This week, we highlight the Georgia Grown Innovation Center (GGIC), an agricultural-focused business incubator in Metter, GA that has brought growth, tourism, and prosperity to the region. The center is the first “Georgia Grown Community” in the state.
Heidi Jeffers is the Director of Economic Development for the City of Metter and has worked with the Georgia Grown Innovation Center since 2017. In a recent conversation with The Creative Coast, Jeffers described how the GGIC first got its start and how the organization has helped the City of Metter expand its agricultural sector.
“We started with our tourism side of the house. We started carrying Georgia-grown products and local Metter-made products in our welcome center,” explains Jeffers. Georgia Grown is a division of the Georgia Department of Agriculture that provides branding and marketing as well as programming, partnerships, research, and technical expertise to foster economic development in the sector. Sales of locally-sourced products were a success, and the City of Metter eventually set its sights on enriching the city’s industry and empowering business owners through a physical space in partnership with the globally-recognized Georgia Grown.
Jeffers emphasized that the success of GGIC has truly been a collaborative effort. In addition to working with Georgia Grown, the City of Metter partnered with the Georgia Southern Business Innovation Group (BiG) as well to provide members with training, resources, and expertise in the areas of launching and growing a business. Jeffers shared the importance of planning and goal-setting in the joint creation of GGIC. “We actually thought it would take about 5 years. It didn’t. It took 2,” said Jeffers. “I think that’s really important with any kind of branding or marketing and beginning any kind of new project is to show how it all fits together, and that’s what we did.”
The partners were able to officially renovate an old building in downtown Metter thanks to a grant from One Georgia Grant. The space offers various membership levels with benefits including a fully furnished office space, fiber internet and wi-fi, meeting room use, visibility on the website, co-working space, access to AV equipment, and controlled access to a secure building. The center also provides coaching and networking opportunities through various programming and initiatives.
The GGIC has been able to support a diverse array of businesses, from a cooking company and a logistics company to two pecan companies and even a hemp farm. Many clients are local to the area, but some are virtual. One indoor agriculture company, Local Food Champions, operates in Canada but works closely with Georgia Southern University. Another company, Yaupon Teahouse and Apothecary, has a store in Savannah and two farms where they produce their tea, one just outside of Metter and the other in Florida.
In fact, many businesses that got their start in Metter with the GGIC have grown beyond city limits. “We have a company called 920 Cattle. They have leased a building in town, and they’re going to have a Georgia-run venue and prepare food there,” Jetters said. “They also are expanding their business in Millen and Jenkins County to really become a big producer. They’re looking at about a $3-million expansion in the next few months.”
Better Fresh Farms is another example of a business that has been able to thrive with the support of the GGIC. At the center, Better Fresh Farms operates a hydroponic farm, an indoor agricultural system that makes it possible to provide local, fresh food to the community all year long. With the support of the GGIC, Better Fresh Farms has been able to expand its product across six hydroponic facilities.
In addition to agri-businesses, the GGIC also works with and promotes Georgia Grown’s TV show, A Fork in the Road. The recurring series by producer David Zelski explores the lives, jobs, and products of Georgia farmers and works closely with Matthew Kulinski, the Deputy Director of Marketing at Georgia Department of Agriculture. A Fork in the Road has even showcased certain members of the GGIC, including Johnny Boy Cookies, Better Fresh Farms, and Yaupon Teahouse and Apothecary.
For those interested in connecting with Georgia Grown Innovation Center, membership isn’t necessarily required. As Jeffers explained, the UGA Small Business Development Center (SBDC) works with the GGIC to provide programs open to the public.
For those interested in joining, GGIC offers two different types of membership: physical and virtual. Physical memberships are geared toward anyone renting out a physical space in the center on an ongoing basis, while a virtual membership is for those who don’t require a permanent space. Even so, virtual members may still rent out conference rooms at the center and take advantage of all the resources the GGIC has to offer.
“A lot of services and products that people have through our center depend on what their needs are and what they’re looking for,” said Jeffers. “[We also offer] specialty events and workshops that you can attend through Georgia Grown that have been very valuable to all of our clients.”
At the close of The Creative Coast’s conversation with Jeffers, she stressed the importance of agriculture in the greater economy and in the lives of community members. “Agriculture touches so many things in our lives, from people that support agri-business to–especially in Georgia Grown–people that make things in our world.” Jeffers said. “There are so many different products. If you’d like to be a part of our group, please reach out to me. Let’s talk about it and see if your business would be a great fit for us and we’d be a great fit for you.”
To learn more about Georgia Grown Innovation Center, its clients, and how to become a member, visit www.GGICmetter.com.