Metro Atlanta: Re-thinking, Re-evaluating

If anything good came out of the worst recession in 70 years, economic development specialists in Metro Atlanta will tell you it was the unexpected chance to reflect on long-held strategies and decide how to hit the ground running when the economy finally turns.

No longer moving at warp speed just to stay on top of events, leaders have had time to rethink strategies and explore new approaches.

“One thing we have done is used this [downtime] to look at our ordinances to make sure we are getting the best we can out of them,” says Chuck Taylor, director of community development in Spalding County, south of Atlanta. “We have fixed things that needed fixing. We didn’t have time to do that when the county was growing strongly.”

The DeKalb County Office of Economic Development, headed by Maria Mullins, determined that a re-prioritization was necessary.

“In terms of economic development, we are re-evaluating the core services and incentives we provide to the business community to en-sure we are delivering the services required during the present economy,” she says.

A 20-county survey of Metro Atlanta finds a gritty determination among local leaders to question conventional wisdom. Why did a metro region that had been shielded from the worst of past recessions now find itself with failing banks, foreclosed real estate and a 10.1 percent jobless rate?

The region lost 136,000 jobs in 2009, says Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center. He forecasts another 35,000 losses in 2010, before 47,000 jobs are added in 2011.

Job losses could impact public services, as diminished consumer spending translates into falling sales and property tax revenue.

Collapse of the construction and finance markets devastated the economy in Metro Atlanta, as it did elsewhere, but Hans Gant, economic development director of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, says Atlanta “has all the ingredients for a strong bounceback once these things get sorted out” – economic diversity, institutions of higher learning, a world-class airport and favorable quality of life.

Without abandoning “what has work-ed well in the past,” Gant says the chamber restructured its economic de-velopment program in the past year to put special emphasis on technology and bioscience as new opportunities to grow jobs and companies. “We have a real opportunity to make Atlanta the center for vaccine research and development,” he says.

Gant says Metro Atlanta’s “stakeholders are marching in the same direction” on major economy-related issues such as education, transportation and water supply.

“Budget reductions have encouraged our department heads and elected officials to look for new ways to be more efficient,” says Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Commission. “Our employees are doing more with less,” but “we have kept services and taxes the same without any furloughs or layoffs.”

“I think we will come out of this as strong as ever, and for the same reason that Atlanta was able to recruit three Fortune 500 headquarters during the recession,” says Nick Masino, vice president of economic development at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.

“Talent from around the world will move to Atlanta because it is incredibly accessible,” says Masino, recently back from an economic development trip to China that opened a Gwinnett office in the city of Wuxi, west of Shanghai.

Looking forward, metro industry hunters noticed that healthcare was one of the few sectors that added jobs in the recession, so economists have put healthcare and social assistance at the top of long-term job growth forecasts, in light of the aging population.

According to Mike Douglas, chief of research at the Atlanta Regional Com-mission, 16.4 percent of the metro population will be in the 65-84 age group by 2040, compared to 6.7 percent in 2000.

“We think we are in a position to search out and attract life sciences companies, and we have initiated programs in foreign markets to attract biotechnology firms,” says Tommy Jennings, president of the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce. “We are located in an innovation crescent of 13 counties focused on life sciences, bordered by the University of Georgia at one end and the Georgia Tech/Emory/Morehouse complex on the other.”

Greg Wright, president of the Coweta County Development Author-ity, sees Coweta County as “an emerging healthcare center.”

“It was selected for a 212,000-square-foot facility by Cancer Treat-ment Centers of America, which is expected to generate $500 million in economic activity over the first five years of operation,” he says.

Brian Dill, vice president of economic development at the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Com-merce, says Forsyth’s planners have created “a target market strategy” fo-cused on healthcare technology, environmental technology – green industry – and physician services.

In Carroll County, due west of Atlanta, local leaders credit an expanding Tanner Medical Center, once an independent hospital, for the county’s “head start towards developing the healthcare and biotech field,” says Daniel Jackson, president and CEO of the county chamber of commerce.

So even as Metro Atlanta’s economic development specialists tell the same story of distress, they also cite achievements over the last three years.

Paulding County received an “Ex-cellence in Economic Development Award” from the U.S. Economic De-velopment Administration for its master plan for an 8,000-acre industrial and corporate park adjacent to its new corporate airport, says Carolyn Dela-mont, president and CEO of the Paulding County Chamber of Commerce.

Tedra Cheatham, chief operating officer/vice president of economic development at the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, which represents six municipalities, ticks off a long list of victories over the past three years. Among them, Newell Rubber-maid relocated its headquarters to Sandy Springs, First Data moved to Sandy Springs from Colorado, Hanjin Shipping of South Korea put its U.S. headquarters in Alpharetta and Kimberly-Clark added to its medical division in Roswell.

Newton County began its self-analysis and planning well ahead of the official start of the recession via a “Leadership Collaborative” of public and private entities, says Shannon Davis, economic development director of the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce.

“Starting in 2005, we began as a unit to assess what our community would look like in years to come. Based on population studies, Newton County has projected population growth of nearly 400,000 by 2050, a 300,000 increase in 40 years,” says Davis.

Douglas County officials moved quickly to deal with falling revenue and slower growth, County Administrator Eric Linton explains. “In early 2008, we watched the monthly trends and saw a decline, and we made adjustments during that year because we have a lean operation. The good news is the level of service is still the same as it has been – although stretched to maximum.”

Some years back, Cherokee County bought 53 acres near I-75 and zoned it for high-density residences to capture population expansion. But the recession changed that picture, says Misti Martin, executive director of the Development Authority of Cherokee County. When residential demand fell, the land was available for light industrial and office/warehouse, both perceived as better land use.

“We would never have had a chance to get that land without the recession,” says Martin.

Henry County also turned inward during the recession to develop “our own homegrown strategy without relying on state or federal funds,” says Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce.

“We are developing land use plans to enhance the property tax base along our major transportation corridor, I-75. More than 100 community stakeholders participated in the year-long planning effort,” says Pippin.

By all accounts, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the linchpin of metro growth.

Eldrin Bell, chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, calls Hartsfield-Jackson “the wind beneath our wings.”

With Clayton County “transitioning from a suburban bedroom community to an urban mixed-use community,” the county’s redevelopment plans fo-cus on “a new commercial corridor connecting to a new international terminal and a commuter rail service linking Macon with Atlanta,” he says.

The recession has made local leaders aware how important it is to take care of existing business.

“We are really trying to expand upon complementary businesses for our existing industries,” says Gerry Nechvatal, director of economic development for Pickens County. “Most recently we had a small aerospace company that makes composite materials for planes, but we were already in the composite materials business with Georgia Aerospace and with Eleison Composites, which makes composite material for the auto industry. That gave us a relationship between these companies.”

Walton County has continued to add improvements to an industrial park and grade building sites “to be ready when the recession does improve,” says Nancy Kinsey, executive director of the Development Authority of Wal-ton County. Walton scored a major coup when General Mills chose the county for a $45 million Southeast regional distribution center on 136 acres near Social Circle.

Fayette has weathered the storm well, according to Matt Forshee, president and CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority, who leaves for a new position in Athens April 5.

“We have a strong base – nearly 70 percent of the total – of white collar workers who haven’t been hit as hard by the recession,” he says. Fayette has added jobs, boosted by NCR, which expanded its Fayette plant after moving its headquarters to Atlanta.

“For the most part, Rockdale Coun-ty’s three priorities – retention, expansion, attraction – have worked well in exceptionally tough conditions,” says economic development director Glenn Sears. “Seven of our industries expanded in 2009 and added jobs.” But 12 new projects are stalled.

On the southside, the Butts County Development Authority sees trucking and distribution as a major thrust of its economic growth, especially along I-75, says County Manager Alan White, who is also development director. “The county is developing a 300-acre site on I-75, installing water, sewerage and infrastructure “so when things do pick up, we will be more competitive in attracting business.”

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