Curious about the Development Authority of Bryan County — what it does and why it does it? Or what the future of industrial growth holds for Bryan County?
We were, so the following is an in-depth question/answer session with Josh Fenn, the authority’s executive director:
BCN: There are probably some people in Bryan County who have no idea what the Development Authority of Bryan County is, what its responsibilities are and how it is funded. Please give readers a short history of the DABC and a summary of its mission, what its annual budget is and where that money comes from.
Fenn: The Development Authority of Bryan County (DABC) is a general statute authority that serves as the economic development arm of the Bryan County government. Our mission is to recruit and attract jobs and investments in the industrial and commercial sectors for Bryan County and its cities.
DABC was formed from a consolidation of a North and South Bryan Development Authority after strong recommendations from experts that this was sending a “divided community” message to the economic and industrial real estate communities.
DABC is funded by the Bryan County Board of Commissioners’ general fund in the amount of $521,000 a year. By comparison, Bulloch County funds its development authority $1.3 million, Liberty County $3.3 million and Effingham County about $4 million per year. Authority members are appointed by the county commissioners as well.
BCN: The Interstate Centre in Black Creek is probably the best known industrial park in Bryan County. What industries are currently based there and what are prospects for the park, both in the near future and on down the line?
Fenn: We currently have eight industries in the park ranging from manufacturing, distribution and North American headquarters facilities. To date, Interstate Centre has attracted over 550 jobs and over $135,000,000 in new investments for Bryan County. We still feel strong about the future of the park. With the national economy recovering and the prospects of expanding capacities at the Georgia Port terminals, demand for industrial real estate in this market will come back.
BCN: Has there been interest in the spec building in Black Creek? Is there a cost to taxpayers associated with keeping the building ready to show to prospects, etc.?
Fenn: With the location of Matson Logistics in 2011 and taking up 135,000 square feet of the building, there is still strong interest for the remaining 435,000 square feet of the building. Distribution and warehousing projects are very competitive in this market due to the more than 5 million square feet still available. However, the strengths of Interstate Centre, with strong distribution centers like Matson and Oneida, help attract those looking for space to the spec building.
There has been a misconception of the spec building for years. DABC did not build it. This building was built by (Technology Park/Atlanta) Realty Services and financed by TPA Realty Services. DABC is only involved on a short-term tax abatement funding mechanism that is common among industrial authorities in Georgia. This is the largest private-sector investment for a commercial or industrial property in our county’s history so far. It is now producing jobs, service contracts, fuel sales, etc., for our county.
BCN: Daniel Defense opened its business in the Interstate Centre several years ago and apparently has done well. In 2011, it announced an expansion in Ridgeland, S.C., and at that time a company spokesman told media that South Carolina was able to offer more incentives, etc. This apparently illustrates not only how difficult it can be to attract new businesses but also keep existing ones from going elsewhere. What can be done not only to lure new companies to Bryan County but also to keep existing industries from going elsewhere?
Fenn: Daniel Defense is still a strong company headquarter in Black Creek, and we will continue to support its operations in Bryan County and help its business grow any way we can. Most defense contractors do not locate their facilities all in one congressional district because those contract decisions are made at a federal level and you need every Congressman you can in your corner. DABC provided the best offer we could with the limited resources we have available to us.
We work with our established industries every day to make sure their needs are met on a local and state government level. We are continuing to find ways to improve our already strong business environment in Bryan County.
The reality of economic development in this economy is an incentive game. While Bryan County is a strong place to do business, the attractiveness of an upfront cash incentive vs. long-term lower cost of doing business will sway some companies over others.
BCN: In South Bryan, the Belfast Commerce Center is being marketed to potential businesses. What makes this site attractive to industries and what needs to be done to make it more attractive?
Fenn: Belfast Commerce Centre will be a strong economic engine for all of Bryan County. DABC has a standing policy of “one county, one voice” and our board has worked hard to promote this effort. Anything positive within our borders is good for all citizens of Bryan County.
As for Belfast, we see it as the premier rail industrial park in the Savannah MSA (metro statistical area) market. Considering it is within the critical 20 mile radius of the Georgia Port Authority terminals and the lack of available rail property in the market, this park should do well. BCC will be a fine complement to Interstate Centre by offering that rail and I-95 product that IC lacks. Bryan County will have a full complement of industrial real estate solutions.
BCN: How key is getting an interchange on I-95 at Belfast Siding to future growth in South Bryan? One assumes it is a priority, so where does it fit on the DABC list of priorities? What are some other priorities?
Fenn: As for DABC and the interchange at I-95 and Belfast Keller, we are doing everything in our power to help the Bryan County Board of Commissioners advance this project to a reality. I think we are closer than we have ever been in making this happen. This is a high priority for us due to the potential economic development opportunities it will bring in the commercial and industrial sectors. Interchanges are sales tax gold for communities if the community wants them to be, and I think this new one will help grow and diversify our tax base in this county.
The other thing the new interchange will do is solve a major Fort Stewart problem. Currently, the I-95/GA144 (Exit 90) interchange is congested. This intersection is the major access to I-95 for Fort Stewart personnel and rapid deployment route to the ports. The new interchange, along with improvements to Exit 90, should solve this issue by moving traffic flow to the lower Richmond Hill and Keller areas away from Exit 90. Some share our opinion that if this issue is not solved, it will become an issue in the next round of BRAC and will hamper Fort Stewart’s chances to make gains, which would mean more jobs and investment into Bryan County.
The upcoming TSPLOST vote will be the tell-all of the future of the Belfast Interchange. We are watching this referendum closely because a few of the projects will make improvements around our industrial sites. The Belfast interchange will be key to the future development for Belfast Commerce Centre.
There are also projects for improvements at the I-16/US280 interchange that will improve access into Interstate Centre to help handle future growth around that commercial center. We are very thankful that county Chairman Jimmy Burnsed and Richmond Hill Mayor Harold Fowler held the line to make sure these projects stayed on the proposed list. If you look at the Bryan County list, most of the projects are tied to things that will increase the sales tax collections for the county and school board.
Part of our primary mission of attracting new industry and investment is to assist Pembroke and Richmond Hill governments attract new retail outlets, which will help grow our sales tax base. We are always looking for ways to improve our industrial and commercial portfolio and improve our business climate.
BCN: Property owners — homeowners, essentially — pay about 70 percent of the cost of local government in Bryan County, and that number could some day increase without additional revenue from either industry or commerce. Yet there’s also a need to maintain a quality of life and preserve Bryan County’s natural beauty. What types of businesses and industries do you look to attract?
Fenn: We have a major problem in that regard and cannot continue to provide services with the lowest taxes in the Savannah MSA much longer with a “bedroom community” model. On average, Bryan County has to provide $1.40 in government services for every $1 we collect from a household. With a 73 percent residential tax base and the federal and state government being the two largest land owners in the county, we do not have much to work with for future services without either raising taxes or cutting essential services. By comparison, a commercial property on average only needs 60 cents in services for every $1 collected in taxes.
Our local governments have planned well for future growth by identifying the long-term industrial and commercial hubs for the county. We look to attract what makes sense to our community. Logistics, manufacturing and defense make the most sense because of the resources we have. Most companies we attract want their executives to live here or attract talent to relocate, so they want to be a good neighbor.
From the stand point of job attraction, we are looking to build a live, work, play community. With 75 percent of our workforce leaving the county every day, the companies they work for do not pay anything into the Bryan County coffers. Other counties have gotten the jobs and tax revenues while we get the bill to provide services to their workforce.
Based on our data, we only retain 13 percent of our disposable income in this county. That means we give almost $41 million every year to other community’s sales tax collections. Just think of the capital projects we could do with an additional $41 million every year in Bryan County’s tax coffers. We are the 61st fastest growing county in the nation, however, most of the materials and furnishings for those houses are bought outside our county. Those are our dollars funding other county’s schools and rec departments.
BCN: From a DABC perspective, what does the future of Bryan County look like?
Fenn: The future is what Bryan County wants to make it. The only thing stopping us from becoming a thriving community is ourselves.
We can be a “bedroom community” with high property taxes and dependent on Savannah — or we can be a self-sustaining community with low taxes where your commute to your job is just down the street. Where the company you work for is contributing to local schools and little league teams. A community where a graduate of Bryan County Schools can have a choice to work in the county they grew up in. Where you can shop and not have to go 20-30 miles to get something.
DABC’s board and staff are committed to continue our mission to attract new jobs and investments into our community. We feel that our county has a bright future in the coming years.