Pulled from Tribune & Georgian
By: Jill Helton
While almost everyone in Camden County agrees that we need to bring more jobs to the community, opinions still vary widely on how we accomplish this. During the time we were on the upward slope of Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base’s development, Camden County could afford to get by on its “good looks.”
Many businesses opened here between the 1980s and the 2000s. Scores of houses were built because of the thousands of military and civil service personnel attached to the base.
But in the last 15 years or so, our workforce has shrunk. The paper mill in St. Marys, one of the largest private employers, was sold to foreign ownership and then closed. Adding insult to injury, the real estate market then collapsed, demolishing the construction jobs that had sustained so many in Camden County.
What we were left with was a tax digest that was heavy in residential and lean on industrial and commercial.
Camden County is still not fully recovered from the recession, but leaders in the population center of Kingsland and St. Marys see glimmers of hope on the horizon. Construction is rallying nicely in Camden this year and we should see some new businesses opening up soon.
Even with this positive trend, we still lack a large number of head-of-household jobs, especially those that are not connected to the military base.
As we know, jobs at Kings Bay are often influenced by national political tides, so we have less influence over those. This is why our governments continue to fund The Camden Partnership and develop relationships with those decision-makers.
Local taxpayers also continue to fund the Camden County Joint Development Authority because our local strategy of waiting for great employers to discover Camden has been largely unsuccessful. About five years ago, local officials started to agree that we needed to cast a wider net for Camden and we had to put some dollars behind that effort.
Communities that get great employers with great jobs are the ones who are willing to invest dollars in landing those deals. Sometimes this can be done with tax abatement and attractive lease agreements, but many major employers expect a cash incentive for bringing their operation to town — and they will likely find some community that will pay it.
This is where many taxpayers raise the red flag. “But we should not be subsidizing private businesses, right?” Maybe not, but that is the unfortunate reality of economic development today. We can keep doing what we have been doing for 40 years or we can change our strategy.
Even though some people are still not on board with that, this has been the direction our city and county leaders have taken in recent years. Some of these efforts are starting to bear fruit.
The focus of the JDA in the last year or two has been the development of The Wharf of St. Marys project on the North River. This project would revamp 50 acres of the old mill site and provide a framework that is attractive to prospective employers.
While some have argued that this operation competes with other marine businesses in the community, the JDA intends to target a niche that is not currently served. It is going to take more than one or two businesses to create an economic engine that we desperately need in Camden County.
And rather than rely on anecdotal information, the JDA has done its due diligence and used accepted economic development principles. They have commissioned marketing studies that have evaluated gaps in the marine market and identified what would best serve our local site.
Surely, this should be more effective than the haphazard approach that has characterized our economic development efforts for most of the last 40 years.
We may not have the ability to write the biggest check to attract an employer, but sites like the one on the North River are rare and valuable. We can either seize the opportunity to shape the future of catalyst sites like this one or we can let others decide for us.