Courtney Bernardi grew up wanting to be an attorney and developed a passion for politics in college, and she’s combined those interests in her new profession, navigating complex incentive agreements and building consensus among elected officials to help land industries.
Bernardi was hired this month to lead industrial recruitment efforts as senior vice president of economic development for the chamber’s Office of Economic Development, taking over efforts for a county that had the biggest industrial win in the state last year when it landed global pharmaceutical firm Baxter International.
She comes from Jackson County, which has been one of the state’s hotspots for industry in recent years. Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said Jackson County was a frequent competitor for industrial projects and won enough that Newton County officials tried to figure out the details of the competing incentive packages.
“If we’re getting beat, let’s go get them,” Hall told his board of directors last week when explaining the hire.
Building off Baxter
Baxter and Stanton Springs industrial park — where Baxter is locating — are jewels for Newton County and the entire region, Bernardi said Monday, but her task, and one of her biggest opportunities, will be to take advantage of the spotlight on the region.
“(The announcement of Baxter) takes these communities to a whole other level, and they’re on the global radar more than ever now,’’ she said. “People know Baxter. It happened in Jackson, too (with companies like Toyota); when you have global companies that believe in a community, it’s a lot easier for global companies to say, ‘If Baxter believes in it, then I need to see more about this community.’”
Bernardi said the spinoff effect from Baxter will simply add to the already strong industrial base Newton County boasts with companies like General Mills and SKC.
Bernardi works for Newton County, but she’s a proponent of regional planning, which is important for Stanton Springs, the 1,620-acre property jointly owned by Newton, Walton, Morgan and Jasper counties. The counties share the costs and rewards. Bernardi also spent years with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which works with communities around the state and regional commissions that focus heavily on regional planning.
Stanton Springs is an asset for all four communities, and Newton County can take particular hope in the project because outside of it, the county is running a little low on ready-for-development land.
And the low supply of land and ready-to-occupy buildings is one of Newton County’s greatest challenges moving forward; it’s also one of the greatest strengths of the community Bernardi just came from.
“It’s imperative that we have something to sell; it’s hard to sell something we don’t have. We still have some buildings and land, but as more companies start moving and buildings continued to get absorbed, we have to be thinking about the next steps,” Bernardi said.
Roger Harrison, Newton County’s former industrial recruiter, echoed the need for more land and buildings.
It’s developers who can quickly transform the business scene and workforce market for a community. Bernardi believes those developers will begin to invest in the county again if they see it as a destination for industry.
“We want to have those developers in a partnership help us. They own property in a community and make that investment, but they’re also tracking projects as well. They know what’s going on in the world,” Bernardi said.
The developers are just as motivated to recruit industry as the county and the added resources only help build up a business base.
In her initial email after being hired, Bernardi explained her strengths, including how she could help.
“(My) greatest strengths are the relationships I have already created in the world of economic development (including relationships with state project managers, state agencies, both international and domestic companies, consultants/site selectors and developers/brokers),” Bernardi said.
Despite the challenges, Bernardi also said Newton County was a major draw for her.
“Newton County is logistically located in a fantastic location for future growth,” she said. “Companies will be drawn to the location, but the desire of the community to produce and sustain a qualified workforce speaks volumes and will be a major draw for future new industrial growth and expansion of current industry,” Bernardi said in an email previously.
No place like home
Bernardi grew up just a little north, in Watkinsville. She and her husband Phillip live in Jefferson but plan to move to Newton County.
“The first time we came to visit Covington and Newton County, we were looking around and had so many people say, ‘Hello,’ and, ‘How are you?’ It stood out to us,” Bernardi said.
Bernardi had spent some time in Newton County through her position with the state and even back then was impressed by community leaders she met, she said.
“It felt really warm and right to us, and is an opportunity for us, not just in our professional lives, but for us on a personal level. We want a community we can make a home and become entrenched in.’’
And if she finds the place welcoming, Bernardi hopes future executives and employees will as well.
“You have to think about employees’ families, too. You want them to live here, not just to locate an industry here. You get benefits from the businesses, but also by bringing in other residents,” she said.