Academy’s center the latest addition to midstate’s lineup

It’s not surprising that distribution centers locate in Middle Georgia. After all it’s in the middle of a state that’s convenient to a major port and convenient to the Southeast.

What might be surprising is that more than 1,200 people are employed by seven major distribution centers in Middle Georgia.

The latest of these is the massive Academy Sports & Outdoors center in the Twiggs County Industrial Park North at the Ga. 96 exit off Interstate 16. The center began shipping goods to stores in February.

The sporting goods retailer built its million square-foot center — the company’s only distribution center outside its Katy, Texas, headquarters — to serve 28 stores, mostly in the Southeast. The company has hired about 400 workers, and it runs two shifts on weekdays, a weekend shift and is planning to add a smaller, third shift.

“Every store gets a minimum of three trailer loads per week,” said Burnie Sloan, director of operations for the distribution center. “We sort about 30,000 items of apparel and about 15,000 footwear items during a 10-hour shift.”

The building is divided into three main product areas: footwear, soft goods (clothing), and hard goods, which includes items such as balls, bats, bicycles, grills, tents and canoes.

The interior of the building looks like a highly engineered and efficient Erector set — the toy construction set poplar in the U.S. during much of the 20th century. There are multiple layers of conveyors, which look like miniature freeways, throughout the 40-foot-high interior. Once workers pull merchandise for the stores — from rows and rows of multi-level shelving units — label them and put them on the conveyor system, infrared bar code readers speed the items through the building before heading to waiting truck trailers.

Sloan shared some interesting tidbits about the distribution center:

Ÿ The conveyor system is nearly four miles long.

Ÿ The conveyor moves at 400 feet per minutes.

Ÿ The building is equipped to serve up to 65 stores and was built for further expansion.

Academy’s expansion in Twiggs County has been especially important in a number of ways, said Judy Sherling, executive director of the Development Authority of the city of Jeffersonville and Twiggs County.

“At a time when our county has experienced losses from the kaolin industry and from timber as a resource, the significance of a new industrial partner in our park can’t be overstated,” Sherling said. “More than the jobs, they have bought an excitement to our community. People are hopeful again. ... That has been so wonderful when the nation is facing its darkest days in a long time — to feel like we are winning.”

Academy Sports joins a number of distribution centers that have sprung up from Bibb County to the ports in Savannah.

The Macon Economic Development Commission actively began seeking distribution centers after a study — called the Fantus report — initiated by Georgia Power in 2001 indicated these centers would be a good fit for Middle Georgia.

“What we have consistently heard from both industry experts and consultants in the logistics industry, is that Macon is perfectly situated to be able to serve as a distribution logistic hub for companies seeking a five- or six-facility strategy in the United States,” said Chip Cherry, president of the Macon Economic Development Commission. “We are very excited about the fact Twiggs County was able to secure Academy Sports. It reinforces our marketability in that industry sector. We’ve got a very strong position and the future is very bright.”

While distribution jobs are often considered low paying, and a few positions at each center may be, these modern, technology-driven centers “take a higher level of skill and pay higher wages” than distribution centers in the past, Cherry said. “And hopefully lower level workers will move up within the company.”

Other major distribution centers in Middle Georgia are:

Ÿ Best Buy Co. Inc., a major electronics retailer, built a $40 million, 700,000-square-foot distribution center in Dublin in 2000. It was built to serve 60 of the company’s stores in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. It was the company’s seventh distribution center and employs about 250 workers.

Ÿ Freds Inc., a general merchandise chain, built its only distribution center outside its Memphis, Tenn.-headquarters in Dublin in 2003. The $25 million, 600,000-square-foot center employs about 200 workers and it serves 125 stores in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and in North and South Carolina.

Ÿ Bass Pro Shops, a national outdoor retailer, built a 450,000-square-foot center in north Bibb County, the only one outside the company’s Springfield. Mo., headquarters. It employs about 160 workers and services stores in North and South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. The company invested more than $45 million in the distribution center and its attached retail store.

Ÿ Sara Lee Food and Beverage built a $24 million cold-storage distribution center in south Bibb County that employs about 175 people. It is part of a five-distribution center network in the U.S. for the Chicago-based company, serving grocery store warehouses from Louisiana to Virginia.

Ÿ MBM Food Service Corp. expanded and built a 91,000-square-foot distribution center in east Bibb County in 2007 and is expected to add 100 workers to its 90-person work force over three years.

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