February 4, 2014

Forecast: Dalton to lead state in job growth

Charles Oliver
charlesoliver@daltoncitizen.com

— After several years of bad economic news, things finally seem to be looking up for Georgia and for Dalton.

“On balance, (the Georgia) economy will outgrow the national economy in 2014,” said Charles Knapp, interim dean of the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. “That will be a change from what we have seen in recent years.”

Knapp spoke Tuesday at the Dalton Golf & Country Club for the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce’s “Wake Up Whitfield” breakfast.

The college’s Selig Center for Economic Growth forecasts Georgia’s economy will grow 3 percent this year, up from 2.3 percent in 2013. By contrast, the center expects the United States economy will grow 2.3 percent this year.

The chance that the state could slip back into recession has slipped to 20 percent this year from 40 percent in 2013.

And things look even brighter for the Dalton metro area, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties. Selig Center Director Jeffrey Humphries said forecasts call for 3 percent job growth in the Dalton area, higher that any other metropolitan area in the state.

What’s driving the good news?

Knapp gave credit to the state’s economic development policies, saying the state’s job tax credit and other incentives have helped it land a number of new and expanding businesses, such as Dalton-based Engineered Floors, which announced last year expansion plans that company officials said could create more than 2,000 new jobs over the next five years.

Knapp said many of the new jobs created by those deals should start rolling out this year. He said the state is once again starting to attract migrants from outside its borders.

Knapp also said the resurgence of the housing industry is boosting the state’s economy, especially in the Greater Dalton area with its heavy reliance on the floorcovering industry.

But Knapp said Georgia faces challenges that put a cloud over its long-term growth potential. At the top of the list, he said, is education. He noted that Georgia ranks in the bottom half of states on a number of different educational measures, while the United States as a whole generally trails other industrialized nations on such scores.

“A failure to educate Georgia’s children hurts the state’s standard of living,” he said.

In particular, he said, the state must be able to produce well-educated, skilled blue-collar workers for the high-tech workplaces of the future.

Chamber President Brian Anderson said he welcomes the news the state and local economies are set to outgrow the national economy this year. But he said that even though the floorcovering industry is coming back, local officials still want to bring in other types of business and diversify the local economy.

“If you look at our pipeline, in 2009 or 2010 we might have had 15 or 20 projects we were working and they were probably 80 percent flooring related and 20 percent non-flooring related,” Anderson said. “Now, it’s about a third flooring related and two-thirds non-flooring. And the number of projects we are working on has grown to about 60. Our actual short-listed projects now are all non-flooring.”

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said he, too, believes the county’s efforts to attract more business will also eventually help diversify the local economy.

Are local governments doing enough to address Knapp’s concerns about education?

“Well, we are doing something. We are working on early literacy. We’ve got interesting things going on with the Career Academy and Georgia Northwestern Technical College and Dalton State (College),” Babb said. “I hope that we are doing enough. I believe we are at least on the right path, but I guess we won’t know for sure for a few years until we start getting feedback from employers on whether the people we are graduating have the skills they are looking for.”