Rural Economies Continue to Benefit from Forestry Investments
By: Ray Glier February 20, 2019
Photography by Story for Story
ALBANY — The rural economy in Georgia has become a political flashpoint, with two sides wrestling over how best to get people into solid jobs, wipe the grime off the windows of deserted stores, and fertilize business.
But some things do not have to be left to politics, only to the fundamentals of supply and demand of a robust industry. Like forestry? Yes, like forestry.
Here in the wood basket of the state, supply, demand, and industry will collaborate to bring 130 full-time jobs, $5 million in annual payroll, hundreds of construction jobs, and real dollars to convenience stores, gas stations, fast food restaurants, landlords, and many other retailers. Georgia-Pacific (GP) is building a $150 million, 320,000-square-foot saw mill on Sylvester Road/Highway 82, 5 miles east of downtown. It is expected to be operational in late fall and will have access not only to a roomy four-lane divided highway, but to a rail line with a dedicated spur at the mill’s backdoor.
Saw mills are a bustling locomotive for a rural economy. All over the state, international companies like GP, Interfor, and Canfor are vein of wood, which is harvested and followed by the replanting of trees with even better genetics. Grading got underway for the mill in Albany-Dougherty County in late summer. It will be the 19th GP wood facility in the state when it is online.
“That mill is good for my business, it is good for landowners, but it is really, really good for Albany and Dougherty County,” said forester Chad Hancock, who works for F&W Forestry, a 56-year old company. “This is a new industry coming into our area and it’s a big thing for our community.”
It seems odd to consider a mill “new industry” in an area of the state where there is so much timber to harvest. But local loggers have to haul trees to mills in Thomasville and Moultrie, 62 miles and 57 miles away, respectively. The timber in Dougherty County — most of it probably — can stay local to Albany with a new mill. That means loggers, with less distance to drive, can make more money off the stump and the odometer becomes less intrusive. F&W’s Hancock said the optimal distance to haul wood is no more than 50 miles.
Homeowners, naturally, are delighted their wood can stay close to home. There is more money off the stump because they are not paying for gas and time to Moultrie, or Thomasville, or Preston, which is toward Columbus. Hancock said some Albany-Dougherty wood may still go to the Canfor mills in Thomasville and Moultrie as competition for the raw material heats up.
“No question this mill is going to be good for our family,” said Tom Stonecypher, 84, who owns 650 acres just west of downtown Albany. “We look at it and know it is going to be a positive development for us. No doubt, the closeness of this new mill will affect the quotation that the logger gives to F&W for the price he pays per ton for timber.
“You don’t have to haul it so doggone far. Life is going to become a lot simpler, no question about it.”
Stonecypher’s property is off Flowing Well Road. His sister, Wilma Muse, owns 500 acres. They made the decision not to grow row crops, like cotton or pecans, but to cultivate timber and join the wood economy. The new saw mill means less insecurity and apprehension for landowners.
Stonecypher said the mill bottlenecks should ease. A harvest can be interrupted by a mill declaring it cannot accept more wood. After all, the Stonecyphers are not the only land owners with trees to sell in central Georgia.
“The availability of the mills to handle the work promptly is an issue because they get swamped,” he said. “There is more doggone timber than they can handle. In the past they had a problem with the mill accepting loads of logs except on certain days. They would skip certain days because they were overwhelmed with logs.”
The logjam, if you will, is about to get broken up. That’s what many landowners expect. Local leaders also expect a good dose of green. Not trees, but money. Dr. Wes Clarke of the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government said the saw mill will support 440 jobs, not just the 350 permanent positions on site. There can be no doubt about the job production considering there will be 200 loads of logs coming into the mill each day. There are some convenience stores scattered along Highway 82 near the mill entrance, but there will likely be more entrepreneurs setting up shop and eager to capitalize on the traffic. The Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission expects 400 trucks to come in and out of the plant every day, and they’re not just log trucks. The drivers and crews will need fuel and food.
“I sell diesel fuel every day and I can’t wait until they get started” said Jeff Lanier, who owns a wholesale oil business and a string of convenience stores. “I love trucks. Trucking is a vital industry and plays a major role in the economy here.”
The saw mill for Albany did not happen by accident. It took some vision, which is another key ingredient to a thriving rural economy.
The Albany-Dougherty County industrial site where the mill will be built was originally supposed to be 14 different parcels. But when one large corporation after another scouted the region and kept expressing interest in larger sites with certain infrastructure requirements, Justin Strickland, the president of the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission, said it made sense to market the entire property as one large parcel, or two medium-sized parcels.
The draw for GP was that the first 100 acres of the site had been graded when the wood giant came for a tour. A network of fiber optic cable was laid under the site. It is paved with fresh asphalt and it is curbed. There is a cell phone tower standing in the middle of the property.
Georgia-Pacific paid $2.3 million for the property, which comes with some tax abatement over 10 years. The total site is 226 acres, with a four-lane divided highway on the north side and a rail line on the south side.
“Albany has some forward-thinking people,” Lanier said. “We’re really grateful GP is making the investment, and that happened because we have great leadership in this town. It is decisions like that, to get that site ready for development, that are paying off now.”
Half of the jobs at the new mill will be in engineering, according to Strickland. If that is a younger set of workers, downtown living space should be in demand. A former senior living facility was renovated downtown and lofts were leased within two months. It didn’t hurt that The Pretoria Fields Brewery, with a tasting room, opened a year ago and quickly became a cultural center of downtown, Strickland said.
The map indicates announcements of mill construction or expansion, with the green markers showing those that have taken place in Georgia.
Albany-Dougherty has experience attracting major businesses. There is a Miller-Coors plant, not far from the site of the new mill. Candy-maker Mars is also in the area. The U.S. Marine Corps has a large logistics base close by, which employs 4,000 people. Proctor & Gamble has a manufacturing facility and so does Pfizer. Coats & Clark, a leading yarn manufacturer, is also in Albany.
And here comes wood into the economic mix, in a big way. Timber owners in Georgia have been anxious for more sale points for their products, and their wood will contribute to a brisk local business. There is pent-up demand here, but there is also a lot of wood. The price per ton for saw timber is down from the $40s in 2005 to the $20s/$30s today and the price is not recovering quickly enough.
This new mill should help. Supply chains are going to be reoriented.
The 2018 hurricane should not impact the supply chain by the time the mill opens. F&W’s Hancock said the storm that bashed the Florida gulf coast and south Georgia will not significantly impact the operations of the mill.
“By the time the mill opens we expect the majority of the damaged timber will be unusable or will have been salvaged,” Hancock said. “The severe damage is 60-plus miles south of the mill location, so it should have little impact on future resources to supply the operations southwest of the mill.”
The hurricane never reached the wall of wood that will service the new mill.
“What we hope would happen is that because of this oversupply of mature timber with all the plantings in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we can see some improvement in stumpage prices,” Hancock said. “It would hopefully influence landowners to start selling on a more steady basis.
“Right now, there is spot market influence and they are looking for a certain price. Some don’t realize we’re not going to have a major price improvement until the supply/demand curve changes.”
That curve could change in a significant way with the new GP mill.
Ray Glier is a journalist with 42 years of experience telling stories in sports and business. He has spent most of his career in the Atlanta area working for USA TODAY, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Youth TODAY and many others.
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