By Maria Saporta
One of Georgia’s greatest challenges is getting the various regions of the state to work collaboratively to create a more vibrant and stable economy.
But all too often, different regions and divisions within regions lead to splintered efforts and discord.
Figuring out how to overcome those challenges has been front and center at the two-day GeorgiaForward conference in Callaway Gardens. GeorgiaForward is a civic-led initiative aimed at building new bridges across the state while being more strategic in planning for the future.
About 200 leaders across the state gathered Wednesday at Callaway to hear speakers and discuss issues facing Georgia — with the theme being how we can create a more innovative state.
“One of our big weaknesses is shortsighted, narrow-minding politics,” said Deke Copenhaver, mayor of the City of Augusta. “Fear-mongering holds us back. We need elected officials who think beyond the next election if we are going to face the issues.”
Copenhaver was part of a panel of leaders representing different regions across the state — and one quick observation was that each region has its own issues and challenges.
“Our region is the only region in the state without an interstate,” said Dan Bollinger, executive director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Council, who is from Camilla. “We finally realized that our people don’t want an interstate.”
By comparison, Terry Lawler — executive director of the Regional Business Coalition of Metro Atlanta — said there is one sentence that best describes the challenge in Atlanta: “I’m sorry I’m late.”
Transportation and congestion have been on the forefront of metro Atlanta’s problems, and those issues have begun to impact the region’s economic development efforts, he said.
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said one of her city’s major challenges is balanced growth. As growth takes place on the outskirts of Columbus, it creates problems of sprawl, it affects the workforce, creates areas of poverty and increases crime.
“We have to figure out how we develop and how we use the land,” Tomlinson said.
Tom Ratcliffe (brother of former Southern Co. CEO David Ratcliffe) was the voice of the coast.
As the vice-chair of the Coastal Georgia Regional Water Planning Council and the former mayor of Hinesville, Ratcliffe said the coast and the state’s ports are Georgia’s “window to the global economy.”
But the challenge on the coast is balancing one of the most environmentally-sensitive and pristine areas of the state with economic development.
Water was top of mind for Bollinger in Southwest Georgia, an area that has been severely impacted with drought this year.
“If you want Southwest Georgia to blow away, don’t deal with water,” he said.
Dalton’s Bill Steiner, CEO of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, said one problem is that “we think as individual cities and counties” rather than regionally or statewide.
But several of the regional leaders said there’s progress. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs is helping regions put together regional plans that could then be interwoven into a statewide plan.
And Gov. Nathan Deal and Chris Cummiskey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, have reached out to the various regions to seek greater statewide consensus.
“As a state, we are one organism, and we need to focus on the whole state,” Copenhaver said.
Amir Farokhi, executive director of GeorgiaForward, said the state can look to North Carolina as a model — different regions of that state market their particular strengths.
“You do not have different parts of the state competing against each other,” Farokhi said. “Each area can focus on its local strengths.”
Such is the dream of GeorgiaForward — creating a civic-led pathway for Georgians to move in concert with each other towards a better future.