By Maria Saporta
Metro Atlanta finds itself in an awkward position.
For decades, the Atlanta region has had a golden touch — despite up and down economic cycles, it always has managed to grow out of recessions and emerge even stronger.
But this past decade has been different. Metro Atlanta finds itself unable to rebound out of this downturn.
At Databank’s Mid-year Real Estate Symposium Thursday morning, two key regional leaders gave their views on why the Atlanta region is struggling.
Sam Olens, who is the Republican nominee in the Georgia Attorney General race, is the former chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and the former chair of Cobb County.
Larry Gellerstedt III is president and CEO of Cousins Properties, one of Atlanta’s real estate firms.
Because I was moderating the discussion, my notes are not as extensive as my usual reporting, but let me hit the highlights.
Olens said the Atlanta region has “taken a huge hit” this past year. It roughly has the same number of jobs that it had 10 years ago, and it has lost higher paying jobs — two drags on our economy.
Gellerstedt said that compared to other real estate markets nationally, “Atlanta would be a bottom quartile city,” a far cry from when the region would rank in the top five markets.
“We’re used to our boats always rising higher,” Gellerstedt said of the Atlanta region. This downturn, however, is giving Atlanta an opportunity to address its fundamental issues of transportation, water and education, he added.
But Gellerstedt also said that during this election season, there’s been too much attention given to divisive issues such as abortion and immigration rather than the issues that are most important to propelling the state’s economy.
Both Gellerstedt and Olens said there’s a need for state leadership to focus on metro Atlanta’s needs.
“They always assumed we didn’t need to reinvest in Atlanta,” Olens said. Advice? “Make friends in other parts of the state.”
Olens said going forward, a regional transportation sales tax will be critical in building light rail and transit systems in metro Atlanta. He said he believed the five core metro counties understand that transit will be a key link to attracting high quality jobs and will help make sure that the “suburbs are not only an island.”
Gellerstedt did say that it is important for metro Atlanta to make friends across the state, but he said metro Atlanta’s political influence is growing. “Just look at the votes,” he said. “The region has the votes.”
Yet getting the region to work together on its common issues often has been a challenge. Still Olens said ARC’s Regional Transit Committee is bringing local governments together to support plans for transit.
In closing, Olens and Gellerstedt said the big difference between today and 20 or 30 years ago is one of aspiration. Metro Atlanta leaders were visionaries who could see what steps the region needed to take to be prepared for the future.
Today, excellence has been replaced with good, Gellerstedt said. Now Atlanta’s competitive edge has been slipping as other cities have adopted more forward-thinking policies. Gellerstedt mentioned Charlotte and the whole state of North Carolina, Dallas, Texas and Florida as areas that are getting an upper hand by investing in infrastructure, such as high-speed rail.
As we emerge from this recession in the next couple of years, Gellerstedt said the region will need to recapture its aspirational spirit by supporting transformational projects such as the Atlanta Beltline.
Only then will we be able to attract quality growth and higher paying jobs to the Atlanta region.