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January 5, 2014

2014: Looking Forward

VALDOSTA — The end of another year is an opportunity to reflect, to look back on the year and consider what went well and what didn’t.

Just as important as reflecting and looking back is looking forward and planning ahead.

So what does 2014 hold?

“When things were really going really good in 2005, I was kind of a pessimist,” said Bill Slaughter, Lowndes County Board of Commissioners chairman. “Now, I’m an optimist.”

Part of Slaughter’s cautious optimism is due to the recent passing of SPLOST VII. After being defeated by a slim margin in 2012 — 51.28 percent to 48.72 percent, SPLOST VII passed in November 2013 by a wide margin — 69.49 percent to 30.52 percent.

“It was a better list, better projects, but the citizens had a better feeling about where they were at economically, where the community was at economically.”

Still, while Slaughter feels 2014 is going to be part of a continuing recovery, he cautions it will be slow.

“You will have some setbacks and some forward motion, but overall the sentiment with everybody is that things are better. We’re better off today than we were two to three years ago. ... We have to be very, very careful about how we spend money. We still have to maintain our fiscal responsibility.”

Larry Hanson, Valdosta city manager, echoes Slaughter’s cautious optimism.

“With development, oftentimes it’s planting seeds,” said Hanson.

“There was a lot of seed planting in 2013 and naturally we’re hoping that’s going to pay dividends in 2014. We’re having more inquires, more calls, more contacts from developers and investors interested in our community.”

Hanson points to several areas around Valdosta where he expects to see growth this year: the downtown area, Five Points, along Norman Drive, the area around Interstate 75 Exit 18, and the area between Valdosta State University and South Georgia Medical Center.

But he’s also quick to note that growth is just as important to existing business as it is to new businesses.

“Economic development should never be just about trying to recruit new businesses. It should be having an environment allowing existing businesses to grow.”

As far as new businesses go, Andrea Schruijer, Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority executive director, expects to see growth in food and agricultural distribution companies, as well as agricultural equipment, plastics and medical device manufacturing.

“We’d also like to see growth in our food production and food processing industry,” said Schruijer. “We’re also in a great path to see some aerospace supplies in our area.”

One way to measure a city’s economy is to look at its real estate market. Strong residential and commercial markets indicate a growing city and a growing economy, while a lagging market can point to trouble.

For J.D. Yeager, associate broker with ERA Joyner Realty, 2013 was a mixed bag.

“We had a really, really good year the first six months. Then ... it fell off.”

Despite that, Yeager is optimistic about 2014, both for the commercial and residential markets. His buoyant outlook is backed by the markets in larger cities.

“We can gauge what’s coming by what’s happening in those bigger markets. What we’ve seen over the last year is that the Atlanta market is really starting to blossom on the residential side. This year, we should see a big increase on the residential side of things, and as a general rule, your commercial market will   follow your residential  market by six months to a year.”

In 2014, Yeager would like to see banks come to a middle ground with developers and home buyers, but acknowledges that’s a long shot.

“That’s a nationwide issue that one or two or 10 Realtors or brokers aren’t going to change.”

Throughout the new year, Hanson would like to see Valdosta’s unemployment level continue to fall and for the business community to continue diversifying.

“I think the best thing for a community is to have eggs in multiple baskets,” said Hanson.

Slaughter would like to see continued cooperation between Lowndes County and the local municipalities, both when it comes to supporting Moody Air Force Base and in strengthening the region in general.

He’d also like to work more with the local school systems — high schools, technical colleges and Valdosta State University — to develop a workforce geared towards certain industries.

“We want to make sure we’re all focused on a single vision towards those resources,” said Slaughter. “I don’t have a magic answer, to be honest with you. There’s no magic answer. I just feel good about this community. I feel positive about it.”

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