By Joel Hall
While high unemployment continues to impact the metro-Atlanta area, Clayton and Henry counties may be showing signs of a turnaround. Economists, labor-and-economic development experts in both counties are seeing signs of hope in new jobs and industries taking root in the Southern Crescent.
This week, the Georgia Department of Labor announced that 75,436 Georgians filed first-time claims for unemployment insurance benefits, down from 84,346 in April and 96,306 in March. Focusing on the metro area, 33,078 filed first-time claims in May, down from 34,299 in April and 37,721 in March.
Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond said that, while there is still uncertainty, the labor market is showing signs of gradual recovery. "The state unemployment rate has remained virtually unchanged during the past three months," Thurmond said in a May 21 press statement. "During the same period, the number of Georgians filing initial unemployment insurance claims has shown smaller increases than in previous months. This suggests that Georgia's labor market may be beginning to stabilize."
New Jobs and Industries
While state and local unemployment rates remain well above pre-recession levels, several new businesses have found their way to the Southern Crescent, bringing job opportunities with them. Other local businesses have recently added new staff:
· In March, the QuikTrip Corporation opened QT Kitchens in Ellenwood, a bakery and commissary producing sandwiches and other baked goods for all metro Atlanta QuikTrip stores. The new factory brought with it 227 new jobs.
· In April, CarMax, Inc., in Stockbridge, advertised 14 positions for full-and part-time sales consultants. The company is currently seeking two detailers for its night staff, and one automotive technician.
· In June, first cousins, Rick Cannon and Tom Lackey, opened Ace Hardware of Stockbridge, hiring 10 Stockbridge residents, all previously unemployed.
· In May, Gulf Coast Pre-Stress, Inc., opened in Jonesboro at a once-abandoned location. The company, which designs and makes concrete piles and beams for bridges and other road structures, is expected to bring 60 to 100 new jobs to the area.
· In May, Warshaw Properties, a Marietta-based real estate company, hosted a job fair in College Park, hiring a half-dozen people to work at Lake Regency Estates Apartments in College Park.
· On May 29, U.S. Rep. David Scott hosted the Economic Recovery Exposition at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park, netting jobs for about 200 people. Among those hiring were: Clayton County Government; American General Life and Accident Insurance Company; Lowe's Home Improvement; The GEO Group, Inc.; Mother's Helpers Nanny Service; Scholars Academy Charter School in Riverdale; the U.S. Social Security Administration; SunTrust Bank, Inc.; and Toto USA.
· On June 1, the Hilton Garden Inn opened in McDonough. The new hotel, which features 105 rooms, an indoor poor, a restaurant, exercise equipment, and meeting rooms, recently hired 27 people. By the end of the year, the hotel expects to have a staff of 40-45 people.
· This summer, a new Whirlpool Distribution Center will open near the corner of Ga. Highway 42 and King Mill Road in McDonough. The 1.5 million-square-foot complex is expected to bring 100 new jobs to the county.
· Due to a 15.5 percent increase in student enrollment between spring 2007 and spring 2009, Mercer University's Henry County Regional Academic Center in McDonough is leasing additional space on Westridge Industrial Boulevard. The Regional Academic Center will enter the 2009 academic year with new classrooms and seven new faculty offices.
Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott said that since January, the county has seen a "dramatic increase" in the number of business inquiries it receives. He said that many new companies are beginning to take advantage of the county's close proximity to the Interstate system.
"We're already seeing an uptick," Wainscott said. "We're seeing businesses have an interest in Clayton County that, two or three years ago, we weren't even on their radar screen."
Sam Calleiro, business development manager for Coast Staffing in Jonesboro, said his business moved from Mississippi to conduct staffing for Gulf-Coast Pre-Stress, Inc., in Jonesboro. Since last month, he has been able to staff 13 people for administrative, managerial, and labor positions, and plans to eventually staff about 80 more.
"We have a ton of applicants coming ...," Calleiro said. "The caliber of people who are coming to us are really good people. The business of staffing companies seems to be taking a step up, and that is a good sign."
Wainscott said that Clark Howell Highway and the Mountain View area will be major sites for new industries, hotels, and office facilities. In July, the Federal Aviation Administration will open a new office in Mountain View, which will provide many white-collar jobs, he said.
Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, said that due to Henry's massive real-estate growth in the 1990s, the local economy took a significant hit during the recent foreclosure crisis. While some Henry businesses are slow to rehire, she said the county is seeing fewer layoffs.
"I think there are still far more candidates for jobs than there are jobs," Pippin said. However, "we haven't seen a large number of layoffs. We're in better shape than a lot of communities, and we are thankful for that. [Companies] are cautiously optimistic about hiring people back, until they see that this is something that is going to last."
Pippin said that there have been several "bright spots" in the local economy. She said that despite the recession, the "spirit of entrepreneurship is still alive" in the county. "You are going to see a lot more people shopping at Wal-Mart than Neiman Marcus during this time," she said. "I think most of the businesses realize that they need to keep working hard. We're helping them retool and be ready for better times ahead."
As of April of this year, 9.1 percent of Georgians (432,643 people) remained unemployed, up from only 5 percent in April of 2008. In Clayton and Henry, those numbers for April of this year, were 10.6 percent (14,116 people) and 8.7 percent (8,174 people), respectively.
The Southern Crescent saw peak unemployment rates this past February, when the jobless rate spiked to 10.8 percent in Clayton and 9 percent in Henry. In both counties, however, unemployment rates remained somewhat stable between January and April of this year.
Roger Tutterow, professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, believes the pace of the recession in the Southern Crescent has slowed. He said he believes that as more people move into Clayton and Henry, an increased demand for services will spur new job growth.
"The economy has been contracting for all of 2008 and the first five months of 2009," Tutterow said. "Around September or October (of 2008), the contraction really accelerated, and you can see that in the unemployment numbers. I think that corporations really slashed head counts in response to the loss of demand. The important part is that we are getting close to stopping the contraction.
"We went from having significant employment in the Southern Crescent with real estate," he continued. "We got a little ahead of ourselves. We have completed, but unoccupied housing ... We're at a level where we need to pause and let that grow into the economy. As more population moves into the Southern Crescent, and starts to absorb some of the real estate that is there, there will be a greater demand for services."
Tutterow said the Southern Crescent has a number of opportunities for "unique development," particularly in logistical, transportation, and airport-related businesses. He said while he expects sluggish growth for the remainder of the year, he believes there may be a resurgence in hiring in the first two quarters of 2010.
"It's not unusual to see the unemployment level rise at the early stages of an economic recovery," Tutterow said. "The earliest we can expect any gains in employment would be the end of 2009 or early 2010."