Walker County buys land to lure industry

Walker County buys land to lure industry

January 10th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

Call it the factory that got away.

In 2002, LG Chem was ready to manufacture countertops in Walker County, Ga., according to Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell. But the Korean company instead chose Calhoun, Ga., on Interstate 75 about an hour north of Atlanta.

"We lost that, because we didn't have any place to put 'em," Heiskell said. "That's when I started hunting land."

On Thursday, Walker County closed on property that Heiskell has been eyeing all that time: 423 undeveloped acres fronting U.S. Highway 27 in the unincorporated community of Noble that, combined with 40 acres the county already owned, will create space for a 463-acre industrial park.

The county Economic Development Authority bought the land for $4.23 million - $10,000 an acre - from Joe Swanson and his son David Swanson. Funding came from bonds backed by the special purpose local option sales tax, a levy of 1 cent per $1 of sales that voters renewed in November by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

"I've been looking at that property since 2003 and really didn't have any way to acquire it until we looked at the [SPLOST money]," Heiskell said.

Three manufacturers - whose identities county officials decline to disclose - have expressed interest in locating there, development authority Executive Director Larry Brooks said.

The largest factory, dubbed "Project Eagle" by county officials, would provide some 200 jobs at build-out, he said. The second would provide 200 jobs and the third prospect proposes employing 50 people, for a total of 450 jobs - if they all pan out.

"We're still trying to bring them all across the finish line," Brooks said.

The business park land, now used to graze cattle, is on a rail line that runs alongside Highway 27. It already has sewer service, Brooks said, and super-high-speed fiber-optic Internet cables through the Appalachian Valley Fiber Network out of Rome, Ga.

The budding industrial park is the largest business-ready property between Atlanta and Chattanooga, he said.

"That's not hyperbole," Brooks said. "We've actually been told that by the Georgia Department of Economic Development."

Walker County officials were partly inspired to create the industrial park, he said, by Chattanooga's success in luring a Volkswagen automobile manufacturing plant to Enterprise South Industrial Park, which was jointly developed by the city and Hamilton County.

"If you don't have anything to market, then it's very unlikely you're going to draw companies in," he said. "They're not going to go into a place unless the property is publicly owned."

Walker County paid $10,000 a year for four years, or $40,000, for an option to buy the industrial park land in Noble. That $40,000 was applied toward the sales price.

The county has set aside about $2 million from SPLOST funds for the development of the new park.

County officials also may apply for help from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which just granted $3 million to Fort Oglethorpe to improve the appearance of LaFayette Road just north of the Chickamauga Battlefield.

"They'll build utilities and roads to the first factory that's established," Heiskell said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.