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Economic development: Officials mull new approach

CONYERS - Rockdale County's homestead option sales tax was called a detriment to attracting new business by community leaders as they considered a new direction for economic development.

Elected officials and department heads from the city of Conyers and Rockdale County joined the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday to hear a presentation by Mike Barnes, a Texas-based consultant hired to recommend a new direction for attracting business.

The study produced by Barnes was commissioned by the Development Authority of Rockdale County. The presentation was held in the Logo Room of Lithonia Lighting.

Barnes suggested city, county and business leaders form a new alliance that would bring together economic development efforts under one roof. This new group would form economic policy and then hire someone to lure prospective industries to move to Conyers and Rockdale County.

Currently, Rockdale County, Conyers and the Chamber of Commerce contribute financially to the Conyers-Rockdale Economic Development Council headed by Glenn Sears.

Barnes said that Rockdale County enjoys all the attributes of an ideal business location, but community leaders need to be more aggressive in seeking new businesses.

He added that many misconceptions exist within the community with regard to crime, education and quality of life. Barnes said community members need to stop talking poorly about each other and highlight the positive qualities.

"This is a great community and you have to let people know that," said Barnes, who was chosen partly because he is unfamiliar with the community and could provide an unbiased assessment.

Barnes advised that leaders should organize an "internal marketing" effort with the goal of highlighting the community.

It was during the open discussion that the impact HOST has had on economic development was raised. Development Authority Chairman Mike Sullivan said he was beginning to see that HOST has deterred many prospective businesses who showed an interest in Rockdale.

Voters approved in 2001 a referendum to impose an additional 1 percent sales tax on most items in exchange for a 100 percent homestead exemption on the county's maintenance and operation portion of residential tax bills.

DeKalb County is the only other county in Georgia with a HOST.

Sullivan said that as a result of HOST, commercial properties have had to shoulder the tax burden more and more as residents have enjoyed the 100 percent homestead exemption.

"Businesses don't mind paying their fair load, but the fear here is that business is carrying the whole load," Sullivan said.

Garvin Haynes, a county resident and business owner, said if anything can be done to adjust HOST, a different scale for homestead exemption should be considered based on the value of residential properties.

"HOST covers a $1 million house 100 percent the same as it covers a house worth $80,000," Haynes said. "We have to find a way to cap that."

HOST can be removed by a voter referendum, but Sullivan did not believe too many homeowners would be willing to give up the break on property taxes.

One suggestion was to impose another 1 percent sales tax, in addition to the special purpose local options sales taxes already in place for county and schools projects, to help offset commercial sales taxes.

Offering incentive packages for companies to locate to Rockdale was also discussed. Sullivan said offering incentives from tax breaks for infrastructure improvements is a fact of life in economic development today.

"The last time a light industrial manufacturing facility moved here with 25 or more employees was at about the same time as the Olympics," Sullivan said, referring to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. "We have to stop and think what's been happening in the other counties around us."

Conyers City Councilman Marty Jones said he was open to discussing incentives, but was against providing them to retail properties. He argued a shopping center did not provide the same benefits as those from an industrial plant.

Sullivan countered that Rockdale County is a sales tax driven community and that if the right retail development came along, it could provide a significant boost to the local economy.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.