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New initiative seeks to fill tax gap
Business First aims to recruit, expand firms
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Forsyth County News

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Any business or individual interested in taking part in the Business First Initiative should contact the Cumming-Forsyth Chamber of Commerce at (770) 887-6461.

The Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce has launched a new program to help fill the gap between residential and business taxes in Forsyth County.

Called Business First, the initiative seeks to grow the industrial and commercial segment of the county tax digest to 25 percent of the total by 2018.

James McCoy, president and CEO of the chamber, said that segment currently makes up about 20 percent of the total digest, while the residential sector comprises 70 percent.

The remaining 10 percent includes utilities, motor vehicle fees and agriculture.

“We [at the chamber] are very concerned and continue to be very concerned about the future of that gap,” McCoy said. “There are several ways to correct that. You can raise property taxes, you can cut services or you can just grow the business opportunity.

“Of those three, the least expensive and the greatest impact happen to be trying to provide an opportunity for greater business growth.”

McCoy said the tax digest varies by community, but there’s no question that 70 percent residential is too high.

McCoy pointed to neighboring Hall County as an example of a more diversified tax digest.

That county’s digest, he said, is 56 percent residential and 27 percent commercial and industrial.

“I don’t think anybody knows what the magic number is,” he said. “But we do know it’s not [20 percent], and we’ve got to be making that investment to push that needle back in the range.”

As the first steps of the initiative, the chamber formed a council of local business leaders who will help drive the program over the next five years.

In addition, the organization is in the first phases of fundraising in attempts of reaching a $3 million goal.

The funding will go toward an aggressive marketing strategy to recruit new businesses, maximize expansion opportunities for existing ones and increase the local economic impact of visitors.

McCoy said that plan includes adding three positions to the chamber’s staff.

“What we would like to do is add three project managers who are going to working on key industry segments,” he said.

For example, McCoy said, one may focus on “contemporary manufacturing” while others worked specifically on international business recruitment and the health care and technology areas.

“It’s not so much in terms of recruitment but it’s really working with existing industry to help them grow and expand to make this as vibrant a business community as we possibly can,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s where the real opportunity comes from and it makes the recruitment that much easier.”

Arty Allen, a consultant who the chamber has hired to serve as the Business First director, said he has helped communities “all over the country” with similar initiatives.

He said such programs are great starting points for communities that wish to secure strong long-term futures.

“This little $3 million initiative, once it’s successful, can give you guys a lot of confidence in what you can do down the road,” he said.

As examples, Allen pointed to Dalton in northwest Georgia and Chattanooga, Tenn., both communities that developed similar programs in the past.

He said Chattanooga has landed numerous businesses as a result, and Dalton — which at one point in the economic downturn had unemployment rates of nearly 12 percent — saw the recent announcement of some 2,000 new jobs coming to one of its largest existing businesses, Shaw Industries.

Allen said Forsyth County has a strong base to support the initiative.

“The [chamber] staff has built a competency and a great team and there’s a plan to fix the problem,” he said. “So the only thing remaining is how to fund it.

“It’s going to take more staff, more marketing dollars, but that’s the point at which once we get through that, we’re off and running.”

As for naysayers who may not want to see more economic development locally, McCoy said he’s not too worried.

“There is a role for that voice out there, but I think most reasonable people who have taken a course in economics know this is not a sustainable economic model,” he said.

“You could look back over the course of all history and see that even if you’re willing to pay higher taxes, that model just cannot be sustained over time. It just can’t.”