Gov. Rick Perry scooped up a shovel full of dirt Wednesday, helping to ceremonially break ground on a private firm's new $7 million information and technology facility that promises to create at least 350 jobs in a rural corner of Texas not usually known for high-tech opportunities.
CGI Group Inc. is building a 40,000-square-foot center providing technology services in Belton, about 60 miles north of Austin. It is receiving $1.8 million from the governor's Texas Enterprise Fund, which is designed to attract major business expansion and create jobs statewide.
George Schindler, president of CGI in the U.S., said the company looked at 30 communities across five states before settling on Belton. He said the area offers a skilled workforce trained at several nearby colleges and universities -- but one that won't demand the top salaries required by applicants in larger cities.
"We're getting access to talent that is untapped," Schindler said.
Before the official groundbreaking, Belton Mayor Jim Covington addressed Perry and a crowd of dignitaries under a tent in a field where the facility will be built. He likened bringing the firm to town to being in high school and asking out a pretty classmate with lots of suitors.
"CGI is the head cheerleader and we wanted to date her. We asked and she said, `yeah, maybe,'" Covington said. "Today, we're getting married."
On a more serious note, Schindler said incentives from state and local government helped bring CGI to Belton.
Texas has long attracted large companies, including Apple Inc., to places like Austin, but Belton is the kind of locale that cutting-edge firms likely wouldn't have considered without support from the Texas Enterprise Fund, Perry said.
The governor said the state "has invested ample resources" in enticing prime job creators and academic researchers to Texas -- even if it meant luring them away from opportunities elsewhere.
"I don't mind going in and cherry-picking other states," he said with a wry smile Wednesday. "It's called competition."
Figures including the investment in CGI weren't immediately available, but Perry noted last month that the Texas Enterprise Fund has invested more than $443.4 million and signed contracts to generate 62,000 new jobs and more than $15.4 billion in capital investment.
It is one of two pools of state funding designed to bring job-creating firms to Texas, though critics say injecting state dollars into the business market is tantamount to "crony capitalism" and picking private-sector winners and losers.
Founded in 1976, Montreal-based CGI has approximately 31,000 employees in 16 countries. It offers end-to-end information and technology processes and services, meant to provide clients with every step of technological development.
The company already has more than 700 employees across Texas. The new center will create at least 350 new jobs, and perhaps as many as 400, by 2016. Schindler said 50 people have already been hired for the Belton facility -- which is set to open in December -- and there will be about 100 hires for it by the end of the year.
Though it has a presence in places like India, CGI said it is expanding in the U.S. because some of its American clients who have moved production overseas are looking to restart operations closer to home and free from cultural, currency or time zone challenges.
Fort Hood is about a half hour's drive away, and CGI plans to recruit military veterans and their relatives. Schindler said CGI already does a lot of work for the U.S. armed forces.
The area could use an economic shot in the arm. The unemployment rate for Bell County, which includes Belton, was 7.6 percent in February and was as high as 8.6 percent last year. Texas' statewide unemployment rate has fallen for six consecutive months, to 7.1 percent in February.