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2013 Economic Yearbook: Metro Atlanta

The Boom Starts Here

 

The Metro Atlanta region is Georgia’s economic and cultural nucleus, a dense urban center within a demographically diverse suburban and exurban patchwork, stitched together by an asphalt web crawling with commuters in a slow hurry to get to work or home or lacrosse practice or wherever 2.5 million road warriors are going each weekday in this pulsing hub.

Yes, the region’s traffic problems are renowned. Yes, regional economic development leaders were frustrated when their newest, best hope to solve the mobility problems – the proposed T-SPLOST referendum – got a resounding thumbs down from voters last year.

“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t really disappointed,” says Doug Hook-er, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission. “[The T-SPLOST] would have injected billions into the economy and addressed some major transportation issues. But, on the other hand, I can safely say that regional leadership is more fo-cused and committed and determined about moving forward.”

A lot of that focus and commitment has been aimed at life sciences and healthcare, and the determination has paid off. Hospitals continue ex-panding or building anew. Health-care service industries (such as IT services or products) are growing. And one project in particular, in a distant outpost of the metro region, will be affecting local economies for decades.

Last April, Baxter International announced it would build a $1.3-billion facility to manufacture plasma-based therapies (for a variety of chronic and life-threatening ailments) in Stanton Springs, a 1,600-acre industrial park near Covington, creating 1,500 high-paying jobs when production gets started in 2018.

“We’ve come in second place to the Research Tri-angle in North Carolina several times, but we felt like this would be the one,” says Kevin Little, chairman of the board of commissioners in Walt-on County, where most of the plant will be located.

Stanton Springs is a project of the Joint Development Authority (JDA) of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties, but Baxter’s one-million-square-foot plant will occupy 162 acres (108 in Walton County, 54 in Newton).

“The physical footprint is in two counties, but this project will benefit the entire region,” says Carol Henderson, director of innovation and technology for the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD).

Helping to seal the deal is a package that includes property tax abatements, a Quick Start training center, job credits, infrastructure grants and other state and local perks that could add up to more than $210 million.

“We were getting zero tax dollars with nobody out there for the last 10 years, so we worked on a good incentive package that could compete with anybody’s, with the understanding that a company like Baxter, and others who follow, are going to be here long after those tax breaks go away,” says Little, who is also vice chairman of the JDA.

The Georgia Economic Developers Association recognized the JDA with a Deal of the Year award, and it easily was. But across the region there were smaller but significant developments making an impact in communities throughout the region, especially in healthcare, and especially in Newnan (See South Metro Area Focus, page 83), where Piedmont Healthcare open-ed a 136-bed, $167-million hospital in May, Cancer Treatment Centers of America opened a $150-million hospital, and HealthSouth (an Alabama-based company) plans to build a $26-million, 50-bed rehabilitation hospital.

Over in Carrollton, on the western edge of the region, Tanner Health Sys-tem completed a $61-million, total renovation of its ER department. Another Carrollton company, Green-way Medical Technologies, went public in 2012 and is in the process of adding 400 jobs. Greenway is one of the state’s fastest-growing companies in one of the region’s fast-growing industries.

Metro Atlanta has about 200 health information technology companies. Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, calls it, “the exploding interface between technology and healthcare. We have more of these companies than any other city.”

Healthcare (in all its forms) is still the fastest-growing industry in Forsyth County, where there are almost 1,000 businesses devoted in some fashion or another to the healing arts.

Atlanta-based Northside Hospital is investing $51 million to expand its sprawling Forsyth campus, while next door to the west, in Cherokee County, Northside is building a $250-million hospital and a $30-million medical office building.

Down in the urban heart of the region, Emory Healthcare is undertaking two ambitious projects, beginning site preparations for a new nine-story, 210-bed patient tower, the first phase of a $1.5-billion expansion plan.

Emory Healthcare will also co-operate the Georgia Proton Treatment Cen-ter (with facility owner Advanced Particle Therapy), a $200-million cancer-treating proton facility (only a handful in the U.S.) in Midtown, where another $560 million is being invested in six different mixed-use projects. And that’s just the one-square-mile Midtown Core.

“There is a tremendous amount of momentum here, in terms of new construction,” says Kevin Green, president and CEO of Midtown Alliance.

The development activity is focused mostly on residential growth, with 2,000 (or so) apartments either coming on line recently or being delivered in the next 12 months. That includes about 400 units as part of the $200-million, multi-use Ponce City Market (former City Hall East, due for completion by mid 2014), and three 23-story developments.

“Just when you thought cranes were an endangered species,” Green quips. “I think we dug ourselves out of the recession ditch quicker than a lot of other areas. It’s the power of people and place.”

The ditch is deeper in some places for some people. Evidence of housing bubble flotsam may be found all around: PVC farms, acres of land graded for houses and apartments that haven’t seen the first two by four.

Henry County, like others in the region, has had a bellyful.

The west side of I-75 in Henry County is packed with huge warehouses and distribution centers, some million-square-footers under way right now, serving Atlanta’s insatiable ap-petite for logistics infrastructure. But Henry has routinely been ranked among the fastest-growing counties in the country based on residential growth. Then came the downturn and the foreclosures. None of the homegrown banks survived.

“We were hit hard,” says Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority. “We lost more than a third of the value of our tax digest as a result of the downturn.”

With less property tax coming in (and less sales tax), and after years of cutting to the bone (including layoffs, furloughs, wage freezes), county leaders in Henry did what other cash-strapped metro counties have done, a very unpopular move in a very conservative state – they raised property taxes.

 “It came down to cutting services or raising the millage rate,” White says.

Meanwhile, one of the other metro counties on the “fastest-growing” list, Forsyth, issued 1,809 single-family residential units, an increase of 66 percent over 2011.

Metro Atlanta is a diverse region, oddly shaped, touching Alabama to the west and the mountain shadows to the north. The projects and prospects throughout are as varied as the 20 counties and hundreds of communities that make up one of the nation’s great logistics hubs.

A few recent examples:

• In DeKalb County, where the Of-fice of Economic Development worked to bring in nearly $304 million of new investment to the county, they are cheering a $15-million expansion of the UPS facility on Pleasantdale Road, a project that kept UPS from relocating 700 jobs – job retention matters.

• In Gwinnett, they’re cheering the $43-million FedEx distribution center that open-ed in 2012.

• In Cobb County,  they’re cheering the completion of 100,000 square feet of hangar space for corporate aircraft at Mc-Collum Airport.

• And, of course, the new $1.4-billion international terminal at Harts-field-Jackson opened last May, enhancing the re-gion’s global appeal and prospects and helping to drive development along I-75 with a new passenger entrance to the new terminal, or what Grant Wainscott, director of the Clayton County Office of Economic Develop-ment calls, “our side of the airport.”

For a metropolis dedicated to the automobile, there is some positive growth in that sector, too. Porsche broke ground in November on its $100-million North American headquarters at Aerotropolis Atlanta, the mixed-used development on the site of the old Ford plant in Hapeville. And a former longtime regional player has returned, sort of.

In January, General Motors, which shuttered its massive Doraville manufacturing plant in 2008 (local developers are still considering that site) announced it was creating 1,000 jobs in Roswell and investing $26 million to turn an old UPS facility into an IT Innovation Center.

According to GDEcD Commissioner Chris Cummiskey, the driving force (his pun) in GM’s decision was Geor-gia’s workforce development system, the research muscle of Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Clark At-lanta University, Emory, Morehouse, etc., and the technical college system.

GM is creating new jobs in the $75,000-$85,000 range, Cummiskey says, “for recent college grads up through senior management.

“I think it says something to the rest of the country about the quality of our workforce, our university system and our business climate. Companies are continuing to take a good, serious look at Metro Atlanta, and I see some great success stories ahead of us.”

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