Economic developer training helps state attract new industry
Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories about UGA and economic development in rural Georgia.
It didn't take long for Larry Brooks to connect the dots during one of his Georgia Certified Economic Developer classes.
Brooks, executive director of the Walker County Development Authority, already was looking for a site to locate a new industry when he attended a financing course offered by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government. In the class he learned he could use money from a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to purchase land and develop it.
Using the SPLOST money allowed Walker County to develop an industrial park, and as a result, Audia International, a plastics manufacturer, nearly doubled the size of the facility it planned for the county.
"The program happened to be immediately applicable for what we were doing," Brooks said. "Audia is now looking at putting up another building. That means new investments, new jobs, new opportunities that are being developed for citizens. What the class did was open up my eyes to what could be done with the resources we had in hand."
That's the point, said Jennifer Nelson, who directs the Georgia Certified Economic Developer program at UGA's Vinson Institute.
"They get something they can apply right away," Nelson said. "Some people do great with recruitment, but there're a lot of other strategies that communities need to implement. I think that's what we're doing by looking at economic development across the board."
Brooks is the first graduate of the GCED program, developed by the Vinson Institute and launched in 2016. The goal is to provide economic development professionals in Georgia with the education and tools they need to successfully recruit new industries and jobs.
The program was a hit from the start, with courses taught in Athens as well as in other parts of the state selling out. Currently 221 people are enrolled, taking core courses on critical topics like attracting and growing businesses, workforce development, and financing economic development and deal structuring. To become certified, participants must take 36 hours of core courses, take 24 hours of specialized courses on industry knowledge and leadership, and complete a capstone portfolio project.
The program made Walker County more competitive, which is crucially important for a county that borders two states—Alabama and Tennessee—that are increasingly aggressive in luring business.
"I have a business background, and I understand and recognize the importance of staying current and up-to-date on advancements that are made in the competitive nature of what we do," said Robert Wardlaw, chairman of the Walker County Development Authority. "The impact of this program is significant because having the Carl Vinson Institute in our state keeps us on the cutting edge and at a competitive advantage."
Brooks said learning about resources available specifically in Georgia has been huge. From guest speakers to classmates, the classes he took exposed him to a plethora of experts. He used contacts he made with the Georgia Department of Labor to help allay workforce development concerns of one prospective company.
"I think the greatest tool the classes provide is a very practical and real application that you can take back to the role you serve in," Brooks said. Nelson "does a great job bringing in professionals who don't just stand and talk but provide real help and real assistance even if you need it outside of class."