

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