Economic Development History


3sealFitzgerald, Georgia: An Economic Development Story

 “Of the top 25 companies at the turn of the century, only two are still in existence. Of the top 400 in 1950, only half are left.” - Forbes, October 7th, 1985 (as quoted in “Forward Fitzgerald,” literature)

“Communities are living organisms. They must be loved, nurtured, and cared for …or they will die.” 
-Clayton Jay, Jr.

The City of Fitzgerald, GA, by virtue of its unique founding as a Union veteran’s colony in the deep South in 1896 has always had an innate sense of citizen investment in the economic well-being of the community. The 2700 families that moved here from throughout all existing states were investors in the Colony Company, which secured 100,000 acres for the new city. They realized the value of education, infrastructure, and jobs as the building blocks of a successful community. To this end Fitzgerald immediately set aside property in all four municipal wards and four outlying districts, for public schools with the first community-provided school books in Georgia. Right-of-way and several hundred acres for a locomotive shop and depot space were given to the A.B. & A. Railroad to secure reliable shipping, and transportation in an era when roads were scarce. The charter provided for a local utility commission, which to this day is a vital, locally controlled supporter of economic development. Finally, realizing that former pine forest could not provide jobs for such an influx of people, Fitzgerald instituted one of the first public works projects in the country in 1896 with the construction of the Lee-Grant Hotel. The hundreds of jobs provided by this project bought time for the local economy to develop and become self-sustaining in short order.

This sense of citizens as investors in the community was to be a hallmark of Fitzgerald. Lacking unique natural resources, and to this day, a four-lane highway, Fitzgerald was forced to find in its people the creativity and leadership to thrive while so many rural communities were floundering.  In November of 1947 the Fitzgerald Civic Corporation was founded with 50 local citizens contributing over $6,000 for the purpose of attracting and supporting jobs in the community. In keeping with Fitzgerald’s traditional understanding of the relationship between economic development and education, the corporation’s first project was to finance the building of a local trade school. The Civic Corporation has continued through two additional stock offerings (1959, 1975), several bond issues and just this year provided a building for a state-of –the art peanut flour processing facility developed in conjunction with research efforts at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College of the University of Georgia. Virtually every instance involved the corporation partnering with an entrepreneur. In 58 years, no investor in the Civic Corporation has cashed out or sought a dividend beyond the overall economic benefit to the community.

1965 would prove to be a watershed year in the history of Fitzgerald’s economic development. A chain of events begun by Clayton Jay, Jr. (attorney), David Sims (realtor and developer), and Gerald Thompson (insurance agent and Councilman) would drive Fitzgerald’s economy for the next thirty years, leading the Wall Street Journal to dub her, “The Recruiting Colossus From Nowhere,” (December 21st, 1994). As if to mirror the diversity of Fitzgerald’s founding, these men had little in common on the surface. Clayton was a patrician attorney with three generations of conservative pedigree. David was a former Golden Gloves champ with a natural talent for salesmanship and no concept of fear. Gerald worked his way up from Cotton Mill roots, by substituting nightly dictionary study for the college education he never received. This combination of legal talent, salesmanship, and political wiles would prove a blueprint for successful rural economic development.

They quickly foresaw that the economy of the South was at a crossroads. Cotton was no longer king and manufacturing based on cheap non-union labor would soon prove to be a dead-end for rural Georgia. Driven by the specter of Fitzgerald withering as scores of rural communities were already doing, Clayton Jay attended the inaugural class of Georgia Tech’s Annual Economic Development Course. Though it boasted only five attendees in 1965, this course is today attended by hundreds as a requirement for certification under the American Economic Development Council. With knowledge gained from the Tech program, Clayton Jay returned home and with David Sims organized “Forward Fitzgerald,” another citizen investment corporation. They sold 375 shares at $1,000 each. Ironically, both had to borrow the money to purchase their five shares apiece. Gerald Thompson, meanwhile, organized a campaign for Mayor based on a platform of education, infrastructure, and economic opportunity. He was elected in 1968 and his administration continues today based on those same principles. Several of his early goals, such as a 24/7, jet capable airport took years to accomplish. But the vision never wavered. Mayor Thompson this year received the Excellence In Public Service Award, presented by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia in partnership with Georgia Trend magazine.

One of Mayor Thompson’s first acts after taking office in 1969 was to push through Council, with the support of the school board, a measure calling for the immediate integration of Fitzgerald schools, thus ending a potential clash with the federal government caused by an earlier administration’s call for a referendum on integration (defeated by 14 votes). The Mayor’s action freed over $3,000,000 in federal funding for a new integrated high school, averted a local educational crisis, and bespoke the nature of local leadership in Fitzgerald to a nation of business people watching developments in the South.

The two year old joint City/County Development Authority was reinvigorated, as well as a Downtown Development Authority formed. The Chamber of Commerce formed an investment “Committee of 100,” and a public/private partnership between these entities, Fitzgerald Civic Corp. and Forward Fitzgerald was established that would propel Fitzgerald to the front ranks of rural job creation for the next 30 years. Typical of their ingenuity was a four-way land swap involving General Motors, Santa Fe Railway, and two private land-owners, in three states, which brought Delco-Remy to Fitzgerald.

According to census data, Ben Hill County’s population grew less than 6,000 persons from 1910 to 2000. But from 1966 to 2000, manufacturing jobs increased by 1,300 with almost another 1,000 jobs in transportation, warehousing, and construction supporting them. This manufacturing growth occurred despite the loss of almost 800 garment jobs and nearly 1000 jobs in the mid-nineties collapse manufactured housing. Thus, the number of manufacturing jobs had not only doubled in 25 years, nearly another 1,800 had been replaced, exemplifying the foresight shown by Jay, Sims, and Thompson in seeking to diversify the local economy. Since the 2000 census over 500 more jobs have been added.

Education, as always, was a focal point. As local school systems merged for more efficient operation and then expanded into a series of new facilities, area leadership from Fitzgerald and adjoining Irwin County secured Ben Hill-Irwin Technical School under the Georgia Department of Adult Education. Today, as East Central Technical College, it is a flag ship school for job training and development in Georgia, having undergone numerous expansions and satellite additions. In the early nineties, local businesses joined in founding a Communities in Schools organization to keep at-risk youth in school. The City has further provided space and financial support to numerous after school initiatives for the same purpose.

Concurrently with educational efforts, Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County established a new 75 bed hospital in the knowledge that quality health care is fundamental to job creation and retention. Today, after numerous expansions, Dorminy Medical Center boasts an impressive array of practitioners and is fiscally sound in an era rampant with rural hospital closures, again indicative of Fitzgerald’s unwillingness to accept the status quo.

Forward Fitzgerald’s efforts meanwhile stimulated not only manufacturing job growth, but retail. Their first land purchase, a 400+ acre pecan grove on the edge of town, today is the site of two shopping centers, numerous retail establishments as well as six industries. Local economic growth further led to the chartering of two community banks to support Fitzgerald businesses. The Bank of Fitzgerald, chartered in the seventies, is today Colony Bank Corp, a NASDAQ traded stock and a “Top 100 Business,” in Georgia.

By the mid-nineties however, Fitzgerald was experiencing a lull. Age had forced Clayton Jay and David Sims to slow down in their efforts and the eighties failed to produce heirs to their style of community involvement. Competition was also much fiercer. Other South Georgia communities such as Tifton and Douglas were recruiting successfully, based on protocols they freely admitted were learned from Fitzgerald. Mayor Thompson, the younger of the three by twelve years, saw no alternative but to institutionalize what had been voluntary for so many years. Full time positions were created for an economic development director and community development director. These positions served to once again bind and coordinate the efforts of local agencies, government and the private sector and put Fitzgerald back on top of its game.

Since 1996, twelve major industries have either located or expanded in Fitzgerald. Two more, totaling some 500 jobs have been saved from closing. In support of this work force, Fitzgerald recently won HUD’s Robert W. Woodson award for breaking down barriers to affordable housing, by bringing some 315 units of workforce housing on-line since mid-‘98. Citizens have again stepped up to the plate by voting in three successive Local option sale taxes; each of which included some $2,000,000 for economic development. Even more significantly, Fitzgerald’s vision toward the future and attention to diversification has resurfaced in a big way. Through shrewd negotiation, Fitzgerald became the first rural city in Georgia with privately provided high-speed internet. In 2001 a joint development authority was formed by the local governments of Fitzgerald, Ocilla, Ben Hill County, and Irwin County to address the exporting of many of our brightest youth to technology related jobs elsewhere.

Having developed the prototype technology education program in the state, East Central Technical College was experiencing overflow enrollment and a space crisis. Many of the students were being snapped up prior to graduation by industry hungry for technicians. Few, if any remained in Fitzgerald. The Joint Development Authority, in coordination with ECTC and state and federal government agencies constructed a 210 acre $6,000,000 technology park adjacent to the school. Contrary to typical multi-jurisdictional projects, Fitzgerald was unfazed that 90% of the park would be in Irwin County, and in fact, lent its development staff to the effort. Experience had taught them that a rising tide floats all boats.

Local K-12 systems coordinated to align their curriculums and better prepare students for technology careers. DTAE funded a $10,000,000 technology center at the school to allow for expanded training. To date the park infrastructure is 90% complete; nearly $5,000,000 has been raised with no indebtedness; one company has signed on to locate in the park and three more are in the latter stages of negotiation.

Throughout this rebirth of Fitzgerald’s rural economic development leadership, new partnerships have been formed and old ones re-vitalized. Federal and state partners include: Economic Development Administration, Department of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Community Adjustment and Investment Program, One Georgia Authority, Department of Community Affairs, and Georgia Department of Economic Development. Fitzgerald has further diversified through focusing on tourism, relative to its unique history and architecture, and through the renovation of its Grand Theater and Roof Garden, which is quickly becoming a prime venue for regional conferences and meetings. Plans are drawn, with the first stage of installation complete, to make all of Downtown a wireless “hot spot.”

Despite the gulf separating construction of the Lee-Grant Hotel in 1896 and Millennium Technology Pointe in 2005, the themes remain consistent: citizen investment and involvement, public/private partnerships, and the creativity and tenacity of leadership to foresee barriers to prosperity and overcome them.

“WHEREAS, he had the vision to think beyond the myopia of cynics and pessimists; to dream of what might be rather than what was;”  - From a resolution in memory of David Y. Sims; Forward Fitzgerald, April 22, 2001


 Fitzgerald Economic Development Timeline

Year   Project Type Enabling Entities
 * = Still Active, (Exp) = Expansion; (Entre) = Entrepeneur

1896   Lee-Grant Hotel Public Works  Colony Company
1898 A.B. & A RR (CSX)  Rail Service  Colony Company 
1900    Fitzgerald Mills  Cotton Mill   
1899  Chamber of Commerce     
1940  H.R. Kaminsky  Textiles (Entre)   
1940  Fitzgerald Packing Co. (Lowell)  Pork Processing (Entre)   
1947  Fitzgerald Civic Corp.  Investment Corp.  Citizens 
1946    Campbell Coal  Coal/Lumber   
1949    L.L. Paulk  Trade School  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1949  H.R. Kaminsky (Exp)  Textiles (Entre)  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1949    L.D. Dargin  Blacksmith  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1951 Steed Concrete (Triangle)  Redi-mix   
1954   Fitzgerald Underwear  Textiles Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1955   Electric Motor Works Motors   
1955    Perfect Pants  Textiles  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1955  Melnor Mfg. (Wilson Wire)  Wire Prod.   
1955    Land Purchase  Spec  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1956    Monarch  Furniture Mfg.  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1960  Lil' Beaver (Coachmen)  Travel Trailers  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1962  G&L Steel (Elixir)  Metal Stamping  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1963    Fitz/Ben Hill Dev Authority    Fitzgerald/Ben Hill County 
1963  H.R. Kaminsky (Exp) Textiles (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1963 Rainbow Mnf.  Irrigation Equip (Entre)  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1965  Forward Fitzgerald  Investment Corp.  Citizens 
1965    Purchase 353 Acres  Development Property  Forward Fitz. 
1967  G&L Steel (Elixir) (Exp)  Metal Stamping  Forward Fitz. 
1967    Lowell's  Pork Processing (Entre)  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1967    Paulk Engineering  Farm Equipment  Forward Fitz/Com of 100/Civic Corp. 
1967    Waterhouse  Business Forms  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1967  General Telephone (Alltel)  Regional Service Hub  Forward Fitz. 
1967  Fitzgerald Nursing Home  Nursing Home  Fitz. Civic Corp. /SBA 
1968  Meredith Pole  Timber Processing   
1968    Champion Industries  Ag. Equipment  Forward Fitz/Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1968    ITT Rayoner  Forest Products  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1970 Fitz. High School  New Integrated School  City 
1970  Shaw Industries  Carpet  Fitz. Dev. Corp/Forward Fitz. 
1970    Souvenir Enterprises  Mfd Housing  Forward Fitz/Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1971    United Farm Tools  Farm Equipment   
1971  Modern Fibers  Yarn  Fitz. Dev. Corp/Forward Fitz. 
1971  SWS Garment (Exp)  Textile (Entre)  Forward Fitz. 
1971  Coachmen  Recreation Vehicles  Forward Fitz. 
1973  Airport Expansion    City/County/DOT/FAA/Dev Auth. 
1973    Purchase 470 Acres  Industrial Park  Forward Fitz. 
1973    Purchase 368 Acres  Industrial Park  Forward FItz. 
1973  Delco-Remy  Auto Batteries  Forward Fitz/Fitz. BH Dev. Auth. 
1974  Established Ind. Park    Forward Fitz/Fitz. BH Dev. Auth/EDA 
1975  Ben Hill Irwin Tech.  Tech School  Ben Hill/Irwin/DTAE 
1975  Wynn Electric  Industrial Electric  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1975    Trendsetter Homes  Modular Homes  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1975    Fitzgerald Underwear (Exp)  Textile (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1976  SWS Garment (Exp)  Textile (Entre)  Forward Fitz/Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1976  Astro Products  Ind. Chemicals (Entre)   
1976    Modern Industries  Sheltered Workshop  Ben Hill Health Dpt/Forward Fitz. 
1976  Lowell Packing (Exp)  Pork Processing (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1977  Tice Yarns (Modern Fibers)  Textile (Entre)  Fitz. Dev. Corp/Forward Fitz. 
1977  Fitzgerald Nursing Home (Exp)  Nursing Home  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1977  SE Development  Pizza Hut (Entre)  Forward Fitz. 
1978    Empire Forest Prod.  Timber  Forward Fitz/Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1978  Gilman  Lumber Processing  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1978  Pioneer Metalcraft  Wrought Iron   
1979    Spec Building  Modern Fibers  Forward Fitz/Fitz. Dev. Co/Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1979  Y&W Sportswear  Textile (Entre)  Forward Fitz. 
1979    Precision Panel Prod.  Metal Stamping (Entre)  Forward Fitz/Colony City Dev/Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1979    Spec Building    Forward Fitz. 
1979  Fitzgerald Blanching Peanut Processing (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth/Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1979  Sou. Roasted Nuts  Food Processing (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1980  Fitzgerald Railcar  Railcar Repair  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1981    Purchase 200 Acres  Industrial Park  Forward Fitz. 
1983    Flintstone Ind.  Mnf Housing (Entre)  Forward Fitz. Land gift 
1983    Purchase 150 Acres  Industrial Park  Forward Fitz. 
1983    Spec Building    Forward Fitz. 
1983  IMC  Railcar Repair  Forward Fitz/Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1983    Purchase 55 Acres  Industrial Park  Forward Fitz. 
1984  Sou. Central Livestock  Auction  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1984  Shaw Industries (Exp)  Carpet  Forward Fitz. 
1984  Empak  Railcar Cleaning  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1984    Canal Wood  Timber  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1985    Darlington Enterprises  Mfd Housing  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1985    Yellow Freight  Terminal  Forward Fitz. 
1986  Universal DIspersions  Plastics (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1987    Downtown Buildings  To save  Forward Fitz. 
1987    Colony City Homes  Mnf Housing (Entre)  Forward Fitz/Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1988    Spec Building    Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1989    Sampson Industries  Jacks (Entre)  Forward Fitz/Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1989  Donate Land  Fitzgerald Rail Car  Forward Fitz. 
1990  Spec Building  Coachmen Expansion  Forward Fitz. 
1990    Central Wheel  RR Freight/Salvage/Ent.  Forward Fitz. 
1991    Pioneer Housing  Mfd Housing  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1991  Custom Profiles  Plastics (Entre)  Local Investors 
1991  Donate land  Pace/Cargo Trailers  Forward Fitz. 
1992    Purchase 100 Acres  Ind. Use  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1992  Deep South  Food Processing  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1992  Lippert  Trailer Frames (Entre)  Local Investors 
1992  Pace American  Cargo Trailers  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1993    Pioneer Housing #2  Mfd Housing  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1993    Home Furniture  Chair Mfg (Entre)  Local Investors 
1993    Donate land  Champion/Textiles  Forward Fitz. 
1993    Fleetwood  Mfd Housing  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1994    Irwin Mfg.  Textiles  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1994  Fitz. Forest Prod. (Sou. Veneer)  Plywood (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1995    SPLOST Tax  $1,800,000 for ED  Voters 
1995    SPLOST Tax  $200,000 for Downtown  Voters 
1995  Colony Peanut  Peanut Processing/Ent.  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1996  Haulmark  Cargo Trailers  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1996    Interstate Warehouse  Bonded Warehouse  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth/Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1996    Bromley Pallets  Recycling  Fitz. Civic Corp. 
1998  Fitzgerald Redevelopment  Workforce Housing  City 
1998  Airport Improvements  Terminal/Hangers/Nav.   City/County/DOT/FAA/Dev. Auth. 
1998  T&T  Machine shop (Entre)  Local Investors 
1999  Wilson Wire  Wire Prod.  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
1999    Purchase 425 Acres  Ind. use  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2000    SPLOST Tax  $1,800,000 for ED  Voters 
2000    SPLOST Tax  $200,000 for Downtown  Voters 
2000  Southern Veneer  Plywood (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2001  Kampco  Stamped Metal (Entre)  Forward Fitz. 
2002    Purchase Burlen Bldg.  Spec  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2002    Purchase Sou. Nuts Bldg.  Spec  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2002  Haulmark (Exp)  Cargo Trailers  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2002  Baker Transport  Trailer Transport  Forward Fitz. 
2003  Millenium Tech. Pointe  Tech Park  Ben Hill/Irwin DA/EDA/USDA/CAIP/DCA/One GA/State and Fed approp. 
2004  Coachmen (Exp)  Travel Trailers  Ftiz/BH Dev. Auth/One GA 
2004  Aelera (MTP)  Systems Design  JDA 
2004    Purchase Pioneer Bldgs  Spec  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2004  American Blanching (Exp)  Peanut Processing/Ent.  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth/DCA EIP/One GA 
2004  Fitzgerald Paper  Paper Converter  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth/One GA 
2004  EnviroLog  Fire Logs (Entre)  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2004  Shapiro  Metal Recycling  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2005  SPLOST Tax  $1,800,000 for ED  Voters 
2005  SPLOST Tax  $200,000 for Downtown  Voters 
2005  Frontier  Travel Trailers  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2005  Sturgis  Metal Recycling  Fitz/BH Dev. Auth. 
2005  Belle Plantation  Peanut Flour  BH Dev. Auth/Fitz. Civic Corp.