With structural steel being unloaded from a trailer truck during the ceremonial groundbreaking, ScotBilt Homes CEO Sam Scott could cite more than a symbol of his company's commitment to bring mobile home manufacturing back to Millen and Jenkins County.
"Most of you like to hear the word ‘commitment,'" he said. "Well, right there starts a million dollar commitment on just that steel sitting there. We cannot repossess it. We are committed to coming here."
The 128,000-square-foot factory is expected to cost $5 million to $6 million to complete, and Scott said it should employ 75 to 100 people by the end of the year.
That, and Scott's announcement that his company will do all its hiring locally, were welcome news under the big tent where officials braved the gnats last Thursday to welcome Scott and other managers from the family-owned, Waycross-based company.
This will be ScotBilt's second factory, and "has the potential to be a duplicate plant" to the current factory in Waycross, which has 250 employees, Scott said in an interview.
The number of full-time jobs the Jenkins County Development Authority announced will be created when the plant opens is 50. To expand beyond that, the factory will first have to complete a certification process with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Company a survivor
ScotBilt, as such, was founded in 2004, but is about the fifth mobile home manufacturing company Scott has been associated with in nearly 50 years in the industry. Over the years, he has taken part in opening about 15 plants, he said.
But there are fewer mobile home manufacturers than there once were. ScotBilt is a survivor in an industry now on the rebound, having gone through what he called a "weeding out period" with the recession that started nearly a decade ago.
"We're just happy we'll be here, and we'll be here for a long, long time," Scott told the little crowd under the tent. "We have the financial means to stay in business, good or bad."
The mobile home industry is definitely on an upward side of its cycle now, said Shea Jones, ScotBilt Homes' vice president of sales.
"It's on a roll right now, and we hope it's going to be another five-year roll," Jones said.
The Waycross plant, he said, is on track for $48 million in sales this year. Sam Scott and his son, Greg Scott, the company's president, and Gale Gilliland, its chief financial officer, said the second plant is needed just to meet the demand.
So is Millen
No town in Georgia is more familiar than Millen with the recession that began roughly nine years ago or of its effect on the mobile home industry.
"In '08 we lost everything," Millen Mayor King Rocker said in his remarks under the tent.
The actual loss took a little longer than one year. Jockey International closed its undergarment factory near Millen in 2007. But another, smaller sewing concern closed after the 2008 recession was underway. So did Metal Industries, which once employed more than 500 people in aluminum extrusion and windows factories at Millen.
Bellcrest Homes' mobile home factory in Millen was sold and became Cavalier Home Builders. Then, when Cavalier closed in October 2009, putting 104 people out of work, it was the last of at least four Millen-based industries to close in less than three years.
For many months, Jenkins County had Georgia's highest unemployment rate.
"We lost everything. We did not have any kind of jobs, but we crawled back," said Rocker, who is also chairman of the Jenkins County Development Authority.
On the rebound
In 2012, Corrections Corporation of America, since renamed CoreCivic, opened a prison, contracted to the Georgia Department of Corrections, outside Millen. The prison employs more than 200 people.
Metal Industries, or at least its extrusion plant MI Metals, returned in 2015. It now employs about 55 people and has plans for further growth.
Now comes ScotBilt Homes, and Jenkins County, the city of Millen and its Development Authority did everything they could to welcome the factory.
The Jenkins County Development Authority is giving ScotBilt 28 acres in an approximately 80-acre area known as Millen Industrial Park II.
The authority previously sold about nine acres to Cantsink Manufacturing, which installed a 1 megawatt solar panel farm there in 2015.
But ScotBilt will be the first company to build a plant, creating permanent jobs, in the new industrial park, which was previously a cotton field.
Besides providing the 28 acres, the authority has applied for a $499,000 state OneGeorgia Authority grant. Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to receive the application for approval later this month, said Jenkins County Development Authority Executive Director Mandy Underwood. The money is to be spent on paving the main entrance road into the site and installing water and sewer lines and drainage structures.
The city, which will gain a long-term water, sewer and natural gas customer, is investing at least $50,000 it will not recover from the grant, including in preliminary road work and a natural gas line, said Millen City Manager Jeff Brantley.
The county installed some drainage pipes and may help with paving a shipping and receiving entrance, Underwood said.
Details of a proposed 10-year tax abatement are being worked out, but it will involve only city and county taxes, not school taxes, Underwood said.
"Mr. Sam Scott doesn't believe in abating the education tax," Underwood said. "He says that's taking away from the kids."
Workers hired for the Millen plant will receive one or two weeks of QuickStart training in Waycross, Scott said. QuickStart, a part of the Technical College System of Georgia, employs industry experts at state expense to provide training for new industries that qualify.
Company, state and local officials said that Millen's history as a location for mobile home manufacturing helped seal the deal.
"They will hopefully be using some of the job skills our people have from years past," said Jenkins County Commission Chairman James "Jerry" Henry, also a Development Authority member.
Bobby Walker, a Jenkins County resident who worked in the former mobile home factories, has been traveling to Waycross for several months, training to be manager of the new ScotBilt plant.
Several other people from the area have been hired to be part of the management.