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BY THE NUMBERS
* 16,400 - Jobs lost in Dalton, Ga., metro area during the Great Recession, or 20.6 percent of its employment* 22,600 - Jobs lost in Chattanooga metro in the recession, or 9.1 percent of employment* 8,800 - Jobs lost in Cleveland, Tenn., metro in the downturn, or 3.7 percent of employmentSource: IHS Global economic study conducted for U.S. Conference of Mayors
When Rob Bradham came to Dalton, Ga., late last year, he kept hearing about the city's heydays in the '70s, '80s and '90s when the carpet business was blazing.
"The [Great Recession] took a heavy toll," said Bradham, the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, adding that leaders in the area believe they need to start thinking about what's next.
The business group has launched a community and economic development strategic planning effort for Whitfield County. The initiative will look at crafting a long-term vision for industrial recruiting, downtown revitalization, and economic and workforce development, the Chamber CEO said.
The end product will have specific recommended projects, including a price tag, and goals to achieve, said Bradham, who came to Dalton after serving as the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of public strategies.
"We will make sure each of these projects and goals is doable and reasonable," he said. "We don't want to be pie in the sky."
The Dalton metro area was one of the nation's hardest hit in terms of percentage job losses during the recession, figures show.
The area lost 16,400 jobs, or 20.6 percent of its employment, according to an IHS Global economic study for the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this year. The study projected that Dalton won't return to its 2007 peak employment until after 2021.
At the same time, the economy has bounced back. While the metro area's unemployment rate peaked at 13.6 percent in 2010, the Georgia Department of Labor said joblessness in August was 5.9 percent. Georgia's seasonally adjusted jobless rate for August was 4.9 percent.
Bradham said the Chamber's board agreed to "start the conversation" about Whitfield County's future. A 23-member steering panel will lead the initiative, he said.
Carl Campbell, executive director of the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority, said the planning effort is more comprehensive than past initiatives.
"I'm excited to see what we might learn from it," he said. "We've been through a lot since the last one."
Campbell said the effort will take a multi-faceted approach and focus on four or five areas. For him, workforce development is a big piece with which many communities are dealing.
"There are no easy fixes anywhere," he said, adding that results often take a long time to see.
While the floorcovering industry is still a key business for Dalton, diversifying the economy has been a long-term goal and Bradham doesn't see that changing. He noted that a business park has been set aside in Whitfield for non-floorcovering prospects, though it has experienced "a tough time" landing the first tenant.
Potentially building more industrial parks, raising additional apartments in downtown Dalton to appeal to a younger population along with workforce development are among ideas expected to be eyed, Bradham said.
Chuck Dobbins, a retired Shaw Industries executive and chairman of the Chamber's executive board and a project co-chairman, said the Dalton area has come back from the depths of the deep recession that had hurt the floorcovering industry.
"Fortunately, the community is resilient. We've worked hard to get back to a good place," Dobbins said. "It's a great time as we're back on the upswing to say let's look at this."
Project Co-Chairman Bryan Hair, CEO of Marketing Alliance Group, said Dalton has been a national leader in entrepreneurship and innovation, particularly in floorcovering.
"It's time to leverage our strengths and begin seriously thinking about the next chapter," said Hair.
Market Street Services, an Atlanta group that specializes in helping cities conduct strategic planning, has been hired to advise the effort.
"It has the potential to be a real game-changer for Dalton," Bradham said.
Bradham said an online survey has been launched at daltonstrategy.com where people can weigh in.
"The survey is important," he said. "It allows the community to have input into the process."
The aim is to complete the planning effort by May 2017, Bradham said. He said the effort is funded with private money and he declined to say how much it will cost.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.