Promises made, promises sunk: The saga of Contender Boats seems like a cautionary tale of good intentions scuttled by circumstance.
In 2005, the Florida-based company was looking for a place to expand its ambitious boat-building operation. Like many an out-of-state manufacturer casting an inquisitive eye at Georgia, Contender wanted low-cost, but capable labor, as well as ample room but cheap land.
Oh, and a subsidy.
Contender wasn’t some upstart with a misty vision. When it came to fast and sleek fishing machines, the company was already a high-profile name. Its vessels ranged up to 36 feet, with some hitting speeds of more than 60 miles per hour.
After talks with the state’s economic development officials and the Southeast Georgia Regional Development Authority, a deal was struck and an announcement – featuring state and local officials, as well as U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston – was made.
Baxley, a city of just over 4,000 in Appling County, would get a Contender factory. The plant would grow within a year to hold 234 workers – and that was just the first splash. Within five years, the plant would have 424 jobs, the company promised.
To get underway, Contender would invest $6.39 million. Then, within five years, Contender planned $4.3 million more in spending.
The state would kick in a $2 million EDGE grant to help. And the local authority would spend $155,000 to acquire the land.
As with other such arrangements, the deal made no mention of economic tides that might swamp a consumer company. But when the recession crested, the plan began to take on water pretty. The economic downturn meant few were willing to purchase luxury items, like boats. The project quickly faltered.
“I am hesitant to pay out more EDGE funds,” wrote one state official in late 2007.
At that point, 60 percent of the state grant had been spent. Meanwhile, the state credited Contender with just three jobs created and with investment of $544,727.
In mid-2009, Contender was down to two employees, according to state files.
Those files does not seem to contain a final report, but the state did issue a “de-obligation,” which mean no more money would flow to the project. There is no indication that any money was recovered from the company.
A memo at the end of 2010 indicates that the state has given up even trying.