February 8, 2014

Dalton gets good news on its economy, but work remains ahead

The Daily Citizen

— The Greater Dalton area got some welcome good news this week. University of Georgia economists predicted that the Dalton metro area, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties, will grow jobs faster than any other metro area in the state.

Jeffrey Humphries, director of the college’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, said forecasts call for 3 percent job growth in the Dalton metro area this year.

Humphries and Charles Knapp, interim dean of the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, spoke to the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce’s “Wake Up Whitfield” breakfast last week.

“On balance, (the Georgia) economy will outgrow the national economy in 2014,” said Knapp. “That will be a change from what we have seen in recent years.”

The Selig Center 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.

Humphries and Knapp gave credit for the good news to several factors.

Knapp cited the state’s economic development policies, saying its 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 during the next five years. Knapp said many of the new jobs created by those deals should start rolling out this year.

He 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’s presentation points to a dark side to this recovery, especially in Dalton.

This area is still heavily reliant on one industry.

When floorcovering prospers, such as it did in the 1990s and much of the first decade of this century, the Greater Dalton area soars. And when floorcovering falls, this area gets hammered.

Local development officials have long been aware of that problem, and they have been working to diversify the local economy for the past eight years, forming the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority and creating the first tax incentives for new and expanding businesses in Dalton and Whitfield County.

And of course, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners has spent millions to develop the Carbondale Business Park.

The efforts really began to pay off during the last couple of years, with several major employers announcing plans that could create thousands of new jobs over the next several years.

But all of those announcements have involved floorcovering companies.

Officials insist the area should start seeing some major announcements from other industries soon.

“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,” said Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President Brian Anderson. “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.”

Dalton did not become the “Carpet Capital of the World” overnight.

And most people realize we will not diversify the local economy in any meaningful way in a few years.

But local officials have been working on that goal for years.

They created major tax breaks and spent millions of dollars to woo new industry.

We hope those efforts will pay off soon.