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GeorgiaForward is changing the game by finding consensus statewide

mayoral panel

Left to right: Dublin Mayor Phil Best, Douglas County's Romona Jackson-James, Augusta's Hardie Davis and Craig Lesser as moderator (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

People from across the state pondered Georgia’s future looking for ways to improve prosperity for everyone.

The two-day 2017 GeorgiaForward forum, held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, asked all the big questions.

Why is Georgia consistently ranked at the educational bottom for K-12?

Why can’t 25 percent of Georgia’s population find a job that pays a living wage?

Why is there such a lack of affordable housing?

Wendy Stewart

Wendy Stewart of Bank of America at GeorgiaForward forum (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Those questions were posed by Wendy Stewart, Atlanta market president for Bank of America, which was the presenting sponsor of Georgia Forward.

Stewart set the stage by stating the finding of a study that showed Atlanta was one of the least economically mobile cities in the United States.

Only 4.4 percent of the children born to parents in the lowest 20 percent of income distribution will make it to the top 20 percent. The only city worse than Atlanta was Charlotte at 4.5 percent.

Cities with high upward mobility have lower levels of residential segregation, a larger middle class, stronger families, greater social capital and higher quality public schools, Stewart said.

“We are talking about the future of Georgia,” said A.J. Robinson, GeorgiaForward’s chairman and co-founder who also is president and CEO of Central Atlanta Progress. Robinson explained this year’s theme of defining Georgia’s prosperity. “This conversation doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

The 2017 GeorgiaForward forum was the first statewide gathering held by the organization in four years. And it was first under the leadership of Kris Vaughn, GeorgiaForward’s executive director.

A.J. Robinson Chris Vaugn

GeorgiaForward’s A.J Robinson and Kris Vaughn

GeorgiaForward actually was launched in 2010 as a way to build a closer working relationship among the different communities in the state.

The last statewide forum took place in 2013, and since then the organization has been focused on its Young Gamechangers initiative, where a group of young people look for ways to revitalize communities and help make them more competitive in the future.

Young Gamechangers has already gone to Americus, Dublin, Douglasville, LaGrange, Augusta and Milledgeville. The next Young Gamechangers will be in Albany.

“We were very exciting when we were chosen to be the second community,” Dublin Mayor Phil Best said. “A group of very smart, intellectual young folks come into your community…. If you are willing to listen, they will help your community.”

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis said the Young Gamechangers came to Augusta in 2016.

“It was a way for us to bring the community together in a way that it hadn’t done before,” Mayor Davis said. “They brought us four big ideas, and we were able to talk about them in a non-threatening way.”

mayoral panel

Left to right: Dublin Mayor Phil Best, Douglas County’s Romona Jackson-James, Augusta’s Hardie Davis and Craig Lesser as moderator (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Among those big ideas: have a closer relationship between Augusta University and the city, to continue to build out Augusta’s river experience and to create stronger ties with Fort Gordon.

Romona Jackson-James, chair of the Douglas County Commission, called it a “very positive experience,” which looked at ways to “Connect Douglas” by having transit service that would connect it to the rest of the region.

Jackson-James said Douglas County is changing – not only demographically and politically – but it is shifting from being a bedroom community to a more urban county. As a result, she is focusing her leadership on economic development, transportation and infrastructure.

GeorgiaForward provided an opportunity for attendees to see the state through different eyes and to find areas of consensus. It also invited many of its Gamechangers to the forum, which brought younger and fresher perspectives to the conversation.

“It was a great idea to engage young people,” said Craig Lesser, a long-time economic development professional in Georgia. “They are critical building blocks for any community that’s going to move forward. They are a breath of fresh air.”

Kirby Godsey, chancellor of Mercer University, spoke directly to the young people in the room.


Georgia Cities’ Michael Starr with Mercer University’s Kirby Godsey at Georgia Forward conference (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“I like to describe you as a bunch of ‘hope peddlers,’” Godsey said. “GeorgiaForward and Gamechangers are about rekindling the flames of hope.”

Godsey also urged attendees to “look backwards but live forward.”

And he shared seven lessons for living forward: listen, compromise, be present, empower others, accept that we live in an uncertain world, to pace themselves and to believe in their own power to bring change.

So what ideas did GeorgiaForward embrace? Here are images of the top picks. And please note how every idea had support from all over the state (red dots are metro Atlanta; blue dots are metro areas outside of Atlanta and greed dots were for rural Georgia.

The top vote getters were:

  • Create an “Agriculture Research and Production Triangle” in South Georgia (28 votes);
  • Encourage strong connections between businesses and schools for workforce development (26 votes)
  • Find ways of encouraging creative industries/non-profits/individuals to locate in small towns as a form of economic development (22 votes)
  • Build a high-speed rail system that connects Georgia’s metro areas (18 votes)
  • Recognize Georgia’s “industries of the future” and create a plan for growing them (e.g. film, financial technology and logistics) (15 votes)
  • Consolidate cities/counties in rural Georgia (and use local resources more wisely) (10 votes).

The reconvening of GeorgiaForward annual forums is a welcome development – especially now on the eve of a statewide election year.

We need to encourage every effort to bring communities throughout Georgia to work together to improve our state’s prosperity.




Maria Saporta

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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