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Kia Plant Helps Spark Growth in West Georgia

Mon October 20, 2008 - Southeast Edition

WEST POINT, Ga. (AP) As the national economy spirals downward, west Georgia is emerging as a bright spot, with new industry and investment revitalizing an area that was hit hard by the shuttering of its textile plants over the last two decades.

The growth is driven by a new Kia Motors Corp. plant under construction in West Point, rapid development in the Columbus area and expansion at Fort Benning. The reaction to the new development is overwhelmingly positive, although even some supporters quietly wonder whether it will forever alter their small town way of life.

“Working on great opportunities and hope is a whole lot better than working in an environment where you have no new industry coming in and no hope,” said Drew Ferguson, mayor of West Point, which has 3,300 residents. “It gives us a future. It gives the citizens of west Georgia a solid economic future.”

Kia, which received about $324 million in incentives to build an assembly plant at West Point, is the state’s biggest development project in recent memory. And Ferguson said the hefty sum was well worth it.

“The entire region is reinventing itself,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity because at the time when the textile industry took its last breath, the auto industry came into this area.”

Kia is investing $1.2 billion in the plant, which is expected to create about 2,500 jobs by the time it reaches full production in November of next year. New Kia suppliers also are setting up shop and are expected to employ about 3,765 people in Georgia and about 1,513 in Alabama, according to the Development Authority of LaGrange.

The Valley Partnership, a regional economic development collaboration that brings together six Georgia counties and spills across the Chattahoochee River into Phenix City, Ala., was one of the negotiators in the Kia deal. The group has worked since the early 1990s to lure new companies and industry to the region. Over the last five years, new arrivals and expansions have brought in about $2.3 billion in capital investment and created roughly 13,970 jobs.

The area also has seen losses.

Synovus Financial Corp. announced in September it would cut about 230 jobs, mostly through attrition, in Columbus, where it operates CB&T. Capital One said it would close its GreenPoint Mortgage servicing center in Columbus, eliminating 220 jobs by the end of the year.

A major blow came Sept. 24 when Columbus-based Bill Heard Enterprises announced that it would immediately close all of its dealerships, including the flagship Bill Heard Chevrolet in town, in part because of the difficult economic climate. The company, which operated 14 dealerships in seven states, had been the single largest chain of Chevrolet dealerships in the country.

But Valley Partnership executive vice president Becca Hardin said new additions and expansions should keep job growth ahead of job losses in the area.

“We’ve had tremendous success over the last few years,” she said. “Being able to offer companies a diverse portfolio of options really helps us leverage our strengths as a region.”

Private funds aren’t the only source of growth and investment in the region.

Under the Base Realignment and Closure plan, the Pentagon plans to move the Armor School at Fort Knox in Kentucky to Fort Benning, a sprawling military base that neighbors Columbus. That is expected to bring $2.9 billion in capital investment and 11,000 jobs to the area, Hardin said.

The growth means the economic impact could be felt throughout the region.

In Manchester, a 3,800-person city 40 mi. from both Columbus and West Point, city officials are optimistic that the Kia plant’s opening and the Fort Benning expansion could bring people and jobs closer to the small town.

And in Greenville, a few miles closer to West Point, Mayor James Bray hopes the arrival of some Kia suppliers nearby will lessen the pain caused by the closure of a clothing manufacturer in December that will eliminate 200 jobs.

While most people seem to agree that the growth and development are good for the region, some have reservations.

Joe Humphries, who co-owns a hardware store in Greenville, said he’s a bit worried about the growth of the 1,000-person town.

“If we got big enough for Home Depot to locate here, it would put me out of business,” Humphries said on a recent morning as he ate breakfast at the Foxx Den Coffee Cafe on the picture-perfect town square. “But that’s progress.”

Cafe owner Wayne Peavy said he worries that Greenville’s small town charm could be lost.

“People think, ’Well, the Kia plant, that’s way over yonder.’ But they don’t realize that the people who work there need somewhere to live and somewhere to shop and the sprawl is going to spread toward us,” he said. “On one hand, business-wise, it’s good, but if you like living the country living, it’s not so good. It’s a double-edged sword.”

In West Point, the welcome mat has been rolled out for Kia. Right off Interstate 85, Kia Parkway leads to the massive construction site, and a nearby TraveLodge hotel boasted a message reading: “Welcome Kia and guests to our great community.”

Dana Pope, owner of The Twisted Daisy, a new home furnishings and gift shop downtown, said she has mixed feelings about Kia’s arrival.

“There’s definitely a lot of unknowns,” said Pope, who moved from Atlanta seven years ago in search of a quieter life. “There is concern that West Point might lose that small town feel.”

At the same time, she said, she probably wouldn’t have opened her store in May without the prospect of the increased business that’s likely to come with development.

But Donald Gilliam, a city councilman who has worked at Nader’s Music downtown since 1959, can’t find any faults.

“The economic impact is tremendous and will continue to be tremendous for the entire two-state area into the future,” he said. “This is the place to be right now in Georgia. Even in spite of the troubling economic climate, we have things better than the state as a whole and we expect that to continue.”

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