Outlook ‘looking up’ for local economy says Mercer professor

WARNER ROBINS -- The first words by a speaker at a Warner Robins chamber event Tuesday were positive about the local economy.

“The news is good,” said Susan Gilbert, who became dean of Mercer University’s Stetson School of Business and Economics in 2013. “Based on a survey of roughly 160 businesses in Middle Georgia, things are looking up.”

Gilbert was the keynote speaker at the Robins Regional Chamber’s Outlook Annual Membership Meeting and Economic Forecast 2015 meeting held at the Middle Georgia Conference Center and attended by 100 people.

“Houston County is better by far than Middle Georgia as a whole, particularly for 2015 and for second quarter 2015,” Gilbert said.

Sixty-six percent of Houston County businesses are planning to hire in 2015, but it will come later in the year, she said.

However, “the survey shows that you think things are going well, but not for your company,” she said.

The survey showed that 1.9 percent of the businesses surveyed said Middle Georgia businesses in general likely would expand this year, but 6.9 percent said their own businesses were not likely to grow.

Some of the obstacles facing businesses this year are pretty much the same as last year, including red tape, sales and taxes. One thing Gilbert said was an unexpected new obstacle this year is “the quality of labor and number of qualified candidates.”

April Bragg, president and CEO of the chamber, gave attendees an update on the progress of the chamber’s restructuring. The chamber has been looking at its priorities and determining its focus. It has put in place some changes that have helped save the chamber money and helped improve membership development.

More than 85 percent of the chamber’s members are small business owners. In order to help those businesses and others trying to start their own businesses, a SCORE office has opened at the chamber, Bragg said.

SCORE is a nonprofit association with members trained to serve as counselors, advisors and mentors to entrepreneurs and business owners.

“We are going to make change” at the chamber, Bragg said. “Change is hard. ... The forces of the status-quo are strong and determined. ... The real question is: How competitive do we want to be? ... I think it’s time for us to challenge ourselves.”

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