Counties face differing interests in planning effort

Counties face differing interests in planning effort

April 1st, 2012 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

LONG-RANGE PLAN

• What: Crafting a 35- to 50-year regional growth plan was included in the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's latest economic development strategy: "Chattanooga Can Do: Building Tomorrow Today."

• Cost: About $3 million -- $500,000 each from Chattanooga and Hamilton County, $1 million from local businesses, $1 million from philanthropic groups

• Footprint by county: Tennessee -- Hamilton, Bradley, Polk, McMinn, Meigs, Rhea, Bledsoe, Sequatchie, Marion; Georgia -- Dade, Walker, Catoosa, Whitfield, Murray; Alabama -- DeKalb, Jackson


FIND OUT MORE

Information about the regional growth plan is available on the Web at www.ourgrowthplan.com

Scottsboro, Ala., Mayor Melton Potter says if Chattanooga's economy is the heart of the tri-state region, then his city and others encircling the Scenic City are its veins and arteries.

"They drive this heartbeat," said Potter.

But while the jobless rate ratchets down in Hamilton and its neighboring North Georgia bedroom communities, high unemployment lingers for others in the region.

And as the 16-county area gets ready to craft a first-ever 40-year growth plan, officials will have to grapple with counties emerging from the recession at far differing paces.

Hamilton's unemployment rate in February dropped to 7.7 percent, still high by historical standards but a vast improvement over 9.7 percent just two years ago.

By contrast, almost half of the 16 counties in the region still are struggling with double-digit jobless rates. Ten of the 16 have unemployment rates above the national average, figures show.

Brian Anderson, chief executive of the Greater Dalton, Ga., Chamber of Commerce, said the battered carpet business isn't expected to significantly improve until the housing market does. Whitfield's jobless rate in February was 11.8 percent.

"My interest in this is advising our elected officials," he said about the planning effort. "If we've got the best tools, forecasting, financial planning ... all that can't hurt."

Jimmy Durham, executive director of the DeKalb County, Ala., Economic Development Authority, said his county is dealing with high joblessness as a result of the off-shoring of the hosiery industry.

With DeKalb's rate having been above 10 percent this year, he said he's not concerned right now about too much growth.

Dade County, Ga., Executive Ted Rumley said he is aggressively working to grow the local economy even with a jobless rate of 7.3 percent last month.

"We'll welcome anyone -- no matter how large or how small," he said.

Doug Berry, the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce's vice president of economic development, said his county has benefited from growth by companies such as Amazon, Wacker, P&G Duracell and others.

Also, Hamilton County has seen success with Amazon, VW, Alstom and others, he said.

"It's incumbent to help neighbors improve their condition and create jobs there that they can enjoy," Berry said.

Part of the reasoning for Hamilton County officials behind doing the growth plan was dealing with potential unbridled growth that auto assembly plants such as Volkswagen have brought other areas, according to officials.

For example, some Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., officials have complained that a lack of planning in the wake of landing the BMW auto assembly plant in 1992 has led to sprawl and air quality issues.

Anderson said Chattanooga hasn't yet seen the potential of the VW plant. Already, the factory is growing faster than was anticipated, he said.

VW announced last month it expects to hire 1,000 more workers this year, boosting employment to 3,500 people. That's about 1,500 more than VW pledged to hire in 2008 when the $1 billion project was announced.

J.Ed. Marston, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of marketing, said officials for weeks have been trying to determine what the plan's scope of work will involve over the next two to three years. He noted it's a regionwide effort involving three states.

"It's more complicated than what has been normally done," Marston said.

The plan's steering committee has picked a team of professionals to oversee the process led by McBride Dale Clarion of Cincinnati.

Marston said about $3 million has been pledged to support the planning process. The area had sought a $2.5 million federal grant, but that effort wasn't successful.

Marston said there will be "multiple rounds of engagement" with the public along with data collection.

"So when we publish a final action plan, it would have been engaged multiple times," he said.

Scottsboro Mayor Potter said a lot of people drive to the Chattanooga area to work, and he likes the idea of a regional plan.

"It only benefits us from a regional approach to be in sync with Chattanooga," he said.

Anderson said no one involved in the planning effort believes in forming a regional authority. Rather, he said, the initiative is about trying to minimize the unknowns to spur better decisions.

"You never fail by planning more," he said.