By Guest Columnist BRIAN LEARY, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc.
On a rural highway outside one of the South’s busiest ports, the largest German investment ever in the United States is on schedule and on budget to employ 2,700 employees by 2012.
ThyssenKrupp’s $3.7 billion investment is further proof that our agreeable weather and hospitality; expansive interstate, rail network and long-term prospects for growth are positive factors contributing to the ongoing interest and investment of the world’s largest and most successful companies.
Where ThyssenKrup chose to build their new steel mill shouldn’t come as a surprise. The team that brought this technologically-advanced plant from an old world industry to the site has lured 300 foreign companies in just over a decade beating out it’s “more sophisticated” neighbors. That team is Alabama.
Save this thought for a moment and let’s start closer to home.
The Atlanta region grew by 1.1 million people between 2000 and 2008 – eclipsing all but one metro area (Dallas) in the country. We’re now home to over 5 million people. By 2040, another 3 million will arrive to enjoy our Southern hospitality, agreeable weather and 56 streets named, “Peachtree.”
At the height of our period of growth earlier this century, the Atlanta region was consuming over 100 acres a day of field, farmland and forest. At that rate, a scholar at the Brookings Institution anointed Atlanta the fastest growing civilization in the history of humanity.
I only point out these superlative numbers as a matter fact and without judgment. This growth has brought a great deal to Atlanta including many of those reading this column. But we’ve also seen that we can no longer play the grasshopper to the diligent ants of Charlotte, Nashville or Dallas.
All three cities have recently received hundreds of millions of dollars to build new transit lines, water infrastructure and public park space. How has Atlanta fared?
We were shut out. We received no federal funds for rail. We are facing a judge’s ruling that could cut off our access to Lake Lanier for our water supply in less than three years. And we are a city that has less park space per capita than most other regions in the country.
Atlanta is without a doubt the economic engine of the State of Georgia. Unfortunately, we have little control over the steering wheel. Power under the Gold Dome rests outside the region. Given our growth, congestion and environmental consumption, we have created an atmosphere of “Two Georgias.”
Representing Georgia’s 70th House District, Lynn Smith recently referred to what many Georgians living outside Atlanta feel about their Capital City as a team with all the money, all the best players, the best and biggest stadium…but no fans.
Georgia has been awarded $5 billion in stimulus funds while the State faces a $1 billion budget shortfall for the upcoming year. Texas on the other hand was awarded over $12 billion and has $9 billion in a rainy day fund. Adding insult to injury, Dallas was just given $23 million for a new streetcar.
As a state, we are 46th in revenues per capita and 31st in revenue from the federal government. How can we stay competitive with places like Alabama – now home to three foreign automobile assembly plants and one very new multi-billion dollar steel mill, without the tools other states are using?
Cities represent unique places that attract a collection of diverse ideas and backgrounds in an efficient form of civilization.
At a recent gathering at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Harvard professor and New York Times contributor, Ed Glasser, said, “the magical thing that happens when smart people connect in dense, large metropolitan areas like Atlanta is that they come up with new ideas, they come up with new industries, they come up with new occupations, they figure out new ways to employ people. As a result, it’s very hard to figure out where the new jobs will come from. I’d bet they’re more likely to show up in industries that are connected with the larger world because of the ability of cities to be gateways across oceans and continents.”
Recognizing the unique connection cities share, Atlanta has long been a partner with “sister cities” across the globe – looking to share best practices, lessons learned and fellowship among a diverse network of urban places.
Now 18 strong, the world is a smaller place with a partnership that stretches from Copacabana Beach in South America, across the Atlantic to the Austrian Alps, down to the Holy Land and out to the Far East. This cooperative membership has been successful in building an international spirit of camaraderie but is incapable of using its collective voice to solve our water issues, secure new funding for transportation or attracting multi-billion companies to employ our residents.
It is time to make our state a much smaller place.
A handful of Georgia’s largest cities collectively represent close to 80 percent of the state’s entire population. To date, there has been little intra-city cooperation around the collective challenges and opportunities uniquely facing these dense fertile grounds for new ideas and industry. One Georgia, united in voice, can demand progress at home and attract investment from abroad.
Back to ThyssenKrupp and their close to $4 billion bet on Alabama. There’s no accident this German conglomerate is joining Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes-Benz by making such a substantial investment in our western neighbor.
Surely, each would have been able to thrive here in Georgia with our tremendous port and rail infrastructure, our world-class institutions of higher learning and the international airport (where they change planes to get to Alabama). Our competing cities and states have not taken Atlanta and Georgia’s ascendance lying down but have made the decision to develop and use the tools necessary to turn the tide.
As we enter the next decade and have the opportunity to voice our opinion at the ballot box, let’s expect answers by being engaged…in the issues and in our communities.
Who we elect does make a difference. And from Atlanta’s perspective, who the next resident of the Governor’s mansion is as important as who has the corner office at City Hall.
While we have a long way to go to restore Georgia as a leader nationally, we must start at home and regain our position as the unquestioned leader in the Southeast.
We owe it to ourselves to find our own voices, not from the far edges of talking heads and political celebrities but from our own informed thoughts and opinions.
My politics are neither right nor left, but forward. I believe in Atlanta. I believe in Georgia. And I believe we have the best and brightest to solve any problem.
None of the challenges we face are unique, nor are the solutions. We simply need great men and women to recognize the problem, devise an answer and implement the solution — great men and women like you reading this right now.