Stanton Springs beat out Research Triangle for Baxter

COVINGTON -- Local officials were on an adrenaline high Thursday after the big announcement that Stanton Springs was the choice for Baxter International's new bio-pharmaceutical manufacturing investment.

It was a project four years in the making for some. For others, who were there from the beginning, when Stanton Springs was first proposed, it took 15 years to get to this point.

Officials say the end result extended beyond their dreams: A $1 billion investment from a major bio-pharmaceutical company. Stanton Springs was up against two sites in North Carolina's Research Triangle.

"It's unusual for us to get a bio-science project," said Roger Harrison, senior vice president of economic development in Newton County. "We are the true greenfield site. They can make their campus what they want, whereas in Research Triangle, (Baxter) would have to fit their tract of land and build it to their specifications."

Also, the local water supply is ample to meet Baxter's needs, with 12.5 million gallons of water per day available in Newton County. Baxter will use about 1 million gallons of that daily, Harrison said.

"We've got everything out there or within a short distance. There are details to be worked out," said Alan Verner, chairman of the Joint Development Authority, referring to the needed infrastructure.

The Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority will provide water.

Verner said there is sewer within the park but not outside and how that will be provided and who the provider will be is one of those details that will be worked out.

"A lot of those things will be through the bid process and will be strictly up to the company," he said.Verner said both state and local incentives were offered to Baxter and those details would be released at a later date.

"It's a real complex incentive package. There's a lot of different moving parts to it where the state comes in and where the JDA is the conduit for funding. It's a good joint effort between the state and local communities," he said. "We did give them an attractive package that led them here."

Denny Dobbs, a member of the JDA, said a tax abatement was part of the incentive package.

Dobbs said he believes the proximity of the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia Perimeter College, Oxford College and Emory University, along with water quality and availability and the collaborative effort between officials all appealed to Baxter.

"Nothing says economic development better than cooperation among local governments. The four counties working together and presenting a united front was a big factor," Dobbs said.

The project first came to the attention of local officials about four years ago. According to Harrison, Chamber volunteer Scott Willis and Shannon Davis, now the director of business recruitment and retention at the Chamber, went to the state economic development department in 2008 armed with maps and a determination to market Stanton Springs, which had languished undeveloped for the better part of a decade.

About a month later, Baxter issued a request for information for available sites in Georgia.

Officials worked for the next four years to bring Baxter here, but didn't find out officially that Stanton Springs had been selected until Wednesday night, said Dobbs. The details of the project were so confidential, he said he didn't even know the name of the company involved until the site selection was finalized.

The next steps are to get details about provision of infrastructure worked out in preparation for Baxter to break ground in the second half of the year.

It's a fitting end, or rather, beginning, to a project that some thought would never live up to its potential.

"Over the years we had a lot of pressure to sell out to a smaller type of business and do something different, to change our vision," Dobbs said. "We and the four county commissions all stayed in the harness and stayed with our vision and bless Pat, here we are!"

That vision started 15 years ago when late Board of Commissioners Chairman Davis Morgan invited several business leaders and commissioners from Newton, Jasper, Walton and Morgan counties to the FFA-FCCLA Center. He said, 'I've got this crazy idea. What do you think about it?'" said his widow Kathy Morgan, current chair of the BOC, referring to her husband's vision for a multi-county technology park incorporating mixed uses including residential, light business/industrial/distribution, commercial/retail and offices.

"What is so remarkable isn't that Davis had the idea. He was such a visionary. But it's that all these other leaders, elected and business leaders, bought into this idea ... They had the vision to put the plan together and the fortitude to stay with the plan," she said.

After a year of research regarding the feasibility of the project, the Joint Development Authority was formed and purchased more than 1,600 acres at the junction of U.S. Highway 278 and I-20. The property encompasses Newton, Walton and Morgan counties. Jasper County is also a partner.

Over the course of the next decade, a parkway was built and infrastructure like water pipes was put in place, but not much else happened.

Verner said there were dozens of inquiries over the years and several near misses. Now, Stanton Springs is on the map, garnering national attention following the Baxter announcement.

Dobbs said he believes more tenants will soon follow.

"Twenty-five years ago, John's Creek looked just like this," he said.