Economic Development Department off to a Good Start in Athens

By Luke Dixon

Secret and government rarely mean good things in the same sentence.

For the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department, a “government secret” or a temporary secret brought one of the world’s largest construction companies to the Classic City.

That secret was Caterpillar.

Just over two years ago, in February 2013, the Athens-Clarke County Commission passed a resolution, establishing the Economic Development Department. According to athensbusiness.org, the department’s website, their mission is to encourage and bring large industrial companies to Athens.

Eight and a half months following the commission’s resolution, the Caterpillar factory celebrated it’s grand opening on October 31, 2013.

Caterpillar’s arrival to the Athens community was a great first step with a large company, Alan Reddish,. the Manager of the Athens-Clarke County government, told the Athens Banner-Herald in 2012, but they are still focused jobs, regardless of the size of the company.

“We’re looking to try to build tax base and bring sustainable jobs,” Reddish said to the Athens-Banner Herald in 2012. “But we’d also say to you that there are a lot of good jobs with a lot of smaller companies. So we’re not looking for just Caterpillar-sized companies, but a lot of diversity in smaller type businesses as well.”

Bringing these large industrial businesses to Athens not only adds to the variety of businesses, it adds jobs, one of the major points of emphasis from the commission when they created the department just over two years ago.

That two-year anniversary has come and gone, and through their first two years the department has seen steady and stable growth, according to its director, Ryan Moore. They’ve brought new industry to Athens – Caterpillar and Noramco to name a couple of specifics. In those three companies, they work on excavators and tractors, medical grade products, and automotive motors, respectively.

According to Moore, his department has had success in their first two years, especially getting the word out about Athens and its economic opportunities.

“We’re out seeking for development, looking for ways to improve our quality of life here, add to the jobs base,” Moore said.

Between Caterpillar, and Noramco, they employ 1,110 people, approximately 30 percent of all industrial business jobs in Athens, according to the Economic Development Department’s website.

Through their efforts, the department maintains a strong relationship with the State of Georgia’s economic development department, according to Denise Plemmons, Program Support Analyst in Athens Economic Development Department.

“When a lot of industries are looking to relocate, they’ll contact the department of economic development through the state, and they have their people that they then research what all the industry’s looking for,” Plemmons said. “They’ll go into some very specific details about our region or resources that are available in the community. Then they kind of do a spot analysis and that kind of stuff and decide who they think the best fit is and then they’ll go start asking questions.”

In the process of asking their own questions, the companies will occasionally contact the department directly, a rare occasion, but one the department will handle with the utmost sensitivity.

“A lot of stuff is secretive because they don’t want somebody to know that they’re coming,” Plemmons said.

Although the aforementioned Caterpillar project was given one of those secret names, that did not guarantee their arrival, according to Plemmons. None of the secrecy guarantees anything.

Plemmons compared the waiting an actor will often go through following an audition, or anyone interviewing for a job. If they do not get a call back or hear back, they assume they didn’t get it.

Regardless of secrecy or wooing processes the department will undertake, the department makes sure to maintain a relationship with the State Economic Development Department and use that as their main recruiter.

That relationship and others will help the department reach their long-term goals, one of which is developing more property throughout Athens.

“That’s something we need to continue to keep in mind of, and innovative in our approach, is to setup some avenues to have good developed, pad-ready property,” Moore said.

Moore knows it won’t be all easy, like it appeared to the public when Caterpillar arrived. Regardless of the hurdles, Moore said he and his department are 100 percent committed to the industrial sector.

In addition to more industry, they also plan to add a fourth member to their staff in addition to Moore, Plemmons and Amy Lopp, the business development specialist for the department. That position will be established by the Commission at a later date, according to Plemmons.

The position will focus on facilitating the planning of where the potential new businesses will be as well as looking at small industrial businesses that could setup shop in Athens.

If all goes accordingly, Moore believes Athens will be a booming community in as little as five years.

“I would see Athens having a very vibrant industrial sector that coordinates well with the community,” Moore said when asked about Athens in five years. “A research park of sort in collaboration with the University of Georgia, and also some tie-ins to small business and entrepreneurship and just some good ecosystem of growth.”

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