COVINGTON, Ga. -- Healthcare conglomerate Baxter International plans to open a manufacturing plant on metro Atlanta's Eastside - a project that could bring about 1,500 jobs.
The plant will be built in the Stanton Springs business park, a 1,600-acre, a master-planned development east of Interstate 285 near Covington and Social Circle.
The Baxter plant is the second big economic development win for Georgia in the past two months. Caterpillar Inc. announced Feb. 17 that it would build a manufacturing plant near Athens, Ga. that would bring at least 1,400 jobs.
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In nearby Social Circle, the famous Blue Willow Inn was buzzing with the news.
"It's an answer to a prayer," said owner Billie Van Dyke. "Social Circle needs that economy to come in."
The Blue Willow recently filed for bankruptcy and was on the verge of closing down. Owner Billy VanDyke says the opening of a new manufacturing plant provides hope.
"We've had some tight times, but we've never had to close up like some of the other restaurants and businesses did," said VanDyke. "Now we're getting new businesses coming in, so we're excited."
Deerfield, Ill.-based Baxter makes medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology products. The company, which had revenues of $13.9 billion last year, employs about 19,000 in the United States and has 14 plants including three in Puerto Rico.
The Atlanta plant would be Baxter's third in the Southeast - it also has plants in North Cove, N.C. And Cleveland, Miss.
Baxter's decision to put the plant here is a much-needed win for Georgia's life sciences industry, following a spate of high profile corporate losses.
The Baxter plant is "an incredible step for Atlanta," said Bill Johnston, a life sciences executive who worked at Baxter for nearly two decades.
"It breaks the stranglehold that North Carolina has on pharmaceutical manufacturing," said Johnston, now CEO of Tucker, Ga-based InVasc Therapeuitcs Inc.
Georgia beat out other states for Baxter, including North Carolina, where last fall Atlanta Business Chronicle sister publication Triangle Business Journal reported executives with the life sciences company identified as publicly traded Baxter International toured sites in Granville County, Wake County, and Lee County.
Now there is hope that others in the medical field will locate in the area.
"Maybe it's a vitamin company," said Hunter Hall of the Newton County Chamber of Commerce. "Maybe it's a supplier or producer of like goods who wants to be able to draw from that same work force."
Metro Atlanta's strong portfolio of research institutions, including Emory University, Georgia Tech and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a magnet luring life sciences companies.
Georgia's prominence as a logistics hub and easy accessibility to a major airport is also a lure.
"Atlanta could become a preferred hub for pharmaceutical or vaccine manufacturing that requires air distribution," Johnson said, referring to Seattle-based Dendreon Corp. which picked Atlanta's south side for a cancer treatment manufacturing plant, primarily because of its proximity to the airport.
To have a company of Baxter's stature decide to come to Georgia, underscores the state's reputation as a growing life sciences hub, said David Dodd, who founded Atlanta-based Serologicals Corp. and was a former CEO at Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Companies pick locations where they feel they can be successful in the long run, Dodd said.
"It's not about picking the cheapest place," he said. "Available labor, the ability to train and be able to maintain a strong workforce to get the job done is the No. 1 variable in making location decisions."
Baxter's proposed plant puts Georgia on the map as a player in the life sciences industry, said Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance
"It's validation of a long term strategy to make the state attractive to the life sciences industry, Cassidy said. "It demonstrates that Georgia is a great place for this industry to do business."
Baxter typically locates plants in right-to-work states and at sites away from major metro areas, Johnston said. The company tries to be the dominant employer in its community and pays on the higher end of the wage scale, Johnson said.
The Atlanta site, about 40 miles from Atlanta, is a "little atypical" of Baxter, Johnston said.
Stanton Springs situated at the junction of Morgan, Newton and Walton counties located on Interstate 20 is is modeled on the Johns Creek project, and is suited for corporate headquarters, light manufacturing, R&D and technology facilities; and distribution. The site, about 40 miles from The University of Georgia, was pitched to Merck in the early 2000s, when the pharmaceutical company was considering Atlanta for a manufacturing plant.
The Baxter project will double as a recruiting tool for other healthcare companies.
"It underscores that there is not only one location in the Southeast that [life sciences] companies need to look at - the Research Triangle Park," Dodd said. "It starts defining better and better Georgia as a place to support bio-manufacturing and life sciences companies."
The Baxter talent will not only created hundreds of jobs, it will lead to an influx of high end talent, including Phds, and managerial talent. A marquee brand such as Baxter will also attract the attention of other life sciences manufacturers, considering expansion or relocation sites.
Pharma jobs are a hot target for state economic developers. Life sciences jobs paid, on average, $63,317 annually in 2007, compared with the statewide average of $42,178 for all industries, according to an industry analysis report. The average salary for pharmaceutical manufacturing was $89,672 annually.
Metro Atlanta's life sciences industry has suffered a spate of notable corporate losses in recent years.
Several local companies, including Solvay, Stiefel Laboratories Inc., AtheroGenics Inc. and Altea Therapeutics Inc. have exited the market because of acquisitions or bankruptcy.
While Atlanta has lost life sciences firms to acquisitions and bankruptcy, the region has a robust industry including established players, such as UCB Inc., and promising firms, such as CardioMEMS Inc.
Georgia has also attracted biotechs from outside the area.
Osmotica Pharmaceutical Corp. confirmed in August plans to invest $20 million in an R&D and manufacturing operation in the former Solvay campus in Marietta.
While Dendreon opened its Atlanta plant, in September the company said it would lay off 117 employees at the plant, as part of a companywide restructuring as it deals with slower-than-expected sales of its Provenge cancer treatment.
(Atlanta Business Chronicle)