Second to the governor, the most important position in state government should be commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Ideally, the commissioner would be a seasoned economic development professional who is a master salesman of Georgia. And that person would work hand-in-hand with the governor in trying to grow the state’s economy.
So it was a bit surprising this past week when Gov.-elect Nathan Deal picked Chris Cummiskey, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and former state House Speaker Glenn Richardson as his economic development commissioner.
With this appointment, it exposes a dangerous trend — turning that job into a political rather than a professional post.
At the Metro Atlanta Chamber annual meeting on Dec. 1, the theme was: “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The meeting showcased a host of companies that recently had decided to move to Georgia.
Not so long ago, metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia were on a roll. The region and the state often were ranked as one of the best places to do business in the country.
But that has changed. Now there’s real work involved in trying to attract new companies to come to Georgia and existing businesses to expand in the state.
So having a real pro running the Georgia Department of Economic Development is more important than ever.
It also is critical that Gov.-elect Deal become the state’s leading economic developer.
The state’s best economic developer in the recent past was former Gov. George Busbee.
As governor, Busbee saw the opportunity to attract investors from around the world, especially Japan. He founded the Japan-U.S. Southeast Association that brought together Japanese business and political leaders with their counterparts in the Southeast.
But that was only one weapon in Busbee’s economic development arsenal.
Busbee gave Milton Folds, his commissioner of the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade (as the department was then called), the keys to the Governor’s mansion if it would help the state attract a new company to Georgia.
Folds had the power to book overnight stays at the Mansion for the state’s hottest prospects. Imagine international business executives being able to brag that they had spent the night in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion.
Busbee also inherently knew that economic development is all about people and relationships. He enjoyed making contacts and connections with people all around the world. But Busbee was able to leverage those relationships into jobs for Georgia because of his personal touch. That was worth more than any state tax incentive geared to attracting companies to Georgia.
Although Gov. Joe Frank Harris was much more low key and awkward in international circles, he was savvy enough to know that he needed a powerhouse as his commissioner of the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade (tourism was added during his administration).
He named George Berry, who had served as general manager of Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport during the construction of the new airport.
Berry also had served as a key official in the administrations of former Atlanta mayors — Ivan Allen Jr., Sam Massell and Maynard Jackson. Berry also had worked with Cousins Properties where he learned the ins-and-outs of the real estate business.
During the 1980s, the state’s economic development profile was propelled by the international emphasis of then-Mayor Andrew Young, who had served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Atlanta and Georgia were enjoying unprecedented growth. Then in 1990, Atlanta won the bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Gov. Zell Miller was elected, and he invested heavily in the Georgia Research Alliance — seeing it as a key to the state’s economic success.
Miller would meet personally with the eminent scholars that GRA was trying to recruit, and more than once he helped convince these top researchers to relocate to Georgia.
Over the years, several seasoned commissioners have led Georgia’s economic development efforts — Randy Cardoza, Glenn Cornell, R.K. Sehgal, Craig Lesser and Ken Stewart. All of them had worked in business or economic development circles.
While each had their own strengths and weaknesses, they commanded a certain level of respect when meeting with the state’s top prospects.
That changed when Heidi Green was named deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development in 2007. Before joining the department, Green had served as Gov. Sonny Perdue’s director of intergovernmental affairs. Before that, Green had worked for U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-California), U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Georgia) and been part of the 2002 campaign of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia).
In short, Green’s background was rooted in politics rather than economic development. When Ken Stewart resigned as commissioner this past summer, Green was made commissioner.
At that time, Pat Wilson was appointed deputy commissioner of the department. His background? Previously, he also had served as Gov. Perdue’s director of government affairs and also had worked for Sen. Coverdell. Again, a political background.
So we come to Cummiskey. His background? He had worked for Isakson and ousted Georgia House Speaker Richardson. He may be a great guy, but is he the person who is best to sell the state of Georgia? Will he command respect of company executives looking to relocate their businesses. Will Gov.-elect Deal treat him as a peer who will have his undivided attention when needed.
In talking to several economic development and business leaders this past week, it was clear that they were disappointed in Deal’s decision.
They mentioned a host of names — former BellSouth executive Phil Jacobs and retiring Georgia Power CEO Mike Garrett (both who have served as chairman of the department’s board) — to name a couple.
A couple of other more novel suggestions — former AGL CEO Paula Rosput Reynolds or even former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. Or one could have gone with a Hans Gant or Nick Masino, who head the economic development efforts for the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce respectively.
But Deal has made his pick, for better or for worse.
So now it is even more critical for Deal to emerge as the state’s top economic developer.