Metro Atlanta: Ready For A Rebound

Atlanta and the metro region have weathered previous recessions with comparative ease, thanks to a diversified economy, but this one feels different. The current downturn has hit hard, and the city and surrounding counties are feeling the effects.

“This time,” says the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Hans Gant, senior vice president for economic development, “everything is affected.”

The region lost 82,000 jobs from December ’07 to December ’08, – 9,100 of them in December ’08, when the unemployment rate reached 7.6 percent. The pain is being felt across the board – in real estate, construction, banking, manufacturing, retail and government.

Nonetheless, the chamber reports that 54 companies it worked with – NCR and Newell Rubbermaid among them – chose to locate or expand in Metro Atlanta in 2008, creating somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,500 to 6,000 new jobs. “The good news is that those deals are done and we’ll be able to see the results begin to play out this year,” Gant says.

Some 40 percent of those 54 companies were from abroad, continuing – if slowly – a trend that has been evident over the last few years.

Much of the credit goes to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, still the world’s busiest, and Delta, now the world’s largest airline, thanks to a successful merger with Northwest last year.

“Over the last four or five years, Atlanta has truly become an international gateway to and from the world,” Gant says. “That’s going to give us a tremendous advantage in terms of being able to attract businesses from around the world … that want to access North American markets.”

Meanwhile, there’s work to be done. “We have to really focus this year on marketing, marketing, marketing,” Gant says, “so when the economy does turn around, it will result in some company announcements.”

His colleagues throughout the region are singing the same tune: They are staying busy, stepping up recruiting efforts and preparing for better times. “We’re not going to take our foot off the accelerator, and we expect some victories in ‘09,” says Carroll County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Daniel Jackson.

On the plus side, the region’s population continues to grow – the city of Atlanta gained 13,100 new residents in 2008. “Atlanta’s dynamics haven’t really changed,” Central Atlanta Progress President A.J. Robinson says. “People continue to move here, our universities are ever more in demand. Living costs have gotten cheaper.” He believes the city may have seen the bottom of the current recession – or be very close to it.

He also speaks of “the sea change going on” that the economic crisis will magnify. “There is going to be a new economy, a new way people and institutions borrow money and a new focus on a lot of things we wouldn’t have focused on before. This city, because of its capabilities, will benefit from this.”

In DeKalb County, a new administration and new economic realities are producing new strategies to help mitigate the effects of the recession, says Maria Mullins, the county’s economic development director.

Mullins is especially optimistic about life sciences and healthcare and the job opportunities they offer, for lab technicians, pharmacists, physical therapists, nurses and researchers. “These people are in high demand,” she says.

Suniva, a solar power company nurtured in the Georgia Tech incubator, opened in Norcross in the fourth quarter of last year – with some $1.5 billion in pre-orders, says Nick Masino, vice president of economic development for the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. Gwinnett shared in a big investment by NCR, a technology company that specializes in products for the financial industry; it has created a center of excellence in the Atlanta area focusing on two counties – Gwinnett and Fayette. For Gwinnett, that means some 320 jobs.

In Sandy Springs, Newell Rubber-maid announced it is moving additional divisions to a new building on Georgia 400. First Data Corporation, a payment processing company, has expanded to Sandy Springs from Colorado, and could add as many as 250 jobs in the next few years, says Tedra Cheatham, vice president of economic development for the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.

In Alpharetta, Hanjin Shipping, a Korean company, has purchased an existing building for its U.S. corporate headquarters; there is a new data center under construction. “Data centers in general continue to look [here] because of all the fiber that’s available in the northern metro area,” Cheatham says.

Cobb County had some major successes over the past year, says Michael Hughes, county economic development director. Travelport GDS is locating its North American global systems headquarters in Cobb, and the Girl Scout Council of Northwest Georgia is building a new volunteer services building and regional headquarters at Timber Ridge in Mableton.

Henry County will see a major economic boost this year when Atlanta Motor Speedway adds a night race – its first – over Labor Day weekend. Henry County Chamber President Kay Pippin notes that NASCAR brings in the largest revenue amount of any sport in Metro Atlanta. The county school system has offered 35 acres of land adjacent to Henry County High School in McDon-ough, the county seat, for a satellite campus of Griffin Technical College.

Good news for Walton County came in an announcement that Unisia of Georgia, an auto parts maker, is investing $40 million in new equipment, says Nancy Kinsey, Walton County Devel-opment Authority director. The authority is grading the remaining 70-plus acres in the Piedmont Region Industrial Park.

In Carroll County, 2009 started off with a ribbon-cutting at a Food Lion on the west side of Carrollton and a board-cutting at a new Lowe’s. Daniel Jackson says Tanner Health System opened a new heart center last year, a $40 million project. This year the first new psychiatric hospital in Georgia in over 20 years, Willowbrook, will open in Villa Rica.

The largest economic development project that Forsyth County has seen to date, the Michigan-based Taubman Company’s luxury mall project, at Exit 12 off of Georgia 400, is moving forward, says Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber President and CEO James McCoy. The mall is expected to have a more than $1 billion economic impact and is “a significant victory for our community,” he says.

Airport improvements are under way in two communities. In Newton County, the city of Covington is expanding the runway at its municipal airport, says John Boothby, president of the Covington/Newton Chamber of Com-merce. A conference center and 114-room hotel project for the county are on hold, but still very much alive.

In Pickens County, the chamber’s community economic development director, Gerry Nechvatal, says improvements at the county airport include a runway extension to accommodate corporate jets. CA Cabinets has opened in an existing space in Jasper; the company will initially employ 20 people.

The new Paulding County Regional Airport has opened with a 5,500-foot runway. Paulding County Chamber President and CEO Carolyn Delamont says a 22,000-square-foot terminal building will be completed adjacent to the area’s industrial park.

Good news from the retail sector is brightening the picture in three counties. As the year began, Cherokee was anticipating the opening of the new Canton Marketplace, a Sembler project. The chamber’s President and CEO Pam Carnes says the project will bring “some large retail establishments that we don’t currently have in Cherokee,” including T.J. Maxx and Dick’s Sporting Goods. The new Kohl’s alone will employ 300.

In Barrow County, a major retail development on Highway 316 was expected to open in March, with tenants including Target, Belk and Best Buy, says Tommy Jennings, president of the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce.

In Coweta County’s Ashley Park, a lifestyle retail development, several new stores also were expected to open in March. Additionally, the Piedmont Healthcare System broke ground last fall on a new facility for Newnan. Candace LaForge, president of the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Com-merce, says the project was halted to await improvements in the bond markets, but is very much a “go.”

The Ranews Company’s new facility in Spalding County is likely to create 50 to 100 jobs. “They do a lot of work for Caterpillar,” says David Luckie, executive director of the Griffin-Spalding Devel-opment Authority. “They’re doing a new painting facility right next to our industrial park, which holds Caterpillar.”

Glenn Sears, executive director of economic development for Conyers-Rockdale, says Solo Cup Company and DeKalb Technical College announced an alliance that will offer job training to fill 34 new positions at the company.

Kali Boatright, president and CEO of the Douglas County Chamber of Commerce, notes an “encouraging swing in new business openings,” especially welcome in a county that sees 70 percent of its workforce commute to Atlanta.

NCR’s World Customer Service Center of Excellence in Peachtree City is creating more than 600 jobs, says Matt Forshee, Fayette County Development Authority president and CEO. Field Turf has relocated from Montreal to Peachtree City and will bring 30 to 50 jobs over the next few years.

Alan White, executive director of the Butts County Development Authority, says four small pieces of land have been sold in the Riverview Business Park. The goal for this year is to bring additional tenants to the 300-acre site in Butts and Lamar counties.

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