VALDOSTA -- Valdosta is officially a regional shopping mecca, according to a study conducted by the University of Georgia.

The Outshopping Report, conducted yearly by the University's Business Outreach Services Small Business Development Center, shows that Lowndes County has a retail pull factor of 1.74. The pull factor is a measurement of a county's retail buying power, and in the year 2000, Lowndes ranked third in the state for its ability to draw customers in from other areas.

Sharon Kane, research assistant at UGA, said a factor of one means that the area is balanced and is offering the retail services to support its population. A factor of less than one means that the population is leaving to shop elsewhere, and a factor greater than one means that the county is seeing an influx of shoppers from other areas.

According to Kane, the methodology used in compiling the pull factor ratios is complicated, but is a combination of surveys of all 12 of the major retail sectors with the data then used to calculate a variety of ratios, including the pull factor.

Valdosta City Manager Larry Hanson said this study is especially important at this time to demonstrate just how many customers come to Valdosta to spend their retail dollars as the SPLOST initiative is scheduled for Aug. 20.

"Out of every dollar spent in Lowndes County, 43 cents is coming from outside the county," he said.

The daytime population of the city swells to nearly double the actual population with the number of workers commuting from outside the county and the visitors to the area.

"They're coming here to work, and they stay to shop. Valdosta has become a hub for South Georgia and North Florida, and people are coming here to spend their money," Hanson said.

The downside to attracting so many visitors is the added burden it puts on the infrastructure of the city. "It impacts transportation, public safety and fire services. The city incurs a number of expenses to assist them (non-residents)," he said.

With nearly half of the retail sales tax collected coming from outside the county, Hanson said it's the fairest way to ensure that those who actually use the services help to pay for them.

"Valdosta has become a destination point. The interstate is a huge asset, and Wild Adventures has had a huge economic impact, especially on hotels, restaurants and gas stations," he said.

Dr. Doug Bachtel of the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences said having a regional hub for services benefits smaller, rural counties who can't support large retail stores.

Bachtel said good transportation and accessibility to services is key to Lowndes County's success as it helps bring in both in-state and out-of-state consumers. Also having a diversified economy is a plus as the area's residents tend to have more disposable income.

Crawford Powell, chairman of the SPLOST V steering committee, said, "This study definitely shows that Valdosta-Lowndes County is a leader economically of our region. As a leader, we have to be aware of the support we get from the people who work and shop here, and the SPLOST tax allows them the opportunity to participate in the support of the infrastructure and services we provide."

To contact Business Editor Kay Harris, please call 244-3400, ext. 280.

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