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Posted: April 26, 2012 10:03 p.m.

Morgan: Behind the scenes of the Baxter deal

Only six years ago, Shannon Davis was the petite, pretty and pert front desk manager at the Newton County Chamber of Commerce, a part-time employee. Today she's one of the local faces of the state and regional team that landed a $1 billion investment by Baxter International at Stanton Springs industrial park that will put 1,000-1,500 people to work by 2018.

Stanton Springs is a joint project of Newton, Walton, Morgan and Jasper counties that's being marketed by TPA Services. Baxter is the first investment in the 15-year-old park, and Davis cites Chamber board member Scott Willis for the push to bring the park to the state's attention four years ago.

Davis' title with the chamber is now Director of Business Retention and Expansion, with a focus on maintaining and expanding Newton County's strong industrial base. But back in 2008 when "Project Marathon" as it was ultimately called, presented itself, the front desk manager was invited to participate as a project assistant, and for continuity's sake, was asked to remain on the project after Roger Harrison was recruited as senior vice president for economic development 13 months ago by chamber chair Hunter Hall. ("And what an incredible 13 months it's been!" she says excitedly, in reference to the whirlwind of expansions and new jobs the county has seen in that time, some six new or expanded companies with 400 net new jobs.)

Thursday, she was dressed somewhat casually in slacks and shiny red patent flip-flops, having not had a day off in weeks, due to the Chamber's heavy spring schedule that included an annual golf tournament, a workforce development summit, the grand opening of the Newton Career Academy attended by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and the Celebrate Our Home events. Normally you'll find Davis in a business suit and heels, like she was wearing the recent day that Baxter officials wanted a driving tour of the 162 acres in Newton and Walton counties where they will build. Without flinching, she jumped into the cab of her four-wheel drive pick-up truck, her husband's actually, as three others driven by chamber execs gallantly accommodated the request.

On driving tours of this community, company officials heard all about the Newton Career Academy, our higher education and technical school options, our attractiveness for television filming and movie-makers, our lovely historic district and our downtown square with its arts and cultural opportunities. Companies like Baxter, Davis said, want to be sure their employees have the opportunity for a good quality of life, and they don't necessarily look at what's available just within one county's borders, but rather what's available regionally. Certainly Newton County's proximity to Metro Atlanta and the international airport are strong qualifiers for local investors, Davis notes.

Frankly, she added, it wasn't our local amenities - or any perceived lack thereof - that made the difference to Baxter after four years of site selection and elimination, but rather Georgia's enviable Quick Start program that's geared to provide new companies with an immediately well-trained workforce specifically for their needs.

And that's not the end of workforce development as a result of this project. Davis predicts we'll be seeing much more emphasis in our and surrounding school systems on educating students to go straight from classrooms to jobs. The new career academy will enhance the understanding of and appreciation for education in the context of real world applications, she says, adding that she expects graduation rates will rise with the prospect of more employment options.

Chamber President Hunter Hall is fond of saying "a rising tide raises all ships," and such will be the case in the wake of an announcement in the magnitude of Baxter's location here. He uses the term "game-changer" to describe the investment, while Davis calls it a "transformational" event for the entire region.

Harrison, Chamber senior VP, predicts an exponential expansion in the local tax digest. The projected annual salary of Baxter employees will be double Newton's current median wage, he adds. His job is now the marketing of east Metro as a "life sciences corridor." That Baxter International would choose Stanton Springs will encourage other bioscience companies to look our way when considering a new location. Davis calls that "clustering."

To be sure, Davis claims no personal pride in her role in landing Baxter, but prefers to speak of an incredible team of players at the Chamber and among local businessmen and key leaders such as Newton County School Superintendent Gary Mathews and James Woodward at the Career Academy. "We've really got the right people in the right places," she said. "And at the Chamber, we all love coming to work."

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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