When it comes to development authorities, Liberty County’s is far from the largest. But that fact hasn’t stopped it from being widely recognized as one of the best.
Just last month, Ron Tolley and his four-person staff earned national recognition when Liberty County was ranked fifth in the country among mid-sized communities poised to achieve sustainable economic growth, according to the annual Fourth Economy Community Index.
Rich Overmoyer, CEO of Fourth Economy Consulting of Pittsburgh, which puts out the index, said five elements provide a foundation for a community’s economic success: talent, investment, sustainability, place and diversity.
Key data are extrapolated from sources such as the Census, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Housing and Urban Development and more, Overmoyer said.
Metrics that measure the five areas range from traditional concepts like labor force, wages and entrepreneurial activity to ideas – like diversity, toxic releases reported to the EPA and access to arts and entertainment – with origins in other disciplines.
“Accurately evaluating the factors communities possess for sustained economic growth and increased investment is based on more than just a few statistics,” Overmoyer said, adding that in all, the study employs 19 distinct data sets.
“There is no silver bullet for economic competitiveness,” said Jerry Paytas, vice president of research and analytics at Fourth Economy.
“A county has to do a lot of things well to adapt to the dynamic and fluid global economy.”
A compilation of factors
And that, said P.A. “Tak” Argentinis, is where the Liberty County Development Authority shines.
Argentinis is president of Elan Technology, a high-tech manufacturer of glass and ceramic insulators for everything from the defense industry, space exploration and cellphones to industrial machinery, refrigerators and automobiles.
“We moved to Liberty County from New Jersey more than 20 years ago,” he said. “We were a small company competing on an international stage and the industrial Northeast – with its high costs of energy, regulatory compliance costs, unions and high taxes – just wasn’t friendly to manufacturers.
“We decided to look for a place that was friendlier and welcomed manufacturing.”
The company looked at sites down the East Coast, from Virginia to Florida, amassing 31 offers and eventually narrowing the search to 11, then three.
“We would ask each of the development authorities a series of questions and it would take a week or so before we got answers,” Argentinis said.
“But when we asked Liberty County, they got back to us immediately, despite the fact that Ron Tolley had one of the smallest staffs.”
Next, Argentinis did what he called a “net present value analysis,” weighing each authority’s offers in the context of value and duration.
“Several were very close, but, in the end, what Liberty County could offer us was more than the others put together,” he said.
The area offered excellent location, with proximity to several airports, several ports, rail and interstate, he said. But, most importantly, Liberty County had the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.
“When we came to visit, Ron did a very smart thing – he arranged for us to visit with Fort Stewart’s commanding general,” Argentinis said.
“As you know, the 3rd ID is an armored division, the troops the U.S. turns to when it wants to project force in places far from home,” he said. “So it’s self-contained in the sense that they have master mechanics and master electricians to make sure their equipment is always in top running order, no matter where they are.
“Ron knew these were exactly the people we needed. And he knew that many of them wanted to stay in the area when their service was done.”
Indeed, the existence of Fort Stewart may be one of the development authority’s best secret weapons.
“That access to a well-qualified workforce is a very big selling point for us,” Tolley said.
“Very few counties can say they have 300-400 people a month coming out of military service and looking for jobs,” he said. “These are highly disciplined personnel with a myriad of skills.”
Growing with the region
Located 30 minutes south of Savannah, Liberty County has had a development authority since 1958, created by an amendment to the state constitution. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the mostly rural county saw its first manufacturer.
“That was Interstate Paper, the liner board mill out in Riceboro,” Tolley said, adding that the efforts to bring the mill to Liberty County set the tone that continues today with the development authority.
“The local community made a significant effort to help get Interstate Paper here,” he said. “A private company, they were taking an unusual approach at the time. They wanted to build a mill but, rather than buying and owning timber land for stock, they wanted to buy their timber from area landowners.
“So county commissioners, development authority members and other community leaders did the research, identifying large landowners, approaching them with the idea and asking them to sign letters saying they would be willing to sell their timber to the mill.
“With a lot of those letters in hand, covering a lot of acreage in Southeast Georgia, they were able to convince the company their approach would work here,” he said. “Without that local community action and support, Liberty County may not have had that mill.”
With that success under their belts, the authority purchased 60 acres in Walthourville for their first industrial park and the county was on its way.
The park’s first tenant was Waltrich Plastic Corp, created in 1961 to process a thermo plastic named polypropylene, manufacturing monofilament yarns used in the webbing on lawn chairs. Waltrich expanded in the mid-1970s, moving from New Jersey to the Walthourville Industrial Park, eventually consolidating all of their operations in Liberty County.
Joining Waltrich in short order were Elan Technology, International Greetings and Hugo Boss, all of whom have since expanded their operations.
Today, Liberty County is home to 17 industrial companies — 12 manufacturing and five distribution hubs that together employ more than 3,000 people. In addition to the Walthourville Industrial Park, the LCDA maintains the , Hinesville Technology Park — home to Savannah Technical College’s Liberty County campus — Midway Industrial Park, Tradeport East and Tradeport West.
By far the largest site — at 1,469 usable acres — is Tradeport East, home to such logistics giants as Pactra International, which provides third-party logistics for Hankook Tires in its 500,000-square-foot facility and The Tire Rack, distributor of high-performance tires and accessories, whose 242,000-square-foot distribution center is expandable to a half-million square feet.
Then there is Target, whose 1.5 million-square-foot regional distribution center employs nearly 500 people as it serves the company’s Florida-area stores.
Across the road from Tradeport East is Tradeport West, with some 1,100 useable acres, ready to be developed as Tradeport East fills up.
“We’ve tried to be proactive in anticipating potential development,” Tolley said. “Some time ago, we made the commitment to acquire property and develop infrastructure. The majority of our monies have been going to that and it has paid off.
“We also try our best to maintain good relationships with our companies,” Tolley said. “We don’t forget them after they relocate - we always try to stay in contact with them.
“Twice a year, we do appreciation events to thank them for their investments and involvement in the community. Manufacturers in Liberty County also hold quarterly meetings with Savannah Technical college and the development authority to share ideas and experiences and ensure the education community is aware of industrial needs.”
Measuring the intangibles
While Liberty County has much to recommend it in the form of available land, infrastructure, transportation and workforce, it may be the more elusive concept of customer service that truly sets the bar for this South Georgia community.
“When you uproot your company and move it to a totally different part of the country, there will always be problems and we were no exception,” Argentinis said.
“We went through some scary periods when production would drop or other issues would arise. On more than one occasion, I would wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘What have I done?’
“But I never felt that I was alone with my concerns.”
That was when he realized, Argentinis said, that what Elan Technology and Liberty County Development Authority had was a partnership in the most important sense of the word.
“They never, ever looked at a problem as being ‘our’ problem,” he said. “They always looked at it as a problem to be jointly solved.
“They have been incredibly supportive in everything we have done. That’s why I’m very comfortable with the expansion we’re currently undergoing, adding a new building and several millions of dollars in equipment.
Would he make the move south again, knowing what he knows now?
“Absolutely,” he said.
“I have no regrets or second thoughts. Instead, I feel fortunate that my company found Liberty County and look forward to many years of growing together.”
LIBERY COUNTY’S MAJOR INDUSTRIES
ManufacturingArconex (formerly Alcoa Forgings)
Florapharm Tea USA
IG Design (formerly International Greetings USA)
Interstate Paper Corporation
Liberty Concrete (Argos)
Martin Marietta Materials
Newport Timber/RB Lumber
Truss Mart - BMC
Distribution and LogisticsHugo Boss
The Tire Rack