Economic development a hot topic for municipal races—so what do the experts say?

Published 12:25 pm Tuesday, October 5, 2021

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If you have been following the City of Americus municipal races and are seeking to become an educated voter, then you have no doubt heard much conversation on economic development and jobs. Depending on the candidate you could believe we are seeing significant improvements, or we are in dire straits. Candidates also differ in their views on what they personally would do to build a stronger local economy, while others might recognize there is already a resource dedicated to taking on this task and would work alongside of them. Some seem to know what the experts would enjoy out of a city government, whereas others haven’t thought to ask. To make sure our readers are aware of the state of industry in Sumter County, we went straight to the source, The Sumter County Payroll Development Authority (PDA). The PDA is the authority who the State of Georgia has designated as having the task to grow industry. Rusty Warner serves as the Executive Director for the PDA, while Paul V. Hall serves as the Chairman for the PDA. In 2021 alone, there have been three industries to announce they will make Sumter County home, bringing with them over a 1000 jobs and millions of dollars’ worth of investments in infrastructure.

There is a phrase in social services which is considered best practice when working on behalf of families. It is, “Nothing about us, without us.” It is meant as a quick and easy way to remember work on behalf of the family is to be done within relationship with the family, as their participation is essential if not required to achieve and sustain success. It only makes perfect sense. To us at the ATR, it only seems wise we follow the same practice and get our information straight from the source. We did not want to discuss economic development without first being “within relationship” with the PDA. Despite all the conversation about economic development, we did not stand in line to speak with Rusty Warner and Paul V. Hall. In fact, between them only one candidate has sought them out to determine the current workings, successes and struggles of the PDA. We wanted to hear from the experts on this topic because it is too important to get lost amongst the weeds of other political topics.

Economic development touches everything which money touches. Being able to enjoy the dignity of work, our personal pocketbooks, home and property values, city and county budgets, sewer, water, potholes, crime rates, fire protection, social services, education, health and even simple lifestyle choices like going to the park and choosing where we eat lunch is touched. Change the economic stance by the slightest and its impact is large. It is indeed a worthy topic deserving discussion, for no one who lives in Sumter County is not impacted by the health of our economy.

The ATR’s goal was to have answers to three questions. What differentiates the work of the PDA and the work of city council/county commissioners? What is an appropriate expectation of an elected official when it comes to economic development? And lastly, as people who are tasked with keeping our jobs and economic health good, what qualities are you looking for in a mayor and in a city council representative? What followed was a conversation which addressed all three points.

Rusty wanted it understood bringing in jobs takes a “community effort to make something like this happen.” Rusty also stated the jobs are prevalent, despite there is often a war cry of “we need jobs!” As Rusty puts it, “if you can fog a mirror and pass a drug test, there are plenty of jobs out there. Even if you can’t pass a drug test, there are still other jobs out there you can do.” When he hears a candidate speak on bringing jobs to the area, Rusty has one simple response, “How?” He points out no one person can bring in jobs as there is a network of players to address economic development and they all have both an individual role and a relational role. Some of the entities in creating jobs includes Downtown Development Authority, Americus City Council (ACC), Sumter County Board of Commissioners (BOC), all levels of education, and even us as individual citizens have a piece in contributing to the goal. “We all have to contribute something to the pot in order to make us attractive for a company to come in here. I am telling you the community has to do it.” Rusty says economic development calls for “being in the roots and knowing how to grow.” Rusty indicates, what is not helpful, is for someone to take a position of waiting and seeing if anything grows and then taking credit for it. Economic development does have what Rusty refers as a “marketing approach” but it goes far further than such. Rusty says in his deciding to take the job, he did much research into who our community is and what systems are in place—because all of the resources have to come to table. Rusty says it is imperative those interested learn how to be “more economic development bound than community development bound.” Events and hosting are important but being able to “show your assets off” is where economic development becomes successful. Rusty states every time he gets a chance to taut SGTC, GSW and Phoebe Sumter he does. So, knowing our resources is but one of the primary steps in being a good ambassador for economic development. “Passion over your resources means a lot.” Businesses want to come to rural areas, that is not an issue. But as Rusty puts it, “they have to go where the low hanging fruit is.” By this he means resources and “Atlanta and their 17 ‘metro counties’ have a lot of this type of fruit. To get them down here, we have to show we can play with the big boys.” Rusty says even he and his board “had to train ourselves on a different mindset of what our assets are.” It is Rusty’s opinion anyone looking to contribute to continued growth, has to be willing to look at ourselves in a different light—as a community with great assets to sell, rather than either leaving them out all together or even worse, downplaying them. Rusty continues, “What I am looking for as far as a candidate is someone who understands and wants to join the team and not taut or beat on their chest and say, ‘I can make jobs come to our community.’ Because if they are saying that–they don’t know how to create jobs.”

Paul Hall follows up on Rusty’s words. Having been one of the board who stays invested in Rusty’s work, he wants a candidate who will support Rusty’s efforts. Further he added, “I want a candidate who is a visionary. That’s what Rusty has—vision. It takes working with people with vision to turn that vision into efforts which make a reality.” Visionary for Paul and Rusty is “knowing what you’re talking about and if you don’t, be willing to learn.” Paul says administration skills are appreciated, but they are secondary to being a visionary. “We see things that people never see or think about—there is an unestablished goal out there we keep working towards.” According to Paul, being comfortable with holding to a vision of success but being flexible enough to realize goals are ever changing is imperative. “You have to be a good dreamer.” Additionally, Paul adds, “forward thinking is important for anybody that wants to see a business succeed and grow.” Paul remembers his days of leading one of our manufacturing companies. He would ask himself, what is left to be done? He also reports the pressures of reaching for something new is where vision began to grow. So, another aspect of someone who can lend a hand in growing the economy is someone who can ask the question of what new can be done, while withstanding the pressure of waiting for such an answer to come and working in the meanwhile. Paul makes it clear, success doesn’t happen “by just sitting at your desk and waiting for something to come to you.”

What is the difference between PDA and ACC? Rusty states, “not even in the same boat.” Paul indicates not the same at all. There is a reminder the PDA is not a government yet is given its authority by the State. However, both men indicate how important it is to have the right people on both the ACC as well as the BOC and the Sumter County Board of Education (BOE). The PDA board is made up of people who must be knowledgeable, skilled, dedicated, motivated and have an ability to be patient and work with moving targets. Who the governing boards choose to put on this board is imperative to its success and being able to make a vote which is informed and best for the community despite any personal feelings or agendas is a talent the council as well as the commissioners must have. The ACC appoints 2.5 members to the 5-member board. The BOC appoints 2.5 people to the board. The vote is not an appointment the choice of the chairman and the mayor; is voted on by each induvial member. The “.5” person speaks to the vital relationships needed for economic development to succeed. The city and the county must come together to choose a person. Then both boards must vote in favor of the appointment. An informed voter will consider who they want to give the power of a vote. Local governments have no authority over what the PDA does, but they do have the power to appoint who is on the board—a candidate with an agenda to fill boards with friends or likeminded people for the point of granting favor is a dangerous practice which could literally cost millions and the quality of life. Rusty states, “what they can do to help us, is make sure the people (potential board members) are educated, good business-related people.” Hall states the PDA differs from local governments as “a little more in-depth” as PDA’s focus is fully on job expansions, our tax base expansion and job creation. Rusty agrees. While industry with $9 hour wages is beneficial, there is only so long we can sustain a community on those wages. As Paul stated earlier, this is where the vision is needed. Rusty and Paul both admit “something happened” where the vision suffered, and it must be recovered in order to build those things back. The PDA needs partners who acknowledge this, but don’t get stuck there. They must be able to, once again, invest into being visionaries who are openminded enough to let the vision shift as needed, and tenacious enough to stick it out; often times without immediate rewards as recruiting business can take years.

Although candidates have a tendency to campaign on their ability to create jobs, the reality as Rusty and Paul have established is relationship is a requirement and no one person can grow industry. So, the question becomes, what is a healthy expectation of elected officials? What is appropriate for voters to expect out of the people who they choose to hand their voice over to? Rusty is quick to answer. “Get educated on what we are talking about. I don’t need them at our meetings, but I need them available.” However, if the official is available but doesn’t understand the language indigenous to economic development, their benefit is little more than proving they can accept an invitation to join a meeting. Rusty establishes the mayor and council as ambassadors. “They (voters) need someone we are proud to have represent our community because new business is honored when our elected show interest.” However, interest can only take us so far. When an official doesn’t understand what “a tax allocation district” is, there is potential for disaster. “We want them to be in the know, informed, and how to talk.” Rusty suggests to governing officials to join their training, “go and learn how we tick.”

Paul states the healthy expectation is “partnership.” “You got to have a team spirit in this thing. In a team, there is still a leader in it, but everybody contributes in a positive way to promote what the vision is.” Paul says there are some things he expects of officials. Refusing to participate in “throwing monkey wrenches” is one of them. Bringing in business requires governing boards to be swift and proficient in knowing their offerings such as sewer, water and infrastructure. “Permitting, development, timing and streamline processes” are vital to new business and something elected officials can directly affect. Rusty and Paul state red tape and bureaucracy which slows down growth is deadly to development. They want it done legally but need it done with efficient and effective policies. Our elected, within the laws and ordinances governing us, have the power to make that happen—or not happen.

Purely from an economic development point of view—Rusty wants an approachable and sincere official. Paul wants someone with “exposure to economic development. One who can bring themselves into community situations in a positive way to give support to those carrying out the project.” Paul wraps it up nicely. “Relationship. Relationship is everything. We need our elected boards to be in partnership with each other. Our potential industry looks to see examples of how well our Board of Education works with our Board of Commissioners and how they work with Americus City Council. They look to see who is invested in them coming to town. They are looking for a place where they too can contribute—is there potential place at the table for them to enjoy relationship? Do we honor each other? Because to have our elected groups not open to good relationship, or even our individual bodies having their members giving the appearance to be against each rather than for the betterment of the community at large is harmful. Relationship. It all comes down to healthy relationship.” Paul has very recently been proven correct. There is a big announcement coming our way in a short amount of time. The person who gets to decide where his company is housed, reported to Rusty he “is very comfortable with considering Sumter County as its home, primarily because Paul took the podium and spoke his truth: Relationship is what we have to offer you, and you’ll not find a community more dedicated to enjoying and inviting others into healthy relationship.”

Which candidate do you think does the best building relationship and understanding economic development is not a one man show? Furthermore, are they speaking only of our problems and not our successes? Have you taken into deep consideration your vote based on the true work and not merely on who you flippantly like or is prey to agendas? Is economic development important to you? It should be, it shows up in your life every day. Is healthy relationship important to you? Have you sat down, in good relationship with the folks of the PDA to see what you can do to improve our chances for bringing industry? Things as simple as the way you talk about Sumter County in public forums is important. An investor may be behind you as your check out, what are they hearing you say about Sumter County? You better know it matters. There is another huge consideration which the PDA knows all too well, but we hardly consider. When a potential industry comes to town, they are soaking in everything. Have you considered what your property looks like, does it look like you take pride in your home? Have you walked by trash which didn’t belong to you and think it really didn’t matter? Oh, it matters, and it directly affects you—right in your pocketbook. Have you cheered for a student recently; as they are our upcoming workforce? Do you see the dignity in work and want to join in relationship with the workforce? All of this, every breathing piece matters. You are a very much breathing and living piece of this relationship. Perhaps most importantly, please take your vote seriously. Ask your candidate if they have put their feet in front of the experts to seek counsel. That will tell you much about how they will make decisions, if they value relationship. If they will seek out the experts, they will likely seek you out as well.

Your PDA board? They are very well chosen and along with Rusty have been wildly successful within the last year. Your governing bodies have proven to have made wise choices. Members of your PDA include Chairman Paul V. Hall who represents the manufacturing sector. Serving as Vice Chairman, Mike Donnelly is talented in human resource procurement. Teresa O’Bryant is the PDA’s Secretary and is a beautiful resource for educating the workforce. Offering the services of a treasurer, Bill Harris, Sr. brings knowledge of both the banking industry and community activity. John Shealy, who also brings expertise from the financial sector, serves as the assistant treasurer.