When Paulding County Commission Chairman David Austin took office in early 2009, he knew his county had a lot going for it. Located about 25 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, Paulding has long been one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, and a new jet-capable airport had opened there the preceding November.
But Paulding wasn’t a popular destination for businesses, and Austin knew that had to change. To achieve that goal would require creating an economic development organization (EDO) – Paulding was the largest county in the state without one.
For help, he turned to Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2), and today Paulding has the organization and strategy in place to become a business hotspot.
Since 2000, Paulding’s population has grown by a whopping 75 percent and now totals more than 143,000 residents. That trend would please any local government official, but another statistic takes some of the shine off the county’s remarkable growth: 76 percent of its residents travel outside Paulding to work. “We needed to change from being a bedroom community to being a business community,” Austin said.
Thomas Glanton, a local insurance businessman and former state legislator who is currently a member of the Paulding Planning Commission, urged Austin to contact Georgia Tech about overseeing the development of an EDO. After Georgia Tech was hired, the institute immediately worked with Austin to form a leadership team of nearly 100 county officials, business leaders and educators to provide input and serve as a decision maker during the creation of the organization.
“We interviewed a lot of individuals, both on the leadership team and others, to see how they wanted economic development in Paulding to proceed – the structure, the focus,” said Dana King Brewer, a senior project manager with EI2’s Community Innovation Services team.
Brewer and her colleagues at Georgia Tech also researched successful EDOs across Georgia and the country, and presented their findings to the Paulding leadership team. As for the structure of the EDO, the county had numerous options, according to Brewer. For instance, the EDO could be a department within the county, part of the local chamber of commerce or a separate non-profit entity.
EI2 officials and members of the leadership team visited four different EDOs in Georgia – in Bartow, Carroll, Floyd and Hall counties – before deciding to set up the Paulding EDO as a non-profit funded through a public-private partnership. The EDO receives funding from Paulding County, the cities of Dallas and Hiram, and the Paulding Chamber of Commerce. Each entity appoints two board members from the private sector. The Paulding County Industrial Building Authority names the ninth board member.
The EDO’s board first met in the summer of 2010, at which point Georgia Tech began assisting the initial organizational activities of the new entity, now called Paulding Economic Development Inc. One board member works for the Georgia Power Company, and the utility largely oversaw the search for an executive director for the organization.
In early 2011, Jamie Gilbert, previously head of the Douglasville (Ga.) Development Authority, was hired. “This was an incredible opportunity: the chance to become economic development director in one of Georgia’s most attractive counties for economic development,” said Gilbert, who has 20 years of related experience.
Brewer said the Paulding EDO has found a great leader. “Everyone’s incredibly happy with how it turned out,” she said. “Jamie has more energy than you could possibly imagine in a person.”
On the Recruiting Trail
Gilbert noted that since Paulding primarily developed as a bedroom community, the size of the existing industrial base is relatively small, with only a couple of companies having more than 100 employees. “Existing industry is critically important to us but they can’t be expected to shoulder the responsibility for fundamentally changing our economy in a way that will begin to reduce our high percentage of ‘out commuters,’” he said. “That change will come from attracting new industry to Paulding that complements those companies already here.”
During the formation of the EDO, Georgia Tech helped the Paulding leadership team identify which industries to target. Armed with the research and Gilbert’s expertise, Paulding Economic Development Inc. is recruiting aerospace companies, which can take advantage of the new airport, and healthcare firms, which officials hope will locate in a 100-acre “wellness park” that will surround WellStar’s new state-of-the-art hospital, set to open in Hiram in 2014.
Other targeted industries include automotive suppliers, which Gilbert believes will find the proximity to Southern car-assembly plants appealing; renewable energy firms; metal fabricators; and medical equipment manufacturers. The county also will continue to push itself as an ideal spot for Hollywood filmmakers to make movies. Several recent major motion pictures – including the remake of “Footloose” and “Joyful Noise”– were filmed in Paulding, and the Atlanta Film Studios, a full-service production facility, opened in Hiram early this year.
Since assuming his role last spring, Gilbert’s days have been filled with meetings with economic development allies at the regional and state levels and with travel to trade shows for Paulding’s targeted industries. He is realistic about how long it could take to transform the bedroom community into a business mecca but said early returns are encouraging. “The results are coming in quickly as far as interest in Paulding, and we had two new businesses locate to the county at the end of 2011 that were the direct result of our economic development efforts,” he said.
Meanwhile, Austin said he couldn’t be happier about the guidance provided by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. “This has absolutely been a fantastic partnership,” he said. “I can’t sing the praises of Dana and her team enough.”
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Writer: Stephen Ursery