Leaders eye new strategies for economy

CONYERS — "Rockdale is open for business." That was the message heard loud and clear during last week's leadership retreat of elected officials. Determining how to get that message across to the rest of the world was up for debate.

The meeting Wednesday at the J.P. Carr Administration building was described as a brainstorming session to set priorities for the community as a whole and also find some common ground among the parties.

Elected members of the school board, Conyers City Council and Rockdale County Board of Commissioners participated in the retreat. They were joined by local Chamber of Commerce members, the county's Development Authority, residents and staff members from all three government entities.

Glenn Sears, executive director of the Conyers-Rockdale Economic Development Council, said infrastructure, especially water and sewer, is a big concern for him.

As an example, Sears noted five prospective businesses considering moving into the former John Deere facility on Dogwood Drive, east of Conyers. He said the county now has 200,000 gallons per day of sewage treatment capacity available, but that may not be enough to attract the kind of business needed in the county.

"One of them wants 1 million gallons of potable water coming in, which is probably going to generate 800,000 per day going out and that is super income both ways if we can do that," he said.

Adding that the firm could provide a $200 million investment if it moves here, Sears said "sewer right now is a wall to economic development for manufacturing or anybody who uses much water."

Others at the gathering also said water and sewer were a priority for the community along with transportation, beautification, marketing of the community, education, planning and zoning and health care, among others mentioned.

The retreat comes at a difficult economic period for the community as job losses and foreclosures over the past two years have affected tax revenue for all three entities and caused the growth of the local economy to come to a standstill.

How can all of those priorities be tied into an unified vision, or goal, for the community was the question asked by Jacque Booker of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, who was the mediator for the retreat. There were several responses from all corners of the room.

Conyers Mayor Randy Mills said the creation of CREDC six years ago was a collaborative effort by the city and county to have a unified voice in attracting business.

Mills said CREDC still plays an important role, but the community has to revisit its strategy and "decide what we can go after."

"We put (CREDC) in place, which was critical, and it is obviously setting the vision of what this community can do," Mills said.

"The leadership here then saw the need to work together, but we're not working together," Mills said. "Well, it's not that we've stopped working together. It's that we came together when big projects came up, but we're really weren't talking to one another."

Mike Houchard, a county resident and member of the current county SPLOST oversight committee, said he believed Rockdale County was in a good position to move forward based on the success of past 1 percent sales tax programs.

"I think you have to have an acceptance on the community side of there being a need of infrastructure to move forward," he said. "I think it's been demonstrated over the last 20 years of the community's support of imposing a tax upon themselves to tackle some of these needs. We have probably as good a foundation for transportation issues as any county in this region."

Sears said that marketing the county's education system would also be key in attracting new business.

"People don't understand what the Career Academy can do. New employers and current employers are interested in qualified employees," he said. "We can do that with the Work Ready skills assessment testing. That's amplified."

Officials agreed it will take more coordination to find common interests between the city, county and schools, and promised to hold more meetings in the coming year.