By David Pendered
The economic development team from Savannah is in Atlanta Wednesday to trumpet the region’s opportunities in addition to tourism and import/export through the Port of Savannah.
The success of tourism and the seaport makes their job a challenge.
Trip Tollison says he simply has a bigger message to convey about reasons to do business in the Savannah area. That task is bringing him to Atlanta, in his role as president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority.
“I love hearing the great things about Savannah’s hospitality and charm,” Tollison said in a telephone conversation. “There’s another side of the story, and that’s what we’re trying to message. That is the highlight, and to share the word that gets people to realize there’s a lot more to Savannah than the charm and wonderful experience. Savannah is not just a charming host city in the South.”
Tollison’s elevator pitch could easily last to the 14th floor.
“There are six sectors,” Tollison said, naming them in no particular order:
- Manufacturing – Anchored by Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., headquartered in Savannah as a wholly owned subsidiary of General Dynamics and maker of aircraft priced from $24.5 million to $70.15 million. There’s also the April 24 announcement by Gov. Brian Kemp that Plastic Express, a plastics resin manufacturer, intends to build a $172 million facility that is to create 166 jobs in nearby Pooler;
- Film/creative – An increase in economic impact of just over 700 percent was recorded from 2013 to 2018 in a creative sector that employees a fair number of graduates and students of the Savannah College of Art and Design. The figures are: 2013 – $31.4 million total economic impact; 2018 – $254.6 million;
- Health care – Memorial University Medical Center and the St. Joseph’s/Candler Health System are the largest non-manufacturing employers in the area. They provide advanced medical specialties to a patient base across southeast Georgia and southern coastal South Carolina;
- Military – Fort Stewart, with its 20,000 uniforms and a civilian cohort of 10,000 to 15,000, plus the retirees who decide to stay in the region;
- Port of Savannah – the fastest growing port in the nation, third-fastest growing in the world behind two in China, and one of two harbor deepening projects that received full funding in President Trump’s budget proposal for the year starting Oct. 1. Charleston, S.C. is the other project.
- Tourism – Visitors are lured by pirate lore, remnants of the antebellum cotton trade, Pinkie Masters’ dive bar (yes, it’s still open), and – for better or worse – the Mercer House and sites made famous in the grisly murder portrayed in the 1994 non-fiction book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
“One reason Savannah weathered the Great Recession so well is we didn’t have all our eggs in one basket,” Tollison said.
The big push for the future is to foster a corridor of manufacturing plants stretching along I-16 from Savannah west toward Statesboro. Securing good jobs in the region is a main objective.
Taxpayers are helping to develop a large industrial park. Facilities that open there could find a ready workforce among students and graduates of Georgia Southern University and Ogeechee Technical Institute, both located in Statesboro.
The Savannah Manufacturing Center is being developed with water and sewer facilities, roads and lighting, Tollison said. The existing site is about 800 acres and the development authority has the ability to bring the total acreage to about 1,900 acres
The prospect of good jobs at the center evidently prompted Savannah voters to support a 1 percent sales tax referendum that’s helping to fund the center’s development, along with other community improvements. Manufacturing jobs pay better than jobs in the warehouse and distribution centers that are related to the port business.
Warehouse jobs in the region pay $45,000 to $47,000 a year, Tollison said. The starting salary at Gulfstream of $65,000 a year, plus benefits, Tollison said.
Multiply that pay scale across the potential for 1,500 jobs to 2,000 jobs at the industrial park, and the reason Tollison is in Atlanta to promote the region is clear. He and others are looking for the next Plastic Express to join a manufacturing base that includes Gulfstream, Basf Catalysts, International Paper and Colonial Group.
“We are actively looking for tenants,” Tollison said.