For months, we’ve seen fingers pointed and changes proposed when it comes to economic development in Rome and Floyd County. The Rome Floyd Chamber continues to recruit prospects but with some members of the County Commission and City Commission pushing to move industrial recruitment to perhaps one of the existing development boards, the process is in flux.
As scapegoats are sought for why neighboring counties are much farther along in having site-ready acreage and spec buildings for industrial prospects, the citizens of Rome, Cave Spring and unincorporated Floyd County need to know one key thing: You’ve done more than your share already.
A review of the past three special purpose local option sales tax packages show that nearly $24 million has been approved by voters to fund direct and indirect industrial development here since 2009. That includes real estate, infrastructure and airport improvements (extended runway, corporate hangar, etc.) And yet, based on current estimates provided by Floyd County government, about a third of those dollars have been spent. In several cases, economic development has been pushed down the priority lists in favor of perhaps squeaky wheel projects.
The problem seems to be with those charged with putting your tax dollars to work; those pushing for The Big Switch apparently aren’t doing their own jobs. What exactly is the overall plan for economic development in the city and county when it comes to land and buildings and other incentives? We’ll wait for the answer.
Where are those dollars? Nearly $6 million raised from the 2009 tax package actually was increased and allocated (see graphic below) to help with some projects, including the Lowe’s warehouse deal in Shannon. For varying reasons, the nearly $14 million in the 2013 projects list are mostly untouched. In fact, a major part of it has yet to be collected as county commissioners earmarked earlier revenue from the penny sales tax for other projects. The almost $6 million for the runway extension at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport is sitting on the existing tarmac as bids for project costs apparently exceed the funds allocated.
And while the first pennies for the 2017 tax package won’t be collected until April 1, there have been few proactive steps to begin using that money for economic development. Other projects in the 2017 list are under way or close to being so while nothing aside from loose conversations have occurred to get more than $3 million for economic development working to lure more jobs.
What it means: Rome/Floyd County’s ability to court, let alone land, new industry remains diluted because needed assets here are limited at best — or don’t even exist. In today’s competitive environment, you can’t recruit without having the minimum assets to offer. A change in personnel does nothing.
The stalled expenditures are part of the reason Rome and Floyd County are at a crisis point when it comes to economic development. As the battle continues for custody of a three-person staff to be hired if and when the chamber losses control of development in early 2019, whomever is hired will inherit the same deficiencies. Consider:
- Only 110 acres exist for any new industry considering Floyd County, at the intersection of Ga. 140 and Ga. 53. The first of six-figure payments on that site come due next year.
- There are no modern “spec” buildings for any potential new company to consider in Rome and Floyd County.
- What could be the state’s longest local airport runway at Richard B. Russell apparently is shovel-ready but needs more money. Unlike projects such as the tennis center’s indoor courts, the $2 million or so to extend the runway to 7,000 feet aren’t happening.
- And while work continues to four-lane the “northern” access to the county — Ga. 140 from Adairsville to Shannon — the critically needed 411 Connector exists only in digital format. New names, new routes and existing leadership have done little to bring the improved access to Interstate 75 a day closer than a decade ago.
What’s troubling is each time volunteers are assembled to create new ways to convince voters to continue the seventh penny they pay on each dollar spent, they include proposals that are supposed to grease the way for new growth, new jobs and even new property taxes. But of the $24 million approved in the past nine years, what do we have to show for it? Not much.
We asked the county government for a basic accounting of how the special tax dollars have been spent since the 2009 vote. Here’s what they had to say:
The 2009 special tax, which expired on March 31, 2014.
- $5,983,500 for acquisition and Improvement of real estate for economic development.
County Manager Jamie McCord says “we have actually over allocated for the 2009 SPLOST. The debt payments are still ongoing through 2025 and has not been fully expended as of November 2018, but debt is obligated for the bond payments.” How it breaks down, per McCord:
The Lowe’s distribution center, in the northeast quadrant of Ga. 140 and Ga. 53 in Shannon, opened more than six years ago, bringing a $125 million investment and at least 600 jobs to the community. As shown above, some of the 2009 special tax revenue went to prepare the area for growth.
The 2013 special sales tax, which expires March 20, 2019:
- $8 million: “Industrial Property for Job Creation.” The challenge: The community can attract new industries to Rome by creating “shovel ready” sites to be competitive. The community would like to repeat the success of attracting Lowe’s Regional Distribution Center which added 600 new jobs. Solution: Fund land and infrastructure improvements for shovel ready sites.”
- The status of those funds: To date, McCord said $3,751,000 has been raised since April 1, 2014. Of that, $2,788,705 has been spent and another $962,295 is in the bank.
- Expenditures include: Engineering, surveying and grading of the 100-acre site (Ga. 53 and 140); various engineering and surveying activities; phase 1 environmental updates; purchase of Reynolds Property; purchase of Old Shannon Road Property; clearing and vegetation removal; grading plans for Reynolds Property; and extension of Prosperity Way design.
- To be collected by March 31, 2019: $5,211, 295. Says McCord: “Keep in mind that all of the county SPLOST projects were on a pay-as-you go basis as money comes in. The order in which projects were started and completed were spaced out for cash flow purposes. We have more cash on hand from SPLOST but it is set aside for other projects on the list. Industrial property did not have any funds allocated in the original order approved by the board (county commission) until January 2018. The 2013 SPLOST collections do not end until March of 2019. At this time, we should have access to the remaining full balance of $5,211,295.”
- What’s of concern: With all the outcry about economic development — dating back two or more years per county commissioners’ comments — it wasn’t even designated as a priority in terms of funding. That’s why, five years after taxpayers approved the overall SPLOST package, there still is $5.2 million to be collected for property or spec buildings or other critical industrial needs before March 31 of next year. Plus: Are there sites picked out for possible purchase and improvement?
The 2013 special sales tax, which expires March 20, 2019:
- $5,761,000 for the extension of the runway at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport/Towers Field.
The estimates that have come in to extend the runway have been nearly $2 million more than budgeted from SPLOST revenue. The airport authority is working with bidders to see if there are ways to bring the estimates in line with current costs. All the while, the project remains “shovel ready” but also on hold. That puts the community another year or more behind in terms of being more competitive in luring new industry. If it comes down to shifting more dollars into the runway project, what needs to be done to make it happen — and why isn’t it happening?
The 2017 special sales tax, which starts collections on April 1, 2019:
- $3,110,000 for real estate and infrastructure for economic development
- $899,210 for airport corporate hangar
- McCord says the county and city “have had discussions at Joint Services about the possibility of issuing bonds for the 2017 SPLOST but no action has been taken by either city or county.”
- What’s critical: Again, if economic development is such a concern, why haven’t those talks resulted in action?
- Other 2017 projects already targeted. Collections will begin April 1 on the $63.8 million 2017 SPLOST package. The County Commission has approved funding for several projects to begin with the top project being the new medical wing at the Floyd County Jail ($5.2 million from the 2017 special tax). Funds also approved for “early use” include $500,000 for improvements at State Mutual Stadium; $485,000 for capital equipment and vehicles in various departments; $210,000 for prison security upgrades; $125,000 for the Historic Courthouse to hire a consultant for project design and space needs analysis; $100,000 for Public Works facility design; $96,000 for Public Safety technology upgrades; $75,000 for recreation needs; and $10,000 for E-911. On the city’s side: The first project of the 2017 SPLOST was the installation of the new scoreboard at Barron Stadium. Other top priorities, per City Manager Sammy Rich, are public safety funded items such as patrol cars for the Rome Police Department.
So, again, economic development is not a top consideration — despite the headlines of the past few months. That’s not staying that the 2017 projects already blessed are less important, especially the jail enhancements.
But with what we see above from the 2013 and 2017 special tax packages, and comparing it with all we’ve heard in recent weeks, it seems economic development has not been anything close to a priority. The most critical part has been done — convincing voters to approve the special tax dollars again and again. Why haven’t those dollars been put to work? And are there specific plans for those dollars or did voters hand elected leaders a blank check? Those answers need to come from elected officials before any changes in leadership for economic development are considered.
It appears all the cries for changes in who leads economic development serve only as a deflection masking the real issues: Failures to launch and lead.