EconSouth (First Quarter 2005)


Columbus Navigates from
Textile Town to River Runner

River Center, a $58 million performing arts hall, is one of the catalysts behind the renaissance Columbus is experiencing.

The economy of Columbus, Ga., was built on twin pillars of 20th century America: defense and manufacturing.

Just south of town, Fort Benning, a 182,000-acre base employing 34,000 people (including troops), has been an economic mainstay, just as Columbus-area leaders hoped when they lured the post to their community in 1918. Meanwhile, as the northernmost navigable point on the Chattahoochee River, Columbus became a hub for the textile industry.

But amid the migration of low-skilled factory jobs overseas and military base closings around the country, manufacturing and defense have become precarious economic pillars. Columbus has felt them shudder as heavy jobs losses in manufacturing have left the area lagging the national and Georgia economies although the expansion of Fort Benning has benefited the Columbus economy.

Good signs point to tomorrow
Despite challenges to its economic well-being, the outlook for Columbus is hopeful. After five years of job losses or stagnation, the city should see employment growth in 2005 and ’06, fueled by Benning and business rooted in downtown redevelopment, according to University of Georgia (UGA) economic forecasts.

Today’s Columbus depends far less on manufacturing. Some innovative local companies and an ambitious uptown riverfront redevelopment have helped to broaden the city’s economic base and stabilize the local economy’s outlook. TSYS, one of the world’s biggest transaction-processing companies, is the area’s biggest private-sector employer, with about 6,000 local jobs. Many of those employees are well-paid mainframe software developers.

Columbus, Ga.  
Population: 231,000
Households: 69,819
Median Household Income: $34,798
County: Muscogee (pop 186,291).
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Synovus Financial Corp., a bank holding company with some $25 billion in assets, owns 81 percent of TSYS and is also based in Columbus. A cornerstone of the Columbus economy for more than a century, Synovus in 2004 was ranked among Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for the seventh straight year. AFLAC, the insurer famous for its television spokesduck, has also called Columbus home since its founding there in 1955. It employs 3,300 people there, many in well-paying technology and management jobs.

Homegrown successes play vital role
Those locally nurtured companies have been vital to Columbus’ well-being. That three such large corporations are based in a city the size of Columbus is unusual, and a headquarters move by any of them “would be a devastating thing to Columbus,” said James Blanchard, the chief executive officer of Synovus. For those companies to avoid being acquired and thus having their community involvement in Columbus potentially reduced, they must prosper. “We’ve got to perform every day to maintain the right to be how we are,” Blanchard said. In addition to its homegrown corporate success stories, Columbus business and political leaders have engineered an uptown upturn that has paid substantial dividends.

In the early 1990s, Columbus faced serious sewer overflows. Repairs would cost $65 million and could require digging up downtown streets. But officials at the city-owned water and wastewater utility opted to bury a large pipe alongside the river. That pipe would need to be stabilized, and a brick walkway lined by lamp posts and green space provided the needed reinforcement. At the same time, voters passed a special local-option sales tax to fund that project and purchases of old buildings that have been renovated in public-private partnerships, said Mike Gaymon, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

The city and business community also raised a $100 million arts endowment fund. Today, uptown Columbus boasts 500 loft residences and the River Center, a $58 million restored performing arts hall. The 152-year-old Iron Works now houses a convention and trade show center. And Columbus State University (CSU) will soon begin building its Uptown Art and Theatre Complex, aided by a $25 million gift from the Columbus-based Bradley-Turner Foundation.

Facts about Columbus
  • Columbus, founded in 1828, was named after Christopher Columbus.
  • Fort Benning was named for Confederate general Henry L. Benning, a Columbus native.
  • Columbus is home to the Lunch Box Museum.
  • The novelist Carson McCullers was born in Columbus in 1917.

All those projects are bringing more people to Columbus. A CSU study showed that the number of visitors rose 11 percent in the 2004 fiscal year over 2003. Consequently, hotels and restaurants are hiring. Jeffrey Humphreys, a UGA economist, projects that this year, for the first time, the number of jobs in hospitality (14,000) will surpass the number of jobs in manufacturing (13,000).

Benning casts a long shadow
Those staffing levels, however, are still less than half the size of Fort Benning’s work force. Despite ongoing base consolidations expected to shutter 100 installations nationwide, Columbus officials and outside observers like Humphreys foresee growth at Benning. One big reason: Benning is not hemmed in by development. The 290-square-mile base—an area larger than each of the cities of Columbus, Atlanta, and New Orleans— is about 35 to 40 percent used, so plenty of room for expansion allows tanks to fire away, and “anything that flies today can land and take off,” Gaymon said.

Already, an additional 5,400 soldiers and their families are being moved to Benning. So Gaymon and Columbus-area boosters think the base, which they figure is a $2 billion-a-year business, could grow to $2.4 billion. Much of that money stays on the base, but the impact extends beyond the gates.

“When you think about 13,000 new consumers moving to a region,” Gaymon said, “that has a dynamic impact on the whole economy.”

Columbus welcomes the newcomers after some difficult years, particularly in manufacturing.

Since the metropolitan area’s manufacturing employment hit its recent peak in 1996 at 21,200, Columbus has lost nearly two of five factory jobs, Humphreys said. In November, one of the city’s bedrock companies, W.C. Bradley Co., announced more bad news. After building its signature Char-Broils in Bradley’s hometown since 1949, the nation’s biggest barbecue grill maker is moving 500 full-time and 1,000 seasonal manufacturing jobs to China.

In textiles, Columbus’ story is similar to those of many other Southern factory towns. Some two dozen local mills once employed 30,000 people. Now about 8,000 locals work at fewer than a half dozen highly automated plants, Gaymon said.

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