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Ten Comeback Kids

By Michael C. Randle

Augusta, Georgia

Augusta's comeback from economic development anonymity to a real player in the attraction of a variety of industry sectors has been noticed by Southern Business & Development over the last three years or so. T-Mobile added 750 new jobs last year in Augusta and in April of 2007 the National Security Agency broke ground on a 500,000-square-foot "battle lab" at nearby Fort Gordon. The facility will house about 1,000 new employees. There have been other notable deals in Augusta of late. Automatic Data Processing added a new Business Solutions Center in Augusta in 2006, announcing they would create 1,000 new jobs. The groundbreaking on that 160,000-square-foot facility occurred in January. Also in January, Teleperformance announced it is bringing a 350-employee call center to Augusta. Augusta is also home to some significant life science initiatives that are taking place at the Medical College of Georgia.

Shoals Region of Northwest Alabama

The Shoals region (including the cities of Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia) has seen more success in the last two or three years than it had in the previous 10 to 15 years. Some huge deals have gone down in Northwest Alabama recently, including the $350 million, 1,800-employee National Alabama Corp. railcar manufacturing facility, SCA Tissue's $250 million, 500-employee plant, North American Lighting's 320-employee auto parts plant and Walgreen's 350-employee call center. In 2001, Northwest Alabama's unemployment rate was about 10 percent. Today the unemployment rate in the Shoals region is about 4 percent. That’s a comeback of note.

Martinsville-Henry County, Virginia

Martinsville was the poster child of the many rural South markets whose economies were tied ever-so-tightly to the apparel, textiles and furniture industries. Those three sectors continue to be large employers in the South, but their dominance in the region's economy ended a decade or more ago. Probably more than any other rural market, Martinsville is now the poster child of a small Southern town that has diversified itself and overcome its dependency on old-line Southern industries. One example of that diversity occurred in the winter quarter when Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine announced that RTI International Metals will invest $100 million to build a plant that will produce titanium for the aerospace industry. The deal will create 150 new jobs.

Danville-Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Like Martinsville, Danville is located in Southwest Virginia and has done a great job at improving its economy. Ironically, the furniture industry has helped jumpstart the Danville/Pittsylvania region over the last year or two. In late '06, Swedwood, a manufacturer of furniture for retailer IKEA, announced a new $281 million facility in Danville/Pittsylvania County. And in the winter quarter of this year, Com.40 Ltd., a manufacturer of mattresses and furniture for IKEA, announced it would create 813 new jobs and invest $36 million in a facility in Danville as well.

LaGrange-Troup County, Georgia

LaGrange and Troup County, Ga., earned the ultimate comeback kid award when it landed Korean automaker Kia and its first U.S. assembly plant. The $1.2 billion facility is now under construction in West Point, Ga., located in Troup County. Large tier 1 parts suppliers have followed Kia to LaGrange and several more will follow. Prior to Kia's announcement, Troup County's economy was choppy at best. Like many communities in the rural South, places like West Point and LaGrange were hammered by job losses from the apparel and textile industries. And like similar places in the South, the automotive industry has come on strong to replace those lost jobs.

Tallassee-Elmore County, Alabama

Located in east Alabama not far from LaGrange, Ga., Tallassee-Elmore County, Ala. has benefited greatly from the automotive industry. But if you are going to make our list of "Comeback Kids," which we publish about every two or three years in the annual "Ten Top 10s" ranking, then you better not be too dependent on one industry. The little town of Tallassee, Ala. and the county of Elmore, has done what many communities 10-times its size have not; landed deals in a variety of industry sectors recently, including aerospace and aviation, distribution, general manufacturing and of course, the transportation equipment sector.

Little Rock, Arkansas

Arkansas' largest market and capital city is on a huge roll. It might be surprising to many that the manufacturing sector is what is driving the Little Rock region's comeback. In 2007 there were several large deals announced in Little Rock, including two big projects by Dassault Falcon, a business jet manufacturer, and a $100 million new steel pipe manufacturing facility by India-based Welspun. Other projects aiding Little Rock's comeback include LM Glasfiber's $150 million, 1,000-employee wind blade plant. And just before we went to press with this issue, Little Rock turned another big project when Man Industries announced on March 14 that it is locating a $100 million, 250-employee pipe manufacturing facility. Man Industries is also based in India and the new Little Rock facility will serve as its headquarters in North and South America.

Lake Charles, Louisiana

Talk about a comeback, few can claim it with more bravado than Southwest Louisiana. Blasted by Hurricane Rita in 2005, Southwest Louisiana -- anchored by the Lake Charles metro -- was devastated almost as equally as Southeast Louisiana. Few knew, however, as everyone was fixated on what occurred in New Orleans just three weeks before. While New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana are coming back in small steps, Southwest Louisiana has taken great strides in overcoming obstacles with its economy. Billions have been spent by the oil and gas industry in the region in the last couple of years and new developments of all kinds are emerging in and around Lake Charles. It is truly a wonderful success story, one that is well-earned and deserved.

St. Louis, Missouri

St. Louis has come on strong in the last 24 months, earning our "Mega-Market of the Year" award in 2007. That No. 1 recognition was not only a first for St. Louis, it was the first time we even had Missouri's largest market in our top three mega-markets (3 million in population or more) in 15 years.

Kansas City, Missouri

The same holds true for Kansas City. In the same year (2007) St. Louis outpoints Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Tampa Bay and other economic development monsters in the mega-market division, Kansas City tops all in the major market category. Not unlike St. Louis, that's a comeback of note since Kansas City had only been recognized in the top three in major markets just once in 15 years. In other words, Kansas City topped economic development stalwarts such as Charlotte, Birmingham, Orlando, Nashville, Raleigh, San Antonio, Jacksonville and Memphis in 2007.

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