The Two Georgias Reversed

Georgia Trend Publisher and Editor In Chief Neely Young

Are we still two states? In 1983 my friend, the late Jimmy Gray, editor of The Albany Herald, proposed the notion that there were two Georgias, and that South Georgia was the poor economic cousin to the Atlanta region.

But today, many parts of South Georgia are booming and the other Georgia, the 12-county Metro Atlanta region, is showing some signs of decline.

People are moving into South Georgia in droves. Many are coming from Florida. They are often called halfbacks, because they moved to South Florida from New York, and have moved “halfway” back to Georgia to escape the heat and bad weather. They have high incomes, are well educated and are a major asset to their communities.

South Georgia is becoming known nationwide as one of the best places in the United States to live. The area’s colleges and universities are among the best in the state; its hospitals and health care facilities are ranked among the top in the nation.

The energy and transportation sectors provide good working conditions. There is available housing, and roads are designed for easy access and drivability. Much of the economic well-being enjoyed by Savannah, Statesboro, Brunswick, Camden County, Valdosta, Tifton, Thomasville and even Albany can be attributed to the booming ports of Savannah and Brunswick. Tourism is thriving throughout the region.

A large portion of South Georgia’s good fortune has resulted from efforts, beginning back in the late 1980s, on the part of area leaders to step up to the plate and address their problems. In Savannah the effort was called Savannah Futures. With help from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the city and county raised $20 million to address community problems and instituted many programs aimed at bringing crime, homelessness and the high school dropout rate under control.

Examples of Savannah Futures’ efforts include working with many of the social service agencies to address the problem of homelessness and downtown panhandlers by asking tourists to give panhandlers a card directing them to the Salvation Army and other institutions that would take care of their needs. The city raised funds to clean up its downtown and encouraged new small businesses and restaurants to move into the area.

Savannah is one of many South Georgia cities and counties to energize its leadership, and reverse its economic downward trend. Valdosta is another. The city jump-started its economy and cleaned up a blighted area when it bulldozed slums and rebuilt the neighborhoods with affordable housing. There are hundreds of examples of South Georgia’s leaders stepping forward to address their problems.

In the other Georgia – Metro Atlanta – the political and economic structure is under great strain because the population is growing by almost 100,000 people a year. Traffic clogs the roads and highways with heavy jams that last for hours. The air isn’t clean, and the water supply is dwindling. Most counties in this area of the state, in the next 10 or 15 years, will have major problems providing water and adequate sewer services for their growing populations.

In 2005, former University of Georgia Business School Dean George Benson, predicted in a speech at the World Congress Center that Atlanta would one day look like Newark, NJ, one of the ugliest and most economically depressed cities in the nation. Who would believe it could happen?

That prediction has yet to come true. But, as Benson indicated, economic trends do point in that direction. Due to economic circumstances that had nothing to do with political leadership, the Atlanta region has recently lost several major employers and corporate headquarters – Ford, GM, BellSouth, Gold Kist – and two military facilities are to be closed. Thousands of high paying jobs are being taken out of the economy, and many are being replaced by lower paying jobs in the service sector.

Metro Atlanta dodged a bullet when Delta Air Lines held off a hostile takeover attempt which could have caused the airline to move its headquarters. Without a major airline to support it, Atlanta’s airport could suffer, mainly because it was designed on the cumbersome spoke-and-wheel model. This was another one of Benson’s predictions.

The next election cycle could prove to be a warning to present leadership. Citizens of this region may demand a change because they are fed up with the traffic and other problems associated with tremendous population growth.

Today the Metro Atlanta region enjoys excellent political leadership, including Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Cobb County Com-mission Chairman Sam Olens. But in the future, some leaders could be replaced because of growth issues. If present leadership is replaced with strong no-growth candidates, the Atlanta region will be forced to go through a shakeout with new mayors and county commissioners inexperienced in governing. They will more than likely take political positions that are anti-growth and anti-business.

If this happens, the Atlanta region could look forward to a long slide into a deep economic abyss. George Benson, who has moved on to greener pastures, could see his prediction come true.

Within 10 years, Jimmy Gray’s description of the two Georgias could be reversed. South Georgia could become the prosperous jewel, the envy of all the nation, while Atlanta might begin to look more like New Jersey.

Categories: Neely Young