Magazine article EconSouth

Middle Georgia, the Military, and Transportation

Magazine article EconSouth

Middle Georgia, the Military, and Transportation

Article excerpt

Like many places in the Southeast, Macon, Georgia's economy has been shaped by three forces: cotton, the United States military, and the interstate highway system.

Two of the three elements--the military and the transportation network--are still critical to Macon and middle Georgia. Although Macon's location at the junction of two interstates remains an advantage, the long-range future of the military presence is unclear. Meanwhile, a growing health care industry and employment at local colleges and technical schools have helped to balance the local economy.

Without question, no economic element is more important to middle Georgia than Robins Air Force Base. As the nation entered World War II, Robins opened south of Macon to maintain airplanes. The base remains Georgia's largest industrial complex, with 24,692 employees, including about 18,000 civilians, according to the base's 2012 economic impact statement. Because the federal government's Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) scrutinizes military installations for cost savings, the future of Robins is a serious concern. Base officials, along with local political leaders and economic developers, are positioning Robins to remain viable, as they also work to limit the effects of likely downsizing, said Mike Dyer, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

For example, in evaluating the future of its installations, the Pentagon considers "encroachment areas." In other words, bases are more likely to be closed or shrunk if they are hemmed in by development and thus restricted in their missions because of the noise or hazards they present to civilians. To try to lessen that concern at Robins, the Macon Chamber, local governments, and other entities have allocated funds to buy land near the base.

"The base has to make sense in the military system," said Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission. "And the community's role is to try to eliminate things outside the fence that could affect the BRAC process."

A wider Panama Canal could float Macon's boat

Transportation infrastructure is a very stable asset. Several years after Robins opened, construction of the interstate highways began. Macon's location at the junction of interstates 75 and 16 has. helped the city attract distribution centers for large companies, including Bass Pro Shop, Kohl's, and Saralee. Another, Tractor Supply Company, a Tennessee-based chain of farm supply stores, plans to soon open a 14-acre distribution center along 1-75 that will employ 200 people.

Economic developers, however, are thinking bigger. In the coming years, they hope to position Macon as an inland port complementing the Port of Savannah, a major container seaport on the Georgia coast. Ideally, cargo arriving from Savannah by rail and truck could be processed through customs in Macon and then sent toward its final destination. For now, the inland port concept depends on a hefty increase in the volume of Macon-bound cargo from Savannah, Topping said.

A key to such a boost in cargo is the anticipated deepening of the Savannah port. Port officials want to expand the harbor to accommodate the larger ships that will traverse the Panama Canal when it is widened, a project scheduled to be finished in 2015 (see the third-quarter 2010 issue of EconSouth, "Full Steam Ahead: Southeast Ports Prepare for Panama Canal Expansion"). Macon ideally would serve as a sort of relief valve for a busier Port of Savannah. If more and larger container ships steam into Savannah, some cargo could be immediately loaded on trains and sent to Macon, thus relieving congestion at the seaport. …

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