Looking back at biggest business news of 2013

lmorris@macon.comJanuary 4, 2014 

As we begin the new year, The Telegraph takes a look back at some of the top business stories of 2013.

There were stories about a major fire at a packaging plant, furloughs at Robins Air Force Base, a new hospital in Peach County, the demise of a riverfront development and plans for a grocery store in downtown Macon.

Robins cuts, furloughs not as bad as feared

At the beginning of 2013, Robins Air Force Base in Houston County faced deep cuts. Meanwhile, about 15,000 civilian employees braced for at least 22 days of furlough and possible layoffs in the maintenance area, which makes up the bulk of base operations.

But the number of furlough days eventually dropped to six days.

In October, when the federal government shut down after Congress couldn’t agree on the budget, about 4,000 workers were furloughed for four days.

A voluntary buyout offer announced in March reduced civilian employment by about 400 by the end of April, primarily affecting the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex. The buyouts were unrelated to sequestration and other Air Force cost-cutting initiatives.

Although base officials announced in March 28 fewer planes would be coming in for overhaul, by August that had changed to just one plane delayed to the next fiscal year.

Bibb plant suffers major fire; rebuilding underway

At the end of April, Pactiv Advanced Packaging Solutions suffered a fire that destroyed a major portion of the 237,000-square-foot building.

The company makes egg cartons and other materials near the Middle Georgia Regional Airport. The fire apparently started from smoldering egg cartons that were still warm from production when they were stacked, officials said.

At the time of the fire, the company had 216 full-time employees and more than 40 part-time or temporary workers. Most of the workers continued to work for the company.

In August, the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority approved a plan to authorize up to $50 million in bonds to help the company rebuild. Construction to rebuild the destroyed portion of the building is expected to be completed during the first quarter of 2014.

Grocery store to open in downtown Macon

In early 2014, Macon is poised to get something urban developers have said for years the downtown needs -- a grocery store.

In October, Ocmulgee Traders announced it would open on the first floor of Dannenberg Lofts at Poplar and Third streets. The 5,200-square-foot store would include staples as well as local and regional food, said owner Steve Bell, who also runs an advertising agency.

The store will feature café seating where people could eat a pastry or sandwich or drink an espresso.

Kinetix Health Club also plans to open in the first quarter of this year in about 6,500 square feet of space in the Dannenberg Building. It will feature cardio equipment, free-weights and personal trainers.

Midstate hospitals collaborate; new Peach hospital opens

The Medical Center of Central Georgia and Houston Healthcare announced in June the hospitals were starting a collaboration that would bring better and cheaper health care to the region.

The effort is not a merger, and the two hospitals will remain separate operations. Initially, the partnership would involve joint training and education, and when one of the hospitals is looking to add a new service, they would avoid duplication.

The partnership also includes the new $27 million Medical Center of Peach County -- formerly Peach Regional Medical Center -- which is operated by the Medical Center. The Peach County hospital began accepting patients in July.

The new hospital includes state-of-the art medical equipment, 25 private patient rooms, a helipad for emergency airlifts and an operating room.

Tractor Supply opens distribution center

Fifteen months after Tractor Supply Co. announced it would build a massive distribution center in south Bibb County, the company held an official grand opening in September.

The 690,000-square-foot facility -- equivalent to about 12 football fields -- was built in the I-75 Business Park off Hartley Bridge Road at Interstate 75. The $50 million facility is expected to employ nearly 300 people.

Tractor Supply is the largest project that local economic developers officials have landed for Macon in the past couple of years, said Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission.

NewTown Macon’s leadership to change

Mike Ford, the longtime president and CEO of NewTown Macon, announced in November he would step down by the end of March.

NewTown Macon, which was formed in the mid-1990s, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing downtown Macon.

Ford began working at NewTown Macon in 2002 as a volunteer with the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. He was named chief executive officer soon afterward. He oversaw the completion of a $21 million fundraising campaign for NewTown’s third revitalization phase, and he helped secure bond money to serve as “gap financing” for residential projects.

Last month, NewTown selected Josh Rogers as the group’s new president and CEO. Rogers, who is slated to begin his new job April 1, currently is executive director of the Historic Macon Foundation.

Health care law goes live; Macon hospital to take hit

After a few initial problems, millions of people were able to begin shopping this fall for health insurance coverage under provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act passed by Congress in 2010.

The new law, also known as Obamacare, provides health insurance options for individuals and families who don’t have access to affordable health plans.

The University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences and its Cooperative Extension Service received a nearly $1.7 million grant to help people navigate the health care maze, and two offices were set up to serve the midstate. The grant money runs out in August 2014.

In December, Central Georgia Health System, the parent company for The Medical Center of Central Georgia, held an enrollment blitz in Macon for people who needed help signing up for an insurance plan.

About 130 people turned out for the event, 15 were able to purchase insurance plans and several were approved for coverage.

The new law means the hospital faces about $200 million in funding cuts over a 10-year period. It is one of 1,500 hospitals in the country that cares for a large number of uninsured patients. While the hospital system apparently will gain revenue as more uninsured people gain coverage, the federal government is cutting payments to Medicare and Medicaid programs.

People had to sign up by Dec. 24 for the coverage to become effective Jan. 1. Open enrollment closes March 31.

Paper manufacturer to bring 200 jobs

Aspen Products Inc., a paper products manufacturer, announced in late November it would open a plant in Macon, creating more than 200 jobs.

The company signed a long-term lease for the former Wal-Mart return center on Avondale Mill Road in south Bibb County and plans to invest about $13 million in the project.

The 200,000-square-foot Aspen Products facility in Airport Industrial Park will manufacture paper plates, cups, bowls and lunch bags.

Production is expected to begin in early 2014.

Riverfront development project dies

Plans for a mixed-use development with lofts, a hotel and offices between the Ocmulgee River and Riverside Drive were quashed in December after the developer discovered contaminated soil, which makes using the property for residences tricky at best.

Kirby Godsey, who headed Renaissance on the River LLC that was later called The River Park Macon project, had an option to buy the nearly 11-acre site between Spring and Second streets. The Renaissance proposal called for $49 million in private money and $8.3 million in public infrastructure. But Godsey terminated the option when he discovered the land was listed with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division as a toxic waste site which he said could not be developed with the planned lofts.

Most of the site is owned by the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority and as of mid-December, officials did not know what would be done with the land.

Zebulon Road rezoning OK’d; residents file appeal

Despite heavy opposition, the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission decided in November to rezone 25 acres on Zebulon Road in north Bibb County to allow a $30 million shopping center in a residential area.

The commission rezoned seven residential properties between 5802 and 5885 Zebulon Road for Birmingham, Ala.-based developer Blackwater Resources, under the name Development Co. LLC for this project. The developer plans to build a 250,000-square-foot shopping center including five outparcels along Zebulon Road.

In mid-December, 27 residents who live near the proposed project filed court documents against the planning and zoning commission. The appeal filed in Superior Court seeks to reverse the P&Z board’s decision, stating that the proposed shopping center would cause substantial damage to the residents whose properties surround the site.

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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