Renewed call for an Atlanta Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy

By Maria Saporta

How many economic development plans does it take to market a region?

It depends. If it’s metro Atlanta, the answer is countless.

The most recent effort is the Atlanta Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy that has been done for the Atlanta Regional Commission by Market Street Services.

The ARC’s effort is a requirement of the Economic Development Administration for each region to have a “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.” Although the ARC is required to go through this process every five years, it decided to take a more robust approach this time around.

Mac Holladay, founder and CEO of Street Market Services, has worked on economic development strategies for a number of local entities including Partnership Gwinnett and the Cobb Chamber of Commerce.

Before beginning the ARC strategy, Holladay said his firm did an inventory of all the plans that have been done in the region. Just about every county, and many cities in each county, have done their own economic development plans.

Then there’s also been the five-year Forward Atlanta plan by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Competitiveness Initiative done by the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Also, the Georgia Research Alliance has worked on its own economic development strategies.

When there are so many different plans by so many different entities, the real question becomes whether there’s really any plan at all.

“There needs to be one core marketing strategy, and one core set of principles,” Holladay said at the Atlanta region’s economic development strategy. “Can we find a way to create consensus to the point where we can take these primary goals and initiatives and carry them across city limits and county lines to affect the whole region.”

The plan that was done for the ARC tried to distill all the various strategies and compile a list of initiatives, goals and objectives that could be worked on by different organizations in the Atlanta region and the state.

At its retreat last week in Brasstown Valley, the ARC reviewed the Atlanta Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy to figure out what may be a logical next step to bring all the various parties together.

Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said that economic development is not part of ARC’s agenda.

“We certainly are not the right entity to lead a marketing effort like that, but we are probably a good entity to convene the different players together,” Hooker said. “The role that we can play is with economic competitiveness — to continue getting local government officials to improve the quality of life in our communities to be more attractive for economic development.”

Hooker did say that “there are multiple visions” in the region. But he added that “there’s a lot of overlap and commonality in those visions.”

ARC can serve as a “convenor” and try to align the various visions toward a unified marketing strategy. The biggest question for Hooker is “how do we keep everyone at the table.”

For years, there has been tension between the local chambers of commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber about their ability (or inability) to work together when it comes to economic development projects.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber sees itself as just that — an entity that represents the entire metro area. But the county and local chambers of commerce often do not view the Metro Chamber as an economic development partner, so often there is minimal coordination between the various entities. Much of it often boils down to the perception of who is getting the credit for an economic development victory, and there has been little motivation to share the spotlight.

“The old models of doing economic development is just not a sustainable model because we are such a balkanized community,” Hooker said of the number of governments that are in the region.

Holladay said that because many local chambers “have no confidence and trust in the Metro Atlanta Chamber being able to implement its strategy,” he believes it’s time to create a new regional economic development entity — perhaps a Greater Atlanta Partnership. He said other metro areas have been able to implement such a public-private partnership with strong success.

Renay Blumenthal, senior vice president of public policy for the Metro Atlanta Chamber who attended ARC’s retreat last week, commended ARC for providing a big picture vision.

But she added that the focus for the Metro Atlanta Chamber is “pretty straight forward.”

“We are the regional economic development organization,” she said. “We market the 29-county metro area,” Blumenthal said. “We also share leads with the other local jurisdictions.”

The Metro Atlanta Chamber also has the state’s top executives on its board and in leadership positions, which may be a cause of jealousy with some of the other local chambers. For example, the current Chamber Chairman is Paul Bowers, president and CEO of Georgia Power; and the Chair-elect is Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines.

“Our CEOs are really our best salesmen, and that does benefit the entire region,” Blumenthal said, adding that it’s important to get away from thinking about each county’s economy. “About 67 percent of our residents live and work in different counties. That’s another reason for us to begin to think more regionally.”

Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber for the past 17 years, has just announced plans to retire by the end of the year. The Gwinnett Chamber has a new president as does the Henry County Chamber.

Since there’s always new leaders emerging in the region, Hooker said there also are “opportunities for fresh starts.”

Blumenthal, however, said that all entities must be willing to see the benefits of working together.

“Until everyone who is in the economic development arena has some kind of shared regional metrics for success, the fact that we have so many political jurisdictions is working against us,” Blumenthal said. “It’s fine for each part of the region to have its economic development goal, but we should also have an overall regional economic development goal that we are all working towards.”

The question remains, will we be able to figure out how we can work as a region — with a unified economic development strategy — for the benefit of everyone.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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