JDA board chair predicts 40% of employees working from home within next five years
By JAMES SWIFT
At the moment, Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development Executive Director Melinda Lemmon said the local economy appears to be in the “demand shock” stage of the COVID-19 recovery.
“I think we’ve reasonably come through the ‘supply shock’ stage — that’s the non-essential business closures, the citizens have to stay at home, the high unemployment rate — and we’re soundly in stage two,” she said at Thursday afternoon’s virtually-conducted Bartow-Cartersville Joint Development (JDA) Authority meeting. “Which is where the State has lift restrictions, but not all industries are fully operational, however.”
Such was the first public meeting of the JDA since February. Over the last five months, Lemmon said she’s watched Bartow County’s “economic vulnerability” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic spike and slowly begin to improve.
“There was a time when [unemployment] was as high as 14.8% in April, whereas as in February, we were at 3.4% unemployment,” she said. “I think the latest numbers for June is 7.3% unemployment, so we’re headed back in the right direction, but we still have some work to do — once we get past the conversations about furloughs and temporary layoffs, then we’ll see what the more permanent recovery is.”
Lemmon said she’s optimistic that the COVID-spawned economic downturn in Bartow will be “sharp and short” but not sustained. However, she noted that the economy will not “really start healing” until a vaccine is approved, produced and distributed.
“We’re trying to figure out protocols for prospects and most of that is virtual businesses right now,” she said. “Prospect business has been almost non-existent, the State’s trying to figure out how to handle that, and the direction — in summary form — is no in-person meetings unless it’s mission critical.”
Lemmon said some State-requested changes will be “processed and discussed” by the local development authority in the near future.
“The State seems determined to not only take care of our staff and team in Georgia, but also to make sure that guests that come to Georgia don’t go back home sick,” she said. “We don’t want them saying ‘I got this virus while in Georgia,’ we want that to be a good experience while they visit here.”
Questions about Bartow’s existing industries in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis persist, Lemmon added.
“You might recall that there was a huge concern about which businesses were essential according to the governor and what would our companies do to make sure that they could continue to operate,” she said. “That was quite a time-consuming task at the beginning of this adventure in March.”
Still, she said she believes several industries attained “hero status” by suspending their normal operations to produce in-demand products like personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.
“We expect some new State regulations to come out soon for, I guess, additions to job tax credits that support those companies that converted to make PPE,” she said.
In terms of official JDA business, board treasurer LaDonna Jordan said the authority has yet to approve any financials this year.
“Before COVID, we were on track for the audit completion to be in a timely manner, but then between us working remotely … it’s been delayed,” she said.
She said the JDA hopes to have its annual audit completed within the next few weeks, noting that additional year-end adjustments will be required for 2019’s numbers.
“The next meeting we have, we will go ahead and approve the financials for each month that we have not approved up to this point,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic downtime, Lemmon said, has given the department the opportunity to upgrade its online presence, as well as implement a new content management system. “That was within budget, you’ll see that show up on the July expense report,” she said.
The JDA, Lemmon continued, has seen some progress on grants during the pandemic.
“We’ve had a number of new projects to support, in addition to those in the pipeline,” she said. “The projects didn’t go away, what slowed down during this COVID timeline since March is the decisions.”
And more major announcements, she said, may be coming shortly.
“We got word just [Wednesday] that a pretty large building has a lease signed on it, so I’m encouraged that maybe we can get an announcement from that company,” she said. “It’s an employer that’s moving from another part of Georgia into Bartow County.”
JDA Board Chair James Jarrett advised residents to continue wearing masks, noting that Bartow remains a “hotspot” for COVID-19.
Once the coronavirus pandemic is over, he said he expects major changes to how businesses operate.
“We will get to a point where people will be looking for a place to make something again, and we’re going to be ready,” he said. “There were trends occurring — online shopping versus in-person retail, work from home versus working in a location in an office or plant — and our sense is that those have been accelerated and will not necessarily go back.”
Within the next five years, Jarrett said he predicts as many as 40% of employees to work from home.
“Fortunately, the technology has been there to allow that,” he said. “We need to think in terms of how that might impact economic development in Bartow County … there are things it will impact.”
Most notably, he said he anticipates the demand for office space to decrease drastically in the post-COVID economy.
“Infrastructure, in terms of communication and telecommunication, is going to be a really critical thing for our businesses in the future,” he said.