Counties look to add retail to their economic development plans
After years following the conventional thinking that economic development is tied to manufacturing and industrial development, both Columbia County and Richmond County are making efforts to actively court the retail sector.
According to Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson, the Development Authority is considering a candidate with retail experience to replace former Director Troy Post, an industrial development expert, whose contract was not renewed at the end of last year.
“Every community has its own complexion, and Columbia County, while we enjoy the industrial development we have, does not qualify for some of the incentives that the state gives other communities considered less affluent,” he says. “So that being said, it’s hard for us to attract a Caterpillar plant or a huge industry.”
Post, who came to the county highly recommended four years ago, was more of a traditional development authority director, and Johnson says the environment just wasn’t conducive to growing that sector.
“In the economic climate we’ve been in during the last four years, there’s not been a lot of expansion,” Johnson says. “And again, we fight the whole system the state has in place, so it makes it really hard for a guy who is really, really focused on industrial development.”
While Columbia County considers hiring a development director with an eye for retail, Richmond County is attempting to add an additional position to complement Walter Sprouse, who serves as the director of the Development Authority of Richmond County.
According to Dr. Anthony Robinson, assistant professor of marketing at Georgia Regents University’s Hull College of Business, this kind of diversification makes sense.
“It makes sense because in this area, you do have a significant amount of disposable income,” he says. “I understand why in Columbia County they are directing quite a bit of attention toward retail. If you look at the median income in Columbia County alone, it’s relatively high, so it makes sense that they would focus on that area.”
Even if they had a better ability to attract manufacturing, Robinson says it might be smart for Columbia County to turn their attention toward retail anyway.
“They want to serve their population and they want to get the biggest bang for their buck,” he says. “So they may have said, ‘We want people to live here and we want them to work here, too. And if you want people to live here and you want them to work here, you want them to spend their money here.”
Currently, the largest retail opportunity in the area is the mall in Richmond County, and for years it has pained commissioners to see all that money filling their neighbors’ coffers.
With all the talk of retail — in the past, the Development Services Division has independently conducted its own retail survey as well as looked into the feasibility of attracting an outlet mall — Johnson makes it clear the county has not turned its back on industrial development.
“Obviously, we’ll still be thinking about that, we’re just trying to find somebody that’s multitalented and can attract both,” he says. “We feel like we have an opportunity and some space available for some industrial development out at our industrial park, and this person can still try to attract those, but day to day we don’t want to miss the opportunity for some good retail development or the opportunity to at least actively pursue that development.”
Like most things in Columbia County, it all comes back to growth.
“You have to be smart about it, and that goes back to being visionary,” he says.
“In Columbia County we have always been for smart growth. We make sure that we try to keep our infrastructure just ahead of that growth. We don’t want to take the approach that we’re going to let just anything in here.”
That defensive strategy was most evident a few years ago in the Marshall Square development, where the county turned its back on the residential component of the planned mixed use development because it eventually contained apartments rather than the more upscale condominiums it started with. Currently, the county owns a large portion of that land, and while building on the other portion has reached a fevered pitch, Johnson says the original vision of a well considered town center is still alive.
“We haven’t given up on that,” he says. “The county owns that other parcel and it’s a golden opportunity for a retail developer if we can just attract the right people.”
Given the extra consideration devoted to retail, you can’t help feeling that Marshall Square is going to be at the top of the To Do list waiting for the new director. You Might Also Like: