Congratulations to Team South Georgia 2019. This is the second year that South Georgia Business + Culture Magazine has recognized community champions for their innovative spirit and ability to obtain positive results.
Throughout South Georgia, there are people of all ages and varying levels of professional experience that aspire to make South Georgia a better place to live and work. This year’s class represents Ben Hill, Colquitt, Crisp, Decatur, Lanier, Lowndes, Thomas, and Worth counties.
As we recognized members of this year’s team, we encourage our readers to consider who they will nominate next year. It is our goal to have representation from across South Georgia. We will begin accepting nominations in March 2020.
Servant Leader—While he wears many hats, Earl Brown, assistant principal at Ben Hill Middle School, places service to others as a top priority. Recognized as the 2018 Citizen of the Year by the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Chamber of Commerce, Brown is mentoring students and working to make his community a better place.
“I enjoy being a teacher, watching children grow and being a part of helping shape their minds,” says Brown. “It’s a beautiful sight to see when they get that diploma and walk across the stage.”
As head coach for the Fitzgerald High School girls’ basket team, Brown helped guide the team to a perfect 23-0 regular 2018-2019 season. While winning games brings about a chance to celebrate, Brown says he strives for academics first. “We have study hall every day. I want the players to learn to depend on each other, and learn that it’s essential to help out someone else.”
When it comes to mentorship, Brown is paying it forward. “There were a lot of people who believed in me,” he says. “Even when I couldn’t see it for myself, they were able to see my potential and encouraged me.”
An active member of Bethel A.M.E. Church, Brown’s community involvement includes serving on the board for Habitat for Humanity, Fitzgerald High School Track Booster Club, Fitzgerald Partnership for Youth, and participating in A Great Day of Service.
Uniting for Change—With a passion for bringing people together to achieve a common goal, Sharah Denton is making a positive impact in her community and across Georgia.
Denton is state president and national adult vice-chair for the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).
Under her state leadership, Denton implemented the Bi-Annual Chairman’s Movers and Shakers Award, developed a membership and financial handbook, implemented leadership training, and created the organization’s website.
In Valdosta, Denton helped implement a community-wide family reunion. Now in its eighth year, the event provides free resources and health screenings. “The biggest impact is the fact that we partner with the local food bank and provide free groceries to families,” she says. “It is an opportunity to be engaged with resources that they may not have access to.”
Denton says the local NCNW raises money to support homeless children in the Lowndes and Valdosta school districts. The section also provides Christmas gifts to children whose parents are living with HIV or AIDS.
Making a Difference—As co-founder of Living Bridges Ministry, Darcy Gunter lives her life waiting to see what direction God will lead her. Gunter and her husband, Tony, started the Living Bridges Ministry on the premise of making a difference and creating a change in Valdosta.
“We currently, serve the low income and impoverished population with a variety of programs geared to giving them a hand up more than a handout,” Gunter says.
As the director of adult and children’s ministries, Gunter is responsible for the center’s day-to-day operation, and programs that include a transformation class, community clothes closet, mom’s connection group, and a community garden.
Last year, the center provided clothing to 719 individuals, served 527 lunches to families, and the community garden produced more than 500 pounds of food.
With an expanding outreach, Living Bridges Ministry purchased a 4,000-square-foot home in Valdosta to house current programs and expand services.
Gunter also serves on the Keep Lowndes-Valdosta Beautiful board, president of the Valdosta Civic Roundtable, president-elect of the Valdosta Exchange Club, member of the Valdosta homeless task force, a partner in ministry at the Church of Grady County, and co-chair of the Prayer Team for the Outrageous and Contagious Women’s Conference.
Regional Impact—Living and working in the town where she was born and raised, is the perfect fit for Anna Roberts Hurt. The Cordele native says her love for rural Georgia runs deep.
“From a young age, my parents taught me—not in words, but action—to love, support, and take pride in the community,” says Hurt, who is a regional project manager for the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD) Global Commerce Division. “Be proud of where you come from and do whatever you are called to do to help all citizens and businesses succeed.”
Serving a 16-county region, which includes Cordele, Americus, and Columbus, Hurt says she is proud to play a small part in making a positive impact.
“I can honestly say that I love my job,” says Hurt. “The majority of the region I serve is extremely rural. Providing guidance, resources, and incentives to businesses in this area is vital not only for the businesses to grow and thrive but for the employees and the communities in which they live.”
Having owned and operated a small business, Hurt says she understands the struggles companies encounter, especially in rural communities.
Last year, Hurt assisted more than 80 businesses, mostly manufacturers. “The best part is having the opportunity to build a working relationship with the people; that is what I look forward to every day, that I am able to serve our region.”
An alum of South GeorgiaLEADS, Hurt is also a member of the Georgia Economic Development Association, Georgia Department of Economic Development,
Successful Recruitment—Not one to give up, Rick McCaskill, executive director of the Development Authority of Bainbridge-Decatur County, knows that patience and persistence pay off.
Under McCaskill’s leadership, Bainbridge-Decatur County successfully recruited one of the region’s most significant industrial projects. Bringing approximately 300 new jobs and infusing more than $25.5 million in infrastructure and operations, Taurus USA now calls Bainbridge home.
The Taurus project was recognized as a 2018 Deals of the Year by the Georgia Department of Economic Developers Association for a small-size community.
A 30-year veteran in the area of economic development, McCaskill has spent the past 12 years in Decatur County. During his tenure, he has championed the development authority’s efforts to build three industrial parks and built four spec buildings, along with the creation of more than 2,000 jobs.
An advocate for regional economic efforts, McCaskill helped create Locate South Georgia, a partnership of 17 counties that combines resources to market the region as globally competitive for business and industry growth.
Endless Energy—As President and CEO of ComNet Technical Solutions, Inc. (CTSI), located in Albany, Tammy McCrary leads by example. Having worked many years in the technology field, she launched CTSI with five employees. Today, the company employees more than 20, and provides technical support in 13 states and three countries.
Recognized as a Small Business of the Year for both Albany and Lee County, McCrary strives to give back to her community. Currently, she serves as chair of Strive2Thrive, a community-led initiative that provides resources to individuals who desire to get out of poverty.
“The premise of Strive2Thrive focusses on using every available resource to move Dougherty County families into self-sufficiency through coaching and correlative training that aligns with the labor needs of our region,” says McCrary.
As a member of the Habitat for Humanity board of directors, McCrary says she was able to “do something great” by placing families in a safe, affordable home.
“In different parts of the world, different factors can affect a family’s sense of safety,” says McCrary. “For some, a Habitat home includes something they have never had before: a front door that locks and the sense of security that comes with it.”
She also serves on the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission, the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau board, and is past-chair the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce.
Recognized for her community efforts, in 2016, McCrary received the Jefferson Award for Public Service. The award is presented by media affiliates across the country to recognize outstanding community and public service.
Community Champion—An advocate for small businesses and the growth of rural communities, Karen Rackley, executive director for the Worth County Economic Development Authority and president of the Sylvester-Worth County Chamber of Commerce, is one of Worth County’s biggest cheerleader.
Working as a team, Rackley says the community has seen great results. “Our motto is ‘Promote, Enhance, and Maintain,’ and we are starting to feel the success of our labor,” she says. “We feel like we have accomplished a great deal in the last ten years. I have to say it is not a journey that I have traveled alone.”
In her dual roles, Rackley works to build collaborations that promote, maintain and enhance relationships among residents, businesses, and educational and governmental agencies.
“The past has gotten us to where we are today and how we are embracing the future,” says Rackley. “We have businesses that have been here for over 50 years and are still going strong. We also have new small businesses that are experiencing growth as well as new start-ups.”
With a degree in education, Rackley is especially proud of the new Worth High School College and Career Academy, and its impact on workforce development.
We produce a workforce that wants to work,” she says. “Our Worth County School System and the surrounding universities and technical colleges are key to helping us keep our future workforce up-to-date and ready to work.”
Rackley is an active member of various local and regional boards and organizations including Sylvester-Worth County Family Connections, Sylvester Main Street, Locate South Georgia, South GeorgiaLEADS, Southwest Georgia Regional Commission, Census 2020 Complete Count Committee for Worth County, and Georgia Peanut Festival.
Ag Leader—As director of business development for Southern Valley, located in Colquitt County, Dug Schwalls searches for ways to improve the farm’s overall business model and customer base.
Covering both retail and foodservice accounts, Schwalls looks for ways to improve Southern Valley’s overall business model and customer base.
“I have helped grow Southern Valley’s annual sales by more than 900 percent from 2002 to 2018,” says Schwalls. “This helped to produce over 60 jobs that were filled with employees from surrounding communities.”
As a rising leader within the produce industry, Schwalls serves on the board of directors for the Southeast Produce Council, which has a mission to promote fruit and vegetable farmers in the Southeast region. He also chairs the council’s Terry Vorhees Golf Classic, which in the past three years has donated approximately $300,00 to various children’s hospitals and youth homes.
An active member in the local community, Schwalls is on the board of director for the Colquitt County Packers Touchdown Club and is an active member at Norman Park Baptist Church.
Downtown Advocate—When Heather Thomas moved to Bainbridge, she saw potential in the downtown area. In 2017, Thomas and her husband, Tyler, opened The American, and are in the final stages of construction for a downtown boutique hotel and café.
Wanting to create more Saturday business, Thomas worked with the downtown merchants to host a Saturday Sip & Shop. “I created, marketed, and orchestrated an event that would bring people to shop, eat, and explore Downtown Bainbridge,” says Thomas. “The event was more of a trial run to see if something similar could be supported. A Second Saturday event has since been created.”
As a corporate sponsor of The American Bluegrass and Folk Festival, Thomas is an integral part of promoting the annual festival, which this year welcomed approximately 1,300 people to Downtown Bainbridge.
“A lot of work goes into an event like this one,” says Thomas. “We felt like we needed more diverse types of events than were previously being offered and that these events needed to reach younger people, millennials.”
Thomas says the festival creates a regional awareness about Bainbridge. “The music scene has loyal followers,” she says. “People will travel to follow their favorite bands or genres. We also want to continue to give people things to do; this has been something that especially younger folks have struggled with here in the past.”
Thomas is a member of the Bainbridge Downtown Development Authority board, Merchants Association, and serves on the Georgia Municipal Association Placemaking Collaborative.
Passion for Service—After serving as a preacher for more than 23 years, Ryan Tuten felt that his life had a bigger purpose. It was time for a change, and Tuten moved his family from Florida to the rural community of Lakeland to open the Youth IMPACT Center.
More than an after-school program, the center is focused on making a positive impact on the lives of youth, families, and the community.
As the children enter the center, they immediately look for Tuten, who greets them all by name and ask about their day at school. More importantly, he gives them reassurance that someone cares.
The center is not only helping children, but the entire family unit benefits from the services it provides. “The IMPACT Center is the only after school program in this community,” says Tuten. “Many of the parents would not have a safe place for their children to go after school. We teach character development classes, help with homework, and provide a hot meal.”
This summer, the IMPACT Center conducted a literacy program where students read more than 600 books.
Tuten works with the Lanier Family Connections to teach “Raising Highly Capable Kids,” a 13-week program that provides the building blocks for healthy child development. The IMPACT Center also offers recovery classes for people in the community.
He is a member of the Ministerial Association Board, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, on the Call to Care committee, which helps with foster care children in Lanier County, and chairman of the board for the Lanier County Supervisor of Election Board.
Business Boom—With recent announcements of new industries, retail and dining, and a downtown hotel, everything in Thomasville is coming up roses.
Helping lead the economic boom, is Shelley Zorn, executive director of the Thomasville Payroll Development Authority. In the past year, Zorn has guided seven economic projects to Thomas County, creating approximately 775 new jobs and more than $125 million in capital investment.
The list of new and expanding projects includes: Check Mate Industries, Wal Mart, Brandt Information Services, Southern States Insulation, Sweet Grass Dairy, Red Chamber Seafood, and the Marriott.
Zorn, who came to Thomasville in 2014, says one of her most rewarding projects is Check Mate Industries. “Not only are they creating 230 jobs in the next three years, it will mean $7.2 million in annual payroll that will go into our community,” she says. “Every person who works at Check Mate will eat, shop, and buy things, helping each business in Thomas County.”
She adds that the Sweetgrass Dairy expansion is another personal highlight. “They have been working on their expansion for five years and worked so hard,” says Zorn. “They have put Thomasville on the map. Great cheese, and so well known.”
In addition to recruiting new industry, Zorn visits Thomas County’s existing companies, which have created more than 800 new jobs in the past two years.
“The best part of my job is helping people find a job,” she says. “That each person supports a family, they are not just a number. Second, is helping businesses grow and succeed. They do it, not me.”
An active member of the Thomasville Rotary Club, Zorn is also involved with the Thomasville-Thomas County Chamber of Commerce as an advisor with Project Purpose, a program that targets graduating seniors for employment in local industries.