Without a doubt, metro Atlanta is the economic propeller for the state of Georgia.
When metro Atlanta suffers, so does the rest of the state.
But, for reasons that defy logic, there is a lack of appreciation for the positive impact that Georgia’s metropolis has on the rest of the state.
One would think that the state of Georgia would do everything it could to make sure that its economic engine was running as efficiently as possible. But whether it be economic development investment or traffic issues or water resources, metro Atlanta often finds itself at a disadvantage.
Unfortunately, an anti-Atlanta attitude has permeated this state’s political landscape for decade — often to the state’s detriment.
The most flagrant example was when the state legislature would not allow the major Atlanta banks to do business across the state. Smaller banks in rural Georgia feared being taken over by the big Atlanta banks.
North Carolina, however, allowed its banks to do business through the state. The ability to do statewide banking allowed North Carolina’s banks to grow so large that they were able to acquire most of Atlanta’s largest banks. So in a matter of a few short years, Atlanta found itself in the shadow of Charlotte, N.C., which became the undisputed banking center in the Southeast.
Georgia has not learned from the past. Metro Atlanta still doesn’t get its fair share of support from the state.
Take Georgia’s economic development budget. About two-thirds of its $89 million economic development budget is dedicated to the One Georgia Fund.
That fund was established by Gov. Roy Barnes to stimulate economic development virtually all parts of the state except the 11-county metro Atlanta area.
According to Metro Atlanta Chamber’s New Economy Task Force, with the help of the Bain & Co. consulting firm, Georgia’s investment in economic development is a fraction of what other states spend.
In 2008, North Carolina spent $111 million compared to Georgia’s $89 million; Florida spent $388 million; and Texas spent $430 million.
Not only does Georgia spend less than its neighbors on economic development, but it especially shortchanges metro Atlanta in the amount of dollars available to market the region.
“We have fewer dollars to invest in economic development, and the dollars that we do have are more fragmented,” said Alan Colberg, managing director of Bain & Co’s Atlanta office. “Other states have dramatically increased their commitment to economic development dollars. Georgia’s has been much slower to respond.”
Because of increased competition among states and cities, quality of life issues are becoming increasingly important when seeking economic development prospects or when trying to get existing Georgia companies to commit to expand in the state.
“We’ve got to continue to focus on quality of life issues,” Colberg said, adding that a declining quality of life will make it more difficult to get companies to invest in the state.
Still, whether it be transportation investment, water policy and green space acquisition — all contributors to our quality of life — metro Atlanta doesn’t get a proportional amount from the state.
Recently, the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce gave a Mid-Year Economic Development Update.
Ken Stewart, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development said that in the past year, 73 percent of the projects (240 out of 327) that it worked on were located in rural Georgia — meaning outside metro Atlanta, Macon, Savannah, Augusta and Columbus.
When tabulating its geographic spread of small business projects, the department said that 93 percent of those projects were outside the state’s five major metro markets.
The issue of fairness is unavoidable. Metro Atlanta on its own accounts for about 50 percent of the state’s population. When combined with the other four top metro areas, it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of the state’s population lives in its cities.
It would seem that the state would want to be sure it is investing in the places where most of its people live.
But the reverse appears to be true.
A recent analysis by Georgia State University said that the 28-county metro Atlanta area contributed 61 percent of the state’s revenues. But metro Atlanta only receives 46 percent of the state’s budget.
The study, conducted by Peter Bluestone of the Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, helped demonstrate how the state allocates its dollars compared to what would happen if metro Atlanta could raise its own dollars and decide how it should be spent.
Years ago, a similar analysis was done on the collection and allocation of motor fuel taxes. During a five year period, every dollar that metro Atlanta collected in gas taxes, it only got back 55 cents. That means metro Atlanta has been subsidizing transportation — at the tune of 45 cents of every dollar — to areas outside its region.
It is not only an issue of fairness. It’s also an issue of strategic self-interest. The more our state invests in our region, the healthier metro Atlanta will be. And the more prosperous metro Atlanta becomes, the better off the rest of the state will be.
Let’s hope our state’s leaders will appreciate how interdependent our urban, suburban and rural areas are to one another.
And that they will be willing to invest in metro Atlanta, not just for the region’s benefit, but for all of Georgia.