EconSouth (First Quarter 2006)
Gainesville Feathers Its Nest on the Poultry Industry
Rising skyward in the center of Gainesville is a 25-foot-tall monument made of Georgia marble. Atop the pedestal in the town’s Georgia Poultry Park sits a giant bronze rooster, the symbolic representation of the “Poultry Capital of the World,” so designated by the Georgia legislature. This monument is more than just a nod to civic pride, however, because today Gainesville’s growing poultry industry provides a significant boost to the economic fortunes of this northeast Georgia community.
Originally known as Mule Camp Springs, Gainesville was given its current name to honor Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines, a hero of the War of 1812. When gold was discovered in 1828 in adjacent Lumpkin County, the ensuing gold rush caused business to boom in Gainesville. In 1830, Templeton Reid, a Milledgeville silversmith and machinist, chose Gainesville to establish America’s first private mint for gold coins.
Textiles fade as poultry flies
The seat of Hall County, Gainesville has seen its economy ebb and flow over the years. The textile industry once brought prosperity to the city, but like domestic textile manufacturing throughout the South, the industry’s role in Gainesville’s economy has largely withered in the last decade. Twenty years ago, according to the Gainesville Times, there were 10,000 textile workers and 25 textile plants in northeast Georgia. In Gainesville and nearby New Holland, eight mills employed 2,200 workers. Today, only Warren Featherbone Co. (with fewer than 250 employees, according to Georgia Trend magazine) and Milliken and Co. (which does not publish local employment figures) continue to operate.
In contrast with textiles, Gainesville’s poultry industry has grown rapidly since the 1970s, according to Carl Weinberg, associate professor of business history at North Georgia College and State University, and has allowed the community to continue to flourish. The city’s poultry concerns employ a total of 4,300 people, according to the Georgia Food Processing Advisory Council. Among these concerns are Fieldale Farms, ConAgra, and Mar-Jac, notes the Gainesville Times.
Hatching a progressive environment
The city’s involvement with poultry processing dates to the 1930s, when entrepreneur Jesse Jewell built Gainesville’s first broiler-processing plant and developed the concept of frozen chicken. By the early 1940s, poultry had supplanted cotton as the area’s agricultural leader. Jewell’s innovation led to today’s partnerships with researchers at organizations like Georgia Tech, such as the ConAgra poultry plant in Gainesville, which is field testing a robotic packer. Developed by the Georgia Tech Agricultural Technology Research Program, the packer can handle multiple materials with the speed and dexterity of human hands.
Homegrown cultural offerings and proximity to Atlanta
Today, Gainesville is home to thriving industries and attractive leisure opportunities. The city is about 50 miles from Atlanta.
Gainesville boasts its own symphony orchestra and ballet company, as well as the Gainesville Chorale and the 50-year-old Quinlan Visual Arts Center, a respected community arts organization. Additionally, the city is home to three schools of higher education: Brenau University and Women’s College, Gainesville College, and Lanier Technical College, with a collective enrollment of almost 9,000 students.
Foothills provide foothold for growth
The community’s attractive geography, however, may be its biggest draw. Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and with a considerable recreational shoreline along Lake Lanier, one of the state’s most popular inland water destinations, Gainesville attracts a second-home population and retirees as well as commuters who work in Atlanta.
During the 1996 Olympics, Gainesville hosted the rowing and kayaking competitions, and the games left a legacy of ongoing development, according to a report from the Governor’s Development Council. For example, with state and local funding, the Lake Lanier Olympic Center was renovated and has become home to the nation’s largest sprint canoeing and kayaking program. In 2003, the venue hosted the world championships for the sport, the first time the championships were held in the United States.
In 2005, a CNN-Money magazine poll of best places to retire in the United States listed Gainesville among its top picks. The poll noted factors such as the town’s modest housing costs (the median cost is $144,170), the growth of the population over 50 (60.8 percent growth between 1999 and 2004), golf courses (42), and moderate climate.
Growth and peer pressure
From 1990 to 2000, Gainesville’s population increased 44.2 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and grew by 16.3 percent from April 2000 to July 2003. The city has a very low unemployment rate of around 4 percent. Driven by the growth of employment in poultry and related manufacturing industries, Gainesville’s Hispanic population has also grown significantly and now ranks as the city’s largest minority population with 33.2 percent, according to 2004 estimates by City-Data.com.
Gainesville looks poised to continue its growth. In its 2004 strategic plan, managers in the city’s economic development department identified five initiatives to promote development as well as business and employment growth. Among those initiatives were a peer city and benchmarking system by which the city can compare itself to similar places, measuring attributes such as population growth, median income, and homeownership rates. Gainesville’s 17 peer cities include Austin, Texas; Madison, Wis.; Lansing, Mich.; and Gainesville, Fla. The benchmarking process will give Gainesville’s economic development planners ongoing comparative information to influence the community’s future development strategies.
This article was written by Lynne Anservitz, editorial director of EconSouth.