Metro Atlanta must fix its problems to stay competitive

The executive committee of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce heard an outsider’s view Thursday morning of how our region is faring from an economic development perspective.

Bob Hess, managing principal of NKF Consulting which helps companies in assessing their location needs, told the executives that the economic development world has become “fiercely competitive” as there are fewer and fewer projects on the horizon.

And those competitors are not just other U.S. cities but cities from across the globe.

Again, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport clearly is metro Atlanta’s key magnet in attracting and retaining companies to the area. The region also has a young, educated workforce, cultural amenities, corporate headquarters, strong colleges and a competitive cost of living.

But our weaknesses are becoming greater.

Hess said there’s a sense that there’s not a strong alignment among state, regional and local leaders on how to address those weaknesses.

Of course, transportation and congestion top the list of problems combined with the lack of extensive public transit. But education, water resources and the need for more open space also are vital to metro Atlanta’s competitive position.

Hans Gant, the chamber’s senior vice president for economic expansion, said the issues are even more pronounced today because of the profile of economic development prospects. It used to be that the overwhelming majority of prospects were domestic. Now 40 percent or more are international.

“They are used to great parks and open space,” Gant said. “They are used to public transportation. And that’s part of their decision-making metrics.”

Hess said Atlanta blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was a favorite of site selection consultants. Now, as the region has matured, its problems have also matured. Plus Atlanta is now competing against the top tier cities in the world. Hartsfield will keep Atlanta in that league, but the region will lose ground if it doesn’t address all its infrastructure and quality of life issues.

Gant agreed. “The good news is that Atlanta is still very attractive to companies domestically and around the world,” he said. “But if we don’t deal with these issues, 10 years down the road we’ll be in trouble.”

Hess said metro Atlanta’s approach going forward should focus on entrepreneurship, research and development, innovation, business retention, business attraction and unified initiatives from the state, regional and local governments.

One piece of good news was Wednesday’s announcement by Gov. Sonny Perdue to encourage more economic development through new and enhanced incentives. The Business Expansion Support Act would focus on attracting investments with large numbers of jobs and/or those with higher salaries.

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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