t should come as no surprise to Site Selection readers that Findlay, Ohio, is our Top Micropolitan area. It’s the ninth straight No. 1 ranking for the plucky yet muscular town of 40,000 that straddles Interstate 75 about 100 miles south of Detroit.
The scope of Findlay’s latest triumph is truly eye-popping. Findlay’s haul of 32 qualifying projects dwarfs those of all other micros, none of which accumulated more than 12. In what was a challenging environment for investment among the 543 communities the Census Bureau identifies as micropolitan statistical areas, Findlay’s project count increased by a full 33% from the previous year’s total.
With Findlay blazing the trail, the state of Ohio dominates our micropolitan ranking once again. Twenty-two Ohio micros combined to amass 115 qualifying projects, more than twice as many as Indiana, whose micropolitans registered 50 qualifying project announcements. Led by upstart Thomasville — which surged to claim our No. 2 spot — Georgia again ranks third for accumulated micropolitan projects, sharing its position this year with Kentucky. Joining a stout, southern contingent, the Carolinas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana all rank in our Top 10. Kansas, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois are represented there as well.
A familiar cast of characters inhabits the list of businesses that placed qualifying investments in Findlay and surrounding Hancock County, which in 2022 recorded the highest annual weekly wage of any county in Ohio. There’s Marathon Petroleum, headquartered in Findlay and rooted there since the early 1900s. Cooper Tire invested again, as well. So did Ball Corporation, Whirlpool, Freudenberg North America, Romark, Roki America and Best Buy. These and other repeat investors represent the steel and concrete pillars that support fortress Findlay.
Given Findlay’s robust foundation, it is tempting to suggest that it’s a machine that runs on autopilot, a supposition that would fail to account for both the current macro-economic realities and what is a long-time, community-wide commitment to growth and job creation.
“These companies don’t just automatically reinvest,” says Dave Blatnik, Marathon’s manager of state government affairs for Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. “The economic development community is on a constant mission to drive and create value for the businesses that are here.”
Dan Sheaffer is a fixture of that community. Sheaffer in November assumed leadership of the Findlay-Hancock County Alliance after serving for a decade there. He’s sixth-generation Findlay. Sheaffer says that, given rising labor and construction costs faced by manufacturers, the year 2022 was hardly a gimme for the type of expansion projects that are Findlay’s bread and butter.
“We’ve had companies reinvest,” Sheaffer tells Site Selection, “but they’ve been very strategic as to how they do it.”
Some Ohio manufacturers, Sheaffer relates, seemed prone last year to putting planned expansion projects on hold, only to relent in the face of cold reality.
“Consumer demand for their products did not go away,” he says. “So a lot of these companies bit the bullet and went ahead with those projects. They didn’t necessarily want to spend the money, but they realized they had to.”
As a smaller community, Findlay knows its limitations, plays to its strengths and recognizes its place within its region’s industrial ecosystem. That self-awareness has proved fundamental to the community’s unrivaled string of success among micropolitans.
The Findlay Formula in action
Courtesy of Tim Mayle
“We can’t support an OEM, but we can support their supply chain,” says Sheaffer. “So give me a 40- to 50-job high tech company that’s supporting LG Chem, Ford Motor Company or Honda. Intel is coming to Columbus, which is only 90 miles. We want to be part of that supply chain as well.”
Batman Leaves the Building
During his 10-year tenure as chief project specialist, Sheaffer played Robin to the Batman of the Findlay-Hancock Alliance, the ebullient and charismatic Tim Mayle. Mayle departed the Alliance last fall to take the helm of the newly formed Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Logistics, a regional project of Bowling Green State University, Owens Community College and the University of Findlay.
"The economic development community is on a constant mission to drive and create value for the businesses that are here.”
— Dave Blatnik, Marathon Manager of State Government Affairs for Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois
The center’s unfolding mission is to work with employers and prospective employers to anticipate immediate, mid-term and long-term needs in workforce training, talent development, innovation, automation, systems integration and supply chain management. It’s another example of the region’s forward-leaning posture when it comes to manufacturing.
“I’m still doing economic development,” Mayle tells Site Selection. “I’m just doing it focused on advanced manufacturing and with a wider geography. So, if Dan is working with a company that has an operational issue, or we have a supply chain issue or a workforce issue, the center will be there as a resource for them.”
"We’ve had companies reinvest, but they’ve been very strategic as to how they do it.”
— Dan Sheaffer, Director, Findlay-Hancock County Alliance
While recent trends may have challenged the region’s business environment, Mayle, like Sheaffer, sees the center’s formation as coming at moment of opportunity for Ohio manufacturers, especially as automotive transitions toward a new paradigm.
“You’ve got this perfect storm right now,” he says. “You’ve got the new technologies that are coming to market, and not just electrification but also autonomous vehicles. Federal policies like the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act are driving opportunity as well. You have geopolitical issues that have companies thinking as to how to mitigate their risk. Reshoring,” he says, “is an absolute thing and it’s happening here across multiple forms of manufacturing.”
It’s Called the Findlay Formula
The seamless transition that occurred from Mayle to Sheaffer, believes Tricia Valasek, speaks to a culture of continuity that provides reassurance to Findlay’s business community, especially during times of change. Valasek is executive director of Raise the Bar Hancock County, a workforce development group formed in 2016 through a collaboration of public policymakers, business leaders and nonprofits.
“You bring in someone new and there’s always that pause in activity that makes people sort of freeze and to wonder if they’re going to come in and change everything. The transition from Tim to Dan, just like Tim was promoted into the role before, gives employers a sense that we’re staying the course. Dan,” Walasek offers, “has huge credibility within the community, so it’s not like he’s having to start out building relationships. You don’t fix what’s not broken.”
Medium-sized manufacturers are Findlay’s sweet spot.
Photo courtesy Findlay-Hancock County Alliance
And then there’s “the Findlay Formula,” a community-wide approach to economic development forged by the Findlay-Hancock Alliance that has become the community’s signature. When potential projects arise, everyone who matters turns out.
“Especially when it comes to new companies that want to come to Findlay,” Sheaffer says, “we’ll bring civil engineering, county engineering, the mayor, county commissioners, the Ohio Department of Transportation, the permitting guys, the utilities, everyone who might touch that project. We make it easy for them. We can answer 99.9% of their questions at that one meeting.”
While that may sound second nature, it means that entrenched parochial interests have to check their rivalries at the door.
“I work in a lot of other cities and cover lots of other areas,” says Marathon’s Blatnik, “and quite often I don’t see it. I don’t see the elected officials working with economic development and business like I do in Findlay.”
Site Selection’s Top Micropolitan, now nine years running, has cracked some sort of code.
“It’s about building trust,” says Sheaffer. “It sounds so simple and easy, but when it comes down to it, why don’t you get along with your mother-in-law? Why don’t you get along with your brother? You have to put on your big boy pants, come to the table and get the job done.”
It Came from Nowhere. Or Did It?
Rural and southern, the town of Thomasville provides a vivid counterpoint to Findlay. While Findlay has claimed ownership of Top Micropolitan, Thomasville climbs this year to the No. 2 spot from way down in the rankings, having tied last year at #39 along with South Georgia neighbors such as Fitzgerald and Americus. And yet Thomasville’s success is grounded, like Findlay’s, in how it plays to its strengths.
Nestled among the grassy plains, rolling hills, preserved pine forests and pristine lakes of the Red Hills region of deep South Georgia, Thomasville began sowing the seeds of its present-day prosperity soon after the South’s ruinous defeat in the Civil War.
That’s when Thomasville, says Shelley Zorn, the city’s lead on economic development, began a collective effort to recruit wealthy northerners, a breed that — during the era — was not necessarily sought after in the South. Lured by southern Georgia’s delicate winters and the fertile hunting grounds of surrounding Thomas County, families with names like Whitney, Rockefeller and McKinley came to heed Thomasville’s call.
“They started buying old farms and plantations,” Zorn told Site Selection in late January. “They stayed and invested their money, which really changed the landscape of Thomasville.”
In Zorn’s rendition, Site Selection’s second-ranked micropolitan, partly powered by the combined wealth of 72 private estates — the legacy of those wealthy Northerners — follows the quail hunting model of economic development.
In Thomasville, Georgia, it began with quail hunting.
Courtesy of Imagine Thomasville
“Over the decades,” she says, “the investment from the owners of those quail hunting plantations has made us a regional hub. We’ve got resources that other rural communities our size simply don’t have. We have a beautiful downtown, an incredible hospital, an active arts culture and a vibrant business community.”
Thomasville, she says, “was progressive from the start.”
At the Center of it All
With a modest population of 18,000, Thomasville is the embodiment of an economy that punches above its weight. The city’s 12 qualifying projects for calendar year 2022 yielded $83.1 million of investment with 627 projected new jobs.
For Thomasville, it helps being the anchor of a five-county region whose population tops 150,000, adding muscle to the local workforce. Factor in Tallahassee, Florida, just 30 minutes to the south, and the regional population swells to half a million.
That stout labor pool, coupled with the community’s traditional warm embrace, helped to lure New York-based manufacturer Check-Mate to Thomas County. Founded in 1972 near the southern shores of Long Island, Check-Mate started looking in earnest for a new location around 2016, the year the State of New York began raising its minimum wage toward an eventual $15 an hour. A family-owned tool & die, stampings and assemblies manufacturer, Check-Mate serves the firearms, aerospace, automotive and medical industries, among an expanding array of others.
“A lot of our out-of-state customers called us to make clear that we would not be passing on New York’s $15-an-hour wage to them,” says Jackie Santoro, the company’s vice president and director of legal affairs. “It became very realistic for us,” Santoro tells Site Selection, “to start entertaining the notion of somewhere else.”
In 2018, Check-Mate selected Thomasville for its new location after a search that included states across the South, including the Carolinas, Texas and Florida. The company moved into a 200,000-sq.-ft. former Caterpillar plant the next year. Thomasville, in Santoro’s telling, offered the same sort of welcome that appealed to those original migrants from the North.
A new Ashley HomeStore distribution center is located at Red Hills Business Park in Thomasville, Georgia.
Photo courtesy Imagine Thomasville
“The facility itself was just perfect,” she says. “But even more important, it was very clear to us that Georgia and Thomasville were different from all the others in the sense that they really wanted us and they wanted us to succeed beyond our initial move. It felt more like a partnership.”
It didn’t hurt, either, that Georgia’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, less than half of New York’s.
A Surprise in the South
While it was not their initial intent, Santoro and her family would relocate to Thomasville in the COVID-19 year of 2020. For a people rooted in New York, the life-altering move came with a certain amount of trepidation.
“We were originally concerned about being in southern Georgia,” she says. “We weren’t sure what to expect. But I have had my mind blown here. Thomasville itself is remarkable, the kind of place where people would want to vacation. We’re also two hours from the Gulf of Mexico and half an hour from Tallahassee [International] Airport. There’s lakes, there’s hills, there’s hiking. If you love the outdoors, you’re in a perfect spot.”
Check-Mate CEO Regina Vieweg, Santoro’s mother, had a similar epiphany when it came to Georgia, beginning with the business climate.
“Your taxes here are a fraction of what we pay in New York,” says Vieweg. “And here,” she says, “we literally work to live. In New York, people have to retire first to go hunting and fishing. In Thomasville, that’s what you do on the weekend. There’s a quality of life,” she says, “that’s much more soothing and quiet.”
That livability factor, says Santoro, has bolstered Check-Mate’s ability to recruit new workers. The company’s Thomasville workforce, which currently numbers about 140, includes computer numeric controlled machinists, tool and die makers and other skilled technicians, many of whom were prepped for their jobs through Georgia’s highly regarded Quick Start worker training program.
“Given the lifestyle that Georgia offers,” she says, “there’s a tremendous drive for skilled laborers to want to relocate, especially from northern states. It’s been so much easier to entice skilled labor to come down here.”
When firearms sales began to surge during the early COVID-19 phase and the concomitant waves of social unrest, Check-Mate Thomasville stepped up to assume the overflow from the company’s operation in New York. More vital to the company’s future, the Thomasville facility has allowed the company to diversify its products and the industries Check-Mate can reach.
“We have in this facility a lot of automation and a lot of vertical integration into stuff that we’ve never done before,” Santoro says. “Ninety percent of what we’re running here is completely new.”
Manufacturing Projects Mount
Troy Acoustics, which announced what was Thomasville’s biggest project of 2022 on September 8, is another high-end manufacturer of the type that — over the past half-decade — has served local leaders’ efforts to diversify Thomasville’s industrial reach beyond its traditional rural base in food processing. Troy’s planned facility, targeted to open in 2024, represents an investment of $40 million, Thomasville’s biggest in recent memory. The operation is to create 88 jobs.
“We’re excited about building our facility in Thomasville,” said Troy Acoustics Founder and CEO Bill Bergiadis. “Everything from the skilled labor pool to the locally sourced raw materials we need to the wonderful local support we’ve received adds up to a winning formula for Troy.”
Home to about half a dozen corporate headquarters, Thomasville has emerged as the regional hub of Ashley HomeStore, which is investing $20 million in a suite of offices and furniture distribution center that’s to create 105 jobs. The 125,000-sq.-ft. facility is to service the company’s retail network as it expands throughout the Southeast.
“We have close to 30 Ashley stores in six southeastern states and Thomasville is our regional headquarters,” says CEO Russell Turner. “That’s why we put our distribution center here. We’re going to be covering all the way into Alabama and Florida in addition to middle Georgia.”
Ashley will be the anchor tenant of Red Hills Business Park, one of 60 sites statewide that are certified for fast-track construction under the Georgia Ready for Accelerated Development (GRAD) Program. Troy Acoustics will locate there as well. The 293-acre park on U.S. Highway 319 was developed by the Thomasville Payroll Development Authority, of which Zorn is executive director.
“All of our growth and all our investment is going to happen in Thomasville.”
— Jackie Santoro, VP and Director of Legal Affairs, Check-Mate
“It’s infrastructure-ready, with water, sewer, electrical, road and fiber,” she says. Forty minutes from I-10 and 50 minutes from I-75, “we’re conveniently located,” Zorn says, “for transportation throughout the Southeast and the U.S.”
Thomasville’s surge to Site Selection’s second-ranked micropolitan is a unique testament to how a small, rural economy — through imagination, community commitment and sheer force of will — can become a welcome destination for a new generation of manufacturers.
“This,” says Check-Mate’s Santoro, “will be the juggernaut of our company. All of our growth and all our investment is going to happen in Thomasville.”
Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.