Georgia, My How You've Changed!

Thirty years ago, a lot of Georgians might have told you the state had already changed about as much as it could. Not so, as it turns out. There was plenty more to come: population growth and new leadership. The 1996 Olympics and the HOPE Scholarship. A high-tech tsunami and a manufacturing resurgence. Blueberries. Zombies.

Georgia seemed fairly crowded in 1985 – with just under 6 million people living here. Now that number is up to 10.1 million. Metro Atlanta is about 4.3 million, and the traffic bears that out.

Three decades ago, Democrats had a firm grip on the Statehouse, the governor’s office (occupied by Joe Frank Harris) and most local offices. Now all Constitutional offices have Republican incumbents; the GOP controls both the Senate and the House and has dramatically increased its numbers on city and county councils and commissions.

It’s hard to pick the pivotal occurrence of the last 30 years, but two contenders stand out. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta – and Columbus, Gainesville, Savannah, Conyers, Stone Mountain and Athens – put us on the global map and helped fuel a rush of foreign investment, and the establishment of the Georgia Lottery in 1992 to fund pre-K programs and the HOPE Scholarship changed the face of early education and post-secondary education.

The Olympics unleashed an outpouring of civic pride that energized the entire state. The games prompted a rush of rethinking, retooling and refurbishing and brought a flurry of new construction – not just sporting venues, but housing and forward-thinking projects like the fiber-optic cable lines installed in downtown Atlanta. That infrastructure has helped attract the high-tech investment that is creating jobs and possibilities no one could have envisioned in the mid-’80s.

The Georgia Lottery has more than fulfilled its promise to further education. Pre-K classes help the young ones, and the HOPE Scholarship keeps more of the best and brightest in state and makes college affordable for some who otherwise might not be able to attend. More than 1.3 million students have benefited from the early learning programs, and more than 1 million college students have received HOPE funds.

Cause And Effect

Business and industry have seen some huge changes, both cause and effect of what’s been happening in Georgia for the last 30 years.

Take banking, altered irrevocably by industry-wide deregulation that started in the late ‘70s. In 1985, there were still several regional powerhouse institutions with headquarters in the state, including Citizens & Southern and First Atlanta banks. Now SunTrust, once the Trust Company of Georgia, is the last one left.

National banking firms with old and new names like Wells Fargo and Bank of America swallowed up or merged with local operations so fast it was hard to keep up. Lots of smaller local institutions – de novo banks – joined the party in the years leading up to the Great Recession. The newbies, often underfunded and too heavily concentrated in residential real estate, struggled; many went under.

Georgia owned the embarrassing distinction of being the epicenter of bank failures during that time – some 74 between 2008 and 2011. Most financial institutions, even the big guys, saw some hard times. Recovery has been slow, but fairly steady.

Construction – both commercial and residential – has cycled up and down with the economy over the last 30 years. Many cities saw their downtowns falter as merchants and customers moved to the sprawling malls that went up outside the city limits, with big box stores, national chains, unlimited parking and very little in the way of charm or character. But out of that disruption came a downtown revitalization effort, aided by government grants and programs, private investment and local determination. Places like Albany, Toccoa, Carrollton, Rome, Augusta, Statesboro, Hinesville and Columbus have put money and effort into re-invigorating their downtowns.

Specialty shops, parks, coffee shops and ambitious restaurants have combined to make downtown areas across the state more attractive to residents, but have also produced an uptick in tourism. That industry has broadened to include ecotourism, historic tourism and agritourism – from the attractions at Raisin’ Cane in Lowndes County to the wineries in and around Dahlonega and North Georgia. Today, more than 10 percent of all working Georgians are employed in the tourism industry.

Old And New

Agribusiness has never lost its No. 1 ranking among Georgia industries. Nor is it likely to. It’s bigger than ever – adding about $71 billion a year to the state’s economy. Poultry, pecans, peanuts, eggs and cotton are top commodities. Tobacco is way down from the days of price supports.

Most surprisingly, blueberries have surpassed peaches as the No. 1 fruit crop. In fact, Georgia is the leading blueberry-producing state in the nation and an active participant – even a leader – in the local food movement.

Organic farming is coming on strong, often but not always on small farms. At White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Will Harris has turned land his family has worked for more than 150 years into one of the country’s leading environmentally sustainable agricultural operations, with a strong commitment to animal welfare.

In the mid-’80s, manufacturing, especially the textile sector, was losing ground as companies took their factories and jobs overseas where labor costs were cheaper and laws less stringent. Too many communities have a story of hardship that came when a company shut down. In Upson County, Thomaston Mills closed in 2001, eliminating 1,400 jobs. Levi Strauss closed its Blue Ridge plant in 2002, putting some 400 people out of work.

Carpet mills in northwest Georgia were particularly hard hit – automation, consolidation and the recession took their toll; unemployment rates escalated into double digits in the first decade of the 21st century.

Nonetheless, the carpet industry found a way to adapt – many broadened their offerings. Bob Shaw sold Shaw Industries to Warren Buffet’s Berkshire-Hathaway in 2001, then started a new company, Engineered Floors, in 2010. Inspired by the late visionary Ray Anderson of Interface Carpets, many flooring manufacturers have become leaders in environmental stewardship.

The significant gains of late have been in advanced manufacturing, from companies that depend on high-tech processes and employees who can work with them. The automotive industry, which has been migrating south for 20 years or so, has a strong presence and a big investment in Georgia. The KIA plant in West Point was a game-changer. Well before it opened in 2009, it was drawing new suppliers and strengthening existing businesses – operations like Honda Lock in Bremen, Tenneco and, most recently, Haering Precision USA in Hart County, Toyo Tires in Bartow County and Kumho Tire in Macon.

The manufacturing revival and many other economic successes owe much to the deep water ports in Brunswick and Savannah and to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest in the world.

In 1985, the remarkable Atlanta airport terminal, the world’s largest, was still new. It was guided and prodded into existence by former Mayor Maynard Jackson, whose name is on the stunning international terminal that opened this year. The airport and the two coastal ports are connected not just by roads and freeways, but also by economic interdependence. They have spawned a lively logistics industry that includes trucking, warehousing and distribution.

Strategy, Hard Work

Georgia’s business community is anchored by 20 Fortune 500 companies’ headquarters – stalwarts like Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, The Home Depot and Mohawk, and relative newcomers like UPS and NCR. Their clout and status have helped spur economic growth. But so have strong state and local economic development teams that combine sophisticated strategy and old-fashioned hard work to attract new businesses and help existing ones expand.

Baxter International, a pharmaceutical company, is building a plant in North Georgia that will employ some 1,500, due largely to efforts of the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties and the state. Caterpillar, which expanded operations and increased investment in its Griffin plant four years ago, also has a new plant that straddles the Clarke and Oconee county line.

Foreign investment continues to increase: Georgia has nearly 3,000 foreign-owned business operations, representing 58 different countries.

One of the state’s biggest recruiting assets is Georgia Quick Start, operated by the state’s Technical College System; it has provided specialized job training for new and expanding industries for 40 years.

Two industries in particular have grown beyond expectations in the last couple of decades: entertainment and technology.

Georgia has always had a music scene, but rap and hip-hop took off in the ‘90s. Successful labels like So So Def and LaFace Records made Atlanta a center of the music business. We’ve had a long flirtation with Hollywood, going back to the making of Deliverance in the ‘70s, but the relationship turned serious when the legislature passed a series of tax incentives that have made the state a major hub for film, TV, video and commercials. In fact, in 2014, the state ranked third in the nation for film production – just behind movie-making meccas California and New York. The successful The Walking Dead TV series has brought zombies and recognition to Senoia. Pinewood Studios has a 700-acre production complex in Fayetteville, and actor and entrepreneur Tyler Perry is buying the old Fort McPherson property south of Atlanta for his studios. Moon River Studios, under construction in Effingham County, is now the largest film studio project in the country.

Thanks to a combination of factors – the presence of Georgia Tech, some forward-looking business and civic leaders, widespread connectivity and that fiber-optic cable in downtown Atlanta – Georgia is a serious player in financial technology, communications services, information security, logistics technology and especially health technology. Communities throughout the state are reaping the benefits, which include an influx of millennials, people who have come of age since 2000 and are strongly invested in technology and their own ideas about work-life balance and community. They are changing and challenging the way people live and work in Atlanta, Savannah, Athens, Columbus and Augusta.

Consolidation has made itself felt in healthcare, as hospitals and health systems try to find ways to improve patient care, fund new facilities and equipment and acquire enough clout to deal with insurance companies. St. Joseph’s of Savannah and Candler Hospital merged in 1997; the Columbus Regional Healthcare System absorbed two local hospitals, Doctors and Hughston Orthopedic Hospital. In Atlanta, Emory Healthcare and St. Joseph’s Hospital entered into a partnership in 2012. Smaller hospitals in rural areas continue to struggle.

What else has changed? The environment is on everyone’s minds. It’s no longer “tree-huggers” vs. the business establishment; companies like UPS, Coca-Cola and Southern Co. put a great deal of effort into sustainability initiatives.

A growing state requires more energy: Georgia Power and its partners are constructing the first new nuclear reactors in the country in several decades at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, where the first two in Georgia came online in 1987 and 1989.

What hasn’t changed? Traffic is still an issue just about everywhere, and the state’s K-12 public schools are by and large underachieving, in contrast to higher education.

To be sure, Georgia has a much higher national profile than it did 30 years ago. As a state, we are more diverse and more inclusive than ever before – and perhaps more challenged to live up to our own expectations.

This time around, though, we are smart enough to expect some major changes in the next 30 years.

1985 vs. Today – Statistical Analysis


Average annual income in Georgia 
1985: $16,054
Today: $25,182

Gallon of regular unleaded gasoline
1985: $1.10
Today: $2.60

1985: 6.6 percent
Today: 6.3 percent


Total Value of Raw Products Sold: $2.8 Billion
Top Commodities in 1985:
Poultry: $1.1 Billion
Peanuts: $390 Million
Tobacco: $105 Million
Cotton: $100 Million

Total Value of Raw Products Sold: $10.1 Billion
Today’s Top Commodities:
Poultry: $4.1 Billion
Cotton: $1.29 Billion
Peanuts: $1.11 Billion
Chicken Eggs: $532 million

What about the Peach State's signature fruit? It's no longer even in the top 10 in a ranking of Georgia's top commodities. Blueberries have displaced the mighty peach as the state's top fruit crop.


Total population: 5,962,639
Total Population: 10,097,343 (2014 estimate)

POLITICS – blue to red:


  • D – Joe Frank Harris 1983-1991
  • D – Zell Miller 1991-1999
  • D – Roy Barnes 1999-2003
  • R – Sonny Perdue 2003-2011
  • R – Nathan Deal 2011-present

Lieutenant Governors:

  • D – Zell Miller 1975-1991
  • D – Pierre Howard 1991-1999
  • D – Mark Taylor 1999-2003
  • R – Casey Cagle 2003-present

Attorneys General

  • D – Mike Bowers 1981-1995
  • R – Mike Bowers 1995-1997
  • D – Thurbert Baker 1997-2011
  • R – Sam Olens 2011-present

Industry Snapshots


$60.7 million economic impact
13 film productions shot in the state
$6 billion economic impact
248 film and television productions shot in the state


$8.5 million economic impact
$26.6 million economic impact


GPA moved 452,430 twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs) and 3,377,315 total tons of cargo
2014 (Today) 
GPA moved 3,346,047 TEUs and 30,384,412 total tons of cargo


(Today’s data from 2014)

Number of employees 
1985: 552,968            
Today: 364,736

Number of manufacturing establishments     
1985: 8,630    
Today: 9,458

Average weekly wages
1985: $366     
Today: $1,061

Top Manufacturing Products
#1) Textiles
#2) Motor Vehicles and other Transportation Equipment
#3)Food and Beverage Processing
#1) Food and Beverage Processing
#2) Motor Vehicles and other Transportation Equipment
#3) Chemical Products

Thank you to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Georgia Ports Authority and the Georgia Department of Agriculture for providing many of the stats and figures.

Categories: Business Industry, Economic Development Features, Features