Georgia Chamber CEO Chris Clark: More Rail Access Necessary for Economic Health of Hancock County and Middle Georgia
Monday, November 27th, 2023
Twenty-five years ago I worked my first economic development project while running the chamber of commerce in Hawkinsville. I’ll never forget it. The decision maker flew in on a helicopter and stepped off in a fancy suit. We spent the next couple of hours driving him and the state team around our small town. He liked our rural feel, loved our local leaders, and was impressed with our corner lot. Smiling, he noted as we walked back the landing pad, “if only you had a rail spur to that site, I’d bring my company here.” Simply put, rail was a critical infrastructure need for major projects. We see the importance of that network in most of the companies that look to expand in Georgia and especially in rural Georgia.
In recent years, tremendous progress has been made in some areas of rural Georgia, which have seen an influx of high-quality jobs and capital investment that come with many of Georgia’s signature economic development wins: Hyundai, Rivian, Kia, LG Energy, Woory, ADMARES, Meisner and many more. With over 77% of all new economic development projects locating in rural communities around the Peach State you can quickly see the impact of accessible rail.
But there are still many places in our state where economic prosperity has been slow. One of those places is Hancock County, located between Macon and Augusta, where the overall employment rate hovers at around 30 percent and median household income is $32,914, just above half the state average of $62,224. If you zoom in a little closer, Hancock trails its neighbors in Washington, Greene, Warren and Baldwin counties in almost every measure of economic prosperity by 10-30 percent. But Hancock, unlike several other rural Georgia counties, has some key assets that could create a brighter hope for the future, notably rich stands of timber and deep veins of granite. It also has a talented future workforce in its schools, many of whom might choose to stay close to home if afforded the opportunity. The community has strong leadership, a strategic location and hard-working citizens that want to build a better community, and things are looking up.
Thankfully, the state has begun significant upgrades on Highway 15, which connects Hancock County to Interstate 16 and the Georgia coast. And Sandersville Railroad, owned by residents in neighboring Washington County, is planning a rail spur that will create opportunities for local businesses to access CSX Transportation’s national rail network, creating additional trade opportunities for farmers, loggers, aggregate producers and others to deliver and receive products from across the eastern U.S. These transportation projects – like many others across the state – may require government bodies, utilities and railroads to use the power of eminent domain to secure right of way, and ultimate success will also require local developers, government and economic development organizations to work carefully with prospects and landowners to secure property for new enterprises.
The initial job numbers created by Sandersville Railroad’s Hanson Spur are a good start, creating twelve jobs at $90,000 per year in wages and benefits. These wages and benefits are meaningful, and the overall investment planned by Sandersville Railroad and its customers is likely the largest ever private sector investment in the county. The investment in rail is a wise one: for centuries, railroads have been recognized as an engine of American commerce. But unlike roads, railroads have to be carefully routed to ensure safety and minimize grade changes. Today, that network is responsible for shipping 28 percent of our nation’s freight, the equivalent of more than 40 million fully loaded tractor trailers per year.
The Chamber has a responsibility to support job creation and opportunities for Georgia businesses to get their products to market as efficiently as possible. This rail spur is the type of capital investment we should be celebrating in an area of Georgia that deserves our support and attention. Local leaders who support the project deserve credit for thinking carefully about the long term needs of their constituents and future generations who will follow. We’re working for rural Georgia, for high paying jobs, for a future for our kids and grandkids. The Sandersville Railroad project will have generational impacts and Hancock County will reap the benefits.