Business expansion on hold

By Justin Reedy and Trina Trice

A proposed expansion at a local manufacturing plant that could bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to Clayton County is on hold because of controversy in the local school system, a business leader says.

The proposal would be of great benefit to the county's economy, according to Shane Moody, president of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, but now the expansion is in jeopardy.

The Clayton County school system has been embroiled in controversy since earlier this year when a divided county Board of Education voted to oust then-Superintendent Dan Colwell. Some board members have since drawn criticism for how they have handled the search for Colwell's replacement, and have been accused of micromanaging the school system.

In addition, the system is now on probation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and could lose its accreditation n a punishment which would jeopardize college scholarships for local high school graduates and the pensions of teachers in the county.

All of that controversy has at least one major business thinking twice about expanding its manufacturing plant here, Moody said, which is even worse considering the fact that Clayton County has one of metro Atlanta's highest unemployment rates. Moody is unable to identify the business because of the confidentiality of economic development contracts, he said.

Though the jobs the expansion would bring aren't high-paying, high tech jobs, he said, they would help staunch the blood flow in the county's employment base.

"The important thing is the number of jobs it would provide in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in metro Atlanta," Moody said. "Plus the amount of investment from manufacturing equipment, because that is taxable. The industrial base is key to building your tax base."

If such a business were to walk away from Clayton County because of the school board controversy, it would have a terrible effect on the local economy, business people say.

"It would be very disappointing to our company, and to any informed citizen, to lose an expansion because of this controversy," said Leonard Moreland, president of Heritage Bank in Jonesboro.

With fewer jobs in the area, more Clayton residents would suffer financially, Moreland said n and that means they would spend less money in the community, thereby hurting other businesses and endangering other jobs.

"The economic impact would just ripple all the way through," he said.

Businesses looking to expand in or relocate to an area pay a lot of attention to the local school system, business leaders and economic development experts say, since that has such an impact on the quality of life of their employees and customers.

"You can't have economic development without education," Moody said. "That's a standard phrase in our business."

Any contention between a community and its government leaders can also affect potential business expansions and relocations, economic development experts say.

"School systems are a very integral part of what companies consider when looking at a community," said Alton Moultrie, senior project manager at the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism. "The relationship between the community and the government is maybe even more important. Any community upheaval that they see, they interpret that to be a negative thing."

Companies looking to invest in a county take a long-range view, as well, which means looking at local schools and colleges and their programs for job preparation and computer training.

"Part of the rationale for looking at a community is how a business can sustain their employment base for 15 to 20 years down the road," said Emory Brock, director of economic development for Clayton County. "The school system is a huge part of that."

Because of the fallout in the business community from the school board controversy, the chamber has called for the resignations of the members at the center of the turmoil n board Chairwoman Nedra Ware, Vice Chairwoman Connie Kitchens and board members LaToya Walker and Carol Kellam. The response from chamber members to that challenge has been overwhelmingly positive, Moody said, with only a small percentage of members opposing the call for resignation.

In response to the chamber's statement, one political activist who has sided with the four embattled board members in the controversy has raised the possibility of an economic boycott of some white businesses in Clayton County.

"A possible economic boycott on white businesses is now a reality in your county," wrote Ross, a DeKalb County resident, in a letter to Moody. "I think that if you can't do the right thing, and assist others to do what's good for a community, then maybe you should resign before the economic boycott is called against some very innocent white businesses in the county."

Moody called the threat of an economic boycott unfortunate, saying it could affect "every business in a community, not just targeted businesses."

"It also affects each and every person who works for those businesses," he said. "It's the employees that stand to lose the most n their jobs and mainly their quality of life.

"We stand by our position," Moody continued. "We continue to support our chamber members that overwhelmingly asked us to take this action. We continue to support our administrators, our teachers, and especially our students who stand to lose the most if we lose our accreditation in our school system."

Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County chapter of the NAACP, doesn't think an economic boycott would be wise, citing that he'd like to know more about the chamber businesses that stand behind Moody's comments.

"I don't think we need any economic boycott in Clayton County right now," he said. "The economy is bad enough. I think we need to get together and talk. We need to focus on the issues of educating our students. We don't need anything else distracting our attention. (The school board controversy) is breaking down on racial lines, now. We need to have a community meeting before it gets any worse."

Trina Trice contributed to this article.