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Posted: April 14, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Innovative Industrialists

Leadership between city and county led to industrial growth

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This is the first part of a series examining the history and economic effects of industry in Newton County, as well as the county’s continuing efforts to attract new business. This first part discusses the growth of Newton County’s vast industrial base.

King Cotton was dying.

But while other communities were ill-prepared for the demise of the historical backbone of the Southern economy, Newton County and Covington’s leaders were preparing for a new future — big-time industrial manufacturing.

During their hey-day after World War II, the Porterdale textile mills employed more than 2,500 people, and an additional couple hundred workers earned a living at Covington’s mills.

However, by the mid-1960s the domestic textile industry was weakening, and in early 1970s, Bibb Manufacturing Company, which owned the Porterdale mills, was hemorrhaging millions of dollars. Textiles became one of the first industries to succumb to globalization.

When Newton County’s leaders surveyed the economic landscape of the 1950s, they saw a county lacking business diversity and in need of jobs: high-quality, high-paying jobs.

As Rob Fowler III recalls, a group of now legendary local leaders, Carl Smith, Rob Fowler Sr., Otis Spillers, William McGahee and several others, decided they would form the Covington Businessman’s Association. Each member made an investment of around $10,000, a large sum in those days, to form a sort of private industrial development authority. Though Fowler is unsure, he believes the group helped purchase some land and bring in some small businesses, like Hanover Wire Cloth, which manufactured screening material, and was founded in 1956.

More importantly, that group was a precursor to the type of future cooperation that the city, county, the Industrial Development Authority and local businessmen would exhibit in luring industry to Newton County.

The First Steps

Today Newton County has around 20 large manufacturers, defined as those that employ more than 100 workers. Few industries are well known publicly, outside of cereal production giant General Mills, and many residents who learn about General Mills, are surprised to find the company in the relatively small city of Covington.

But General Mills, which is located in the county in 1989, is simply the most prominent in a long line of industrial giants. As the textile mills were failing in the late 1960s, Newton County was about to get an industrial coup.

However, first the public had to be sold on investing in industry. In a couple of hotly debated votes, Fowler said the Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners narrowly approved the joint purchase of land from CSX railroad, located south of Interstate 20. The two bodies agreed to split the cost 50-50, avoiding any conflicts over who should pay what share of the prices and any tax issues.

This partnership, particularly the working relationship between Covington Mayor Bill Dobbs and County Chairman Roy Varner, was instrumental in attracting industry, according to everyone involved in local economic development who was interviewed for this story.

"The chairman and the mayor agreed they needed to get industry and they went out and got it. If they shook hands with the head of the Department of Transportation, a deal got done. Unity between government was very important," Fowler said.

That determination led to the attraction of four large industries between 1966 and 1969: Hercules, Mobil Chemical Company, Bard Urological Division and Covington Moulding Company. Most of these names won’t be familiar to those who only know the current industries. Hercules became Fibervision, the Mobil plant changed ownership multiple times and is now divided between Pactiv and Berry Plastics and Covington Moulding became SRG Global.

However, as of 1988, the companies retained their original names and employed a total 2,269; Hercules alone employed 1,000, according to "The History of Newton County" by the Newton County Historical Society. In fact, the Newton County IDA was formed in 1966 specifically to bring in the Hercules Project, said lawyer Ed Crudup, a 25-year member of the IDA.

Their efforts were aided by national trends. Manufacturing companies from the traditionally industrialized North were moving their plants south to take advantage of the cheaper, non-unionized labor. Covington, like many other mill towns, had a partial advantage, in that a large portion of its workforce was already skilled in manufacturing.

Taking the Lead

The 1970s saw several smaller manufacturers arrive, though none on the level of previous big four. Mead Containers, the forerunner of Smurfit-Stone Containers that manufactured corrugated boxes, Beaver Manufacturing, the largest domestic hose yarn producer in the U.S., OHCO, a textile waste recycler, Valspar and Southern Transformer Company all arrived during the decade.

From the late 1970s onward, economic development in Newton County became synonymous with one company, Pattillo Construction. Jerry Silvio worked with company for many years and said Pattillo came to Newton County because it saw dedicated leadership intent on expanding industry. After purchasing land south of I-20, the community turned to more land owned by CSX, north of I-20. An industrial park was being formed.

The way Pattillo worked was this: the IDA would purchase land, and then Pattillo would construct speculative buildings that suited the area. While the available land was important, Silvio said it was the spec buildings that allowed industries to envision themselves in a community. If a customer was found, Pattillo would either purchase the land from the IDA and rent the building to the industry or the industry would buy the building and land.

The going was slow for the first few years as the country was mired in a recession, and it wasn’t until 1984 that Stanley Proto Industrial Tools opened a distribution center in Covington. When asked what brought Stanley to Covington, Silvio repeated a familiar phrase, leadership.

"One of the primary reasons why one community will do well and not do well is leadership. One of the first things we look at as a developer, if a community has good leadership, the rest of the process becomes routine," Silvio said.

What he means is that manufacturing businesses, to a large extent, all require the same things: land, water, sewer, electricity, gas and highway and rail access. As long as a community has that, they can be in the running to land an industry. Newton County had all those things, adequate utilities, access to Interstate 20, access to the CSX railroad, land and, thanks to its partnership with Pattillo, buildings.

Where Newton County stood out was its united front and aggressive marketing, said Randy Cardoza, a 10-year commissioner of the state department of economic development. He dealt with communities across the state. He said many were good, but Newton County was among the state’s elite.

"Yours was the only community I was ever aware of where the mayor and county commissioner chairman gave each other their proxy vote, where one could vote for the other for whatever was required to win the industry or to stay in the competition. That was a very unusual situation," Cardoza said. "Other communities have local governments working well together, but I don’t know of another community that had that kind of trust in each other. Prospective customers could pick up on that real easy."

In addition, Cardoza said the local efforts were aided by intense state efforts to compete for companies globally, including the creation of Georgia economic development offices in Europe, Japan and Korea. Three of Covington’s largest industries are SGD Glass, from France, Nisshinbo Automotive Manufacturing, Japan and SKC Inc., Korea, which benefit from the nearby Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

When SKC came to Newton County in 1996, the company purchased 400 acres and announced it would be making a $1.5 billion investment — the largest deal ever announced in Georgia, Cardoza said. Although the recent recession has certainly pushed those plans back further than anticipated, the deal was a landmark for Covington.

The Big Fish

Silvio said he sold 300 of those acres to the company. When it came down to it, the competition was down to Cartersville and Covington. This was a situation where the leadership, infrastructure and transportation benefits got Newton County to the final table, and the oft-publicized incentive package made the final difference. The Korean company announced an expansion in 2009.

"When the state gets a prospect, you have to compete against other states, and they want to put best their best players in the deal. They want to go with a city that is a proven player," Silvio said. "Covington has proven itself to be a player."

See next Wednesday’s edition to learn how industry supports a community’s ability to provide public services to its residents.

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