The announcement that Wells Lighting, the Korean light manufacturer, is locating its first North American headquarters in Millen, was good news indeed, according to Mandy Underwood, the executive director of the Millen/Jenkins County Chamber of Commerce.
Jenkins County in the southeastern part of Georgia lost more than a thousand jobs from 2006-08 when Jockey International Inc. and Metal Industries Inc. closed down their operations there.
The closings were further exacerbated in 2009 when the mobile home builder Cavalier Homes closed its facilities, handing the county the highest unemployment rate in the state.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s office was quick to release a news release on March 23 announcing Wells Lighting’s plans to create more than 200 jobs and to invest $30 million over the next two years.
The governor also stressed the state’s “long valued relationship with Korea,” and the announcement added that Georgia has had continuous representation in Korea since 1985.
Chris Carr, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, is quoted as welcoming the company, adding that it “will find it easy to grow its global business here in the state.”
Additionally, the role of the economic development agency’s regional recruitment team, headed by Adela Kelley, received due consideration.
Ms. Underwood told Global Atlanta, however, that Augusta businessman Eugene Yu also played a critical role as a behind the scenes player in persuading Wells Lighting to move to the county.
“Eugene Yu is interested in our community and promised he would bring jobs here,” she said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Yu, a former U.S. president of the Federation of Korean Associations and a former candidate for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, made job creation the top priority of his campaigns.
He withdrew from the Senate race in February 2014 to campaign for Georgia’s U.S. House seat representing the 12th district in a race in which he lost in the primary.
On the Senate campaign trail in 2013, he would say that “jobs are our top priority” and that he would lobby for policies that create “a business friendly atmosphere,” and reduce regulations that inhibit manufacturing companies from locating in the state.
As president of the U.S. arm of the federation, an international body, he represented 3.5 million Koreans belonging to 186 U.S. chapters and was well-known in Korean commuities throughout the country. As owner of Continental Military Services Inc. in Augusta, which he sold before entering the Senate race, he also was well-known in the region.
But his prominence in the Korean communities and his local business career didn’t transfer to success in either his U.S. senatorial campaign or his later, downsized, campaign as for the U.S. House seat.
Nevertheless, Ms. Underwood said that he never forgot his campaign promises and played a critical role in attracting Wells Lighting to Jenkins County.
Based in Jeollabuk-do, Korea, Wells Lighting produces general lighting/streetlights, industrial lighting, solar street lights and smart control system lights. It is to be located in an existing 92,000-square-foot facility that will house its management, its research and development initiative and its manufacturing operations for a new LED lighting production line.
Reached by Global Atlanta in Washington, where he was visiting on business, Mr. Yu said that he met the company’s officials when they were trying to decide among at least a half-dozen locations stretching from California to New York.
“You coming to my district is more important than my getting elected or my getting that job,” he told Global Atlanta was what he said to them, adding that they were impressed by this commitment to the region. And it was a combination of those words and that attitude that was responsible for them visiting the 12th district, he said.
The Wells Lighting officials wanted to have a U.S. base, he added, because it would enable them to distribute their products not only throughout the U.S. but into Mexico and South America as well, which have lower tariffs with the U.S. than they do with Korea due to free trade agreements.
“My first interest has always been to bring jobs back,” he said. “This is what I consider a real issue, not what often was discussed by others in the campaign.”
He also said that he continues to further this objective during his frequent trips to China and Korea where he meets with the many Chinese and Korean company officials looking to bring operations to the U.S.