Metro Atlanta Chamber plan aims to restore region’s luster
By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
Published in the ABC on Friday, June 29, 2012
The once-thriving economy in metro Atlanta recently has been stuck in reverse — losing almost as many jobs as it created since 2000.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber now wants to change gears with its latest Forward Atlanta initiative by seeking to jump-start the regional economy with a multipronged plan that includes nurturing homegrown, cutting-edge companies and creating stronger partnerships between business and Georgia’s universities.
“The new real big idea is a formal strong partnership with the business community and higher education,” Metro Chamber President Sam Williams said. “We will be marketing Atlanta as a top university city. We think that’s been a well-kept secret.”
Chamber leaders unveiled the Forward Atlanta plan June 25 at the Rotary Club of Atlanta — acknowledging that the region has lost its competitive luster when it comes to economic development.
Indeed, the Atlanta region is expected to rank last among the 25 top U.S. metro regions in jobs lost during the recession recovered by the end of this year, according to statistics compiled for the chamber by Boston Consulting Group Inc.
“The old approach of recruitment is not what’s needed as we go forward,” said John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. and past chair of the chamber. “We really do need to figure out how to build a new approach.”
Williams put it another way.
“We will be shifting over the next two to three years away from moving companies here and shifting a lot more of our energies to startup companies and companies that will grow here,” he said.
A key part of that strategy will be to build closer ties between the business community and higher education by capitalizing on research at the state’s universities.
The chamber has formed a Business Higher Ed Council, which held its first meeting on June 21. Brock is chair of that council, which includes universitypresidents and top business leaders.
Chamber leaders insisted they are not trying to duplicate the efforts of the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), a 22-year-old organization that includes the state’s top six research universities, state officials and business leaders. A centerpiece of the alliance’s work has been to recruit eminent scholars — and their research teams and funding — to Georgia.
The ultimate goal is to have companies invest in Georgia to take advantage of research under way at its universities.
“Both are working in concert,” said GRA Chairman Bill Linginfelter, who also is a past chair of the chamber and serves as area president of Georgia and South Carolina for Regions Bank. “The chamber broadens the scope of GRA.“
Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson, who also serves on the GRA and the new council, wrote in an email that McKinsey & Co. will work with the council to “discuss the opportunities ahead.”
The council will be exploring how to increase collaboration to drive economic development, such as identifying business-focused research and having businesses give their input on how to align curriculum with the marketplace, Peterson said.
“We are trying to build a higher education economy,” said Brock, adding that metro Atlanta is a center for entrepreneurial activity, “but we are not capitalizing on it.”
Historically, a major issue has been a lack of venture capital and angel investing in Georgia. Linginfelter said the state is taking steps to improve its venture funding.
Ken Stewart, a former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development who is now Georgia Tech’s senior adviser for industry strategy, said the connection between the business and higher education communities is closer than most people realize.
“The reason I’m [at Georgia Tech] is to create an environment that’s business-friendly,” he said. “Some of the research we do is in response to real world, real market needs.”
When he was economic development commissioner, Stewart said, it was rare not to have a representative from one of Georgia’s universities on the team trying to recruit companies.
Stewart did say it is more difficult to develop general marketing and supportive programs for indigenous companies — small and midsized firms — other than keeping taxes and business costs as low as possible.
For decades, metro Atlanta’s economy has been fueled by growth in population, jobs, real estate development and business expansion. But the economic recession has changed that formula.
“Our businesses and industries got hit so hard — real estate, construction and financial services,” Brock said.
So now the strategy is to focus on industries that already have a strong base in metro Atlanta — wireless communications, health information technology, Internet security, biomedical devices and digital content.
“What we realized is that we’ve got strengths right here,” said Carol Tomé, the 2012 chair of the metro chamber and chief financial officer of The Home Depot Inc. The new Forward Atlanta initiative will target those industry “sub-clusters” — as a way of building on sectors that are already here.
“We are coming out of the worst recession we have had in our lifetimes,” Williams said. “Now more than ever we need a real big jump-start to help gain back what we’ve lost in the last decade. We need to move our business community toward emerging industries and areas of economic success.”