Ware County: Riding the Rails of Success


 

“Our strength is in transportation. With the rail lines and highways, cargo can move anywhere in the U.S. We truly are ‘where the ways cross.'” — Jana Dyke

With a history steeped in the railroad industry, Waycross residents have grown accustomed to the train whistle’s long blast and the clanking noise of rail cars coupled in the nearby rail yard.

Once a stop for stagecoaches traveling to and from the Georgia coast, Waycross, located in Ware County, exploded into a transportation hub in the mid-1880s with the arrival of the “iron horse” full of steam.

The railroad represented growth. Along the miles and miles of metal tracks, community leaders knew that gaining a “stop” on the train route could increase population and provide significant business and industry investments.

Waycross was one of the lucky ones. The Union Station, constructed in 1911, remains in the heart of downtown. Now home to the Waycross-Ware County Chamber of Commerce, the historic building—one of Georgia’s largest remaining railroad stations—is a popular spot for “railfans” to sit on the back porch and watch trains pulling into the CSX Rice Yard.

Incorporated in 1874, Waycross, formerly Tebauville, gained its name from ‘where the ways cross,’ a reference to the formation of multiple tracks that crisscross through the rail yard.

More than a century later, Waycross continues to reap an economic boost from Georgia’s robust rail system, which includes 4,600 miles of active rail lines and represents the largest rail network in the Southeast.

“Our strength is in transportation,” says Jana Dyke, president and CEO of the Waycross-Ware County Development Authority (WWDA). “With the rail lines and highways, cargo can move anywhere in the U.S. We truly are ‘where the ways cross.'”

Transportation Hub

Jana Dyke, president and CEO of the Waycross-Ware County Development Authority

A community of just over 35,000, Ware County has a logistical footprint that benefits from a Class 1 rail serviced by CSX Transportation, an extensive highway system, and easy access to international seaports.

“Our geographical location is a plus,” says Dyke. “We have the infrastructure that businesses need to access the Southeast and beyond.”

The CSX Rice Yard has approximately 1,000 employees and features a “hump yard”—a system where trains are pushed over a small hill as cars are uncoupled and then roll down the hump and connect with outbound trains.

One of the nation’s oldest and largest railroad companies, CSX Transportation, maintains six lines that handle more than 60 trains per day at the Waycross facility.

Providing significant savings and convenience to its tenants, the WWDA owns the rail lines within the Waycross and Ware County Industrial Park.

“With the WWDA owning the rail lines, companies can tap into the main CSX line at a much lower cost,” says Dyke. “For example, to add a main lighted switch on our line cost about $25,000, and if we didn’t own the line, the cost would jump to approximately $250,000.”

From the rails to roads, Ware County provides access to multiple state and federal highways that connect to I-75 and I-95 (north/south) and I-10 (east/west).

“Traffic is coming and going from every direction,” says Dyke, a member of the Southern Economic Development Council. “Cargo can move anywhere in the U.S. by our highway system within a few days.”

From Ware County, trucks can reach three major seaports: Savannah, Brunswick, and Jacksonville.

As the single largest and fastest-growing container terminal in America, the Port of Savannah is a critical player in Ware County’s growth.

“I spend a lot of time working with people at the Port of Savannah,” says Dyke, a graduate of the Georgia Academy of Economic Development. “It’s a huge asset for our community, and the reason many of our businesses are here.”

Located adjacent to the industrial park, the Waycross-Ware County Airport has three runways, one long enough to land the largest plane currently in service.

Equipped to accommodate corporate and transit traffic, the airport serves approximately 18,000 aircraft operations annually and averages 49 flights per day.

“Our airport is a top-selling point,” says Dyke. “Especially for national companies that use corporate planes.”

Gaining Momentum 

Carolina Skiff, a national boat manufacturer in Ware County

In the past three years, industry growth in Ware County has reached upwards of $70 million in capital investments and more than 550 new jobs.

Joining the WWDA in 2017, Dyke, a native of Leesburg, Georgia, has an extensive background in economic development and chamber work, along with several years of real estate experience.

“Before I took the development authority job, I brought my family here to take a look around,” says Dyke, who previously served as executive director for Downtown Sylvester. “We did a surprise visit, much like an industry prospect would. We looked at housing, schools, quality of life, and what industries are based here, and I quickly realized that there was a ton of untapped potential.”

Even before she had time to get settled in her new office, Dyke helped the WWDA team put a “win” on the board with the GATX expansion.

A global leader in railcar leasing, GATX, headquartered in Chicago, came to Ware County in the early 1950s and was one of the first businesses in the Waycross-Ware County Industrial Park.

“My first day on the job, we met with leadership from GATX’s corporate office about potential expansion,” says Dyke, who helped bring the project to fruition. “It started as an $18 million expansion and then moved to $30 million. With 55 employees and salaries in the range of $40,000 to $60,000, this was a great plus for the community.”

The GATX project was the first in a series of existing industry expansions in the past three years.

“I think existing industry growth is just as important as gaining new business,” says Dyke, a member of Leadership Georgia. “You will find this to be true in most communities. When a company continues to increase production and hire more employees, it often leads to facility expansion.”

When FedEx needed to grow, the WWDA helped secure a 100,000-square-foot lease property at the industrial park.

“FedEx was looking at different options, including other communities,” says Dyke. “We were able to get them in a larger building and keep them in Ware County.”

The FedEx expansion—completed in early 2020—added 30 jobs to the region’s workforce.

When Carolina Skiff—a national boat manufacturer—needed more space, the WWDA mitigated wetland issues to retain the company.

“The project started at $12 million and moved to $18 million before it was completed,” says Dyke. “The economic impact was around $106 million and created 100 jobs.”


Timber Belt

Ware County ranks as one of Georgia’s top 20 counties for timber production

At $632 million, timber is ranked as Georgia’s fifth-largest commodity. More than just paper and lumber, Georgia is a significant exporter of wood pellets—valued at $136 million and 26 percent of the U.S. total production, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission.

“Timber is big business here,” says Dyke, referring to Ware County’s ranking as one of Georgia’s top 20 counties for timber production.

In 2011, Georgia Biomass built a $163 million facility in Ware County to produce wood pellets. During the past nine years, the company has created more than 90 jobs—and approximately 1,000 indirect jobs—to support the region’s workforce.

Reaching a milestone in production, last year, Georgia Biomass met its annual production capacity of 750,000 metric tons of industrial wood pellets within 11 months.

The company relies on the region’s ample supply of timber. According to the WWDA, in 2019, Georgia Biomass purchased more than $65 million in timber within a 45-miles radius of Ware County.

Georgia Biomass was recently purchased by Enviva Partners, a leading global energy company specializing in sustainable wood bioenergy. Enviva Partners acquired Georgia Biomass and associated contracted terminal capacity in Savannah.

Acquisition of the Ware County facility expands Enviva’s operational footprint across the Southeastern U.S., including nine wood pellet production plants and five deep-water export terminals.

“The local leadership at our Enviva Biomass plant continues to show they are invested in making our community a better place to live,” says Dyke. “We look forward to continuing this partnership with Enviva in the future.”


Home of the Egg Roll 

In 2017, Waycross welcomed Bailey International to the community. One of the largest producers of egg rolls in the U.S., the Waycross facility produces more than 4.8 million Grade A handmade egg rolls each year.

Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Bailey International selected Waycross for its location and direct access to Southeastern markets.

“Bailey International purchased a site which had been vacant for several years,” says Dyke. “They took a blighted facility and turned it into one that suited their needs.”

Starting with 50 employees, in the past three years, Bailey International has increased production levels and workforce to approximately 180 workers at the Waycross facility.


Infrastructure and Beyond

Georgia Biomass, recently purchased by Enviva Partners, a leading global energy company specializing in sustainable wood bioenergy

There is no denying that logistics is a considerable asset; however, infrastructure, workforce, and partnerships are also crucial to Ware County’s continued success.

The WWDA is gearing up for industry prospects through infrastructure improvements. Last year, the development authority received a $500,000 OneGeorgia grant from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which was matched through SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax) funds.

The combined $1 million is being used to prepare a new 91-acre site at the industrial park.

“This summer, we have cleaned and grubbed the site so that it will be ready to show prospects,” says Dyke. “By completing this work, we ensure our community remains relevant and ready for prospects.”

The WWDA has made growing its future workforce a priority. Through the Ware Worx program, a partnership with Coastal Pines Technical College, South Georgia State College, and local high schools, the development authority is sponsoring field trips, mock interviews, and other activities to showcase jobs within the community.

“First, we have to let our teachers and high school students know what jobs are available in Ware County,” says Dyke. “We have identified some areas where the curriculum currently taught in our schools doesn’t match up to the skills needed by our local industries.”

An eye-opening experience, Dyke says, “We take teachers directly to the businesses and different manufacturing plants. They can see exactly what these businesses are doing; it gives them a chance to see what jobs are available and what skills are needed.”

While the coronavirus has created some economic barriers, the WWDA staff continues to talk with industry prospects and assist with new business openings, most recently a senior care facility and hotel.

Located on Pierce and Ware counties’ border, the Georgia Living Senior Care (Satilla Bluffs) facility opened in August with 55 new hires.

By year’s end, Marriott’s new $12 million Fairfield Inn will officially open in Waycross, creating 25 new jobs.

“With Satilla Bluffs and a new hotel opening, it’s an exciting time,” says Dyke, who commented that during the coronavirus pandemic businesses and industries, for the most part, remained operational. “Early on, some businesses and manufacturers had to close for a brief period, but they’re back open.”

 

 

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