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Aspen Aerogels, Bulloch County, and Randy Cardoza’s theory of concentric circles

A couple of stories in this morning’s AJC merit a quick post. One is the lead story on page 1 about the state adding a whopping 34,100 jobs in February. The story, by Michael Kanell, said that 84 percent of the new jobs were in Atlanta. By my arithmetic, that’s 28,644 jobs for Atlanta, leaving 5,456 for the rest of the state.

The AJC story didn’t define “Atlanta,” but my best guess is that it refers to the 10-county Atlanta Region Commission (ARC) region. That would mean the 5,456 jobs were divvied up between the remaining 149 counties. There’s no huge story here — just further evidence of the continuing concentrations of jobs and economic muscle in Metro Atlanta (no matter how you define it).

The second and in my view more important story was on the News section front — a report, also by Kanell, about a Massachusetts company, Aspen Aerogels, announcing plans to build a $325 million manufacturing plant in Bulloch County to produce special materials that will, as the story put it, “contain potentially disastrous fires in electric vehicles.”

This story resonated with me because it’s in line with a theory I’ve held for a while now that any effort to revitalize rural Georgia will have to begin not in the most-impoverished counties themselves, but in the smaller cities and larger towns scattered across the state. I’ve written a little about the deterioration of some of those cities and towns and talked about the importance of propping them up in a number of presentations I’ve given over the years.

As it happens, Bulloch County is one of the second-tier counties I’ve long thought might play a strategic role in revitalizing its surrounding areas. Located just inland from Savannah and the Georgia coast, it’s one of the few South Georgia counties with an actual economic and population-growth pulse.

Further, it’s home to Georgia Southern University and Ogeechee Technical College, and it has decent educational attainment numbers: 27 percent of its adults hold college degrees and another 33 percent have either technical degrees or some college education, which should make for a solid talent pool for the 250 people Aspen Aerogels plans to hire.

As it also happens, Bulloch County (Statesboro, actually) came up in a conversation I had several days ago with Randy Cardoza, who served as the state’s chief economic development official under three governors. Cardoza headed the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism (now Economic Development) under Governors Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller and Roy Barnes.

Cardoza and I were talking about strategies for pulling the worst-off of Georgia’s counties out of what appear to be economic and population death spirals, and I’m just going to give him the floor here (based on my notes).

“I don’t think there’s enough money at the state … to make any real difference in some of these communities. The only thing I’ve ever been able to rationalize is that you take some group of learned individuals, take the state map and look at it and say, okay, we’ve got the major cities, and those are fine.

“Then we’ve got the Statesboros of the world, the Dublins, that are big enough and have enough infrastructure to survive, and they are surviving, and then you look at all the counties that surround them, that really don’t have anything, and then you get them all together and say if we do more to help Statesboro, then that’s going to benefit Emanuel County and Treutlen and the counties around them, and you build concentric circles around the larger counties and you get the counties around them to understand that (they can benefit) if they participate.

“Instead of everybody having their own little economic development organization … and their own little budget that isn’t hardly big enough to drive to Atlanta to tell anybody what they have or to develop a site, that they set up a special (multi-county) taxing district, find a good piece of land and run utilities. We’re going to make sure the roads are in place, and then the labor will come from those counties plus the others on the other side of them, and then after a while, those circles start overlapping, and you do it to enough different places and there are no areas left out.

“They may not have it in their county, but they’re within a 30-minute drive. They can go to work and they can drive home at night and live on the family farm … and pretty soon those circles will overlap all over the state and we won’t have any bare areas anymore. It’ll take some time, but I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Bulloch County and Aspen Aerogels may provide a good test of the Cardoza theory. Here’s hoping it works.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

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  1. South Georgian #

    Concentric circles can work, but only if counties are near an anchor city. Bulloch County’s population is 81,099 an increase from 2010. It has a comprehensive university and located near Chatham County.

    I’d argue most rural counties lack an anchor city and residents have to rely on the services provided. Counties such as Ware, Brantley, Pierce, Clinch and Bacon lack anchor cities and are self sufficient. One would have a difficult time telling commissioners from these counties that they should rely on Valdosta, Savannah and arguably Brunswick for economic development.

    April 3, 2022

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