What a difference a decade can make.
Ten years ago, the United States was gripped in the Great Recession. The national unemployment rate hovered around 9.9%, and on the local level, the economic outlook was even grimmer — in September 2009, Bartow’s unemployment rate stood at a stunning 13.2%.
Fast forward to April 2019, when the national unemployment rate held steady at 3.6% — with Bartow County hitting a record low mark of 3%.
Today, Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor said the local economy has an entirely different problem than the one that plagued it 10 years earlier — the county now has more jobs than people available to fill them.
And the local government itself, Taylor said, is far from immune from the ongoing labor shortage.
“In our public works department, Joe Sutton comes by most every morning into my office and we visit and now the latest few months, the topic of the conversation is ‘I’ve lost this worker, I need an operator, a heavy equipment operator, I need a truck driver,’” Taylor recounted at Thursday morning’s Eggs and Issues event sponsored by the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce at NorthPointe Church in Adairsville.
“Those are the kinds of skills that are lacking right now and he’s constantly trying to fill the gaps to keep the paving crew going, the stormwater crew … that’s just a continuous dilemma we have within all the departments throughout County government.”
The Bartow County Sheriff’s Office is no exception.
“Our problem is, and it’s all throughout the State and all throughout the nation, is a manpower issue,” said Bartow County Sheriff Clark Millsap. “We have over 19 openings at the Sheriff’s Office.”
Nor does increasing benefits — and even amping up pay — seem to be doing the trick.
“We’ve increased our starting pay, we got a huge pay increase to be competitive with other agencies around us, we’ve got a signing bonus, we’ve got a retirement plan now thanks to the commissioner,” he said, “but it’s still hard to find people.”
Taylor said many major employers in the private sector are experiencing the same problem.
“The workforce in this community is really good, but it’s tight,” he said. “In the old, old days, it used to be ‘come to the South for cheap labor and cheap taxes.’ Now they’re coming looking for a skilled workforce.”
With an almost 800,000-person strong workforce in Bartow’s labor draw area — which includes all of Bartow’s neighboring counties — Taylor said there’s certainly enough people ready, able and willing to work. The difficulty, he said, comes in matching those workers with the skills current and prospective employers in the area are looking for.
Indeed, earlier this year voestalpine AG blamed its global reduced profit forecast in part on being unable “to find and maintain enough qualified personnel” to process orders in time at its manufacturing facility in Bartow.
“We’ve got plenty of workforce here and we want to keep that pipeline full as far as future workers coming,” Taylor said. “You start recruiting a company right now, it’s probably two years out before they get fully employed and operating.”
And more economic developments are coming. In Adairsville alone, Taylor listed plans for a major, 1.8 million-square-foot-plus Ashley Capital investment off Highway 140, as well as a $42.5 million Vista Metals Corp. expansion project.
Then there’s Chick-fil-A’s plans for a first-of-its-type distribution center on 50 acres of land near the Cartersville Business Park, which was approved for up to $45 million in bonds from the Development Authority of Bartow County at a meeting in April.
“Of course, everybody already knew what a great company they were, but you can tell this is the kind of company we want in Bartow County,” Taylor said. “A company like Chick-fil-A takes care of the community — I expect great things when they locate here, and that’s about 300 jobs they’re going to locate right in the center of the county off Cass-White Road.”
And with the county’s per capita income increasing by about $7,000 since 2013, Taylor said additional economic “vibrancy” is likewise occurring in Cartersville and Emerson.
“But the vibrancy in the community cannot happen unless we have some disposable income — that’s income after your house payment, after your car payment, you can take that leftover money and go spend it in the restaurants and businesses around our communities, and that’s what we’re looking for,” he said. “When we recruit for jobs, we’re looking for jobs that pay good wages.”
Taylor said he’s also optimistic about the County’s tax digest, which increased by about 8% last year. At the very least he said he anticipates this year’s numbers increasing by 6%, with a stark possibility that 2018’s growth rate is surpassed.
“You’re not going to see a millage increase this year, I’ll go ahead and make that announcement,” he said. “But hopefully in the next few years you won’t see any millage increases, either, because of that tax digest growing.”
Citing data from the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, Taylor said Bartow’s average income has increased by about 15% over the last six years. Over that same timeframe, he said average wages in the county have increased 42%.
“You look at that in a big plot, that’s about $500 million since 2013 up to right now in extra money coming into this community. It just trickles down and keeps circulating throughout our communities,” he said. “We’re not going to bring any low-wage jobs in, not as far as our parks go, as far as the County can control things.”
He briefly touched upon the subject of tax allocation districts (TADs), an economic development tool Bartow County voters authorized for the local government last year. The County announced the formation of the $1.4 billion Etowah-Allatoona Economic Corridor TAD — which comprises about 1,497 acres, mostly near the old Paga Mine property — in late 2018.
“It’s not a tax abatement for anybody, it’s not putting money in a developer’s pocket, not the way we’ve designed it,” Taylor said. “TADs help pay for water, sewer and roads. In this case, it’s going to help us fill in some mining holes.”
Jim Jacoby, founder of Atlanta-based Jacoby Development, Inc., has announced plans for a massive, mixed-use project — the Villages at Red Top — which would entail about 2,000 residential units and as much as one million square feet of commercial and retail properties within that corridor.
“Instead of us using our tax dollars to run water and sewer and build a road, the increment from inside that TAD is having to use it,” Taylor said. “So if the property values inside the TAD doesn’t increase, then this project doesn’t get built. And the only way that a TAD can happen is the County government and all the jurisdictions — mainly the school board — everybody has to get on.”
With about 900 new homes being built in Bartow last year, Taylor said residential growth is also anticipated in the local community.
“In the City of Cartersville they’re looking at a couple of pretty good projects and so are we. There’s one right off of Peeples Valley Road — the guy that developed Mountainbrook subdivision, I think he’s looking at a [planned use development] or has been, to bring in several homes there,” he said. “We’ve had some developers looking around Highway 20. A lot of this depends on where they can get the water and sewer infrastructure and the roads, too.”
What residents shouldn’t expect anytime soon, Taylor said, are “big tract builders” breaking fresh ground in Bartow.
“[They] are not here like they are in Paulding County, and neither do I think we want those, that type of growth,” he said.
That segued into discussion of affordable housing.
“We realize that we need housing for the workforce,” he said. “Workforce housing is short right now, we know that. But as a County government, I don’t think we can do a whole lot about it. I’m not a public housing-type person, I think the market should drive housing.”
Rather, Taylor said he believes the best way to solve the County’s housing woes is by raising wages within the community.
“Better wages brings better housing,” he said. “Just keep working like we’re doing, bringing good jobs and increasing the wages and letting the free market work its way out.”
Regarding potential south Bartow development, Taylor said the County is eying potential attractions in and around Lake Allatoona.
“Maybe we’ll partner with the City of Emerson to have a nice little park there along the river, from 293 all the way down to Pumpkinvine Creek,” he said. “The County owns about 500 acres down there and with this Jacoby development that everybody already knows about, as it comes along maybe that would be a good spot for at least another launch site.”
He concluded the presentation with a quick update on the proposed Rome-Cartersville Development Corridor project. The transportation project, currently estimated at roughly $155 million, would effectively link Highway 411 directly to Interstate 75 via a new, 6.2-mile connector.
“The State and feds can move forward with a good road design. We know where it’s going to come out, right there at Anheuser-Busch at the bridge. So I know they’ve still got just a few environmental issues to work through, but that road is going to happen,” he said. “I think now that the politics is right and Bartow and Floyd County for the first time ever is on the same page … both counties know how important this road is, to both communities and northwest Georgia, to get it done.”