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.

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7 comments
moliere
moliere like.author.displayName 1 Like

@SteveBrown:

"The one part I find the most troubling is the lack of equal representation from what I would call the "front line marketing" forces."

With all due respect, on what basis is this equal representation merited? Not everyone has the same population. More to the point, not everyone has the same thing to offer employers in terms of transportation, infrastructure, highly skilled workers, investment capital, educational institutions etc. The places that have those things are the ones most likely to attract employers. Moreover, the places that undertook the risks, sacrifices and hard work necessary to develop those things are the ones who deserve to be at the front of the line. So the idea that a city or county deserves equal footing because it just happens to be next to or close to a county that built an airport, public transportation, convention centers etc. is silly, especially since that region's pitch is going to be inevitably "be accessible to the things that your business needs to be viable without having to worry about paying for the taxes needed to construct and maintain those things." And in that respect, the bidding wars and bad-mouthing each other - with the suburbs proclaiming that they offer lower taxes, a more "pro-business" climate, better leadership, better quality of life etc. - has been going on for 40 years. 

Honestly, if you want balanced growth, you need to do what is necessary to attract that growth. That hasn't been done in the suburban counties, where there have been no major public transportation projects, no attempt to create major highways that span several counties (it took the T-SPLOST failure for such things to even be proposed), no attempts to create or attract a local pool of highly skilled workers, no attempt to put in infrastructure to attract businesses (until Clayton County came up with their broadband Internet initiative years after similar ventures had long been put into place elsewhere). Something as simple as building a second passenger airport for business travelers was never done even though the resources were there.

Also, for each region to go it alone and market itself individually is problematic. When taken separately, what makes these regions more attractive for business than any other in the southeast or the country? What advantage does Hall County (for example) offer over a suburb in Florida, North Carolina, Texas or Oregon? Difficult to say really. But it is the region collectively that is a transportation, education, research, health care, IT, conventions/major events, broadcasting, communications, culture/arts, recording/filmmaking etc. hub either on a national or regional scale. No individual portion of the metro area offers this by itself. (And as much as the OTP folks might not want to hear it, if any part of the metro area DID by itself, it would be Atlanta-Fulton-DeKalb.) Honestly, that is why any pitch is going to have to market either having those things or being near them, because it is those things that separate locating in the metro area from locating in Birmingham, Nashville or Columbia, SC., and it is those things that allows us to compete with Charlotte, Dallas and Miami. And recognizing that is what is paramount to our success. A succession of Democratic governors and leaders of this state recognized this. And Nathan Deal, former Democrat, recognizes it, even if he is politically astute enough not to talk about it much publicly. 

Incidentally, if/when the Savannah port deal gets done, it is going to strengthen the necessity of the regional approach, not weaken it, because South Carolina is going to expand their own port at about the same time, and so is Virginia. If any suburban county or city wants to abandon regionalism and go their own way, then fine: build the highways and an airport capable of moving large amounts of freight in order to take some of the load away from Hartsfield. What is the downside? Simple: not wanting to raise the tax revenue on one hand, and not wanting to upset the NIMBY types on the other. In other words, the same thing that keeps the northern arc and other badly needed highways from getting built. If the conservative Republican suburbs aren't willing to step up to the plate and put in the necessary infrastructure, no use complaining 10-15 years down the line when all of the benefits of adding the Savannah port are being steered in a certain geographical area, and a lack of representation from areas that don't have what is required to capitalize on the port expansion in the first place. If 10-15 years down the line all those places have to offer is "a lower tax more livable pro-business area" then we will be right where we have always been for the last 40 years.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@moliere {{{"no attempt to create major highways that span several counties (it took the T-SPLOST failure for such things to even be proposed)"}}}

{{{"In other words, the same thing that keeps the northern arc and other badly needed highways from getting built."}}}

...You make some excellent points in your post, but you do realize that the Outer Perimeter and the Northern Arc concepts were rejected overwhelmingly and met with an intense backlash by the public when the state proposed them in the late 1990's and early 2000's.

The public has spoken very-loudly (and somewhat angrily) twice on what it perceives to be overzealous roadbuilding proposals with overwhelming rejections of the Outer Perimeter/Northern Arc concept in 2002 and the T-SPLOST in 2012.

Heck, it was the growing public perception that the T-SPLOST was being used as a way to resurrect the Northern Arc/Outer Perimeter that led to the opposition to the T-SPLOST from such groups as the Sierra Club, the NAACP and even some anti-road elements of the Tea Party.

That growing public perception that the T-SPLOST was really a way for the state to fund the resurrection of the unpopular Northern Arc/Outer Perimeter was reflected here on the Saporta Report in an article by Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club in October 2011 during the build-up to the T-SPLOST political disaster (a disaster that might have had worse political consequences for current state leadership had the vote been held during a statewide election year where statewide offices were in play):

http://saportareport.com/blog/2011/10/metro-atlanta-turning-winning-season-for-transit-into-a-losing-one/

SteveBrown
SteveBrown like.author.displayName 1 Like

I must agree with Julian's comments.  

We need to address our shortcomings, we have quite a few, but the metro area as an economic draw is strong.  We always seem to be in the midst of a prolonged inferiority complex ("our own worst enemy," as one might say).

The one part I find the most troubling is the lack of equal representation from what I would call the "front line marketing" forces.  There are many groups throughout the region that believe prospects are being steered in a certain geographical direction at the point of contact.  Much to Julian's point, we do not need to "get into expensive bidding wars or bad-mouthing each other."

I am amazed at how many people in leadership positions fail to see how important balanced growth is to our regional health.  We have some counties in dire economic straits and if we keep looking the other way, we will all suffer, eventually.  The importance of choosing regional leaders who understand this is paramount to our success.


The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@SteveBrown {{"The one part I find the most troubling is the lack of equal representation from what I would call the "front line marketing" forces.  There are many groups throughout the region that believe prospects are being steered in a certain geographical direction at the point of contact."}}

...Gee, I wonder which geographical direction economic prospects are being steered in?

Could it be to the side of town that is in the opposite direction of South?

Nah, our Northside-centric political and economic leaders would never steer new business and economic opportunities mostly to the I-75, GA 400 and I-85 NORTH Corridors at the expense of everyone else in the region.

...I'm being totally facetious.  Of course they totally would and totally are steering new business and economic opportunities to the Northside of the metro region where most of the power players live in Cobb, Cherokee, Forsyth, North Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Barrow and Oconee counties.

JulianBene
JulianBene like.author.displayName 1 Like

With great respect to all the officials quoted in this piece, nobody has demonstrated that there is a real problem to be solved here.  The reality is that every jurisdiction has its own special strengths and weaknesses for attracting and retaining businesses. It's appropriate for each to emphasize what assets it has to offer and to target enterprises that are a good match. Metro Atlanta is blessed to have a very diverse economy and residents with a wide range of talents and capabilities. One size will not fit all. Baxter is not going to open a plant in Downtown Atlanta. By the same token,  Pulte chose the City of Atlanta for their HQ and Exact Target chose the City for its technology development center. The heterogeneity of the region may make branding Metro Atlanta challenging for marketers looking for a slogan, but would a slogan really influence serious business decision-makers?  And wouldn't a slogan blur these all- important distinctions of talent and place? 

Enlightened self-interest and respect for their professionalism  leads well-run jurisdictions to work collaboratively with the Metro Chamber, the State's Department of Economic Development, ARC and the Georgia Research Alliance. Looking at the City of Atlanta's recent run of successes in attracting both technology firms like Asurion, Pandora and Exact Target (plus a couple of exciting wins yet to be formally announced) and HQs like Porsche, Carter's and Pulte - which were all achieved by cooperation between Invest Atlanta and the Metro Chamber, the Department of Economic Development and other great partners such as Central Atlanta Progress, Midtown Alliance and Georgia Tech - the collaboration seems to be working very well. 

As long as we don't get into expensive bidding wars or bad-mouthing each other, aren't the jurisdictions going to do better collectively by each pursuing focused strategies that best fit the competitiveness of their local economies?  If there are recent, cogent examples where metro Atlanta's local economic development efforts have canceled each other out or been otherwise dysfunctional, let's hear them. Otherwise, as my old B-school prof used to say, if it ain't broke don't fix it.  Let's recognize the strength in Atlanta's diversity.

For avoidance of doubt, while I'm a member of the board of Invest Atlanta, this comment is my personal reflection represents nobody but myself.