Jobs in focus as planners, elected officials confer

Jobs in focus as planners, elected officials confer

November 2nd, 2011 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Mike Babb half-joked Tuesday that Whitfield County, Ga., used to be the carpet capital of the world.

The county commission chairman said the economy and down housing market has hit the floorcovering industry hard, noting Whitfield's 12.5 percent jobless rate.

"We longingly look at Hamilton and Bradley counties," he said, citing job generators such as Volkswagen, Wacker and Amazon. "We want to tie our shirt tail to them."

Public officials from the 16-county Chattanooga area met Tuesday to hear an update about the regional growth program that is expected to kick off early next year.

The work on a regional plan, designed to cover growth over the next 40 years, will examine areas such as transportation, workforce, education, economic development and environmental sustainability.

Many of the 17 officials from counties in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama talked about jobs and growth.

John Gentry, McMinn County, Tenn., mayor, said it, too, has double-digit unemployment.

But he said retailers with whom he has spoken to recently are talking about business increases this holiday season, and people in his county are filling jobs at Amazon, VW and Wacker.

"We cheer what happens in Hamilton and Bradley counties," Gentry said.

Bebe Heiskell, Walker County, Ga., commissioner, said officials there are working to bring in retail, tourism and industry.

At the same time, about 40 percent of the county's workforce travels to jobs in Chattanooga.

Ted Rumley, Dade County, Ga., executive, said up to 75 percent of its workers go to Chattanooga to work.

"We need to pool resources together ... and make this work for everybody," he said.

Melton Potter, Scottsboro, Ala., mayor, said Chattanooga is important to that part of Alabama.

"Chattanooga is the heartbeat. It's good to have a vision," said Potter, adding that his county expects to benefit from about 2,800 jobs to be created by TVA's planned completion of Bellefonte Nuclear Plant.

Stemming from the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's latest job-growth program, officials hope to garner a $2.5 million grant to join with over $2 million in local money to fund the regional planning effort.

While Hamilton County's September jobless rate of 8.6 percent is below the state's 9.8 percent, its still historically high. Bradley's jobless rate was 9.5 percent in September.

Bradley County Mayor Gary Davis said what's beneficial to one county helps everyone in the region.

He said that after VW announced it was going to build an assembly plant in Chattanooga, a group of public officials from the area went to Greenville, S.C., to see how a BMW factory had affected that region.

Davis said the 10-county area around Greenville didn't plan for the growth that emerged as a result of the plant, and that turned out to be a problem.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said the 16-county region around the Scenic City is tied together by not just a common heritage but a growing economy.

He called Atlanta "the poster child" of a community that didn't plan and outgrew itself.

"We don't want to duplicate that experience," Littlefield said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he's often asked about what's going to be done about expected growth and how that won't negatively impact the area's quality of life.

"It's exciting to pull everyone together," he said.

Beth Jones, executive director of the Southeast Tennessee Development District, termed the planning effort a learning process.

"We have an obligation to take care of the region for our children and grandchildren," she said.

Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., who addressed the group, quipped that the regional effort is like a group choosing a place to eat.

"It's about finding ground that people do agree on," he said.