Courtney Bernardi and James Johnson outside the Office of Economic Development at The Center, which features a new state-of-the-art conference room. - Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- Courtney Bernardi and James Johnson are the new faces of economic development for Newton County, and, despite different titles and job missions, the two will be working very much as a team.
Bernardi and Johnson have been on the job for about a month and are working out of the new Office of Economic Development at The Center on Washington Street.
As the vice president for economic development, Bernardi is charged with industrial recruitment and will also be working with the Chamber of Commerce to put together a plan to attract small business and retail. Johnson, director of existing industry and workforce development, will focus on retention and expansion of existing industries and making sure the community has a trained workforce.
Bernardi is replacing former Senior Vice President of Economic Development Roger Harrison, and Johnson is stepping in for Shannon Davis, both of whom recently resigned.
Bernardi is the former director of economic development in Jackson County, where she facilitated the recruitment of nine companies and the expansion of numerous company footprints, resulting in more than $700 million in capital investment and more than 2,500 jobs created, according to her resume.
"Honestly, we've been watching Courtney and getting frustrated losing projects to her, so we decided, let's go get the one that's beating us," Chamber President Hunter Hall told the Covington City Council recently.
Bernardi said it was the Leadership Collaborative, a cooperative planning group of local officials, and the 2050 Plan that impressed her about Newton. The ability of leaders to plan and work together sets Newton County apart, she said.
One challenge in marketing Newton will be the lack of available industrial space, Bernardi said. In Jackson County, she had the benefit of 10 different industrial developments and more than 2 million square feet in available buildings.
"I think right now it's hard to be in the game if you don't have the available land and buildings. So one of our biggest challenges I think is the lack of industrial land and buildings," she said. "Luckily those buildings that were out there have been absorbed for the most part, which is a great thing for Newton County, but at the same time, it limits you on your competition with others because now companies are on such a fast track and their deadlines are so much shorter that when you're competing with other communities that on paper look about the same, but you don't have the available buildings or land needed, that puts you down a notch because their timeline is such they need to get going."
Bernardi said one goal is to find more industrial space while still being faithful to the 2050 Plan.
Johnson has worked for the last 13 years as the director of admissions at Georgia Piedmont Technical College, and for the last six or seven years has established connections with plant managers, human resource staff and others at existing industries, he said, while informing them of available courses for their employees. In addition, he has relationships with local schools, given that he has made presentations to students about being prepared for college and the workforce.
"James brings to this office immediate impact in the area of workforce development. His knowledge of the technical college system as well as the role he already plays in our K-12 programs will be a tremendous asset to our existing industry and will assist in our ability to recruit new industry as well," Hall said.
Bernardi and Johnson are currently developing a plan on how they will work together to move the community forward while still honoring the 2050 Plan and its ideas for future growth.
One of the goals is to partner with existing resources such as the Newton College and Career Academy and the local colleges, to make sure the workforce is trained and ready when new industries arrive and to help meet education needs of industries that expand or get new equipment and require additional training for employees.
When a new prospect comes in, "One of the biggest questions they'll ask is 'tell me about your workforce, tell me about the resources you have here.' It's imperative James is right there with me to talk about that," Bernardi said, adding that it's beneficial for companies to see a team atmosphere.
That kind of cooperation is also an attribute that will assist in marketing Newton County, she said.
"For a company to see and feel the community working together is huge because you're not just locating a company here, you're locating employees with families, so they want to see that just true community feel," she said. "So I think Newton County has a tremendous edge there that people are so used to already working together and we'll continue that."