MILLEN - The Korean-based Wells Lighting company's decision to place its North American headquarters and factory in Millen promises to breathe life into a long-vacant industrial building and create 200 jobs, and potentially more, for Jenkins County and the surrounding area.
The former Jockey International plant, where undergarments were sewn, has sat empty since its 2006-07 phase-out, which eliminated more than 200 jobs. When re-equipped as Wells Lighting, USA, the plant will turn out light-emitting diode, or LED, devices.
"This is a clean operation, it's kind of high-tech, and I thought that a place like Jenkins County needed that type of business, not only now but for the future," said Eugene Yu, who was a Republican primary candidate for Congress in Georgia's 12th District last year.
Yu, who immigrated to the United States from Korea more than 40 years ago, is not a Wells Lighting employee or official. But, after arranging the company's first contacts with the area, he served as an unpaid, temporary spokesperson for Wells Lighting USA during a March 31 press conference at Millen City Hall.
Others at the head table were members of the Jenkins County Development Authority and the Millen-Jenkins County Chamber of Commerce.
Equipment should be arriving in early June, and will take at least a couple of months to assemble, Yu said in an interview.
"So they are looking at first production run probably September or first of October, this year," he said.
Although the 200 jobs are expected in the first year, the company could eventually employ up to 700 people in Millen, Yu said. The site will include a research and development center and administrative offices, as well as the manufacturing plant.
Founded in 2008 in Jeollabuk-do, Korea, Wells Lighting produces streetlights, industrial lighting, solar street lights and control system lights.
Gov. Nathan Deal had hailed the company's decision in a March 23 news release.
"The state of Georgia has long valued our relationship with Korea, a partnership that has paid dividends for both Koreans and for Georgians," Deal said. "Wells Lighting's decision to establish its first North American headquarters in our state tells us that our qualified workforce, diverse business network and pro-business environment continue to attract investment from leading companies around the world."
The press release valued Well's Lighting's project at about $30 million.
New life for building
The empty building remained in Jockey's hands for several years before the Jenkins County Development Authority purchased it and began to market it. It was listed with a $500,000 price on a Georgia Department of Economic Development webpage.
Local officials worked with the department on enticements that include the state's QuickStart program to train employees and potentially some low-interest loans.
Because Jenkins County is a Tier 1 county for job creation, Wells Lighting should qualify for annual tax credits of $4,000 per employee for five years, said Jenkins County Development Authority Chairman Hiller Spann.
Doing the math, he said that if Wells Lighting employs 200 people, these credits would be worth $4 million
What the Development Authority brought to the deal was the 92,000-square-foot building with room, on 47 acres, for expansion, Spann said. The company plans eventually to add a 100,000-square foot building behind the existing one, according to Yu.
"The main thing that we added was, the Development Authority owned the Jockey building and we were able to create a very favorable lease and lease-purchase option for Wells," Spann said.
The company is getting the facility on a five-year lease-purchase with three 5-year renewals available. This will provide an abatement in property taxes.
The county is assisting the development authority with improvements to prepare the building, said Jenkins County Board of Commissioners Chairman James Henry, also a development authority member.
A good supply of labor and the region's educational resources helped seal the deal, said Spann.
"We were competing against both South Carolina and some other areas in Georgia, so we were very pleased to be able to convince these folks that Jenkins County was the place that they needed to be," he said.
The Georgia Department of Labor is expected to assist with job applications.
The Yu connection
Yu, who had talked to company officials by phone before the press conference, said they wanted to assure local people that this will be an American-based manufacturer. Only about 5 percent of the personnel, such as executives and a lead engineer, will come from Korea, and the rest will be hired locally, he said.
"They're not looking for one or two years of operation, they are looking for the next 50 to 60 to 70 years. ...," Yu said. "This industry is doing lighting with semiconductors, so once they settle here they're going to be here a long time."
Yu said he first met company officials during a visit to South Korea about two years ago.
"During my campaign, I'd been saying all along ... we lost too many jobs to overseas," said Yu, whose home is in Augusta. "We need to get it back, so when I was in contact with these people, I said I wanted them to come to my district."
Mandy Underwood, Jenkins County Development Authority executive director, said Yu was also fulfilling a promise to the authority's past chairwoman, Mabel Jenkins, who died in May 2014, by bringing industry to the community.
No Wells Lighting officials attended the press conference, but Underwood said that Han Song, executive vice president of Wells Lighting USA, would be arriving in Millen today.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.