Clayton County commission Chairman Jeff Turner laid out his economic vision during his State of the County Address Thursday. Among his plans is the creation of a committee that will review ways to retain and attract new businesses to the county. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
MORROW — Clayton County commission Chairman Jeff Turner’s State of the County address was intended to recap his first 15 months in office Thursday.
Instead, he focused mainly on the future and used the speech as an opportunity to unveil his plans to strengthen the county’s economy in the months to come. A key part of those plans, he said, is fighting to stop the steady flow of businesses — such as Target, Toys R Us and J.C. Penney Co. — which have left the county in recent years.
As a result, much of Turner’s speech to county employees, educators, municipal leaders, legislators, business owners and residents focused on economic development. Turner said an important step will be finding ways to make Clayton County businesses, both big and small, prosperous.
“We have to renew and reinforce our efforts to ensure that Clayton County is and remains business-friendly, not just too large firms, but also to small businesses,” Turner said. “In recent years, we have seen a number of businesses leave Clayton County, which has a direct effect on our economy.
“In our effort to retain businesses, we must not only be business-friendly but we must find out why businesses are leaving in the first place,” he added.
To meet his goal, Turner announced he will convene a committee of business owners who will be tasked with studying retention issues and finding out what the county must do to keep the businesses it has while attracting new ones.
Turner said the county has had some economic successes in the last year. Those successes included the retaining of HH Gregg, the luring of Briggs Equipment from Fulton County and the recent announcement that Recycled Shingles Solutions is moving to the county.
However, the chairman said he wants input from business owners on how the county can build on those successes and create new ones.
“For me, it’s very important to involve them in our efforts because business owners can offer their perspective on what it takes to be successful in our county,” Turner said.
Turner also announced a set of priorities the county will focus on this year to help spur economic development.
Those priorities will be:
• Improving the county’s image.
• Refining “targeted industry sectors for business recruitment.”
• Doing more to recognize and support small businesses in the county.
Another issue Turner said the county needs to address to boost its economic development prospects is mass transit. The question of whether Clayton County should have a mass transit system has lingered over the county since the C-Tran bus system was shut down four years ago.
In November 2010, Clayton County voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of joining MARTA in a nonbinding referendum. Money for a new bus system would have been raised by the proposed Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that went before Atlanta-area voters for approval in 2012, but the tax was soundly defeated at the polls.
More recently, residents peppered county officials with questions about why the proposed 2015 SPLOST couldn’t be used to fund a bus service through a series of public input meetings. Officials repeatedly explained that a traditional SPLOST, like the one set to go before voters May 20, can’t be used to fund operational costs for county or municipal government.
The county commission authorized a transit feasibility study last month and that study will tell county leaders whether they should start a transit system. If it recommends a return of transit, it will also include a recommendation about whether the county should start its own bus system or join MARTA.
“We must move forward cautiously so we don’t make the same mistakes that led to the closing of C-Tran in 2010,” Turner said.
But Turner emphatically said Thursday that he supported transit’s return and even went so far as to say it is “badly needed.” The reason it is needed, he said, is because of the economic development benefits he feels it could bring to the county.
“For us to have sustainable economic growth, in my opinion, we need a transit system,” said Turner. “Not everyone has a reliable form of transportation to get to work, shop, doctor visits or even to school.
“As the number of jobs grow in our county and the retail business starts to pick up, business owners before relocating to Clayton County want to know if their employees and/or customers will have a way to reach their business,” he added.
Brionte McCorkle, a program assistant for the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said she believes the feasibility study will recommend the county join MARTA. Legislation is pending in the state Senate that would give the county commission the option of holding a binding referendum on joining MARTA later this year.
“I’m pretty confident MARTA is going to emerge as the best option mostly because of the experience that the system has,” said McCorkle. “They’re in the process of expanding with a new CEO and they’ve got a lot of ambition behind it.”