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Home Economic Development Overview
Economic Development History PDF Print E-mail

Fitzgerald, 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 ProjectTypeEnabling 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 TextilesFitz. 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. 
1963Rainbow 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. 
1970Fitz. 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. 

 

Economic Development Overview

Economic Development History

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Fitzgerald, Georgia: An Economic Development Story “Of the top 25 companies at the turn of the century, only two are still in existence. Of [ ... ]


How did Fitzgerald do it?

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How did Fitzgerald gain its current stature? A survey of local business and industry captains yielded six common answers: Strategic Location Hard-Work [ ... ]


Local Companies

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Manufacturing, Construction, & Related Industries Provided by the
Fitzgerald-Ben Hill Chamber of Commerce
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(800) 225-7899  [ ... ]


Fitzgerald Agriculture

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 The Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County area has a strong and very diverse agricultural sector which coexists with a rapidly growing surbanesque populati [ ... ]


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