Worries about the economy are ever present, she acknowledged, but went on to explain that, compared to most other communities, Walker is doing remarkably well.
“Despite the fact that our economy has been in the grip of the Great Recession for the past three years, it is my pleasure and privilege to report to you that the state of Walker County is good,” said Heiskell. “When compared to the plight of other communities across this state and the nation, it is no exaggeration to say that the state of Walker County is great.”
Heiskell pointed out that many factors, including Walker County’s relatively low unemployment rate, paint a good picture of its current economic status.
“(For the past three years), the average unemployment rate for the state of Georgia has stubbornly remained above 9.5 percent,” she said. “Counties with whom we share a common border have stubbornly remained above 12.5 percent. Two weeks ago, CNN reported that Walker County had one of the lowest unemployment rates of any county in Georgia, and was among the lowest of any community in America, at only 7.5 percent.”
Of course, Heiskell hopes the unemployment rate will drop further as new businesses become interested in de-veloping in Walker. However, she pointed out that garnering new businesses in the area is more difficult than it sounds, as countless hours devoted to courting companies often comes with no results.
“At any point in time, our Development Authority is working with five to ten different prospects,” she said. “The prospects always ask for confidentiality, and despite the fact that some absorb hundreds of hours of work, most do not pan out.”
Though she credits the Walker County Joint Development Authority and her Economic Development staff for their hard work, she states that “the real heroes are the existing business owners and new entrepreneurs who are investing in Walker County and creating the new jobs as well as retaining the existing jobs.”
However, Heiskell pointed out that a few companies have been able to introduce themselves to Walker County or expand their existing business, including the new Northern Georgia Logistics based in the old Cardinal building in Rock Spring and expansions by Nissin Brake and Roper Corp.
Heiskell then drew the audience’s attention back to some of the harder times that have occurred during her years in office – “record floods, snows, tornadoes, and other natural disasters” – culminating in a plea to bolster an ongoing struggle to support one of the most important businesses in the area.
“Help me as I continue to try to meet the greatest challenge of my career, and that is to help sustain and rebuild our tri-county hospital, now known as Erlanger at Hutcheson.”
Heiskell reminded the audience that a vibrant, functioning hospital is vital to bringing new business and indus-try into an area.
“When we try to recruit new industries, they inevitably ask four questions,” she said. One: How are your schools? Two: Do you have an airport? Three: What is your ISO rating? And four: Do you have a hospital? I have always sup-ported our schools and our airport, and both are doing well. I have also always supported our tri-county hospital, and recent tough times demand that we all redouble our efforts. Erlanger at Hutcheson’s success is not an option; it is an imperative to which I pledge my full and unyielding support.”
Nonetheless, she is hopeful that the hospital’s retooling may slowly bail the medical center out of its financial and staffing woes.
“We have a new CEO, new staff, new equipment, new doctors, a new board that is accountable to the citizens via county government nomination, and most importantly, we have a new attitude of service.
“They can and will take good care of you,” she said, “but can only do so if you take them your business, keeping our hospital strong, and assuring the state of Walker County stays strong and good.”
Heiskell mentioned the many benefits her years as commissioner have brought to the people of Walker County.
“When I took office 11 years ago, the county’s finances were in shambles. Many creditors had us on a cash-only basis because we had not been paying our bills. We faced $5 million in obligations, which exceeded our tax reve-nues. We had virtually no equipment in the road department, fire department, or the landfill.”
With careful planning and scrupulous investment, Heiskell said, those problems are now solved and the future of Walker County’s services is more secure than ever.
“We did not merely throw money at our problems, but wisely invested in the training, equipment and infrastruc-ture necessary for Walker County’s future. That future is now and our wise investments of tax dollars are now pay-ing dividends with the infrastructure and lifestyle amenities that make companies want to bring their families to Walker County and inspires the confidence in them to spend millions here to create jobs.”
Heiskell cited a number of improvements she has helped create over the past 11 years, including more frequent road mowings, making for better visibility and safer driving; Walker County’s self-owned and -operated ambulance service; an ISO rating that has dropped from a 6 to a much more appealing 4, which saves businesses and homeown-ers hundreds of dollars each year in insurance fees; and new community centers in Villanow and Center Post, as well as upgrades to existing community centers and plans for future such establishments in other communities.
Though Heiskell is pleased with the progress the county has made, she is still setting the bar high for future goals and hopes the work she has done will be compounded in the ensuing years.
“While the state of the county is good, I am nowhere near satisfied,” she said. “I want to make sure our hard work and wise investments pay off for years to come.”