Metro Atlanta: A Great Ride

How are things going in Metro Atlanta? Even a miss turns into a win.

Back in 2015, Atlanta was bidding for GE to move its headquarters here. Didn’t happen – but the following year GE did select the city for the North American headquarters of its global digital hub.

And that played right into the city’s hands, says David Hartnett, chief economic development officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Not only was the company a perfect fit for Atlanta’s goal of becoming a leader in IoT (internet of things), the CIO of GE is now the co-chair of the Metro Chamber’s IoT taskforce that launched in 2017.

Across the metro region, public and private investments in infrastructure – from the massive $6-billion expansion at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to a newly opened bridge on MacDuff Parkway in Peachtree City to plans for a downtown park in Fayetteville to county-wide road improvements in DeKalb County – are on the way or underway that are designed to keep the region humming along. And along the northern arc of the city, a new baseball park, soccer training facility and several huge mixed-use developments are encouraging more investment in the region.

Whether or not Atlanta snags Amazon’s HQ2, downtown is poised to see the kind of development that could finally make it a vibrant center after dark. The German development group Newport is redeveloping eight blocks south of Five Points into a walkable neighborhood with construction starting this year. And another firm has plans for a $1-billion mixed-use redevelopment of the “Gulch” by CNN Center and between two MARTA stations (one of the potential locations for Amazon).

“We’re all riding the tremendous market and economy we’re experiencing,” says Al Nash, executive director of the Development Authority of Fulton County. “We’ve seen growth all over the county from north to south.”

Indeed, the South Metro area, which has long lagged behind the counties to the north, is poised to get a huge boost from improvements at the airport. And city and county leaders are finally collaborating on regional plans even as they compete on individual deals.

“When we’re chasing a job,” says Nash, “first we have to try to win it for Georgia. Secondly, we are going to try to win it for the Atlanta region, and third we’re going to try to win it for Fulton County.”

Where Public Meets Private

In South Fulton and Clayton counties, the Aerotropolis Atlanta Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) have big plans for a slew of projects stemming from a master plan. Take, for example, the concept of the AeroATL Greenway, a loop that connects the five cities around the airport and could be the area’s version of the BeltLine, according to Aerotropolis CIDs Executive Director Gerald McDowell. A study is underway.

“Hopefully we’ll roll out some concepts of how we can complement the multi-use trails the cities are planning to build and fill in the gaps so we can have a greenway loop throughout the airport area,” he says.

Meanwhile other projects are in progress: Converting the bridge at Camp Creek Parkway and I-285 to a diverging diamond spurred the CIDs to work with College Park and East Point to upgrade the lighting, fencing and landscaping to make it a gateway to the area.

A combination of public and private investment has transformed the area along Franklin Gateway in Cobb County. Once crime-ridden and rundown, the area began to change when the city of Marietta purchased and bulldozed old apartment buildings. It’s now the site of Atlanta United’s $60-million training facility. And the big news at the end of 2017 was that IKEA will be opening its second Metro Atlanta location there. The store is expected to draw as many as a million customers in a year.

“All of that happening and being delivered in [a few] years,” says Brooks Mathis, executive vice president of the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce and executive director of its economic development initiative, Cobb EDGE. “It’s [created] dramatic changes in the landscape, good jobs, reputable companies, and it’s decreased crime 40 percent.”

The Cumberland area continues to boom, pushed even higher last year with the opening of the biggest development of them all, SunTrust Park, home of the Braves. Although it’s still a contentious point whether Cobb taxpayers got a good or bad deal with the new stadium, the mixed-use district around the stadium – The Battery Atlanta – is giving a new vibrancy to Cumberland after dark.

From new express lanes on Ga. 400 and the top end of I-285 to the long-awaited reconstruction of the 285 and 400 interchange, investments in infrastructure in the north metro region should provide much-needed congestion relief in the heavily trafficked area.

“The investments that are going to be made over the next 24 months, in Metro Atlanta and around the state, are going to really produce dividends for the next 50 years,” Ann Hanlon executive director of Perimeter CIDs, says of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Major Mobility Investment Program (MMIP). These statewide projects are aimed at reducing congestion in key freight and passenger corridors.

Transit-oriented development around the Dunwoody MARTA station is remaking the suburban office market. State Farm’s massive campus kicked off with its first building in 2016, which is directly connected to the MARTA station. Another building is under construction. (There are plans for three in all, which will house 7,000 employees.) And a 16-story building is going up across from State Farm that will house staffing firm Insight Global, which is moving 800 of its employees there when the building is completed in 2020.

The combined public and private investment, Hanlon says, is “really keeping the market here very healthy.”

It’s a similar story in Cherokee County. “I would consider it our best year yet as far as investment and jobs from new and expanding companies,” says Misti Martin, president of the Cherokee Office of Economic Development.

Yanmar, a Japanese company that designs and makes diesel engines, opened a 50,000-square-foot training center that features public space for students and other community groups to have meetings, events and field trips. “It’s not just manufacturing or office or a training center,” says Martin. “It’s a really innovative concept.”

She notes that the new center’s location in the Cherokee 75 Corporate Corridor could have a significant impact on the area between Acworth and Woodstock. “I think they’re going to help us grow this area as its own place,” she says. “It’s going to be a center for things to come.”

Urbanizing the ’Burbs

In the north metro, leaders are racing to find new ways to relieve traffic, while in the south they’re trying to stay ahead of it. State Sen. Brandon Beach, who is also executive director of the North Fulton CID, has been blunt about saying that an integrated mass transit system is essential for Atlanta to keep notching new business wins.

Beach has led the push for a consolidated approach to transit in the legislature. “Six years ago not many people were talking about transit,” he said in 2017. “Now the governor is talking about it, the lieutenant governor, the speaker [of the House], the two U.S. senators, congressmen, we’ve got everybody talking about transit.”

Meanwhile an explosion of mixed-use city centers in Gwinnett and North Fulton are giving people the chance to at least ditch their cars when they get home. A massive urban-like development is plan-ned around Gwinnett’s Infinite Energy Center in Duluth, developed by North American Properties, the same company that brought North Fulton’s highly successful Avalon into being and is leading the redevelopment of Colony Square in Midtown. The 118-acre development, called Revel, will include restaurants, retail, office space, residences, a hotel and a movie theater.

In downtown Duluth, the Parson’s Alley dining and entertainment district won the 2017 Development of Excellence Award from the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC). Lawrenceville has plans for a $200-million mixed-use development on 32 acres in its downtown.

“There’s well over $2 billion in development coming out of the ground in Gwinnett,” says Nick Masino, senior vice president of economic development and Partnership Gwinnett for the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. “And what I’m really excited about is it’s much more urban than suburban, much more dense and walkable.”

It’s a similar story in North Fulton, where Alpharetta’s mixed-use City Center sits close to City Hall. Avalon continues to innovate, opening a new hotel and conference center in January with 44,000 square feet of meeting space, the largest such space in North Fulton and a true game-changer that allows area companies to host conferences close to home rather than traveling to the Perimeter.

Industries of the Future

In the list of economic development achievements, a new distribution center may not sound as sexy as a new office tower – but there’s a lot going on behind the walls, says Fulton County’s Nash. He dubs it high-tech distribution and says it’s one of the industries of the future.

Take UPS’ new center on Fulton Industrial Boulevard, a state-of-the-art e-commerce facility that when completed later this year will be the company’s largest ground package hub in the world. It’s also going to boost development along Fulton Industrial, says Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance Chair Shannon James.

In Douglas County, retailer Z Gallerie opened a distribution center in Lithia Springs (115 jobs, $3.7-million investment) to support its East Coast business, and Andersen Windows’ distribution and manufacturing facility is opening in Douglasville.

Meanwhile Spalding County has almost filled its industrial park and has started to build a new airport nearby, according to David Luckie, executive director of the Griffin-Spalding Development Authority. Spec buildings are going up in Coweta County, where developers feel confident in the future of the industrial landscape.

“They’re big distribution centers that have either been permitted or are being constructed now,” says Trae Westmoreland, president of the Coweta County Development Authority. He expects the new construction to spur even more activity in the sector.

Of course, that means that workforce training and development is a priority throughout the metro region. In Henry, Clayton and Cherokee, programs leverage universities and technical colleges in the counties to work with employers and ensure graduates have the skills to take advantage of good-paying jobs. The efforts reach into high schools, as well. Cherokee’s Workforce Collaborative brings together industry leaders, nonprofits, post-secondary schools like Chattahoochee Technical College and Kennesaw State University as well as the county school district to develop a pipeline of talent.

“I think we will see some big changes by connecting the school district with industries and high-demand careers – having everyone at the table and moving together,” says Cherokee’s Martin. “We know that’s going to continue to be a top item of consideration when companies are making decisions to invest in an area.”

Similar efforts in Clayton County are led by the chamber of commerce and the president of Clayton State University, Tim Hynes. “They will bring to the table all our educational organizations and our employers so we can … develop curriculums based on those needs,” says the chamber’s CEO, Jeremy Stratton, who notes that soft skills are becoming a piece of the discussion along with technical know-how.

In Henry County, the Academy for Advanced Studies gives high school students training and hands-on experience in a variety of industries to help them be college or career ready when they graduate; they can earn college credits and industry credentials. And the Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance is focusing on training in hospitality and construction to make sure the airport has the workforce it needs to continue to drive growth across the region.

Those are the types of programs necessary to have people ready for what Nash calls the “no-collar jobs” that power the industries of the future.

But that’s not all – the Metro Atlanta Chamber is also working on the next big thing. Hartnett says the city wants to become the Silicon Valley for global health. “Because the assets are here,” he says, ticking off the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Cancer Society, Arthritis Foundation, Task Force for Global Health and other organizations. Just as with the IoT taskforce, the glob-al health initiative will include a workforce component as well as plans around investment, promotion and legislation.

“How do we build it, how do we keep it, how do we bring people here?” says Hartnett. Answer those questions, and the great ride Atlanta is on will continue.

People to Meet

Jason Bass and Tommy Ruth

Entrepreneurs Jason Bass and Tommy Ruth wished for a little more action in Fayette County. So they dreamed up the Night Market, a festival held every second Saturday night in Drake Field with live music, food, craft beer and local artists. The CVB and Rec Department jumped on board, and the first one drew 3,000. Next one’s April 14. Learn more at

Robin Bienfait

Robin Bienfait moves fast. After senior roles with AT&T, Blackberry and Samsung, she’s joined a local venture capital firm and opened the 43,000-square-foot Atlanta Tech Park in Peachtree Corners. This business accelerator would be at home in Midtown: Supporting 16 tech companies that are beyond the startup phase and connecting them with corporations that can provide advice – and customers. It’s got Gwinnett in the fast lane.

Regional Highlights

• French company Groupe PSA, the second largest automaker in Europe with brands including Peugeot, Citroën and Vauxhall Motors, is moving its North American headquarters to Atlanta.

Switch, a Las Vegas-based tech company, is creating a $2.5-billion, 1-million-square-foot data center campus in Douglas County that will include 65 new jobs.

Jackson Healthcare is undergoing a $100-million expansion in Alpharetta, with plans to add 1,400 employees over the next five years.

• Japanese home appliances manufacturer Rinnai is opening its first U.S. manufacturing facility in Spalding County, a $69-million investment that will create an initial 150 jobs.

• Global fashion and beauty retailer ASOS is opening a $40-million East Coast e-commerce fulfillment center in Union City, bringing 1,500 jobs to the area over the next five years.

Metro Atlanta: Population, Income and Unemployment statistics

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